IT TAKES US YEARS to realize her viciousness is a gift.
A new haircut: “Boys won’t like you.”
Screeched from the bottom of the stairs: “You were a mistake, you know!”
We are grounded for slight infractions: no TV with the family, no phone, no friends, no sunlight, no breathing.
Others play apologist. “Your mother is sick…,” and we agree, yes, she is very sick, but her attacks are a way of being, the turning away, the hardening, remoteness, and then the rigid expectations we never meet.
She is not home, working overtime to provide for us, to give us opportunities she never had. This is what we are told when we prepare our own dinners, look after ourselves dutifully all summer, unlock the empty house after school to wait, or when we’ve misplaced the keys, picking locks and shimmying into windows, the sun sinking into blackness.
She is defined by work, a tenacity that is frightening and exhausting. We have not known her to lose.
Once, she drives thirteen hours in a snowstorm to see her family for a single weekend. There is an argument, but she prevails—it’s her FAMILY for God’s sake!—the weather so dire that we end up spending the night in a stranger’s home.
It is a modest farmhouse, set back from the road. The couple, a retired husband and wife, saves us, ice and snow swirling to disorientation. We are crawling through the dark. The wipers cannot keep up. Twice we dive into a snowy berm on the empty highway.
They feed us dinner leftovers they’d already packed away, and tuck us into small beds their children used many years ago. They turn on night lights and murmur to our mother, who waits at their dinner table, that we will be alright. We sleep in safety, buffeted by the quiet kindness of this couple who assure us the world we have known cannot reach us here.
In the bright morning, snow heavy in drift along the front door and all over our car, they feed us, offer us another night there. The old farmer digs our little car out of a bank then tows us to the cleared road. His wife packs food for us, gives us blankets, because our mother refuses to stay. She needs to get to her family, and we are blinded by their kindness.
The farm couple embraces us. They are so tender with our small bodies, we want to cry, but do not. We hazard a whine to stay and mother silences our betrayal with a look.
Another time we are also very small and living in our grandmother’s home without mother, but she comes to visit. In flimsy summer cotton nightgowns, we wait up after dinner. Alone on the porch from dusk into darkness, bats swoop in parabolic arcs across the sky. We are children waiting. There is an eternity on the porch, hugging our summer-scabbed knees, bare-footed, and pink-clean from the bath. We count the cars that go by, willing one to be the carriage and shape of her car, coming, coming.
When the porch door opens behind us, we know that we will be made to go to bed, but there is so much terror in this demand that each minute she is not there is excruciating. We listen in the dark, then, for the sound of the engine we recognize. Ourr teeth chatter, and we continue to hug ourselves, alone.
In the morning, she is at the table, and we throw ourselves at her, but she is talking, talking, talking to her mother. We are whole again, but then she must leave, and we are screaming, clinging, begging her in hysterical hiccups to please call in sick, please, and we are being forcibly removed from her, and we are being sent into another room, and we are being shut in there, and she is leaving without us.
Our grandmother will become ill. We are shuffled to another relative. We will feel a burden and become so very quiet that we are invisible. Mother will visit, and we will sob. She will visit, and we will sob. She will visit, and we will sob, until there is no reason to express our bleak powerlessness, because when she is there, she is nearly gone.
Years later, because of her work, there are traveling sports’ teams, and horse shows, and concerts, and lessons, and camps, and private education, and tutors, and the implication that we can choose, can be, that we are. Because we’re told to, we take everything: opportunity, status, education, power, advantage, but also unmeetable expectations and anger. Fork-tongued lashes make us harder than we are prepared to be. She bullies us into bullying, sharpening our minds so we, too, can cut.
Megan Ayers has been published in journals like Bluestem Magazine, EDGE, The Emprise Review, and Moon Milk Review. She has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, teaches writing, and farms in Cincinnati, OH, where she lives with her husband, dogs, and too many ridiculous chickens.