Riding the Highs and Lows with My Mom

On a night out in the Hollywood hills, Valentina Valentini’s lifelong role-reversal with her mother becomes upended.

Valentina Valentini | Longreads | August 2019 | 16 minutes (4,092 words)

I hadn’t wanted to go up there in the first place. Topanga Canyon only seems fun when you’re with hip Angelenos who say, “Let’s do something different this weekend,” like they invented being different. But my mom was in town — as she often is, despite living across the country in Massachusetts — and, in her words, needed to get out. She was staying at my sister’s in Marina Del Rey and was on a rigid schedule of driving the kids around to their multiple extracurricular activities, after which she might sit and draw dragons for an hour with my niece, or build rocket ships with my nephew, seemingly blissfully, and then text me complaining about how she never gets to do anything for herself when she visits, and begging me to accompany her on an outing. Or sometimes she’d hit a threshold and borrow my brother-in-law’s car to go out on her own, dancing until the wee hours of marine layer cloud-covered mornings in downtown Santa Monica.

She was 72 and I was 30, but I often felt as if I were her parent.

In Topanga, acoustic guitar and whining voices were surely in store. It would be the kind of friends my mother had when I was growing up, the ones who made their own hummus at spring equinox gatherings or encouraged her to bring her young kids to a sweat lodge to purge demons. The friends she should have had when she was in her early 20s, but instead was too busy (too young) raising her first three daughters with her alcoholic former high school beau in a suburb of Boston.

Every year on my birthday, my mom likes to recount my traumatic underwater birth: I came out of the womb into a Plexi glass bathtub, with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around my neck and knotted once; I had to be resuscitated, all while being filmed for an NBC evening special. Even moving cross-country didn’t stop her — she became prolific at texting and emoji-emoting on my special day. On my Facebook wall she’d splash phrases like, I remember moments before you crowned, when we were still one. (Heart emoji. Baby emoji. Kissy face with heart emoji.) Except that we were two. We were always two — me separate from her. But so often our roles would be reversed, and I wasn’t sure who was supposed to take care of whom.

***

It is clear from my mother’s own upbringing that a sense of self (or self preservation, for that matter) was never prioritized for the six kids in her family. In mid-century Massachusetts, in a first-generation Roman-Irish-Catholic working-class family, individuality was seen more as a detriment that an attribute. Just attending Catholic middle school, where my mother’s knuckles would be whipped with a ruler if her skirt were an inch too short, is evidence enough of the rigidity that particular time and place demanded of its children. Her initial way of breaking free — of gaining a sense of self — was by having sex. With a lack of sex education and birth control, this of course, leads to children. After four partners and six children over 20 years, it seemed as if her new way of breaking free was finding obscure performances to attend in far-flung lands.

In Topanga, we’d see the kind of friends my mother had when I was growing up, the ones who made their own hummus at spring equinox gatherings or encouraged her to bring her young kids to a sweat lodge to purge demons.

We’d taken separate cars because I was coming from my West Hollywood apartment and she was coming from my sister’s Marina Del Rey bubble. There is something a bit mysterious and fun about driving up those winding roads into the belly of the canyons, and once I arrived, I suddenly felt ready and armed for an evening of one-time hippies and shoulder-touching.

As we walked up to what can only be described as a hole-in-the-wall vintage shop in a makeshift strip mall off Topanga Canyon Boulevard, I began to realize just how homegrown the whole operation was. I had thought there might be a chance of sidling up to a bearded mountain man, the type of guy that surfs on Wednesdays, whittles wood into tiny spoons to sell at the Melrose Flea Market on Sundays, and secretly covets his trust fund.

It was not to be though. I politely shook hands, forced a smile — because somehow, between the parking lot and the storefront the mystery had vanished — and got hugged by strangers, my mom’s “friends.” Small benches and mismatched chairs were put together to form a lackluster proscenium in front of a makeshift stage in a corner of the room, clothes racks pushed haphazardly to the walls. Martha, the woman who ran the shop, had long brown locks and hair wraps, the same kind I’d get in Key West when we drove down the entire east coast to escape The Blizzard of ‘93. Martha wore a flowing skirt of earth tones and jewelry that clinked and clacked when she moved. My mom was in her signature skinny jeans, white cowboy boots, Native American-style belt and necklace, and peasant blouse. She chatted away with Martha, her hands flailing as they always have when she’s talking about something, anything. They looked like two-dimensional models on the pages of an Anthropologie catalogue and I again had that maternal feeling, like, Aw, my little girl is looking good and acting cool; go her!

Martha announced to the small crowd that the musical showcase would begin soon and invited us to help ourselves to black bean soup and pumpkin cookies at the front counter. I hadn’t eaten, and generally resort to food when I’m in an uncomfortable situation, so I hastily made my way to the front, leaving my mother to talk with a white-haired guitarist.

The soup was warm and spicy and I let my mind relax for a moment, enjoying the free food. After the soup I scooped up a soft pumpkin cookie and popped it in my mouth as I walked over to where my mom was now sitting, watching Martha make her way to the mic.

“Hello, everyone,” Martha drawled through the scratchy PA system. “Welcome. We’re so happy to have your in our presence and as a little treat, before we start we’ve got a fun game of trivia to play! Who’s in?”

I was! Trivia? Maybe this night wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Ok,” she continued. “Who in here can tell me what day the Winter Solstice falls on next week?”

As a good little liberal, I listen to NPR daily as I pour hot water over my organic, fair trade tea leaves, so I was primed and ready, raising my hand in the air, madly, because I knew I had the right answer and I really like to win.

“December 21st,” I stated proudly.

“December 21st,” my mom mouthed over me, excited I got the answer right too.

“December 21st!” clapped Martha. Everyone clapped unenthusiastically.

Martha handed me a bag of cookies as my prize. They were different than the pumpkin cookies. They had frosting on top and almost looked store bought, which certainly would have been out of character for the characters I currently took company with.


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The soup and cookie had been fine earlier, but I was still hungry. I munched on my two cookies as Martha did another round of trivia, and then the music portion of the evening commenced.

My mom has this tendency to not be able to resist moving when music starts up, which has embarrassed me. The way she’d rock side-to-side or to-and-fro in her chair at my choir performances in high school, or when she’d drag us to reggae concerts, where she’d be up in front of the stage grooving and grinding to the beats. This evening was no different. Despite being an adult myself, and among 15 other people doing the exact same thing, I was still embarrassed by my mom’s movements. I still wanted to chastise her as I would a small child making a scene. But I just kept chewing my cookies.

The singer wasn’t terrible — a slight girl from the northeast, singing about her last love, and knitting, and snowy plains. She actually had a nice voice. I loosened up a bit, and got lost watching her lips.

***

I saw the small pipe that was being passed around land in my mother’s hands. I knew she’d take a hit. She’s been smoking weed for as long as I can remember. Not copious amounts, but she never tried to hide the fact that she was doing it. My friends in high school thought she was the coolest mom. It was not cool to have the coolest mom, no matter how cool your friends thought it was. It made me feel like I needed to be more responsible. Though, I’ll admit, when she left on Saturday nights to go dancing and I had friends — sometimes 50 — over to party, I felt pretty cool, too. I’d even smoked a few times back then, really only to try it, and become even cooler, but it never sat well with me. I’d be that stereotypically paranoid teenager sitting in the back of a Nissan Altima, squished between three other friends laughing their heads off. I’d suppress my paranoia, though. I couldn’t let on what I was feeling, because that would make it worse. So I’d casually talk about anything, everything. I was a pretty enthusiastic talker anyway, so my friends probably never detected anything wrong with the situation. All the while, my inner child would be freaking out and I’d keep telling her to shut up.

I hated that my mother smoked. Not because of the act of smoking; I didn’t disagree with it fundamentally. I had a problem with how ridiculously stupid she got when she was high, with her omnipotent pronouncements and weird wanderings down emotional paths I’d rather stay clear of. That night — even before I’d accepted the invitation to attend — I knew this would be part of it. Which probably says more about my willingness to put myself in uncomfortable situations than it does my mom’s tendency to act like a teenager.

Martha handed me a bag of cookies as my prize. They were different than the pumpkin cookies. They had frosting on top and almost looked store bought.

She handed me the pipe. I politely refused. We went back to listening to the girl croon.

Not many minutes later I began to feel lightheaded. And warm. I knew it would get hot in that tiny room. My first thought was that I might be inhaling some second-hand smoke, therefore creating a bit of a contact high. I wasn’t altogether opposed to that, so I sat still a little while longer. Then my eyes started to feel heavy. Very heavy. I whispered to my mother that I was going to take a step outside and get some air. She seemed concerned, but only mildly. I assured her I’d be fine, snuck through the haphazard chairs with swaying wannabe hippies in them, and stepped out the shop door.

***

The air outside was cool and the sky was clear. You can actually see stars up there, unlike most places in Los Angeles. I pulled out an American Spirit, even though my mom wholly disapproved, thinking it might calm down my breathing, which had sped up in between lifting myself off the bench, maneuvering through listeners and stepping outside. I turned my head up slowly and looked at the moon, bright and hazy for the impending Winter Solstice. And that’s when it happened.

Whoomb. Whooomb. Whhhoooomb. Whooooooomb.

The moon expanded and contracted, as if it were breathing. The proverbial “man” seemed to look at me, sad he was stuck there, way up high, cold and alone. Whooooooomb. I shut my eyes tight, then opened them again. He was still there, staring, brows furrowed at me.

I threw the cigarette to the ground and the earth undulated as it hit the pavement. My mind was at once completely blank and whisking through thoughts. Rushing inside I was nervous I might trip or stagger, and everyone would know that…that…that, what? What was going on?

From the back, I saw my mother sitting in her seat, rocking to the warm sounds. I needed to get to her, but she felt far away. After an hour of what felt like traversing the Alps, I made it to the bench and plunked down beside her.

“Mum,” I half-whispered, half-shrieked. “Mum!” She turned to look at me. “Mum, I don’t feel good. I think I’m getting a second-hand high.”

She snickered.

“I’m serious,” I said as seriously as I could, visions of my teenage Altima nightmare bubbling to the surface. “I’m feeling really weird and the fresh air didn’t help.”

“Okay, okay,” she conceded, “let’s get out of here, maybe get you some food. Food always helps me,” said the woman who knew all the local spots for just-out-of-the-oven donuts and diner French toast and bacon at 4 a.m., after the clubs would close.

We went outside, and I wobbled into the dark Topanga night. The only place open — or rather the only place, period — was an Italian restaurant next to the strip mall we were in. It looked like heaven to me; anything to get me out of that tiny, hot room full of fakers. As we entered and my mother asked for a table, things started to slip further out of my hands, my reality dripping away like wax near a flame. They took us to a table where my vantage point was the cook in the kitchen. He could see me, too.

“What do you want to eat?” asked my mother, still oblivious to my current state of mind. “I’ll get this and this, or maybe this,” she seemed to say — at least that’s what it sounded like to me. I asked for just a salad, but I think I wanted an antipasto. I was conjuring food memories from my childhood in my mom’s hometown in a suburb of Boston. The Union House had the best antipasto I’d ever had — perfect portions of iceberg lettuce, provolone cheese, salami, ham, pepperoncinis, and a dressing you wanted to drink out of the bottle.

As she was ordering I felt the cook looking at me, but wasn’t sure if I should let my mom know. What if she was in on it too? Maybe this was all a big prank, a way to loosen me up, which she often tries to do when she’s high. It’s like this big ploy to get everyone to the exact place she is at, despite everyone having their own agency and wanting to experience their own high in their own way. That didn’t matter to my mother when she was high… or when she was sober for that matter.

But the cook kept staring and staring. Wasn’t his food burning, his pasta overcooking? Why was he still looking at me? So I nudged my mom under the table with my foot.

“He won’t stop staring at me,” I hissed. My mom, whose back was to the kitchen, looked confused. “The cook,” I jutted my chin out in his direction. “He is looking at me. He keeps looking at me. Do you think he knows?”

“Knows what?” she asked, genuinely lost.

“You know! Like, what’s going on? Do you think they’re mad? I think they’re mad. I think we should go. I don’t feel good. I told you, I don’t feel good.”

The food had come by this point and I picked at mine while my mother shoved huge gobs of it into her mouth as she uttered inaudible words and distorted her face into strange expressions. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been telling her not to chew and talk at the same time. I’m not entirely sure where I learned manners. Perhaps my friends’ houses?

Shortly after — or maybe it was hours — she asked for the check and I was half gliding, half stumbling out into the cool air once again. y mom began to realize that something was definitely off with me. I told her I simply wanted to go home and sleep, that I felt absolutely terrible. Of course she couldn’t let me drive in this state. And of course I thought that was nonsense.

“Let’s sit in your car and hang out for a bit,” she said. “We’ll wait until you sober up.”

“I’m not drunk!” I spewed. There was always this contention between the two of us regarding substances — I drank a lot, and she smoked weed a lot and neither of us liked the way the other one was on either drug.

“Well what is it then?” she asked, unconvinced.

But I still didn’t know what was making my body feel like a jellyfish.

My mom opened the backseat door and told me to get in, that she was going to go to her car — 50 feet away — and get her jacket.

“No!”

“No what?” she shot back.

“Don’t leave me. Don’t! Leave me!” I said. I worried that if she left, she wouldn’t come back. I had felt this feeling long ago, when I was very little, and here it was again, turning me into that little girl, hoping her mom would make it back from date night or her favorite band. At some point when she thought I was old enough — and I thought I was old enough too, I’m sure — about 10 or 11, she’d leave handwritten notes to say where she’d gone out. “At the Iron Horse. 586-8686. Love you!” It was the small music venue in Northampton, where I grew up, and a phone call would probably have never made it through the noise.

***

When I was 8 or 9, or maybe it was 10, I woke up in our downtown Northampton row house in the middle of the night. I went up to the third floor into my mom’s room, as I often would, to snuggle up to her warm skin, but she wasn’t there. I saw my little sister sleeping quietly and didn’t want to wake and worry her, so I prepared to examine the rest of the house. I crept down the stairs to the first floor, peering into the living room — still nothing — the kitchen — no one. I went to the back and front porch, opening the doors to see if she was hanging out on one of them. Silence.

I don’t remember crying, but I remember the feeling of crying. The tight chest, stinging eyes, but I wasn’t sad. I was angry. And I was scared. I waited for a little while, peering out the front bay windows for any sign of my mom. Then I called the police. I told them I woke up in my home and that I couldn’t find my mom.

Shortly thereafter, two police officers came to our door and began asking me a lot of questions. I told them my brother wasn’t home either — he was a teenager and out with friends, or sleeping at his girlfriends probably — and that my little sister was upstairs asleep. As they continued to ask me questions in a calm tone and take down notes on their white, unlined pads of paper, my mom came up the front porch steps. I don’t remember her being overly worried that there were two police officers there. I don’t remember any cries or exasperated questions, like one might expect in such a scene. I remember her explanation: I was at Kinko’s.

What in the good lords name jesus effing Christ, Mary, and Joseph were you doing at a copy shop in the middle of the night? I silently screamed to myself, in my head.

Eventually the cops left, my mom put me back to bed, and all should have seemed right in the world. Except it didn’t. I didn’t believe that my mom was at a copy shop. I didn’t believe that she could leave her two sleeping children in their home alone at night because of the dire importance of making a copy in the middle of the night. There had to be a more pressing reason she’d leave us.

I never asked, though.

So much goes unsaid between my mother and me, despite talking on the phone frequently, no matter what parts of the world we find ourselves in. (I’ve definitely inherited her adventurous spirit.) But the ability to truly connect seems to evade us, that chasm only widening because of our mother-daughter role reversals. She hates that I tell her what to do and I hate it, too. But there was something that happened early on that I think solidified these positions: When I came into the world, she was heartbroken by my father’s leaving us and her younger brother dying, suddenly. I think baby me sensed instinctually that she had to pick up the pieces. But her protracted adolescence started long before I came into her life, and I think a part of her got stuck there — emotionally stuck in her teen years, as her Catholic family swept trauma after trauma under the rug, as was typical of the time. Over the years, as her attempts to fix it all with a man or with a child failed time and again, her need to rebel re-emerged and grew stronger.

***

“I’m just going to the car,” my mom assured me in the parking lot outside Topanga Canyon Country Store. “It’s right there. You are in your car and you’re fine. I am coming right back.”

She left.

I could barely keep my eyes open and yet my brain sped up. I thought of all the things that could go wrong if she left, about how I’d never told her that I respected her, despite all her mistakes, that I knew I was like her in so many ways and always tried to push those qualities away, thinking they’d make me an exact replica of her — angry, alone, lonely, stubborn. I thought about my siblings and how we would cope with her gone, who would be sad and who would be relieved. I thought horrible things, but nothing as horrible as the screeching animals flying around my head. They weren’t fully formed, but rather fear that had morphed into a physical being that taunted my subconscious.

“Demons! Mom, the demons, they’re coming to get me!” I flailed as she opened the car door. “Where were you? I waited for hours. How could you leave me?”

It had been less than a minute.

My mother lifted my head and put it on her lap in the back seat of my car. She put her jacket over my now trembling body and stroked my hair. She asked if I wanted her to sing and I said yes. She sang “All the Pretty Little Horses,” and the two of us stayed there for what seemed like a very long time.

Her protracted adolescence started long before I came into her life, and I think a part of her got stuck there — emotionally stuck in her teen years, as her Catholic family swept trauma after trauma under the rug.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d put my head in my mom’s lap, letting myself be a child. I’d been an adult for so long, working and making money, moving away from home and doing adult things. Even when my mom would come to visit me and do motherly things like wash my floors or buy me new towels or take me out to dinner, I’d relish in those moments, soaking in the chance to return to the natural order between us, to feel like the child once again, although I’d never let her know.

Right then, especially, I didn’t want her to know how much I needed her. I’d built my own persona around being this responsible, with-it young woman. I had gotten very good at disciplining my own mother (not that she ever heeded it, to my knowledge) and she’d stopped trying to discipline me once I moved out of our house when I was 17. In fact, she probably stopped trying to discipline me long before that, when I made it very clear that I was strong and independent and didn’t need a mother telling me what to do. But maybe she should have tried harder. Because I definitely did need her.

And that night, there I was, needing her again and letting her be needed. The heaviness in my chest was still there, and I felt as if it would never lift. She continued to stroke my hair and sing me my favorite lullabies. Then she quieted, her breathing slowed, and she asked:

“Honey? How many of those cookies did you eat?”

* * *

Valentina Valentini is a freelance journalist writing for Vanity Fair, Variety, Vulture and other publications (not necessarily starting with the letter V). She’s completed her Masters in Creative Nonfiction and is seeking representation for her debut memoir.

Editor: Sari Botton