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June Amelia Rose | Longreads | March 2020 | 17 minutes (4,495 words)
Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love.
* * *
I was getting ready for a kinky leather social mixer when I slipped my mother’s engagement ring onto my finger for the first time. I pulled on a flowing, gothic dress, then did my makeup, glancing at her most prized possession in the mirror as I penciled in my eyeliner. I don’t remember how, in the tumult after her death, I came into possession of the ring, but apparently I did.
Out of morbid nostalgia, I decided to wear the ring out in the sticky Brooklyn summer air, to see if anyone noticed.
I never want to get married. At that moment, I was playing matrimonial drag.
On the bus, the diamond dug into my rugged pink Kathy Acker paperback. The ring fit loosely, a reminder of how much my mom told me she envied my slender fingers and healthy nails growing up. While seeing a secret gender therapist in high school, he told me that my small hands would help me pass as female, if I ever transitioned.
At the party, no one commented on the ring. My girlfriend didn’t seem to notice, and if she did, she didn’t ask. The dominatrixes were too busy relaxing as I cleaned their boots. Black shoe polish smeared across my long, red nails, eclipsing the shine of the chunky diamond like oil on a coastal shelf.
* * *
“When I was a little girl, the only thing I wanted in the entire world was a baby boy to call my own. Your father and I love your sister, but a baby boy was my dream.”
So began my mother’s self-important recounting of my origin story, a tale she told me repeatedly as a child.
“Before you, we had three miscarriages. I was worried you wouldn’t survive too, but one night I dreamed an angel came down and touched my belly. That was when I knew you were going to be a perfectly healthy baby boy, a gift from God himself.”
These words swirled in my head, haunting me with guilt, as my hand trembled writing the letter. I was 15 years old. The year was 2007, the year I finally accepted that everything felt wrong, and that I needed to speak the new truth I’d found. I started with my girlfriend and therapist, then moved on to my family.
“Mom, Dad. I’m a girl. I feel like a girl. I’ve always been like a girl. I’m a transsexual. I think you know what they are, but please google it. It’s a thing. This is who I am. This is who I will always be.”
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I stressed over the note for days, composing it in a fit of nervousness, trashing multiple copies. I was too young then to appreciate the humor of the situation, before the bitter salt had soaked into my pores. My mother was the woman who invented an immaculate conception story to give her life meaning, and in so doing, she implanted a mystical origin story in me that I never consented to, and that caused me so much harm.
* * *
Near the first anniversary of her death, I got her name tattooed on my back. I harbored so much resentment, but it felt right. Grief makes us do the strangest things. We had a troubled relationship, but her loss deeply affected my worldview and sense of self.
I always wonder what my lovers think about it.
Many years and hundreds of dollars later, I got my last name legally changed. A vivisection of the family. Still, her name on my back is a haunting of who I’ve been. The memory seeps into my veins like bitter tar, the same tar she smoked until the cancer took root in her lungs — dark, blooming petals underground.
* * *
So much of my childhood is fantastical that the line between truth and fiction has become meaningless. Which are the myths and which are the repressed memories? Is it even possible to get an objective answer at this point? Though one of my parents is still living, I cannot trust his version of events. He was barely present, either an oblivious fly on the wall or overflowing with a tense, fearful rage that shamed my emotions and needs. Because of this, I must doubt my memories while simultaneously going through the motions of acting out their consequences.
My father worked nights, so I rarely saw him as a kid. Most of my parental time was spent with my mother. Since my parents were working-class, they worked two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads as property taxes in our town continued to inflate. This meant that most of my time growing up was spent alone. My hyperactivity was so pronounced, my parents couldn’t keep a babysitter for more than a few weeks at a time. They all quit, driving my parents nuts. As time passes, I’m inclined to believe my acting out was compounded by a clear case of not enough attention, of a need not being met. I didn’t have the framework to articulate these early storms, until I found out years later that my disconnect was a symptom of my coercively gendered body.
Recently, I read that this kind of behavior is a premonition of the bipolar disorder I would later be diagnosed with. I wonder what my life would’ve looked like if my family had taken this behavior seriously and not just as a permanent character flaw. Would I have been treated? Would specialists have noticed? Who would I be today?
My family has never asked how to love me. Later in life, the first time a friend asked, “What can I do for you right now?” when I was in emotional distress, it iced me to the core. I didn’t know how to ask for, give, or receive love. I was at a loss. How does this happen to a person? Where does this come from?
Shame and trauma, that’s where. I was pushed to fulfill the role of a person I never wanted to be, then shunned when I voiced my own path. Many years later, when the dust had settled and I had merged with my new womanly body and self, the damage had already been done. Nobody wanted to admit the wounds were inflicted in the first place.
* * *
Looking at the symphony of jagged scars on my forearm in the present day, my therapist says, “You are acting out the pain that was inflicted on you in the past. It’s all you know, it’s what makes you feel comfortable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You and your body are worthy of love.”
I cry, rocking myself back and forth, wringing my palms on my thighs, because she’s right.
* * *
School was a blessing and a curse. I wasn’t liked and didn’t fit in. Every movement and word came out with sandpaper sounds, scratching kids away from me. In my formative years my parents pushed me into sports I hated, where I was targeted and beaten by cruel children. So many hands harming my body, telling me it wasn’t mine. Poring over these memories with my therapist, I’ve found this is where my deeply ingrained self-hatred stems from. I left every time crying. My parents didn’t listen, they said it was simply what boys went through and that I’d have to toughen up.
I loved learning but to do it I had to be tortured daily. I put up with the rejection and isolation because somehow I knew the things I was obsessively learning would be my exit from my labyrinth of a home life. Incredibly, that drive was how I began to develop the literary skills I’d utilize later in life.
I taught myself to read when I got frustrated that I was being instructed too slow. I picked up books and video games on my own and glued myself to them, silently withdrawing from the rest of the world. I was ravenous, I had to know anything and everything. I would tape random facts around my desk at school so I could memorize them in my spare time. It was a lonely life, but it taught me everything I know today. I have spent the better part of my life alone, retreating away from personhood like an invisible mantra.
I developed suicidal tendencies at age 8. I would come home from school and tell my mother how much I wanted to die. One time, I tried to stop breathing, frustrated that my body wouldn’t allow it. Another time, I jumped off the highest thing I could find, a towering wooden deck in our backyard. Thankfully, I didn’t break any bones.
I have a firm, but probably fake memory of buzzing and electricity in a “dentist’s” office as a kid, screaming and leaving in tears. The story I’ve succumbed to is that my parents, to deal with my own onset of overdramatic paranoid delusions and exhausting hyperactivity, had me attend shock therapy to calm me down. It worked, pulverizing my memory and sapping me of dopamine for decades, implanting depression in me like a Faustian virus. But this may be fiction, like everything else.
* * *
I am seated at an after-school program that babysits me until my mom gets off of work; a place where fun is outlawed, ruled over by a lady whose resting voice is a low, menacing yell of disapproval. One wrong move, one stray word, and she will punish you, taking away everything for the entire day, making you sit there and stare at the clock.
I am doing just that, sitting on a bench in the corner when my mother arrives. She sees that I am sitting with my legs crossed, slaps my leg, and leans in. “Don’t ever sit like that. That’s not what boys do.”
It was almost a decade before I sat cross-legged again.
* * *
My mother had an addiction to shopping at the mall. I have to admit, despite a disgust toward the monolithic, leeching nature of the capitalist edifice, going to the mall gives me strange feelings of home to this very day.
After a fast food dinner — we ate a lot of fast food in those days — we would head to the Bay Shore Mall, a colossal parking lot field wedged between highways. Her favorite store was Express. She would sit me down on a waiting bench in one of the stores and spend hours trying on different outfits. Shoes, pants, tops, skirts, anything she could get her hands on. She would come out of the dressing room and model it, ask for my opinion, shrug at herself in the mirror, then go and try on the next thing, then double back to the first one. Rinse and repeat. My poor mother swiped her credit card endlessly, and I could see her eyes glisten with regret as we headed home. Sometimes, she left me in the car and went back to return what she’d just bought, a walk of shame as she cried her way through the parking lot. Every month, the credit card bills piled up and the crying at the kitchen table got worse. These personal fashion shows are an obscured image in my mind, but they gave me hours of looking at women’s clothes. I would sometimes wander away and try on hats and bracelets, knowing that what I was doing was a forbidden act. Curiosity had piqued my interest.
I still fondly look back on these seeds of womanhood sewn in me. During the long hours when my parents weren’t home, I began to dig through her walk-in closet and try on those same clothes that had ruined her credit score. Each dress, each pair of high heels, each pair of her skinny jeans only further proved to me this thing I was starting to realize about myself, that I was a woman too.
* * *
I was born with a dark brown birthmark on my left cheek, approximately the size of a United States quarter. Perhaps I am embellishing its size, but its impact was a mountain in the scars of traumatic memory. At school, children told me I should kill myself because I was so ugly and that the world would be better off without me.
When I told my mother I wanted to get the birthmark removed, she said, “The scar will be ugly, it will be too noticeable. God made you just the way you are, perfect in every way.”
“You don’t want to alter your body like that forever.”
“The removal will hurt a lot.”
“It’s a decision you can’t go back on.”
I can’t help but laugh as I recall these words, spoken to me out of love, but stifling me, padlocking my pain.
I have been taking estrogen for more than three years now, three heavenly years. It is a chemical my body does not regularly produce in large quantities. First it was four blue pills a day, then it was a needle stuck into my leg every two weeks. Spironolactone, my testosterone blocker, makes my head foggy, gives me aches and pains, induces a constant state of dehydration, and causes me to constantly piss, not to mention poses the very real threat of hyperkalemia and osteoporosis. By agreeing to these bodily processes I have made myself infertile, negating any chance of conceiving a child from my genetics, as if I had ever wanted one. I have grown tits that will not go away if I stop medicating. They would have to be surgically removed.
I did this all on my own. I stomached my fear and rolled the dice on a decision I had been told would be social as well as personal suicide. I survived the alteration of my body with glamorous resilience.
After my mother died, I finally had the birthmark removed my senior year of high school. The procedure was less than an hour of prodding on the numb skin of my face. For two days I walked around with black stitches going down the side of my face, drawing a line from my eyes to my mouth. I looked like a horror movie heroine, sewed up after a chance battle with death. I couldn’t stop running my fingers over the fresh scar tissue on my face, vainly gazing in the mirror.
* * *
I can handle anything, I have cut slabs of flesh off of my body to feel whole. BDSM has become the framework where I have learned to love my body, to connect with the bodies of others. I have engaged in the pleasure of sadomasochism with my lovers. I’ve been kicked, stepped on, slapped, whipped, and caned, all with a beautiful love.
Has my mother seen how much pain I have gone on to choose and how much I love myself for it? Does she know the sense of finality her early death brought? She did not believe I could handle the pain or permanence of an altered body. At the end, she knew very little about me, and that is where the true, unintended pain creeps in.
* * *
Fifteen again, post-letter. I am the tranny freak of the family, frequently courting silence and darting whispers. I am the shameful family secret, though some of our relatives know. None of them steps in, none of them does anything to help.
My mother asks me into her room and locks the door, a simmering rage on her tongue.
“You’ve been drinking! You and your friends have fake IDs and that’s what you’re doing all the time, aren’t you?” My mother was accusing her straight-edge child of drinking. “Admit it!”
“No, I didn’t do that! I don’t drink!”
“LIAR! How dare you lie to me,” she screamed.
“You’re being fucking crazy.”
My ears rang from the slap, my eyes watered then grew heavy.
I couldn’t tell if my mother actually believed the bullshit she was saying, if the cancer had really burrowed that far into her brain, or if this was some manipulative abuse tactic to keep me under her control. I was a good kid. I wanted freedom but I behaved, I got good grades, I just wanted to live my life and not be interrogated for it.
Besides the point, is drinking a beer in your teens the worst thing a child can possibly do? Is that worse than slapping your child in the face in an accusatory outburst as you refuse to listen? Alcoholism is undoubtedly a stain on my legacy spreading out across my family through multiple generations and rotting the extended branches of my family tree. It nearly ruined my life much later, when I was drinking to cope with my mental illness and my failed repressed gender, but it didn’t then. I didn’t know what alcohol tasted like. A slap in the face for something I didn’t do certainly didn’t scare me out of it. In fact, it made me want it more. If I was going to be hated when not drinking, I might as well do it. And a few months after my mother’s death, I sure as hell started drinking, beginning a bender that didn’t stop for almost a decade, nearly killing me several times.
* * *
It was a year after I had confessed to my family that I was a woman. My grandfather’s funeral was the next day, yet nobody could understand why I dissociated the whole time as they forced me to be fitted for a suit. I refused to say I liked any of them, my silent protest drove my mother and father absolutely mad.
“Is this because you want to wear a dress?” my mother accused. “You know we can’t let you do that. Why do you always have to be so difficult?”
I cried in the backseat of the car, a box containing a suit sitting on my lap, as I listened to my mother tell me how the life I wanted wasn’t possible.
* * *
On Halloween that year, I dressed up as a girl. I looked so comfortable and natural in my role that I even convinced a few partygoers that I was a completely different person. My friends were talking about it and my mother overheard. After they left, she came up to me.
“Can I see the pictures? Please, can I see?”
“No,” I said, closed-off.
“Why? Why do you want to become this person I can’t even see? Why can’t you show me?”
The unspoken answer: Because I know you will not like what you see, and it very well may break your heart, and I can’t handle one more rejection from you.
* * *
Will I ever hear the words “My beautiful daughter?” At the point they do come, if ever, will I still care for the person who speaks them?
* * *
I remember taking the train into Manhattan with my mother, happy because I got to skip school for the day to gawk at the skyscrapers. For obscene pleasure, I was reading The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s novel where her hero, Howard Roark, designs buildings for a living, apart from being a crypto-fascist ubermensch in his spare time as he gushes emotionlessly about capitalism. As if capital has ever been the sole arbiter of good art and not a physical limitation of the medium.
I thought these excursions were nice. I got to listen to my iPod the whole time, staring out the train windows, riding in taxis for the first time in my life. I felt so special.
What I didn’t realize was that we were using taxis not because my working-class parents had suddenly become rich, but because my mother was beginning to lose mobility — she didn’t have the strength to stand up straight on the subway, to be on her feet all day, or to walk and still have breath to spare.
My mom didn’t take me along on these trips because she thought it would be fun to let me skip school. At this point, we were barely on speaking terms, and most conversations ended in screamed accusations and thrown dishes. The woman was dying. She pushed me away with anger and paranoia. As an introverted secretive teen, I was more than happy to push myself away.
I still feel guilt for blaming her for these things, even though I know in my heart of hearts that it’s never an excuse. I’m the one who had to live with these mistakes after she was gone. She made sure she’d never be forgotten.
My mother took me along because she knew she was terminally ill, past the point of no return, and after these doctors gave her terrible news, she wanted to spend the day with her kid, perhaps knowing these were the last few chances she’d have an extended time to do so. She wanted to come out of each tragic death sentence meeting to her child in the waiting room, the baby boy she’d longed for all those years.
I couldn’t be that for her, and in front of her eyes, as my hair grew down to my waist and my outfits grew more feminine, I was living proof of the death of her greatest dream.
* * *
The NYU hospital overlooked the Manhattan skyline and the glistening water of the East River.
It was the middle of January. Even though it was the dead of winter, that day was particularly warm and sunny. The windows of the buildings reflected the light down into my overstimulated eyes, incubating me.
I held my mother’s hand and looked out the window as she took her last breaths. In all those years of sickness, it was the first time I actually realized she was dying, and I cried with embarrassment.
In the room was her brother, the one I’d barely heard of until I came out. He too was a shameful secret. He was gay, and he knew my story, but we never got to talk about that. In a few years, he’d be dead too, cancer all the same. A decade later, I’d find out he created his own faction of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970. An erased legacy, kept obscured by my family’s shame.
When I think about death, I am usually thinking about the ocean. A body of water is like living proof of eternal return, the slick spinning of an ouroboros signifying truth.
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When I die, I know my ashes will be scattered, as per my explicit requests, along Riis Beach, so I can be among every gay person we’ve lost. I will be scattered across the length of the sands I grew up on, bringing fertilizer to the beachgrass, little atoms of me carried across the planet to places unknown — every country I never had the time to visit. I’ll be trading a biological family that never understood me for the people who understood me more than anyone else: the drag queens, the black trans girls murdered before their time, the powerful femme dykes, the gay leatherdaddies who succumbed to AIDS before we even had a good grasp at what it was. We all will be together, forever.
* * *
Aside from at the funeral, I have never been to my mother’s grave.
Perhaps the final eternal hurt is that, because of my mother’s death, none of this can be resolved. I am condemned to overanalyze the past, as she rests in our family plot in a cemetery on Long Island. This lack of closure leaves me unsure, nursing the wounds of a bitter love that spoiled. My family life has eroded my trust, causing turmoil in my interpersonal relationships with friends and lovers. To this day, I’m not sure I understand what affection means, how much is too much and how little is too little. It seems like a distant language to me. I work on these things in therapy every week. I read books about transformative healing, about boundaries and resilience, about trauma and self-love and community.
I have to catch myself. I pull away from people, hard. I take too much power from the falsehood of self-reliance. The irony in my self-reliance is that I have become my own best friend, and yet we have both hated each other for so long, a hatred made worse by the abandonment I felt as a teen. I have lived the majority of my life in an abusive relationship with myself.
In baring my truest self to my family, I was rejected. What that experience showed me was that I could never be honest about my emotions or desires, and that doing so would bring me and others around me pain. I lost any semblance of trust for anyone. I have carried these feelings into my relationships, and have spent the second half of my life unlearning what I was taught. It is only in the past few years that I have begun to feel any sort of progress, but the water runs deep.
* * *
Philip Larkin has a famous poem, titled “This Be the Verse,” so beautiful I want it tattooed on my body.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.But they were fucked up in their turnBy fools in old-style hats and coats,Who half the time were soppy-sternAnd half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
It is a tongue-in-cheek poetical dig at the way all parents fuck their children up by the sheer proliferation of legacy. I come back to it often, a reminder of the absurdity of family. Larkin doesn’t want us to get out of life as early as we can by killing ourselves, but instead to do everything we can to unlearn the crashing waves of the harm committed against us. As a trans woman, a femme lesbian, a leatherdyke, I know that my own legacy is whatever I choose it to be.
My legacy is my body, my writing, my chosen family, the energy I put out into the world. My legacy will end with my transsexual body, a woman’s body with a Venus symbol tattooed onto her left arm, burned and scattered across Riis Beach, the gay coastal shelf where I will finally be free from pain, at home with my gay and trans siblings. My chosen family will honor and remember my writing, and in that way, lapping at the coastal shelf of my mother wound, I will live forever.
* * *
Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:
‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
Tar Bubbles, by Melissa Matthewson
‘To Be Well’: An Unmothered Daughter’s Search for Love, by Vanessa Mártir
Witness Mami Roar, by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
Leadership Academy, by Victor Yang
All Mom’s Friends, by Svetlana Kitto
* * *
June Amelia Rose is an anarchist leatherdyke fiction writer and proud transsexual living in Brooklyn. Her short story, “My Sweet Femme Nightmare,” was recently published in Best Lesbian Erotica Volume 4. She has a short novel awaiting publication, and is currently at work on another one.
Editor: Vanessa Mártir
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross