About the Feature
Contact with My Mother, from Whom I Am Estranged
My mother started calling me about a year and a half ago. She is in her late eighties and suffers from cognitive decline, so she does not remember that we haven’t had a relationship for more than twenty-five years. Despite her memory struggles, she figured out my home number and leaves messages on it. The first one, transcribed to include her pauses, looks like poetry:
The message is for Emily Sinclair (she begins)
I want you to know
that you are the first person to know
that I have just been
On the house phone
On my iPad calling you
I’m also on
I didn’t know whether you had a new last name
Or a professional name still of Emily Sinclair
You’re in my telephone Emily Sinclair
With a very strange number that I decoded and made into (my phone number)
And I put that
I guess that’s either your iPhone or
Sorry. I’m a professional too. My number is
(Mom says her name here) all small caps at outlook.com
The love you! slays me, seduces me. It’s all I ever wanted. My husband says, “You can make a phone call from an iPad?”
The Writer Writes about the Duck Hole
Around the time Mom started calling, I was working on a short story that takes place in Dallas, the city in which I grew up and where Mom still lives. In the story, I write about the duck hole. That’s my private name for a forty-foot-wide circular opening in the middle of the slow, olive-green currents of Turtle Creek, a fork of the Trinity River that runs through Highland Park and toward downtown Dallas. While the currents of Turtle Creek move slowly, the water that courses down the sides of the duck hole rushes like a waterfall. Ducks swim around it, and sometimes stop and manage to teeter on the edge, alongside resting turtles. In heavy rains, a scummy, yellow, bubbly foam rises up from the hole. Surely there’s a better name than duck hole, but I don’t know it. Like so many things in my childhood, we didn’t talk about it, so it didn’t need a name.
The thing that captivated me was the mystery of the duck hole: Did anything ever fall in? Like . . . a child? What if some fool got in the water and swam toward the duck hole and got sucked down? Where would the fool go? What if the fool were me? What did the bottom look like? Was there a bottom?
How can a thing that is, essentially, nothing—a space where something else should be—have such pull?
The story is a sexual coming-of-age story that takes place in 1970: Ella, a girl from the right family, meets a boy from the wrong family, and they sit on the grassy slope above the duck hole, smoking dope and making out. He is older, dangerous, and exciting. She is consumed with lust. She imagines disappearing from the life she knows. She is terrified. And thrilled.
What she doesn’t know is that her story will ultimately be about loss.
The Intervention: A Brief Episode in Late-’80s Psychobabble
My relationship with my mother ended when I was twenty-two, with a family intervention, an event orchestrated by one of my sisters, who thought we should confront our mother about addiction. We four children, of whom I am the youngest, agreed. It was clear to all of us that she was troubled psychologically. The idea was that we’d confront her about her drinking and pill taking (which were relatively modest, by wealthy-housewife standards), and she’d go clean out her system in rehab; thus purified, she’d be ready to tackle her other issues.
It was a naïve plan, a product of its time, when every talk show host nattered on about “codependency,” a cheap and palatable faux diagnosis that monetized itself in an era of endless twelve-step programs and simplified notions of addiction—as if addiction is distinct from personality, as if the self can be sliced up like a ham into neat little portions. This part has a little narcissism; that part a little depression; over here, some borderline tendencies. But it was our plan and we stuck to it, my siblings and I, meeting at a hotel in Dallas, where we reserved a penthouse suite for a day and managed to get my mother to come so we could confront her.
In our intervention, we had to read these scripts: When you were drinking at [fill in event], I felt hurt when you [action/words]. The problem with the script was that Mom didn’t drink all that much, nor did she take that many pills (I had counted them that spring on a visit home, measured them against the dates on the bottles). She was, however, manipulative, breathtakingly selfish, and just mean all the time. She was cruel to the Latina and African-American women who worked for us, berating them, shouting, and throwing things at them. She pitted us children against each other. She threatened suicide and then punished us for having witnessed her vulnerability. How, I wondered, would she get help for that? What was that, anyway—the rage out of nowhere, the endless cruel comments about our appearances (how much plastic surgery we’d need, how much weight we had to lose), the negative and fantastic speculations about everyone and their motives (“They just think they’re so smart in that family, but they are up from nothing,” she’d say), the way she’d confide to each child what she thought was wrong with the other ones and how the child being spoken to was her favorite, the regular weeping and hiding away in her bedroom for days, the threatening that signaled she was feeling better (“I’m cutting you out of my will!”), the public humiliations in which she routinely engaged? It was hard to see how Mom working the Twelve Steps or how dropping her off at a psych hospital was going to change that.
But what I liked about the idea of the intervention was that if she didn’t get help—and I knew she wouldn’t, and (spoiler alert) she didn’t—we siblings had a pact: we wouldn’t talk to Mom until she got help. It was, I knew even then, dishonest on my part—to demand that someone get help for a problem they don’t really have (the alcoholism) and then use that as an excuse not to have them in my life. But I was twenty-two years old, and I could not bear my mother’s presence anymore.
In the first months after the intervention, I began to relax, to live without the fear and anger I felt around my mother. However unfair the conditions of my mother’s life had been (her own mother was mentally ill; her little brother died of childhood cancer; her parents later divorced), they were no less unfair than the conditions under which I’d lived as a child, hiding from her under blanket forts and escaping the house with my dog to roam the creeks, hoping she’d calmed down by the time I got home, or at least not choose me for a target. By the time I was twelve, she’d begun to see the woman she imagined I’d become—and she was disappointed. Off to the plastic surgeon we went so that I could look through a photo book and choose a pretty face, but I cried and the appointment ended. But her disappointment in me wasn’t only skin-deep: she hated my sarcasm, my questioning of her, and my unwillingness to be the kind of girl she thought I ought to be. At the same time, she felt we were deeply connected. After all, she’d wanted to be a writer. In the years just before the intervention, I was full up on her public outbursts and humiliations and conniving.
Two weeks after the intervention, I moved from New York City to Colorado, and there I was in a new place, alone, wondering how much of the world that I knew was real or right. She began to shift from present tense into memory, becoming part of my past and not my present. I went to a therapist who taught me terms like moderate-to-severe personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder. I bought books about mental illness. The books said there was no treatment, not really, that the way a person with such a disorder saw the world was fairly fixed, that the way such a person saw the world was more a reflection of their inner world and coping mechanisms, less a response to reality. The books said that the narcissist cannot really love, that she merely acts as if she loves for her own gain. I remember standing on the stairs of my house, weeping with the understanding that all my childhood efforts to be loved had meant nothing. Then, I felt a gut-clenching fear. The world I knew had been handed down to me from my mother, and yet, if she was mentally ill, what did it mean for me and the ways in which I understood the world?
Without my mother, a kind of quiet fell over my life. What came to exist in the space where my mother should be was a strange mixture of absence and longing. What I had to do, in essence, was consider how to start over, free of the scrim of my mother’s worldview.
Mom Calls Again
Emily, it looks like you called me. Sometime or other.
I’m just returning your call.
I have a cold. First one I’ve had in thirty-something years. So I can’t talk too well and start coughing when I do, but I didn’t want the call to go unnoted if you called me.
If you didn’t call me, then please don’t call me back. (Laughs)
After I start the short story with the duck hole in it, I send my brother, who has always lived in Dallas, a text: What’s that duck hole down on Turtle Creek, by Lee Park?
I expect him to call me and say, What? I don’t know. I never heard of a duck hole. You best google it up.
Which is exactly how he’d say it: Google it up.
My brother is the second child of us four. He lives in Dallas with his wife of thirty-plus years. My brother is ten years older than I am and one of the people I love most in the world. The estrangements and fractures in our family make moments like this one all the sweeter—he replies to my text by e-mail within minutes: The duck hole is the drain for the lake created by the dam down on Fitzhugh. See attached drawing (with my new Apple pencil!). A scary place.
This is what a family is, I think. When you say duck hole, when you name a thing that has no name—when in fact, you give it a name that makes no sense, because that’s the way it exists in your child consciousness—and your brother writes back within minutes with an explanation and technical drawing. He knows, I think. Not just where it is, but what it means. The inexplicable darkness of it, the mystery and the pull. My brother gets the duck hole.
Shortly after that exchange, my husband and I fly to Dallas for my niece’s wedding shower. It is my first trip to Dallas in ten years. Our hotel is five minutes from my mother’s house, the smaller one she’d moved into after she sold our childhood home. As we drive to dinner, I feel a sudden and wild longing to go to my mother, to put my head in her lap and hear her say, Oh, Baby, look what a good job you did with your children! What a nice man you married! How proud I am of you!
For many years now, I have imagined longing—which I used to think of as a state of being, like boredom—as a kind of internal organ. It would look something like a jellyfish, I think, or an enormous soap bubble: globular, shape-shifting, transparent enough to see through. When I was small, this was also what I imagined a soul to look like as it drifted toward heaven, after death. Sometimes I stared at the sky, searching for the souls of the dead, but I never did see one.
Mom Is on Social Media
Mom has been going to my Facebook page, where she can see my cover photo, an image of mountains. She tags the mountains with the names of people she knows. Then she leaves another phone message. Her voice is careful, as if she doesn’t want to screw this up:
Hey! This is (Mom’s name) and I’m wondering how cold it is in Denver, and I enjoyed Emily’s pictures that she put on my page in Facebook and I wondered where that is and when she took them. Um.
Call me, darling, when you get a chance. Or text or do something.
“Dang,” says my teenage daughter, “for an old lady, your mom is on it with social media.”
Everyone Kicked Her Teeth Down Her Throat
When I was a child, I played audience to my mother. When she drove me to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport so that I could go back to boarding school, she always went a little nuts.
She’d start this odd patter, a kind of low, continuous murmur, punctuated by angry outbursts, about my father, who had died of cancer when I was in sixth grade. The conversation never seemed to have anything to do with me, per se. It was almost as if she wasn’t aware that I was in the car. But I was, and something about my leaving to go back to boarding school made her think about my father. Or loss.
There we’d be in her Cadillac on these endless spans of highway under vast blue skies, and she’d be murmuring, “Your father! He never loved me, you know. Never. He had an affair when we were in Houston with that woman, and then here he had that secretary who wore an ankle bracelet and she said that she wore panty hose because they gave her orgasms when she walked. There I was, so lonely, so filled with love for you children, all I wanted to do was love someone, all I wanted to do was have my babies, love my babies, and have a man who loved me, and then your father, he didn’t love me, he wasn’t really interested in sex; he kicked my teeth down my throat, like my mother and my father; they did not love me and they kicked my teeth down my throat too, and your daddy, he spent the last years of his life fighting the Baptists for your granddaddy’s money; the Baptists are terrible people who went to an old, sick man and got him to sign away his money, and your daddy fought them so you children would have some money, and that’s what gave your daddy cancer, the Baptists did, and that’s why your poor daddy died. I loved him so. I loved you children so. But all I have ever wanted was to be loved and nobody loved me and your daddy never took me dancing, not the way your stepdaddy does, and your daddy never loved me like a woman. Do you understand? I wanted to be loved like a woman and your daddy, he didn’t DO that—”
On and on and on in this pulsing, muttering, breathless way—
And then something mean would start up in me, something that hated her for the way she failed to see anyone but herself, the way that the impending loss she felt, driving me to the airport, was not about my leaving but the loss of a captive audience.
And I would say, with a giant eye roll, “I bet he kicked your teeth down your throat,” because she said that every week of her life, and she would say, “Yes! Yes, he did, and he didn’t love me and—”
These monologues of hers were terrifying: for their incoherence; for the clear intention she had to upset me; for her naked manipulations to be seen as the good parent by comparing herself to a dead man; for their wide, bat-swinging illogic that my father, who struck me as a tired and somewhat angry man, was leading this wild, sexy life with women from the grocery store. He’d died at fifty-two years old, six weeks after a lung cancer diagnosis. And in those moments trapped in the car, I sensed the wrongness of her but could not find the words for it, so I’d blow my stack.
“Then go dig him up. Get Dad exhumed. Tell him, Mom, because I sure don’t care and I sure don’t know why you do this every time we go to the airport. You want to say this to someone? Go dig him up, open the coffin, stare at the bones, and tell him. Say it to him: You kicked my teeth down my throat. Whatever. Because I don’t want to hear it.”
And then she’d start to cry and say, “You are so terrible. You are so cold. One day you will know what it’s like to be me, and you will see how terrible you are. You will be a cold, cold woman.”
“Maybe,” I’d say. “But I don’t think so.”
My Mother Wrote a Letter
After the failed intervention, with none of her children speaking to her, my mother wrote me a note: “My child-rearing days were my happiest because I love children and I thought my four exceptional, each in his own way. But now, I may be happier than I’ve ever been in my life—in a different way. I am so content. My life is in my control for the very first time ever. I do what I want to do and not what someone else wants me to do. And I have the ability to appreciate this and I spent years giving my time away. Most important I see my friends. Even more important, I have competent, happy employees at home and office who are loyal to me. There are no unhappy, dissatisfied, rebellious, resentful, jealous or greedy people in my relationships because I am free to make my own.”
The Writer Remembers Her Father
I was eleven when my father died, but I didn’t know him very well. He was, in the way of many fathers of the time, either At the Office or When He Came Home He Liked a Little Quiet. In this wish for quiet, he seemed, as he did in other things, defeated. You don’t get much quiet in a house with four kids, three dogs, and a volatile wife.
In the last year of his life, he and my mother separated. I was in fifth grade, the last child left at home. After a month or two, I noticed that he was gone. That winter, my mother explained that he was out of town on business. Eventually, my parents told me they were separated and my father came over for dinner some nights. Once, in the spring, I saw his apartment, a sad and temporary place.
That spring, in March, my mother took me to England, a trip with just the two of us that I dreaded. She bought me special clothes for the trip—English-schoolgirl-type clothes: wool peacoats and little hats—which made me feel like a trained monkey. I was miserable during that week with my mother. Just to show her, I refused to look at the crown jewels and stared at my lace-up shoes instead.
While we were in England, I dreamed that my father died. It was a vivid, terrifying dream that I can still recall, the first of many dreams or visions I’ve had in my life that have later come true. I told my mother about the dream—that my father was alone, that he had gone to a high school football game, and in the most random way, someone shot a gun through the bleachers. In the dream, I watched as he tried to dodge the bullets but was killed as people, unseeing, walked by.
I told my mother that I wanted to go home, that I was worried. She told me not to think about it, but I could tell she was shaken, and that night, when she thought I couldn’t hear her, she placed a transatlantic call to my father to check on him. Later I would learn that while we were gone, one of my sisters found my father napping on the sofa, the encyclopedia next to him open to a page about cancer. In June, he went to the doctor and began physical therapy for back pain. In August, after the physical therapy hadn’t worked, he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. In September—a year after he’d moved out and six weeks after the cancer diagnosis—he died.
My father: He was tall and olive skinned, with blue eyes. He smoked unfiltered Camels and listened to Elvis. He had a sharp, dry humor, an electric shoe polisher, and he smelled of sandalwood cologne.
He was buried in the same cemetery as my mother’s family, which was right by my mother’s favorite branch of Neiman Marcus, so after we went shopping, we often visited Dad’s grave.
The Writer Fails to Find the Duck Hole
On our weekend in Dallas, I drive my husband by the house I grew up in, my elementary school, my grandmother’s house. We drive by the creeks where I played. Always, it seems that we are circling the Bermuda Triangle of my mother’s house. Wherever my husband and I go, we both feel the one-off quality of it—we are like travelers who visit a historic site expecting understanding and finding only a plaque and a gift shop. The thing is, these other places matter very little, because my mother is alive and minutes away.
So I create a story about needing to do research for my short story, about how I need to see the duck hole, about how I want to stand on the grassy banks beside it now, as an adult, and see if I can understand its pull. I want to see a moment from my childhood as an adult, to see what is new and what has remained.
My husband and I drive round and round in the rain, looking for the duck hole. Because it has no name, we cannot google it, although we try, based on my hazy memories and poor sense of direction. I keep yelling, I’m sure it’s just over here or Turn left, turn left! over Siri’s nasal tones. But we never do find it, and at my niece’s wedding shower, I feel a hollowness about the duck hole, an emptiness about emptiness.
The morning after the shower, my husband and I fly home, back to Colorado. My brother calls me that week because he knows I’m disappointed that I didn’t find the duck hole. After our call, he e-mails me: Here is your duck hole on Google Earth. And there it is, an image of a big hole in the water, with a fringe of white foam, between Armstrong and Fitzhugh Avenues, and I can see that we drove by it again and again, not seeing it because I was not looking.
A Memory: Night
Moonlight through my window in the dark of night. I remember crying out, holding on to the bars of my crib. And my bedroom door flung open and there was my mother, the satin of her nightgown and dressing robe and slippers pearlescent in the light. Her arms were open, the fabric fluttered as she rushed. She came like an angel, a miracle, to save me from the darkness.
My mother, when I had nightmares, would take me into her bed.
For much of my childhood, she retreated from the world and took me with her. She had a grand bed with monogrammed linens from a store on Madison Avenue. She spent her days in bed and treated it like an office. It took her an hour to order groceries because she’d have to catch up the woman who took orders on any news. On my father’s side of the bed was her mail, sorted into neat stacks of bills, correspondence, and magazines. She especially enjoyed tearing cartoons out of the New Yorker and handing them off to the people she thought would most enjoy them. Our housekeepers were instructed to leave a tray for her just outside the bedroom, with a bucket of ice, a pitcher of water, and some fresh mint. I never saw her drink the water.
When I was small, she read to me for hours. She decided when I was four or so that I’d outgrown picture books, and she started reading me chapter books. I ran my fingertip down the page as she spoke. Sometimes she smelled a little sour, the scent of old sweat, but mostly, she smelled like lotion. One night, as she read, I realized that the words on the page made sense, that I knew what she was going to say as she said it. The marks took shape. Next to her, I became a reader.
If she was sad and didn’t want to read, she’d tell me we had to nap, and sometimes she’d scratch my back. While she lay huddled in bed, I stared at her. Her pale skin was covered with apricot-colored freckles; her eyes were exactly the blue of Cornflower in my Crayola box. When she left to travel for any length of time, I stood with my face buried in her satin robe, conjuring her scent, willing her back home. Whatever Europe was, I hated it.
A Memory: Stepfather
When I was thirteen, my mother told me she was getting married to the man she’d been dating for nine months. Her second marriage, his fourth. Our father had been dead for two years.
“Bad idea,” I said. I hadn’t been close to my father, and I actually liked my future stepfather. But my mother was the sort of person who announced life decisions rather casually. And I was the sort of person who wanted to punish her. She was dressing for lunch at the country club. It was early June and I had just finished middle school. I would leave for boarding school in two months, a week after the wedding; leaving was how I’d decided to manage four more years at home with my mother.
She turned around and looked at me. “Your sister told me about you. That you’d thought about ending your life.”
I felt silver, like ice falling through air, ashamed, terrified. That winter, I had confessed to one sister that I didn’t think I could get through four years of high school living with my mother, that I’d rather die.
She turned back to the mirror and gazed at my reflection while she put on lipstick. “If people knew that about you, they’d think you were crazy, you know. No one would want to be around you.”
“Your marriage won’t last,” I said.
She dropped her lipstick into her handbag and snapped it shut. “I’m getting married in August. I’m going to lunch now. And that,” she said, rising, slipping on dark glasses, giving a little laugh, “is that.”
The Writer Requests a Report on the Duck Hole
Back in Denver, I google the duck hole, deploying more technical terms than “duck hole.” From an online county hazard-mitigation plan, I learn its name: A service spillway by the Wycliffe Avenue dam. The crest of the dam is made of the intersection of four streets—Wycliffe Avenue, Fitzhugh Avenue, Lakeside Drive, and St. John’s Drive—and the spillway (duck hole is so much better!) is a concrete riser that is forty feet wide and twenty feet deep. The duck hole is engineered to save lives, to prevent people from drowning in storms. But—
The dam, the report said, is likely to overtop with substantial frequency.
This report is from 2011, five years after a Ph.D student from Southern Methodist University died when the spillway filled up, and the streets flooded. She and her friend were stopped in their car. Too late, they climbed out of the car, and the waters swept them away. One woman held on to a tree until first responders got to her. The other woman was swept downstream and died.
A Little Dog Will Do
Longing is the thing I know best, for everything that I don’t have, and it occurs to me now that I share this with my mother: a passion, obsession even, for the distant thing that will never be within reach. My mother’s life was centered around some moment in the future when she would be loved in the way she longed for. I have several times believed myself to be deeply in love with someone who has no idea that I feel that way, and from a distance, I ache for the beloved, whose absence is the most obvious feature of our relationship.
When I left home for boarding school at age fourteen, I went back for summers until college, and then I left forever. When I was gone, I missed my dog. When the dog died, my mother had her cremated and kept the ashes by her bed. She showed them to me one day, saying, This is all I have of you, this dog. To me, you are the dog and the dog is you. My mother loved dogs and I loved seeing her with dogs. She was so sweet to them. The way my mother was with dogs kept me returning to her, as if, were I only somehow dog-like enough for her, she’d love me that sweet way, too. I have had a dog—my own dog, not a family dog—since I was seven years old.
The Engineering of the Duck Hole
The online report on the duck hole just isn’t enough. What I want is the full report, with pictures.
In Denver, I sit at my desk, the trees just beyond the window starting their brave attempt to bloom in the uncertain spring of Colorado, and I imagine the report. It will have details, drawings, and narrative. It will make the duck hole knowable, definable, limnable. After a lifetime, I will have answers to these questions about where things go when they disappear.
I phone the engineering company and ask if I can get a copy of the report. My query is met with immediate suspicion. Who did I say I was? Could I repeat the information I needed? Who was I, again? From Colorado?
They finally connect me with a young-sounding engineer, who, although a little suspicious of me, also seems to like something unusual in his day. He says, “We’ve got all kinds of names for it. We mostly call it the morning glory hole.”
(I sit debating whether I want to have a conversation with this seemingly innocent man about the etymology of glory holes. Nope.)
“You’re a writer? What would you be wanting this information for?”
“Well, sir,” I say, “I would be wanting it for a metaphor.”
“Huh,” he says.
I explain that I grew up nearby and that I write short stories and nonfiction, often about Texas, and that the duck hole was an object of fascination for me as a child, both enticing and frightening.
“Oh,” he says in a long-drawn way that lets me know he understands. “You know, I think about that all the time.”
The young engineer suggests I call the Town of Highland Park, whose offices are two blocks north of my childhood home, and ask them for the report. I ask if he can’t just send it to me himself, but he says no. The Town paid for it and owns it, and that sort of information is closely guarded, for reasons of national security.
The duck hole?
In case terrorists want to blow up the dam, he explains uneasily.
After the engineer and I hang up, I write a FOIA request to the Town of Highland Park, asking for engineering drawings of the duck hole, and they ignore me.
Mom Calls, after My Niece’s Wedding
In June, two days after my niece’s wedding, my mother leaves a voicemail on my home phone. There’s fear in her voice. She’s still confused about how I “got into” her phone. How, despite all her attempts to keep people away, are we getting into her phone? For Mom, the iPhone is the perfect metaphor: a way to keep people close to her and then fear them when she sees that they are there. Conveniently, she doesn’t remember that she has put us there. Mother and daughter: I’m obsessed with absences and my mother with presences.
She has a lot to say: she wonders if we are Facebook friends (we are not). She mentions a picture she has seen of my niece, in her wedding dress, on Facebook, but as she speaks, it becomes clear that she thinks that I am my niece. For her, I stopped in my early twenties.
Amid all her confusion, though, she ends on this note: “Well, Baby, I’ll say this. You look good.” And here, her voice gains in confidence.
I did not transcribe this message.
Shortly after I ended my relationship with my mother, I missed the smell of her, and I bought a bottle of the same perfume she’d worn her whole life. It smells of roses and jasmine; it’s got the rich sweetness that I always waited for in her. It’s what her robes smelled of when I was a child. In that scent, I conjure a mother both mine and not exactly mine. I have never stopped wearing this perfume; it is my scent now, the one I have worn for almost thirty years. It’s called Joy.
Saying—and Not Saying—Goodbye
Absence as presence. Nothing as something. Can you love emptiness? You can certainly obsess over it; it can hover at the edges of consciousness for a lifetime. I once had a therapist tell me that estrangement isn’t that you don’t have a relationship; instead, it’s that you’re managing the relationship a different way.
In this strange non-relationship, in which my mother chooses to forget that we have no relationship, in which she will not acknowledge that she is contacting me, and in which I write about her, but not to her, I wonder if this is how we will say—and refuse to say—good-bye, each of us sticking to our stories. In her narrative, her daughter is reaching out to her to show pictures or ask for help, and she, as any good mother would, is responding. In my narrative, I am still a pawn to her narcissism. And in this way, we continue to disappoint each other, failing to be the mother and daughter we each wanted.
Some years ago, after my children were born, my mother sought to reconnect, but she didn’t want to talk about our estrangement or hear why the distance was important to me. In a phone conversation, I told her I loved her, but that there was more to the story, too. That conversation triggered one of her angriest episodes ever. At the time, I thought her anger was about my insistence on independence. Now I wonder if what was more disturbing to her was being told, finally, that she was loved.
If every story that we tell is a microcosm of our one great story, the story of our lives, then my mother’s story is of all the ways in which no one loved her. Not her remote lawyer father, or her cruel, unstable mother. Not her nanny, who preferred her little brother, or the two husbands (she has had three) I have spoken with her about. Not her children. My mother was a woman who woke up every day in a house filled with dogs and children and a husband and thought about the love she didn’t have.
She worked tirelessly to be loved, mostly through a kind of veil of perfection. Her home was impeccable, filled with art and antiques, expensive fabrics, and silver and china. Dressing—from bath to walking out the door—took a minimum of two hours. Her stance, learned while modeling for the Junior League, was a classic 1940s form: hips thrust forward, right leg forward and turned out. But all this perfection was carefully constructed: because that stance made the back of her skirts slightly lower than the front, she had her tailor hem all her skirts so that the line of the hem would be even as she stood in the uneven posture. She was a walking encyclopedia of rules and regulations: no white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day, ditto for linen. Never appear in public with a run in your stockings, which is the worst thing a woman can do.
What she sought, more than anything, was a seamless perfection, one that would hide any flaws or vulnerabilities. Being loved was her life’s work. She lived in fear of being wrong or unbeautiful; she worked hard to follow the rules, seeing them as a kind of guarantee of acceptance. In turn, she wanted us children to be perfect, too: beautiful, accomplished, and inoffensive. Our lives were composed of boxes waiting to be ticked off, and the requisite checks would mean success. Perhaps she believed this was what she owed us: helping us be lovable by a ferocious elimination of anything inexplicable, strange, or off-putting. She never did learn that love is inextricably linked to mystery, uncertainty, and vulnerability; that love is as much an act of faith as it is a fact. And now, I am middle-aged, mother and stepmother, and I know what it is to love people for their possibilities and for their sorrows. Learning to love my children has been part of the way that I have learned to love my mother, for all that is aching within her. My mother, who spends her days reaching out to people on every form of media she can—and then denying that she’s trying to connect with anyone. You called me.
In some ways, longing can be more desirable than the love longed for; it’s a safe harbor from which we can glimpse, but mostly imagine, all that lies in the distance. My mother’s life will end, sooner rather than later, and she will never have known that I do love her. And even now, I feel a child’s love for a mother—helpless, enchanted, and needful—at the same time that I stay away from my mother in calculated fashion.
The Writer Writes the Story
In my short story, the main character, who dislikes her mother and loves her father, learns that her father is having an affair. By the end of the story, she doesn’t like her mother any more than she ever has, but something like understanding grows within the girl.
In writing the story, I learned where the duck hole leads. It’s something like I imagined it as a child: a portal to another place that I cannot see on the surface. It leads back in time, to moments carried in my bones, and then it moves forward into the present, into a story where the truths of my life that I cannot see otherwise emerge in story form. It’s metaphor, a source of imagination and mystery, a place where love meets longing, where absence takes shape, where stories form themselves out of atoms of confusion. Sometimes metaphor matters more than fact, is more true than truth. The duck hole leads the writer to her own consciousness, to the hidden complexities of love and distance.
My mother, surely without intending to, gave me the means to save me from her. Don’t worry about math, she’d say when my grades came back. All that matters is reading and writing.
This Time, When Mom Calls, I Pick Up
“Emily,” my mother says. “Emily, did you call me?”
“I did not,” I say.
Her voice becomes irritable. “Well, you are in my phone,” she says.
“Didn’t call you,” I say.
“I thought you needed me.”
“Nope,” I say. The thing is, our phone has blockers that you can only get through by pressing certain numbers, according to voice prompts. What I am saying is, no one can call us accidentally.
“Your daughter is here, too,” she says.
“Mom, I’m pretty sure you don’t have her phone number,” I say.
“It’s her picture,” she says angrily. “Her picture came up in my phone, and then you came up and I thought you needed me.”
“Nope,” I say, understanding now that Mom has swiped my kid’s picture off someone’s Facebook page.
“Well,” she says, her voice becoming rich and fatted with wounded importance, her diction elevated and precise, “it’s not my fault. I had nothing to do with it. You are in my phone.”
Later, I will wish I had said, Maybe you could delete us and then we wouldn’t be in your phone anymore. Maybe you shouldn’t put us in your phone. But although I want nothing to do with my mother, I do not wish to be cruel, either, so I just say, “Neither of us called you.”
I could also say, I did need you, but it was so long ago.
“Then it’s probably better to end this call,” she says tartly.
“I agree,” I say.
About the Author
Emily Sinclair's stories and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, the Normal School, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson and currently teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. When not writing, she's working on becoming a cowgirl.