Who would believe my 92-year-old mother would like nothing better than to outlive me? That four years ago, at 88, she tried to turn me into roadkill?
I’d heard the hiss of brakes as I got out of the car in front of the post office. There she was, behind the wheel of her custom-made Cadillac — so close, her eyes alive with hate.
When we saw that look as kids, we tried to will ourselves to stop breathing — so terribly ashamed we had been born. This time she told me if she had hit me, she would not have been held responsible because I’d opened my door into traffic. This was confirmed by my lawyer cousin. “She may be creepy,” he said, “but she’s got her facts straight.”
Not even our extended family can wrap their minds around just how creepy she is, at least not all of the time. It was also my plan at the time to pretend this never happened. But then a bit later my mother said, “You know, Jane, if I really want to run you over, I won’t miss.”
One of my earliest memories involves standing in front of the open refrigerator, staring at two layered green balls. I knew one was lettuce and the other was cabbage, but for the life of me couldn’t figure out which was which. My mother was sick in bed and had ordered a bologna and lettuce sandwich. By then I was 4 and so it fell to me to take care of things in these situations.
I guessed wrong and handed her a bologna and cabbage sandwich. This is my first coherent memory of her rage hurling me into outer space, where I would spin and spin and then disappear. I now have four 20-something children and they have never once made me a sandwich. I just couldn’t bear it.
When my father would come home after one of her rage attacks, she would describe it to him like an excited child. By the time they were done with their cocktail, the various humiliations were reduced to just hi-jinx on her part, and I was forced to laugh it off. Having an independent idea was called “talking back,” and the punishment was the silent treatment, something she could maintain for days or even weeks.
One of my kids once asked me how my mother could make him feel like pond scum without saying a word. My best guess has always been that something’s secreted through her pores.
My mother can return any item to a store. It doesn’t matter if it has been used, and the receipt or tags are missing. She claims this is because she is “so honest.” Not long ago she was involved in an accident. Her car was dented; the other car was totaled. After she was done with the officer, he wrote it up as being entirely the other driver’s fault. She’s almost 93 and can barely walk, let alone drive. If someone could market those stifling secretions of hers, we might end racial profiling or bank fraud.
Both my brother and sister were more compliant than me. They each discovered a method of slow suicide and they’re gone now. Now that they are dead, my mother occasionally has something nice to say about them. Growing up, the three of us tried to figure out something called love, and we practiced in the backyard and in the basement. We were at our best when we could indulge in gallows humor, finding it excruciatingly funny that she wanted us all dead. I have no doubt my mother’s malice was a factor in my siblings’ awful deaths. I try hard to see my being alive as insubordination, not betrayal.
I’m a psychotherapist — funny, huh? I used to wonder why it was that children of malevolent parents ended up in my office in greater numbers than those of my colleagues. Now I see it’s because I believe them. I still have people who tell me how lucky I am to have such a sweet and delightful mother.
Even in her 90s her public disguise remains impeccable and absolute. Not being believed is one of the most destabilizing aspects of having a parent like this.
Who would believe that she claims I spent the first six months of my life “parked” in a carriage out by the road? And that if you ask her why, she will answer, “You liked it there.” That she would laugh delightedly at her wit while telling me I had a face only a mother could love, but still, I looked better in the dark? That she’s thrown hot water on me and that I can still feel her hands around my throat? That since my father died she’s had three boyfriends 30 years her junior?
I still don’t quite believe that growing up she did not allow my siblings and I to throw up, even though as adults we talked about it many times. But when I went away to college I promptly got sick and threw up, and I do remember having no idea what was happening.
Stories about Medean mothers and gorgons have been around since the ancient Greeks, perhaps longer. We still, however, have a lot more trouble wrapping our minds around the idea of murderous mothers than we do murderous fathers. Diane Downs and Susan Smith are considered anomalies, and hopefully they are.
But the children who grow up afraid their very own mother might pull the trigger, slide the car into the lake, or some such thing — we exist and we’re desperate to be heard and to be believed. I owe everything to the people who have believed me.