My mother’s volatility became clear when I turned thirteen and depression took hold of her with a devastating finality. Yet it would be a lie to say that her moods got worse overnight. Like most things in life, her depression did not take smoothly. Instead, it crescendoed and diminished, subsided and reemerged with new ferocity. There were days when I would not say a word between coming home at night and leaving for school in the morning, for fear of who would respond if I spoke. Some nights, everything triggered tears in her: songs I played in the car, the mention of an old movie my father liked, even reminding her to pick me up from the bus would prompt her to ask why I never seemed to think she did enough. Other nights she would look for a fight. One time she came into my room just as I turned off my bedside lamp, and hissed with chilling dignity that my attitude created walls around us I would never be able to take down. It was true that I resented her.
She was the one who raised me as a child by reading me stories at night, playing in my room for hours, and teaching me to tie my shoelaces before school in the morning. She changed my diaper every day because my father gagged from the smell. At one point she gave me more than I could have asked for, but when my father moved out, she quietly declared that she was no longer capable of parenthood.
I often wondered why it was that my mother and father chose to have me. My dad once told me that although they had originally planned to not have children, my mom asked him to change his mind after more than a decade of marriage. He worried that they were too old to properly raise a child; he fretted about birth defects and dying before seeing his children get married. I thought of my mother’s change of heart often, envisioned it as though it were my own, and still could not fathom what fairy tales about families besieged her so that she thought a child would be lovely.
Once a year, on the Fourth of July, she would light a cigar and watch the fireworks from the front lawn. When I was little I tugged on her shirt and asked what she was doing, and she said the smell of tobacco reminded her of her mother, but that she didn’t want to make a habit of smoking. I asked why she needed the cigar to remember her. She gave me a look that suggested that I shouldn’t ask about things I could not understand.
She may have wanted children in order to be a better mother than hers once was. As a nightly ritual in her household, everyone sat down at the mahogany dinner table with water glasses placed uniformly on the right, dessert spoons at the front of the plate, and the food passed in a clockwise circle around the table. At the end of the meal it was the responsibility of the youngest children to clear the plates—always from the right—and bring them to be washed in the kitchen. They spoke infrequently and never voiced disagreements, allowing resentment to build instead. The lights in the estate would be out before ten, albeit the light in the study, where her father worked. He was a professor at Harvard. Once all her sisters left for college, my mother opted to attend boarding school rather than live in the house alone.
She never imposed these rigid customs on our family, but she did ingrain in me proper table manners and an ability to make my bed with hospital corners even when running late to school. Though she inherited some of her parents’ traits—she appreciated tradition, insisted American authors did not write “real” literature, and could tell plate from true silver—she did not become the unwaveringly cold mother that hers had been. Though I’m thankful for that, I’ll never forget the emotional outbursts that happened almost every night for three years. After having no place for emotion in her childhood home, she seemed to have harbored decades of sorrow and acrimony inside her. The facade she had been taught to maintain crumbled when my father moved out.
I watched her fall from grace. As a wife she kept the house in pristine condition with the help of a house cleaner and a team of gardeners. She sat at a dinner table lavishly adorned with her family’s silverware and meals prepared by my father each night. As a single parent she brandished a water-spotted wine glass and denied an ability to cook anything other than frozen meals from the grocery store. I would often get home from soccer practice and prepare pasta with cheese and olive oil for us.
We spent the majority of our time on different floors of the house. I tried to avoid her if I could help it. The evenings were mine alone, and I spent most of this time doing homework on my bed. She broke this routine one night when she burst into my room, crying, and asked me to hold her. My homework was sprawled across the mattress, and I sat cross legged in front of it. I was in the middle of a geometry proof. She sat on my papers and, without speaking, put her arms around me. I looked at the closet mirrors behind her, which reflected the two of us entangled, and considered how unnatural it looked. As though her body threatened to swallow me whole. When she got up to leave, I straightened the crumpled proof on the edge of my bedside table.
No one had ever asked me to play the role of a parent before. My hands shook as I finished the proof. I could not erase the image of her face when she opened the door: spotted red, swollen around the eyes. The look of grief. I was also angry that she made her pain so selfishly apparent. My mother offered to send me to therapy, sensing something was off. I told her it wasn’t necessary. I said this again and again for years.
But beyond any of this, I now live with the greatest question, and the only one I have yet been able to answer: why did I watch as my mother suffered? I hid from her in my room, thinking if I removed myself I might be less affected. I looked out only for myself, and lived in fear of falling apart. After straightening my papers, I laid down on the cool wood floor with my eyes closed. That was when it started. Lying flat on my back, I cried for a long time. Until my eyes burned. Until my stomach heaved because I couldn’t breath. Until I bit my arm to stop the sobbing, and left rows of deep, wet teeth marks.
In hindsight, perhaps I never did anything to measure up to my grief at that time.
Years later, we sat outside together after dinner. She lit a cigarette, though it wasn’t the Fourth. It was a rare night in which we’d emerged from our rooms to chat—something that was becoming more common in our household.
I was taking an art history class, and she would be walking the Santiago de Compostela in the fall. Being holed up in my room most of the time, I didn’t know she had planned this trip for the summer. We discussed the route she would take and what she would have to carry with her to stay comfortable. I had studied some of the cathedrals she would be seeing, and told her what to look for at each site. Religion, it seemed, had become a way for her to heal.
I tried to give words to what I had learned since my father left. I wanted to tell her that I had nearly burst out crying when one of my friend’s parents lit a cigar after dinner and the smell transported me to the fireworks of my childhood. I wanted her to know that I finally understood how mundane objects held the past like flypaper and made memories real and not vague or distant or false. But when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. This was normal; after spending years in silence, I still struggled to find my voice. She did not notice my dilemma.
“For many years, I thought he would come back.”
I nodded, afraid to speak.
She sighed and took a drag. “I signed the divorce papers today. Maybe I never said so, but you’ve done a remarkable job staying whole through all this. I always had a harder time letting go, and I never expected . . . well, all I mean to say is I’m sorry I was so absent.”
I nodded and looked in her hazel eyes for the first time in years. They seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have transformed pain and suffering into imperturbable understanding. It was in that moment, finally, that I recognized someone I loved.
Cover image by Cassandra Ortiz.