I’ve never understood my mother. No matter how much I prodded her for information when she came home from a long day at work, she’s remained an unassuming Midwesterner. As a child, determined to crack the case, I took to investigating my mother by going through her things. I didn’t think of her as a person then. I’d assumed I was her beginning and her ending. Before puberty hit, when I hadn’t yet begun to fully resent her, I would cry every time she left me at my babysitter’s. I didn’t know why she couldn’t just take me with her, why, if she loved me enough, she wouldn’t want to always be with me.
Stumbling into teendom, I still went through her room. She was rarely home during the day, running off to one of her many jobs, or staying out late to drink at smoky bars with people I never met. When I missed her, which was often, I scoured her drawers and closets and tried on her frilly blouses. I spritzed myself with her sample size bottle of Chanel No. 5, and clomped around the apartment in her pumps, nearly breaking the heel and my neck. She had a little bottle of tequila hidden in a suitcase that I’d steal sips from after school. I’d sit on her bed, my feet slipping out of a pair of her heels, and wait for her car to pull up in the driveway.
There were always books in her room. My favorite was about horticulture and had been dipped in rosewater, filling the air with the cloying smell of long gone flowers every time it was opened. I found her diary inside of an end table. I read it, of course, flipping through the pages searching for any mention of me. The diary was half-full and detailed the monotony of her days. She wrote about recipes she’d found in magazines, describing how they’d turned out, or didn’t. Wondered where she went wrong with my father. Listed things she saw in the windows of shops on her walk to her car after work. She wrote the most about loneliness, packing pages with how isolated she felt. Nothing about me. I wasn’t even a minor character.
I was a difficult pregnancy, something my mother likes to bring up when I don’t want to bring her her shoes or get the mail for her. “I was in labor for hours, you know,” she’ll remind me, and “I had to get a transfusion. I almost died, you know.” My father never appears in these stories until the very end. There’s no mention of him doing any husbandly things. He didn’t coach her breathing, hold her hand, offer her ice chips. My father is a blank spot. These days, with his hair thinning and grayed around the temples, he rewrites those moments. In the remastered versions, he says his face hurt from smiling so much as I was born. He felt something inside him shift, realign, and in those first few minutes of me, red-faced and screaming as doctors wiped me off, he felt his life truly begin. How he loved my mother so much, couldn’t wait for them to have a family. He becomes a TV Dad, all sweater vest and smoldering pipe. It’s a nice story, but I don’t know the man he’s describing, can only remember the impact craters he’s left behind.
None of this was in my mother’s diary. I only know the slivers she’s told me after a few glasses of wine, her face pleasant and relaxed, voice soft and calm. She’s naturally a private person and has folded away her emotions behind a curtain of Midwestern reserve.Even with all my field notes, she’s still a mystery to me. And some of that is my own doing, choosing an out-of-state school, ignoring her phone calls, letting texts go unanswered for hours, days. I give her vague answers when she asks about me. I don’t talk about the mirroring of our lives, that I’ve fallen in and out of love with a boy who reminds me of the worst parts of my father. That sometimes I’ll see her in my gestures or hear her in my voice. How I’ve become just as mysterious to her as she is to me. How some part of me will always be stuck sitting on her bed, the taste of tequila thick on my tongue, and my feet slipping out of her heels, waiting for her car to pull up in the driveway.
This is beautiful, and sad, and I can feel my own feet in those shoes