A Gift From My Mother
This is a story about consequences - the consequences of choice. It's a story about my mother.
I don’t have very many gifts from my mother – tangible or intangible. When you peruse the eclectic collection of oddities and knick-knacks that decorate my sideboard – you will not find anything ever touched by her hand. Its not that I disposed of such things – they simply never existed. What hereditary jewelry I have consists of a single scrimshaw broach that once belonged to her mother, and my dead sister’s watch taken from her wrist prior to burial.
I remember receiving that watch. It was unceremoniously dumped on my bed along with a tarnished brass compact. I had only recently confronted my mother regarding my sister, you see. She had been dead years – only no one had bothered to tell me about it. "Here" my mother said – "These were Pats". The glass in the compact was cracked – only vestiges of any powder remaining. I imagined my sisters face looking out at me. I wondered if she lived inside the mirror. There had been an episode of ‘Lost in Space’ where Penny was able to communicate with a boy in her mirror. I hoped it was true – but then I’d often wish that fantasies I saw on television were true. Like that ‘Twilight Zone’ about children who found an adult-free paradise accessed through the deep end of their pool. I cannot tell you how many times I nearly drowned in a plethora of public and private pools desperate to find that entrance. I still call it to mind every time I swim. So – the watch I wore - and the compact I kept hidden in the very back of a closet drawer. I’d stare into the slivered glass, whispering to it. "Pat – Pat - are you there? Please come get me. I’m still waiting."
I have no photographs either. My surviving sister took them all upon my parent’s deaths. So really, there is nothing linking me to anyone. I’m like Venus on the half-shell – rising up out of the foam – deposited whole upon the world – no before, only after. I do have some important documents though - including my sister’s burial certificate. I found it hidden away in the bottom of our piano bench along with some old music bearing her name. I removed it - secreting it away where no one could get at it. It was the only evidence I had showing Pat had ever really lived. Did you have a treasure trove as a child? One that you kept secret from anyone? I did. In an old cigar box. It’s where I kept my evidence of love. Letters from a pen pal, a small Haitian doll my father’s brother gave me, marbles I had dug up in the back yard and imagined playing with, rocks from a nearby neighbor’s that I thought looked like jade. Pats compact was there too – along with the certificate. I would take it out very late at night just to touch it. I remember petting it like a cat – smelling what I imagined was faint perfume – lilac. I seem to remember Pat smelled of lilac. That smell gave me hope – more evidence that Pat was real. So - when other children would taunt me for my parents being old and not having any siblings (at least none that ever came around) – I would tell them that I’d once had a beautiful red-headed sister who’d loved me to distraction. That secret piece of paper was my proof. I remember one particularly nasty child actually going up to my mother and asking outright if I’d ever had a sister who died. My mother looked us both straight in the eye and denied it – denied her own daughter – said that Patricia never existed – that I was making it all up. I almost believed her, you know; gave up my dream of love – but I had a compact, a watch and a creased sheet of paper that said otherwise. Patricia had lived – and if she had lived – then she had loved me – I knew it.
Funny, isn’t it – how lines of thought can splinter off and assume lives of their own? I began this intending to write about the only gift I ever received from my mother – and here I am obsessing over my sister Pat. The two subjects are inextricably linked, though – Pat and my mother – gifts and love; both my dead sister’s last, unwitting gift to me – and a perfume bottle my mother bought many years ago. Along with that yellowed scrimshaw broach – there is nothing else in my possession that speaks to family or lines of connection. The watch I no longer wear. It requires attention from someone qualified to properly fix mid-century watches. The perfume bottle – well, that sits on my bathroom counter. It is egg shaped and very, very heavy – thick, clear glass swirled round and round with stripes of deep blue and magenta. Not something I would select for myself – not my particular style, if you will. I can’t say whether or not it was my mother’s style, because she never really had one that remained consistent. The bottle she chose has a permanence about it, though. It’s where I store YSL’s Opium – my favorite scent. There’s honey colored residue clinging to the bottom from its being filled and allowed to empty many, many times over the years. My mother purchased that decorative parfumerie for me right after the Loma Prieta quake. It is one of the very few things she ever gave me – and thus I treasure it. I know, I know – how could I ever want anything to remind me of that woman - but there was a very short period of time when my mother’s doctor tricked her into taking medication to treat her mental illness. For those few, all too brief months I had a glimpse of what might have been. The medication curbed my mother’s extreme, violent mood shifts, evened out her temperament. I saw her smile for the very first time out of pleasure rather than a harbinger of viciousness. Of course – eventually she caught on and stopped taking the pills – but there was a definite honeymoon period. It was then she bought me the art glass perfume bottle. When I look at it I think of Capitola and its fabulous boutiques and my mother smiling up into the sun.
I don’t remember why I had flown out that particular time. I know it was after the quake because I purchased one of those "I Survived" tee-shirts. Mother had been downright affable on the phone; unheard of up until that point. She mentioned that her doctor had her on some new ‘wonder’ medicine. I asked her what it was – but she couldn’t recall. I immediately suspected one of the then new and much touted mood modifiers. I called her doctor to confirm. His and my relationship had gotten off to a very rocky start. You see - my mother would tell all and sundry terrible tales of how her horrible ungrateful children constantly and consistently abused her. Like most sociopaths – my mother was capable of extreme charm for short periods of time. Unsustainable – but beguiling nonetheless. I learned my acting from her. I had school-mates who’d tell me how wonderful they thought she was. My cousin once referred to her as a ‘delight’. Mother’s history with physicians was a checkered one. As soon as the doctor caught on that she was lying – she’d dump him (always a ‘him’ – my mother hated other women – and that included women doctors). This current doctor had been her physician for a number of years. This longevity was due to a certain amount of duplicity on his part. Once he realized that my mother was telling wee porkie pies – he began keeping my older sister and I apprised of her medical condition. Of course – that took a couple of years. Initially I had to endure his either hanging up on me or outright accusing me of elder abuse. How I was supposed to manage that from 3000 miles away – I don’t know. Eventually he figured out that any bruises my mother sported were at the hands of my alcoholic, dangerously violent brother – not my sister or myself – mothers claims to the contrary.
His epiphany continued as regards her physical health. My mother was, outside of the mental issues, as healthy as a horse. To listen to her, however - you’d think she was about to keel over from any number of serious ailments – the most of which were sheer (though rather creative) fantasy. If, however, she wasn’t given a pill for that ailment – the doctor in question went the way of the Dodo. Victorian ladies had nothing on mom - she lived on her couch in a perpetual state of swoon. I can still see her there – 1960’s snap-up housecoat askew, eyes permanently at half moon (sunken and smudged with purple), mouth open as she dozed - knocked out from any of the three valium prescriptions regularly carried in her purse. Valium never improved her mood – just exacerbated the irritableness. Coming home to ‘unconscious mom’ was just as bad as ‘manic mom’. Unconscious mom meant no food. She was too stoned to cook – and my father usually ignored me preferring to drink his dinner. As I wasn’t allowed to consume any ‘unauthorized’ food – that meant on my mothers ‘unconscious’ days I could expect to go hungry. Manic mom on the other hand always found fault; so though dinner would be on the table – eating it was a supreme test of endurance. Imagine someone criticizing every forkful of food going into your mouth – how fat it was going to make you, how ugly you looked chewing it. By the end of the meal I usually was in tears with terrible indigestion.
Anyway – I don’t remember exactly what her doctor had put her on – but the change was radical. Instead of conversations filled with suicide threats, vitriolic attacks and tearful recriminations – mother spoke of how beautiful the ocean looked, or how she had treated herself out to a ‘nice’ lunch. I was flabbergasted. It was like talking to a whole other person. She even had good things to say about my father – a first, considering how much she hated him. I flew out curious – for the first time in memory not expecting the worst. I wasn’t disappointed. She actually hugged me hello (??!!) – and said she was glad to see me. No – "what an ugly sweater" or "Christ, you’ve gotten really fat". I found myself staring. Even her face seemed lighter – no deeply etched heavy frown lines. Instead of constantly looking at the ground and muttering when she walked – mother looked around, pausing to cup one of the roses growing near her front door. With a shock I realized that my mother had been and still was exceptionally beautiful. Of course I’d seen pictures – blue-black hair, cobalt eyes. But she’d never been smiling. Her face always seemed scrunched – as if she was sucking on a lemon. Now – the corners of her mouth turned up – not down. There was a liveliness, humor – a bounce in her step. Who was this woman?
It was, understatedly, a delightful visit. I had never, ever seen my mother happy. It was spring, right around the time of my birthday. Northern California shines in the spring – especially near the sea. Warm days and cool nights do more than produce good wine – they are the perfect recipe for happiness as well. And I was happy – happy enough to begin making plans; especially if this whole ‘new mom’ thing continued. Maybe she and I could actually form some kind of bond (and maybe pigs could fly). Up until then I had looked upon my familial relationships as punishment. Existentialist hell. An eternity of listening to my mother recite John Donne’s "Death be Not Proud" or "The Lady of Shallot" whilst weeping copiously. I used to think the word ‘maudlin’ had been coined especially with her in mind. Happy, bappy mom was a whole new breed of cat.
I decided to make the most of it. We had a day of shopping. Not at all like shopping used to be, which consisted of dragging me all over hell and gone while my mother obsessively either bought everything in a frenzy or complained bitterly about her lack of choice. If she bought – the next day she hated it, guaranteed – and the returns always fell to me. Certain shop clerks literally hid whenever we entered their stores. Either way - weekends sucked once I got my drivers license. I was informed that I was to serve as in-house chauffeur. I hated it. That – and she would make me try on clothes with her – clothes in her size. My mother was 5 foot 2 or 3 inches tall and weighed at any given time between 78 and 93 pounds. They barely made sizes for her back then. I am five foot ten and as a teenager I weighed anywhere between 125 and 140. To my mother – that was unconscionably fat – something she pointed out loudly and in public every chance she got. When we’d shop – she would shove clothes at me (teeny, tiny pants and too small blouses) insisting I try them on for her approval. Refusal on my part usually led to some kind of embarrassing scene. How is it narcissistic people know that about the rest of us? That we will do almost anything to avoid a public spectacle? So – the thought of shopping with my mother and it not being a traumatic experience was, to say the least, novel.
But there we were – happily exploring all the little boutique shoplettes Capitola had to offer. It was a new age wonderland of crystals, tarot cards, dragons and kitschy decorative arts. Clothing was late 80’s chic meets hot hippie chick with a rainbow tie-die fetish. Stevie Nicks starter kits were available on every other corner – knee-high boots, yards of fringe and leather overlaid with black lace. Nothing says beach to me more than the aroma of incense released by hot summer sun (California Dreamin’!). The light is its own character – bright, comforting – my skin felt alive. I freckle in the sun – you can actually watch them form. Between one block and the next I looked more and more Irish. My hair darkens in winter; not sable black like my mothers – but dark. Sunlight brings out the mahogany tones. That particular spring I was looking my best – and it was noticed. Men smiled as I walked by – some turning, a couple asking for my number. I felt pretty, powerful and very, very alive. And my mother was with me – how strange was that? No denigrations, no calling me a whore for smiling back at all those men. I could hardly believe it.
Eventually we made our way into this corner shop filled with one-of-a-kind perfume bottles. Now – I love perfume – always have. The first perfume I ever bought myself was called STYX – and I adored it. The idea of a special bottle dedicated to the goddess of scent just tickled me pink. They weren’t inexpensive unfortunately – so regretfully I put down the one I wanted and mom and I walked out of the store. Lunch was had at a tiny upstairs bistro (French dip – I still remember). I had some wine – Mirassou Vineyards White Burgundy – my favorite. By the time we were finished I was enveloped in a warm, rosy glow. Throughout, my mother and I chatted like I imagine all mothers and daughters do, but I’d never experienced before. It felt odd and thrilling all at once. My imagination began to take flight. I pictured more intimate lunches – perhaps even shared confidences. Maybe I could get her to tell me what it was like to be young and living in New York City during the 1920’s.
Before calling it a day, my mother asked me to wait while she took care of something. That was OK. It gave me a chance to walk out on the pier. It was crowded – such a beautiful, clear day. From the edge of the pier you could see across the bay to Monterey. I used to fish off that pier often as a child. My father considered himself a fisherman and I would often go with. Flounder, mostly. That day it was packed – gaily dressed tourists heading out for a day of shopping and fun at the beach. I eventually spied my mother standing by the car and headed over. She had a small package. "Here." She put it in my hands with a smile - "for your birthday." I recognized the shop label as I opened it. It was a perfume bottle. Not the one I’d admired – not one I’d have chosen for myself at all – but beautiful still. I was surprised beyond measure. My mother had given me a gift. Spontaneously even. Tears sprang to my eyes. I could hardly believe it. I hugged her – and she didn’t stiffen and pull away. The moment seemed surreal. There we were, surrounded by other people, hugging on the street like a normal family. Bizarre. And now this. I didn’t know what to say.
The next day I took my leave and flew home. I just couldn’t believe how friendly and accessible my mother had become. I began to dream – what if it had always been like this? If she had always treated me with love and respect? How different would my life have been? So many things – not just the personal either. I might have felt comfortable taking that TV show they offered me when I was a kid – and who knows where that would have led. Life choices are fueled by emotion. If you feel safe – you can literally fly. I never felt safe as a child. Any wings I might have had were of my own construction – and they never held up under the withering assault I endured day after day. But that was then. I was willing for there to be a ‘now’.
The following week I called her – expecting to hear ‘new’ mom’s bright, sunny voice on the other end. That wasn’t to be, unfortunately. The woman who answered was the same sour bitch I’d grown up with my entire life. "What happened?" I asked – "Are you still taking your medication?" Evidently not. Finally the connection had been made between my mother’s elevated mood and those little pills she was taking. She had thought they were for her blood pressure. The very instant she found out the truth (from her doctor’s nurse) – she flushed them all down the toilet – and no amount of persuasion from me, my sister or her doctor could persuade her otherwise. I tried everything – reminding her of how good she had felt, how happy she had been. Emphasizing how much better for her health happiness was. I even spoke to her doctor before she traded him in on a newer model. Didn’t matter. I was castigated for taking cruel advantage of her. I’d ‘tricked’ her into buying that perfume bottle with money better spent on my wastrel brother. She hated me all the more for having witnessed her transformation. That day may have stood out to me as wonderful; but to my mother it became anathema. Proof positive that I was the hateful, scheming daughter she always claimed she should have aborted. That effectively ended any hopes of a relationship so far as I was concerned. She chose chaos over health – and believe me - it was a definite choice. No one forced her to stop taking that medication. Her doctor explained it to me. She had spent so many years wrapped up in bitterness and hate – she just didn’t want to let go of it. Hate and fear was how she controlled her family. That, and emotional blackmail. I cannot tell you how many times she told me my birth ruined her life – the births of all her children, really. She’d say similar things to my father – how marrying him was the single worst choice she ever could have made. My mother hated everyone and every thing; and she was damned if it wasn’t going to remain that way forever.
So – that was that. I look at that perfume bottle now and remember that day in the sun. We had stopped once to watch a man fly a kite on the beach. My mother’s personality was very like that of the kite – many hued and barely controllable. In the end – it just got away from her. Pity. I wonder if my mother ever read Kipling. Of all sad words of tongue or pen the saddest are these: It might have been. She went to her grave as unhappy as the day she was born. My sister told me her last coherent words were filled with despite of me. Thank the lord I wasn’t there to hear them. Ah well –
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."