There was an afternoon. My mother had said we would go to a puppet show. It was just her and me and my little sister who was more or less a baby. It’s a grey kind of day, overcast, but I am excited. We are going to a puppet show.
We put on our coats and walk out the modest front door onto the narrow porch, down the steps that are on the side and begin to walk down the steep hill to the car parked down near the road. My mother stops at the dark basement door that stands underneath the porch. It is a dark, built-into-the-earth kind of basement. The door has a glass window in it.
Something happens. Glass breaks. My mother says she has cut her hand. She has to put a bandage on it. We can’t go to the puppet show. I don’t cry. I don’t remember saying much of anything, but I do remember being deeply disappointed. I hadn’t expected this disappointment. I had been so excited. How could my mother say that no, we weren’t going to go?
This is the kind of thing that happened with her. Things did not succeed. I could not count on her.
And my little sister was like her. She just was. The grown-ups were right. She was like my mother. Not a winner. She fell and hurt herself a lot. She fell down the steep uncarpeted stairs more than once. She broke her nose while crawling under the coffee table. She cut herself so badly on the tricycle that she could not sleep that night because it was too painful to urinate. All this before she was six. And then after six, she cut herself horribly on the rusted metal bands around an old wooden barrel, and then again on a bicycle doing down the hill we rode down many times.
The one time I heard my mother say “darling” was when she went outside, hearing my sister calling, I was right behind her, and she saw my sister’s knees, I saw them too, deep cuts, the skin sliced into. “Oh darling,” broke out from my mother.
I didn’t like either of them, my mother or my sister. I didn’t like the way my mother looked. I didn’t like that when she dressed up her clothes were like a man’s – the same stiff fabrics and formal cuts. She had a square bottle of perfume that my father had given her. It sat on top of her plain wooden bureau and lasted for years and years until another little sister poured it into her bathwater. My mother had a soft zippered case, dark green an d quilted, that held her jewelry – two or three pairs of earrings with tiny screws, a string or two of pearls. I liked to finger the jewelry in the daytime when it was put away. The perfume and the jewelry were things set apart, not for everyday, zippered away just for those times when she went out with my father in the evening.
I didn’t like my mother, did not like her severity – the way she could get angry so fast, her hand flying out with a slap or harsh words out of nowhere, “Don’t be such a spoiled brat.” The words hurt. I did not feel like a spoiled brat. I didn’t like going for walks with her in the woods. My sister liked it. My sister liked looking at plants. I didn’t. Too slow. I got scared in the woods, behind barbed wire fences, under signs that said Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted, a word that sounded the same to me as “electrocuted” and “executed.” Those signs really frightened me, but my mother shrugged them off. Don’t be a baby, she said.
I didn’t like her plainness, did not want my friends to see her, her plain brown hair pinned up with bobby pins. It was like she didn’t know how to be a grown-up the way other grown-ups did. She made me nervous, the way she could not talk to other adults, did not enjoy being with them.
My mother made a dessert once called Floating Island. She told us it was special, that she’d had it as a child or something, that it was impossible to make, so difficult. She tried it once. I knew it would not come out well. She could never make anything look nice. She made me think it was impossible to do anything difficult. Her cooking remained basic – anything with any refinement was something only other people could do. I knew when she sewed something, it wouldn’t be quite right. It just went into my bones, that these things could only be done well by other people who had something we did not. I hated my mother for being always deficient, and for having to pretend that she was not.