Blur: figment of my imagination, a ghost of her, the imprint in my mind. Her face there, vivid, the second the scalding water hit my shoulders. Her face then, thirty-some years ago, since that’s how I see her even now—young but vaguely angry, her lips a halo of wrinkles, like the jagged rays I drew around yellow circles to show the sun in grade school art class, perpendicular stripes etched deep, an involuntary profession of love to Marlboro Reds. Her eyes, big, beautiful and the clearest blue; eyes that bored through me without seeing me, eyes that saw what served her dysfunction.
I know this routine: before the voice, the chill. It kills the steam from the shower, skips through my bones like sure feet on a hopscotch grid. I feel it.
When will you get over it, already? it says. She’s your mother.
I move into the searing pulse of water. Look up. The streams are uneven because the showerhead is busted in random spots. Like me, I think, broken in places but still slogging through the motions. Getting the job done, barely. Just like me.
I close my eyes and think about the word “grudge” as the water washes over me, because if I dissect the word I can push away the ick I still feel when I think of her. Analyzing words is my safety blanket, my way of making the roller coaster thoughts and rotting emotions palatable. Malleable.
Grudge is both a noun and a verb. The noun is passive. Pervasive. Grudge: a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury.
As a verb it’s harsh: to be resentfully unwilling to give, grant, or allow (something). The noun is the victim, the verb the judge. How inconvenient to be both at the same time, I think. I’m the verb, making the choice over and over and over and over again to be the noun. To fortify the walls. To stay stuck.
When I think of my mother I think of sharp edges. I think about her words, how they spliced through me and left gaping holes I’ve not been able to fill; not with kids of my own or kind words from other people. Not with food, not with wine, not with sex.
Water, cooled now. The voice: You don’t hate her. You’re afraid of her. Silence before a whispered, You’re afraid you are her.
The same frown lines when I look in the mirror. Marionette lines, they’re called. Wikipedia says: long vertical lines that laterally circumscribe the chin. They are important landmarks for the general impression of the face. Not crow’s feet, not laugh lines. Did she have those? Why do I only remember her mouth, those uneven rays, her lips?
The same ability to hurl ugly words. The same tendency to flip the switch and walk away despite loved ones saying please don’t go. The same propensity to fill empty space with someone. Anyone. The same…
What else, the voice prods. What else is the same?
I don’t know anything about my mother past my teen years; nothing but hearsay, anyway, and stories I’ve heard through family gossip. I’ve not wanted to. Still don’t.
That doesn’t mean I don’t wonder.
I wonder if the bragging about her looks—the big boobs, the tiny waist, the blonde hair—and the parade of faceless, panting men through our apartments was less about confidence and pleasure as it was about deep insecurity and a rabid need for acceptance.
We’re not the same, I tell myself. I say it out loud, into the stream of now-cold water. The water doesn’t hear me but fills my mouth, makes me cough, spit. I turn my back to the spray, say it again. Louder.
I hope we’re not. But now I’m on the other side of forty and I think if I try, I can see her a little bit differently.
When I look at her through daughter’s eyes, I don’t understand any of it. I don’t understand how a mother chooses drugs and men over daughters desperate for her attention. I don’t understand how a wife betrays a man who moved mountains to remain a family.
But through the eyes of a divorced, tired, sometimes lonely woman I think I might understand a bit more. I think I might understand it was never about the daughters or the husband or the big boobs or the tiny waist. I think I might understand being broken can make us hard and mean and if we don’t face the desperate truth of feeling inadequate and alone and unworthy, it can fester and make us harder. Meaner. Uglier.
I understand we all build walls. The difference: we choose different materials for the building. I might understand the cycle we inherit, the habits we repeat. I might understand this: the choice we have to add a generation to the cycle or do our damnedest to break the cycle isn’t just one choice; it’s an equation of countless choices over countless years. The membrane separating she and I and how we parent, how we moved in the world, is diaphanous; as thin as a spider’s web, as intricate, too. But as strong? That I don’t know. This might be the only choice we really have: to see each other from our respective sides; to give each other the benefit of the doubt; to assume each is doing the best we can, even when we know, so deep in our bones it’s become our marrow, this knowing, that some people don’t try, some people don’t care. We get to choose: kind words or words that hurt, to eat when we’re not hungry or welcome strangers to our bed. We are the same, she and I, at our core: broken. Hard. Lonely. Alone. Our goal, the same: fill those greedy craters no one else can see. Does it matter who dug the craters, who etched the grooves? Do I owe forgiveness to the woman who gutted me, the mother who mocked me for sport? Is it that cliché? Forgive and forget, heal and rejoice?
The water streams, icy cold now and relentless. Distracts me from my thoughts, save one: I’m scared. Terrified I’ve inflicted on my kids the legacy she left me because I see it, the she and I of it all, what we have in common. It hurts to admit, but I say it out loud, this thing, the truest thing I know: I’ve followed in her footsteps more than once. The voice is right.