We are standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. On the other side of the door, my mother kicks and bangs and yells against the wood and metal, demanding to see my sister and me. Her babies. She calls us hers in the way she always will; amended birth certificates and court orders bear no weight compared to her need to claim us as her own. This is the way that my mother knows how to love, clawing and screaming and fierce enough to rattle a door on its hinges, as much about the spectacle as the emotion itself.
My grandma—Ma Dear—curses back, her own sword of a tongue older, but not dulled. Finally, my grandma threatens to call the police, and my mother retreats. On the other side is silence. Ma Dear cries at the kitchen table.
I can remember living with my mother as a toddler, but it’s a memory like smoke, a hazy, amorphous thing. I can make out the edges of it, an outline, but I can’t feel it or wrap my fingers around it. I know that my mother went to prison and my sister and I were sent to live with my grandmother, while my younger brother went with an aunt. My older sister was near grown, but she lived with us as well before moving out at seventeen. Ma Dear fostered us for several years before legally adopting us, our social security cards and birth certificates touting freshly hyphenated names, my aunts tickled at calling me their sister. I remember my first day of preschool and my grandmother’s big, comforting presence as I ate my lunch of pizza, chocolate milk and corn on the cob, my throat full of panic when I realized she had left. I can still feel her hands her rubbing baking soda on the burn I got from knocking into curling irons, hear her yell at my sister for leaving them plugged in. The scar sits there still, a tiny half-moon at the top of my left bicep.
My mother would resurface as much as she could between visits to rehab and prison. Whenever she returned and she and Ma Dear were on pleasant terms, she would make her way to us, kept abreast of our developments by letters my sisters wrote her. She would know of my academic achievements, what movies we loved, how often my younger sister and I fought. She would try to carve out a her-shaped space in our lives. But for me, her inconsistency made her a dangerous thing to love. She would show up after absences great and small, full of smiles and kisses and belated happy birthdays, but no explanation or acknowledgement of her disappearance in the first place. I could feel something in my mother, a thing that lives there still, which forbade her children from questioning her, which sees the need to query her at all as proof of some disloyalty or ugly vitriol. She feels that her love, ferocious and constant even when her presence was not, should be enough. And she demands reciprocity.
In fifth grade, I come home from school to find my mother sitting in our living room. It is a colder-than-usual spring day, and the sweet, peppery scent of corned beef and cabbage floats throughout our tiny apartment. Ma Dear pretends to watch All My Children and my younger sister sits curled in my mother’s lap, purring and mewing her appreciation. “Hey, Vivian,” I say to her.
She smiles and motions for me to sit next to her. Her hair is pulled tight in a slick, shiny ponytail, the ends snaking down her back. I put down the heavy book bag Ma Dear says is making me a hunchback and sit next to her, sharp-kneed and long-limbed, on the couch. My awful public aid glasses are held up by a nose similar to hers, a straight bridge leading to wide, round nostrils. I have her skin color, her large mouth.
“So, I heard you have a period now?” she says as my sister giggles. “You’re not a baby no more. You’re a young lady. I’ll show you how to take care of yourself and teach you all about hygiene, okay?”
I nod. I’d been bleeding for two years but now, because she said so, I had to go about learning how to do it again? I knew this was about her, about her performance of motherhood, her need to reassure herself and me that we could still partake in these rites of passage. She needed to feel like I was still hers.
Now, depending on my mood, I will play along, as much for my sake as for hers. But as I grow older and my spine a little stronger, my tendency to do this withers.
“What does your mother take? Maybe if we know what works for her, we can figure out something for you.”
I stare at my psychiatrist. My grandma is four years dead and now, at the age of twenty-two, I find myself living with my mother. My insomnia and general dysthymia have begun to threaten my job. I tell the psychiatrist that I go days without bathing; that I wake up some mornings afraid that my great, foggy head will crawl away from my body. I tell her of my mother’s bipolar disorder, her manic episodes and her equally exhausting depressions.
When my grandma was alive, I would volley between her and my mother, comfortable knowing that I could leave whichever one of them upset my youthful sensibilities. My grandma’s death has forced my mother and me to live together, and it is atomic. She is verbally and emotionally abusive, prone to mood swings that are almost comical when they’re not directed at me, devastating when they are. Her guilt causes her to dole out “I’m sorry”s and treats; for transgressions both present and backdated, real and imagined, my mother seems to exist in a constant state of remorse toward my siblings and me. I in turn alternate between parasitic—needing and loving her enough to satisfy both of us—and arctic.
My doctor diagnoses me with OCD and depression, prescribing an SSRI that turns my stomach renegade and makes my skin feel flighty, as if there are dozens of tiny brown sparrows just under the dermis flapping and pecking to free themselves. After a few weeks, my derma and belly both settle, and I awaken. I begin to live and cultivate friendships and foster my own interests and imagine a life outside of my disgusting locked bedroom. I work on distancing myself from my mother, spatially and emotionally, to the delight of my therapist.
My mother feels that I am hers and she is mine; yes she was in and out but she was there as much as she could be. To her, verbal abuse is not really abuse; it is forgivable because she offers up apologies pretty enough to eat, and my ability to deny my own mother is proof of some type of sociopathic tendency independently developed, of course, through no fault of hers. My mother is emotional napalm, flattening all of us when she’s at her worst, but my siblings always make their way back to her, their lips pressed tight and heavy with Mama . They are bottomless in their forgiveness, unyielding in their loyalty in a way I am not. I know I’m prone to overwhelming, self-destructive loyalty, but only once I feel it has been earned, once I feel safe in being so open and tender.
My mother would scoff at the idea that affection and allegiance are things to be earned or proven. Reverence and adulation, to her mind, are her due as our mother. She can’t understand that I love myself so resolutely, that I won’t be bothered with anyone who can’t care for me as much as I do. She can’t see that my distance isn’t cold or callous or sociopathic; it’s a radical act of self-love for me, born black and female, to say that I will not be abused or subjected to harm, even from her. I also know that I have to grant her a certain amount of grace, because not all of our family dysfunction is hers. When my mother calls me a bitch, it’s because she was called the same by her mother, who was likely called the same by her mother, who was probably called worse by her mother, whose mother was probably a slave.
Trauma, like wide hips and myopia and peach cobbler recipes, is a part of my matrilineal legacy. Perhaps it’s unfair to place so much blame on my mother’s shoulders when I know that between slavery, institutional racism, lack of resources, poverty, and social stigma, mine is the first generation of young women in my family to even have access to mental health care. There is no precedent for black girls in my family to talk about mental illness, with our mamas or with anyone else; the language doesn’t exist yet. Perhaps we have to lend ourselves and our foremothers grace as we make it up.
My mother enters my dark, air-conditioned room. The machine in the window hums and breathes cool, artificial air into the tiny cave I have made my home. I keep the blinds pulled low, so I’m only able to tell time via my phone or the cable box on the TV. My mother sits next to me on my bed, the mattress creaking and groaning under her weight. Her eyes move quickly, scanning my mess, and take in a cereal bowl here, one dirty sock there, empty potato chip bags strewn about my dresser. Then she looks at me in a similar, appraising manner and notes my unwashed face, my uncombed hair, the wrinkled, stained pajamas I may have worn for an entire week. I can see how much she wants to tidy me up, clean me. She wants to run her fingers over me and get rid of the ugly, nasty bits, the way other primates do when they groom each other.
She asks me if I remember the seizures I had as a little girl. She asks if I remember the way she held me until I stopped convulsing, changed my clothes when I wet myself. “You don’t remember?” she says, her eyes searching my face. They almost glow in the cold darkness of my room. “You don’t remember at all?”
I do remember the seizures, but it’s my grandmother I remember sitting with me in county emergency rooms, picking me up off the floor when I didn’t remember falling. I can appreciate why my mother needs me to remember. It’s because she doesn’t know how to say: I’ve been there for you before. I cared for you when you weren’t okay. I can tell you aren’t okay again, and I’m here. Again.
“No. I don’t remember,” I say. She stands to exit, the mattress again squeaking and bouncing back as it is relieved of her weight. She collects a couple of dishes and candy wrappers on her way out, just a couple; she knows how possessive I am of my mess, how annoyed I get when she tries to clean up after me. “I was just about to clean that. I can do that,” I say. But I never do. I lock the door behind her and spend the rest of that day, the next two, wrapped in a mass of comforters.
It’s not as if I don’t still need a mother. In my relationships and friendships, even with teachers and in my writing career, I find that daughterhood is the space I most often and most comfortably inhabit. I’m a person who needs constant maternal attention and affirmation. Sometimes my mother can’t give me what I need; sometimes she falls short. But it’s not always toxic. There are still moments that are so goddamn sweet, moments that give me hope we can do it.
I’m just not sure how much time and energy I can dedicate to saving us. I’m not sure how many more times I can be felled, destroyed, burned by her words. Last time we fought, I had to threaten to call the police before she stopped calling and texting me names I cannot reprint. Now it is February and we haven’t spoken since September.
Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?
My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?