I have never quite understood what was at the core of my mother’s hateful behaviour. As a child my worldview was solely and heavily influenced by the “God versus the Devil” formula for conceptualizing my circumstances. I therefore came to the conclusion at quite a young age that my mother was simply corrupted by some sort of evil force. I recall hearing from my older sister that our grandmother, our mother’s mother, had told her that even as a young child, my mother’s manipulative personality wreaked havoc in the family. My grandmother had said that her sister called her one day to advise her that my mother was no longer welcome at her house, so could she please not bring her when she came to visit. Apparently, my mother’s aunty claimed that she was tired of my mother pitting one cousin against the other which always resulted in dramas and tears. It made perfect sense when I heard this tale and almost brought a sense of relief that her problems were evident long before motherhood took place. Maybe to the child me, it confirmed what I really felt deep down, that I was not to blame and that I was not just simply being overly sensitive to a mother with an exceptionally domineering personality.
What a terrifying thought to a young child, for whom the threat of the fires of hell loomed consistently in the face of ‘bad behaviour’? The thought of one’s own mother being possessed by an evil, un-godly force made me more and more repulsed by her demeanor and presence. It was the callousness of her behaviour that stung most painfully, particularly when I saw it aimed at her own children. On reflection, despite not having any first hand experience of it in my immediate world, I clearly held a definite view of the devotion and loyalty that should naturally be evoked by a mother’s love for her children. When I recall scenarios from my childhood that stir the greatest emotion within me, they are often related to a sense of betrayal by both my parents due to their lack of empathy and compassion for their own flesh and blood. Yet, even amidst the turmoil that typically engulfed me as my older brothers either chose to harass or deny me, I recognized their struggle to manage their own emotional neglect and suffering. And I still ached for their loss.
As each brother matured and began to date, on the odd occasion they brought their girlfriend to the house I would silently jump for joy inside at the thought that perhaps they had found their escape. This sensation was particularly striking when the second eldest of my four brothers suddenly announced his engagement to a girl he had been dating for what seemed like a relatively short while. The wedding was planned for only a couple of months time. Seated on the brown fabric couch in the living room, I watched them holding hands as they informed our parents. She was slightly older than my brother who was in his mid twenties. He was the class clown, a jovial ruffian, and she appeared almost quite motherly and professional. They asked me to be a bridesmaid. I was ecstatic! Secretly, this brother was my ‘favourite’ of the four, so to be designated a special role in the wedding party was particularly meaningful. Visions of a fabulous dress, a pretty floral tiara in my hair and taking my place as my brother’s sister on the altar quickly took a hold and I was instantly swept away with the excitement of it all. That lasted all of about five seconds.
Suddenly I found myself whisked away into the kitchen and with a sense of déjà-vu, found myself cornered under the picture of the Pope that hung against the green paisley wallpaper.
“You don’t want to participate in this wedding do you?” my mother sniggered at me. It appeared to be more of a statement than a question.
“She’s pregnant. They have committed the greatest sin against God. This union will not be blessed. What were they thinking sharing the one small tent?”
Oh, that’s right. There was that one small additional piece of the puzzle the pair had just added to the picture. Apparently they had gone camping for a weekend together a couple of weeks previously. My new future sister-in-law came back pregnant. ‘How exciting!’ I had thought, ‘I’m going to be an aunty’.
“You are to go out there and tell your brother you do not want to be a bridesmaid because they have committed this sin”, my mother instructed me. There was no room to protest between her nose that loomed down at me and the finger that wagged between my eyes.
By now my brother and his fiancé were in the front garden. With a heavy heart I found my way up the hallway and met him on the front porch. I delivered the message between desperate gasps for air, as streams of water ran down my cheeks and formed pools around my feet. What other choice did I have? This was the reality of how things worked in my family.
The drama continued to unfold the following night when my older sister came to visit and I happened upon a discussion that was occurring between her and our mother in the laundry. “It’s probably not even your brother’s baby”, I heard my mother say, “She has only recently broken up with her previous boyfriend. I am certain it’s his”. The disdain in her voice repulsed me. I kept walking past, lowering my eyes and head to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. I heard incredulous tones of disapprovement come from my sister in response to these hateful accusations as I closed the door to the hallway behind me.
After the dust had settled, the wedding proceeded despite my mother’s protestations. Yet the smoke from the fire of my mother’s spitefulness would soon be whipped up again by her lust for drama, and the damage that was inflicted upon all involved remains to this day. Yet a strange period of calm did emerge for a while following the wedding. During this time my new sister-in-law appeared to befriend my sister and with her insights as a psychiatric nurse, lent support to the theory that my mother was a force that needed to be managed before more of her children were impaled by her malevolence. As I had predicted, this alliance would not succeed in avoiding my mother’s radar. I soon discovered that she had concocted a clever tale to douse upon the smoldering embers that she clearly feared if ignited, could potentially overthrow her. With all the sincerity of a devout god-fearing woman, my mother informed my sister-in-law that my sister had been spreading a rumour that my brother was not the father of their child.
That’s where the relationship between the two women, and that of my sister and brother ended. The smirk on my mother’s face was enough to induce a desire within me to vomit all over her “holier than thou” Sunday church shoes.
The following series of images was created by Jorge Lizalde for his project Mnemonic, based upon a post I had submitted a few months ago titled Care Bears in the Clouds. The project aims to recreate participant’s earliest childhood memory by collating shared videos and images from the web, to recreate the memory landscape.
Care Bears in the Clouds
One of my earliest childhood memories is of being whisked up into the arms of an older brother and taken outside into the backyard of the family home. Here we would sit atop the timber picnic style outdoor table and chat about anything. It didn’t matter what the topic was. Maybe my brother would point to some birds flying overhead, or we would laugh at the antics of the pet dog. Often we would look for Care Bears in the clouds. Though the topic wasn’t important, the ritual was. It served as a distraction you see… and I think even as a four or five year old I knew it, but it was easier just to pretend. For somewhere inside the house, usually in the kitchen or front living room, my mother would be on the floor hysterical and unwilling or unable to pick herself up. My father and maybe another brother or two would take an arm or shoulder each, in an attempt to lift her up and escort her to her bedroom.
Somehow, someone must have been delegated the responsibility of removing me from the scene. Considering I was seven to ten years younger than all my four brothers, I imagine they were well accustomed to the drama but had wanted to shield me from it.
My memories of these instances present in quick, sharp snapshots, like the clicking frames of a camera and usually at angles that just allow for a glimpse around the corner of the dining room wall or behind a kitchen bench, as I looked back over the shoulder of whoever was carrying me towards the back door. It was confusing and scary, but easier not to ask questions and seek out those Care Bears in the clouds instead.
I sometimes wonder when it was I first realised my mother was “different” from other mothers. I haven’t been able to isolate a specific time or place but generally recall the gentle wave of acknowledgment that slowly seeped into my knowing. It has forever left me questioning why I was born to this woman. I remember reading the children’s book titled Are You My Mother?, and being absorbed by the tale of a baby bird that hatches whilst its’ mother is out foraging for food. The baby bird sets out on a journey to find its’ mother and comes across a cat, hen and even an excavator, asking each “Are you my mother?” until eventually it is reunited with the mother bird. I remember my response to the story, even as a very young child, was that I would have chosen the excavator if I’d had a chance.
As I began to spend more time at the home of friends for play dates or birthday parties once I started at school, I would observe the “naturalness” of the rapport shared between my friends and their mothers, so free of the tensions I experienced with mine. I observed my friends act boldly at times, challenging their parents with a resolute stance, hands on hips and steadfast in their agenda. I would stand back in awe…literally removing myself from the exchange, finding a firm footing a few steps away in anticipation of the eruption that I predicted would ensue. In most cases I was left stunned as the mother after a momentary pause, would throw her head backwards releasing a hearty belly laugh, clutching her sides in hysterics. She may also have been in a state of awe, but more so for her child’s ability to stand their ground, to exhibit the strength and confidence they would need one day when they flew out from under her wing.
Over the years I encountered many other mother figures and they always fascinated me. They almost appeared to float around their homes with a lightness that was so new and refreshing to me. Shadowed by their children as they busied about their chores, their conversations were candid and uncontrived. They were not infallible creatures…they each had their own source of distractions, but they were mostly present and attainable in an authentically loving way.
I truly believe that even amidst this stage of tender childhood innocence I was still discerning in my assessment of what constituted normal rhythms of interaction and was not lulled into a false idealisation of a picture that in reality, was less than perfect. I witnessed the tears, frustration, illness, stress and isolation that peppers the lives of all women as they struggle to balance the competing roles of wife, parent and in some cases “career woman” at a time when this role was still trekking a path through new terrain. I felt the tensions that arose between parents on the verge of separation; in families where the father was late home from work night after night and in the households stretched by dwindling budgets, tested as additional babies arrived home from hospital. Yet I encountered a vibrant honesty flow through these families whose inner and outer worlds were generally at peace with each other. Mine however was the exception…unpredictable and closeted…the ebb and flow of energy spiraled in a constant whir of negativity, creating a fluctuating climate that was depended upon the emotional whims of my mother on any given day.
By the early years of my primary school education, around the age of seven or eight, the awareness of my mother’s strange demeanour had became an ever-present strain. I tried to disassociate myself from her at every given opportunity. I enjoyed my walk to school in the morning which in hindsight, I recognise provided an opportunity to relax into a meditative state in preparation for the day ahead, as I pounded the footpath and reconnected with the rhythm of my heart. It meant I could walk through the gates, un-tarred by the heavy aura she dragged along with her.
For a time, although I acknowledged that my experience of my mother was quite distinct from that of my friends, I was content that it remained largely uncommented on. Although I sometimes caught the quizzical expressions of other adults in response to her odd demeanour and inappropriate remarks, I felt safe that my friends and their families had not yet tuned in to her oddity, allowing me to blend in to the playground without prejudice. Then the day after I had a friend over to my house for a play date, the child approached me at school and stated with an accusatory air, “My mum said your mum looked at her very strangely when she came to pick me up”. I was devastated. My secret had been exposed. There was no way to respond other than to offer a faltering retort of “I..I don’t know what you mean”. But my heart sunk with the realisation that other people could really see it too. I pondered what it would mean for me. Little did I imagine that her behaviour would have such a devastating impact upon my peer relations that in a few years time, the teenage me would be left with no option other than to retreat into the school toilets at lunch times in a desperate state of isolation.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of being whisked up into the arms of an older brother and taken outside into the backyard of the family home where we would sit atop the timber picnic style outdoor table and chat about anything. It didn’t matter what the topic was. Maybe my brother would point to some birds flying overhead, or we would laugh at the antics of the pet dog, or even look for Care Bears in the clouds. It didn’t matter. It was a distraction you see and I think even as a four or five year old I knew it, but it was easier just to pretend. Somewhere inside the house, usually in the kitchen or front living room, my mother would be on the floor, hysterical and unwilling or unable to pick herself up. My father and maybe another brother or two would take an arm or shoulder each, in an attempt to lift her up and escort her to her bedroom.
Somehow, someone must have been delegated the responsibility of removing me from the scene. Considering I was seven to ten years or so younger than all my four brothers, I imagine they were accustomed to the drama but wanted to shield me from it. My memories of these instances present in quick, sharp snapshots, like the clicking frames of a camera; and usually at angles that just allow for a glimpse around the corner of the dining room wall or behind a kitchen bench, as I looked back over the shoulder of whoever was carrying me towards the back door. It was confusing and scary, but easier not to ask questions and seek out those Care Bears in the clouds instead.