I do not like my mother.
My mother does not like me.
The two facts landed softly after hard words and deep pain, on a 180-mile drive down a dark highway, silent but for the sound of my tires on the road, leading me back from a family vacation a day earlier than planned, grateful and relieved to be home at 1am.
I think I first sensed my mother’s dislike when I was about 10. I can’t say when she first sensed mine because I can’t pinpoint when it became obvious. I have, and I believe she has, spent a lot of time and emotional energy since then trying to either rectify it, dance around it, pretend it wasn’t there or ignore it.
None of those things have worked, and none of them ever will. That’s clear now.
I am always the quiet one on family vacations. Part of that is because my family is loud. With the nephews and niece, we are 12 people in one house, and no fewer than three are running, shrieking or arguing at any given time except those few precious dark-night hours when even the baby is sleeping. I tend to be an observer; I take things in – I rarely initate. It’s just who I am. For countless summer vacations I have been happy for some time with my book and a spot on the beach or in the house that’s away from the din.
But somehow I am expected to be someone different from year to year, so that there are always questions about what’s bothering me, what’s wrong with me or why I’m anti-social.
Nothing, nothing, and I’m not. Since I was a teenager, this has been my vacation routine. I have lived alone for 14 years, and I am not used to being around 11 other loud, shrieking, arguing, running people for 24 hours a day for a week. I like my space, I like my quiet, and I don’t have anything to say because I’ve been with you for all this time and therefore nothing new has happened in my life of which you are not aware.
I cannot talk for 15 minutes about a pair of shoes. If you ask me a question, my answer will only have so many words. I don’t count them. I just answer. Not everything is fodder for a full conversation.
Was anything bothering me this week? Yes. Two things. One was Jack. I have spent the last ten summers thinking of Jack on the beach. I’m still struggling with it and I’m still hurting and I am reminded of that when I’m sitting on a beach in a tiny town I love, to which I invited him many times, only to have him refuse each time for one reason or another, and then visit it with Gwyneth instead, while hiding the nature of their relationship from me. I had dreamed about him in fitful sleep. I wish it weren’t bothering me, but it was. My family doesn’t know about how my relationship with Jack evolved, devolved or ended because I’m a very private person who doesn’t share her personal life much. My family knows that.
The other thing that was bothering me was my mother. Over the course of the week, the two thoughts that gelled in the car in the end had been pushing their way to my consciousness. I was struggling with them, too. Nobody likes to admit that she doesn’t like her mother, and nobody likes when her mother doesn’t like her. It seems unnatural.
What has finally broken the surface is that it is completely natural – as natural as disliking anyone. The only thing that’s unnatural is trying to force oneself to change the feeling in the absence of a change in the person.
I am me. She is she. What we do not like in each other are things central to who we are. Though we can move to accommodate differences in whatever way is possible, the fundamentals of our selves cannot be changed.
But my quiet and my feelings about my mother had created a tension that erupted at the dinner table Friday night when I jokingly insisted that a young band performer’s four-inch acrylic heels were trashy and my mother told me to put my chin away. The long, slow simmer of the pot’s relationship with the kettle ticked from 210 degrees to 211, and I told her, with an effort at joviality to belie truth, that she had jutted hers first. And she told me, nastily, to shut up. Twice.
I got up from the table to do the dishes and try to control my anger, and a few minutes later, she ordered me to sit down. Still furious, and now resentful of being an adult ordered to a chair for a lecture, I ignored her. When she yelled at me again to sit down, I turned and looked at her but made no move to obey, my mouth firm because anything that could come from it now would be bad.
She stood shrieking obscenities and came at me. My sisters and brothers-in-law scattered from the area with the kids. My mother’s fury made her stronger despite being four inches shorter, and she grabbed me by both shoulders, turned me around and threw me into the chair. Then she leaned over me, finger in my face, still screaming profanities, and threatened to hit me.
It was then that I knew I would not stay the night.
My father stood close-by but made no move to stop the incident, instead coming to tower over me, telling me to obey. I wondered in what way I had behaved as a child who might warrant this treatment and was admittedly not receptive to a conversation when my father mandated it, convening what felt like an intervention because I had been quiet this week.
I think, now, that he was initially motivated by concern until I told them that if they know I’m quiet and I tell them there’s nothing wrong, they need to accept it. He ceded that. Was there something wrong? Yes. I had a broken heart and I don’t like my mother. The former is of no matter here, and the latter might yet be best left unsaid. With both of those truths considered, accept the negation and let it be.
The next twenty minutes picked apart my faults as a person and what my mother called my life’s blessing and curse: “You are smarter than 90% of the people around you and you don’t hide it.”
I also fail at greeting card shopping.
“The last two Mother’s Day cards you sent me were funny.” This was an accusation.
“Are you fucking kidding me right now?!” The only time I swore.
How do I explain that my failure to send mushy greeting cards to my mother is not out of an inability to express warm feelings, but out of a lack of having those feelings for her at all?
“You hate me, don’t you?” she demanded to know. Her chin jutted and her eyes hardened. It was a challenge, a goading – an effort at drawing ire so she could play the victim from here forward.
“If I hated you, would I send you a card at all? Would I think of you? Would I call you? Would I ever talk to you?”
My father asked what my mother has always wondered: why he and I can talk for an hour on the phone and she and I cannot. He knows the answer, but always stops at a single reason: we can talk about business and work. I gave the real reason: he and I talk about a lot of other things – including politics – and I cannot talk with my mother about those things. And when I do try to talk with her about work, she doesn’t care. She changes the subject – sometimes when I’m in the middle of a sentence.
She apologized and said she would try to do better. It was a score she kept, so that later in the conversation, she could say she had acquiesced to two things and I to none.
Which wasn’t even true, but is her standard of operation.
When the demand came for an explanation as to why we have always had such a tense relationship, I started with my answer but was interrupted with accusations. And when I calmly tried to point out that something my mother had just said was an example of why I feel she is judgmental, she rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders and said, “This is futile.” Then she got up and left the room.
I pointed at the empty chair while my father stared down at the table. “I don’t know how to fix that,” I said quietly.
Minutes later, with my father and me both still at the table, my mother came back to finish the dishes I had started, and told me that if I insisted on leaving that night, I should think about how it would affect the family. This was her way of constructing a narrative to claim that I had been the one to walk out.
There was no good path to take, but the moment that had sealed my decision to leave had not been mitigated and no forgiveness had been sought. I had been commanded to respect her by virtue of her motherhood and told that I didn’t have to like how I was treated and that I, as the child, do not warrant a similar degree of respect.
On that, we will never agree.
I packed calmly and waited an hour for my sisters and their families to return from the amusement park and ice cream shop so that I could say goodbye and tell them I was sorry if my decision to leave that night hurt them.
My sisters and their husbands told me that they were not hurt, and they understood.
I said goodbye to my parents, with hugs, and I drove three hours home, with a new acceptance of our destination and no idea of where to go from here.