A.M. Homes | Longreads | August 2018 | 5 minutes (1,200 words)
I wrote my first book when I was 15, a collection of poems called “An Introduction to Death With Excerpts From Life.” I was in 10th grade and the way some people take a year abroad, I took a year locked in my room. I smoked, I wrote poems, I emerged a few times a day and delivered those hand-written verses to my mother who had recently gone back to school to get a masters degree in Counseling Psychology.
I was her worst nightmare; her classmates, men and women twenty years younger than her, came to the house for study sessions. And there I would be, a chunky 14-year-old who smelled like a tobacco farm, sneaking past them and into the kitchen. “Here,” I would say, depositing another poem on the counter. “Can you type it for me?” And later, when her classmates had gone home, my mother would get out the Smith Corona and she would type the poem and cry. Did I do this to be intentionally mean to her? Or did I do it because I wanted her to know how much I was suffering? Probably both. My mother would type and cry and call the shrink. I would hear her whispering from her own hiding place in the laundry room. She was worried, very worried. The poems were confessions of primal rage, angst that knew no limit, an outsider identity that had no name, ennui to infinity. I was an adopted child whose grief and sense of powerlessness were boundless. There was no version of getting it right.
I was what we’d now call a hot mess, but somehow my mother loved me anyway. She had no idea how to raise me, no idea how to set limits or even what limit one would set, but somehow we kept going.
My mother hated loud noise. Every year on the 4th of July she had to take tranquilizers and go to bed. And when we went to Disney World for my brother’s birthday, she fled to the stinky public bathroom with toilet paper in her ears during the Happily Ever After fireworks show. So what did I do? I played the drums, full-on, Keith Moon style. Every afternoon after school I went down in the basement, put on The Who and The Rolling Stones and banged until dinner was ready. And when I wasn’t playing the drums I was doing an early version of karaoke. I had a record player, an amp and a microphone and I would belt out “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Brown Sugar.” The banging, the howling, the ear-shattering cymbal crash-smash was what it took for me to feel relieved. It was what allowed my interior and my exterior to equalize.
My mother put up with it – I have no idea how – there were no noise-cancelling headsets in the mid-70s. She hated it, but she paid for the drum lessons, and bought me new sticks when the old ones shattered. She had no idea what to do with me but she knew in some way that it was better to do less than to do more. I wasn’t a bad kid; I didn’t get arrested, wasn’t out at parties doing drugs and having sex. I was a kid who didn’t care what the consequences were; whatever consequence a parent could dream up was never as bad as how I already felt. The punishment came from within – annihilation. I was what we’d now call a hot mess, but somehow she loved me anyway. She had no idea how to raise me, no idea how to set limits or even what limit one would set, but somehow we kept going. We fought horribly. I don’t even know why; it was as though the need to erupt had built up, like contents under pressure, like I was a human volcano desperate to spill and the only person who could trigger the eruption was my mother. And when we fought she would cry and say, “I hope one day you grow up and have a little girl just like you.” I would cross my arms in front of my chest defiantly and say, “I hope I do.”
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And I did. I grew up and had a little girl just like me. And one day after my daughter had been especially difficult I called my mother and said, you were right, she’s just like me and my mother said, no, you were worse. And she was right.
My mother is now 91, soon to be 92. Each month matters; it’s the reverse of infancy. With a baby you clock the months of progress, you see when they can smile, when they reach for things, when they crawl. With old people you see when they forget what they did an hour ago, when they can’t drive, when they stop calling you. My mother used to read a book a day; she used to be starved for the next new thing. In the past few months she’s stopped talking about books. She still goes to her two book clubs, but she tells me she forgot what the book was, or she didn’t read it. A book is too much to remember, too big to hold in her head. The newspaper is just right. She reads the newspaper, clucks in disgust, and licks the knife with her marmalade on it.
She licks the marmalade of the knife with such pleasure that I think of her like Grandmother Bear in Little Bear’s Visit by Elise Homelund Minarik. These were my favorite books when I was young. I only recently realized that perhaps little bear’s longing for his absent father captured something of my longing for my lost biological family. I loved these books; there was a sense of the “difference” I felt but also a depth to the Bear family’s love, a sense of safety – the adults were paying attention and in charge. The lives of Little Bear and his anthropomorphic friends seemed entirely plausible to me – more so than real life.
My mother is now 91, soon to be 92. Each month matters; it’s the reverse of infancy. With a baby you clock the months of progress, you see when they can smile, when they reach for things, when they crawl. With old people you see when they forget what they did an hour ago, when they can’t drive, when they stop calling you.
My daughter is 15 now. I adore her but she treats me like I’m her indentured servant. She doesn’t clean up after herself, she simply consumes: the contents of the refrigerator, the clothing in my drawers, my socks, any cash I might have on hand. I tell her she needs to do better, she needs to put her dishes in the dishwasher, her clothing in the hamper, and that the sofa is not a bed with drive-through meals. I imagine that when I talk she hears a voice like the teacher in the old Peanuts Cartoons, blah, blah, blah. She’s had a rough year — starting high school, some health issues, a boyfriend, the sudden death of a close friend. I worry about her. When she has her headphones on, I call my mother, I call the therapist, I whisper, How do I know if she’s okay? At night when she’s going to sleep occasionally she’ll call out, “Mommy will you read to me.” I take out the book and turn the page. “‘I am going to the moon,’ said Little Bear to Mother Bear.’”
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Editor: Sari Botton