I AM Your Daughter
I yearned for her all my life, couldn’t take no for an answer, used to the snaking line of her hose on the back of her legs as she jaunted toward the steaming train, the sharp edges of no and don’t get too close in her voice. All my life, I believed one day she’d wake up and see that I was a loveable daughter. One day she’d open her arms and welcome me into her heart.
When I was five we lived with her mother, my grandmother. One day, Mother announced that she was going back to Chicago without me. Through the years when I lived with her mother, Gram, in the middle of a fight mother would pack up her bag and run out the door to a cab.
A born peacemaker, I courted my mother’s approval. She’d given no signs of her disavowal of me until I was twenty, she visited once a year, but were her visits as much about seeing her mother, who had left her when she was six, as seeing me? Though Gram reclaimed mother after she remarried, they were always in conflict. After those abrupt endings that should have been happy reunions, Gram would sob, “Oh, my brown-eyed baby. Why can’t she just get along? Why can’t she…” Other times, Gram’s dark eyes stormed with rage at mother, long hours of diatribes against her. I didn’t know who to feel sorry for—Gram or mother. Or both.
I first visited my mother when I was twenty years old, having left Oklahoma to attend the University of Illinois. What a thrill it was to be in the city of my birth, the city my grandmother had moved to when she left Mother behind. Thrilled to be with her that first winter day, gasping against the wind, I rushed with mother to a jeweler’s where she traded antiques. On the way, she said, “Just wait for me and don’t talk.”
I knew that displeasing her could result in serious consequences, from being screamed at, torn down with criticism, or even slapped, so I nodded. For nearly an hour, miserably invisible, I hovered by the door at the end of the counter while mother flirted with the owner. Finally mother’s lilting voice, “You see that girl down there. That’s my daughter.”
Her hips swiveled and she flashed a flirty smile as he said, “That’s impossible, you’re not old enough to have a daughter that age.”
I straightened up, ready to be proudly introduced after all, only to shrink back when she whispered, “Oh, really?” pleased to be seen as so young, ignoring me for another half hour.
When we left, I found the courage to ask why she didn’t introduce me.
“I have my own life here, and no one knows I’ve been married. So of course I can’t have a daughter, can I? I don’t want you ruining things for me.”
As I shuffled behind her, ashamed, small, confused, I didn’t know that I’d spend the next thirty years trying to get her to change her mind. I’d bring my children to see her in Chicago only to have her shepherd us down the back halls of her hotel away from view. I was always excited to go to Chicago, always hopeful she’d be different.
One visit in particular was a tragic example of her attitude. Standing in the elevator of her hotel, she looked me up and down. “You look like me. I hope no one thinks you’re my daughter.” In stunned silence that she would say such a thing, I watched elevator buttons blink, almost gasping for breath, feeling stabbed in the stomach.
After another visit being shuffled through back hallways, my eleven-year-old son said to me, “Why do you bring us here when she doesn’t want us?” He was much smarter than me.
“We’re never coming back.” I resolved, my dream infusing with reality.
But I was too cowardly to confront her. Her irrational outbursts and violence frightened me too much to try. That night, I howled my rage and tears, knowing that my dream of being welcomed by my mother would never come true.
Four years later, after no contact, she called, terrified about a brain tumor and lung spot. Would I come? I flew out that day. We arrived at the hospital where a nurse checked her in. She glanced at Mother and then at me. “You must be her daughter,” she said to me.
“Yes,” I said, holding my breath. The nurse didn’t know mother’s crazy rules.
A beat, then a shriek, “Don’t tell them you’re my daughter!!”
The nurse froze, the woman in the next bed gasped. Calmly, I said, “Mother, you know I’m your daughter.”
Though I knew she was disturbed, and by now could see that she’d never stop denying me, I couldn’t prevent a tear rolling down my cheek.
Over those days I sat next to her hospital bed, the extent of her denial became even clearer: her attorney of fifteen years didn’t know I existed. On a day when friends were to visit, she told me,
“Come back in two hours. I don’t want questions about you.”
Stung, I shuttered myself as always, comforted by Van Gogh landscapes and Monet flowers at a nearby museum. On the way back, my rage built, along with shame at my own cowardice. I found her pacing, screaming accusations, criticisms; finally my silence broke: “Mother, you’ve denied me my whole life! I’m sick of it. I came here for you, left my children to be with you. I’m your daughter!!”
A small voice murmured, “When did I do that?”
I could have listed all the times she turned away, denied me, hurt me. But suddenly, beside me was a just a dying old woman. I put my arm around her. “It’s okay, Mother. It’s okay.”
In peace, we watched raindrops splash spring rain on the greening trees.
Linda Joy Myers: President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, & Co-President of the Women’s National Book Association, SF, is the author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, and a workbook The Journey of Memoir: The Three Stages of Memoir Writing. A new edition of her memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness was released in January, 2013. She co-teaches the program Write your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner. She coaches writers, and offers teleseminars and workshops nationally.
Linda has won prizes for fiction, memoir and poetry: First Prize, Jessamyn West Fiction Contest; Finalist, San Francisco Writing Contest for Secret Music, a novel about the Kindertransport; First Prize, poetry, East of Eden Contest, and First Prize Carol Landauer Life Writing Contest. www.namw.org. Blog: http://memoriesandmemoirs.com
Sonia Marsh Says: Linda, you transported me into your life as a child, a young woman and finally a mother yourself yearning all your life for your own mother’s love, approval and recognition. I felt your hurt and anger throughout your story and your ability to forgive makes your story so compelling. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and congratulations on your new edition of, Don’t Call Me Mother.
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