A Love Letter
Before me there was you. And before you there was her. And before her the entirety of my matriarchal history lived and died, family branches full of women, leaves on the trees you love to hug.
I almost remember the day I slid out of you, purple and bloody. The doctor wrapped me in a bath towel and weighed that yowling bundle before presenting me. In the photo your thumb strokes the back of my tiny hand, your head bent, your face tired, but your eyes clear. The corner of your mouth curves ever so slightly, the beginning of your smile wrinkles, and you look down at your most delicate swaddled self. You must have thought in pictures, a parade of my future life: pastel, ruffled dresses and ballet classes, pigtail bows, pink birthdays, and skirt spinning. No, you singled in: Daughter. That was enough.
I wonder if that newness still exists somewhere inside my genetic makeup, because I want more of it. I worry I won’t have children. I don’t worry about birthing children, but I worry I will never be Mother. My fists clench around two ideas: in the right, the need, the base, visceral knowledge that this should be; in the left, the grey truth, perhaps, maybe. All things build on it. Wait. Wait more. Wait longer. Hope for the impossibility of age, of debt, of alone to lift. I have no biological clock, just biology.
I worry when you read this you’ll think I’m on the brink. I am, but I don’t know of what. I hope a sea shore, waves lapping at my feet, a clouded sunrise, salt and sweat and sand in my nose and between my toes. But it could be a cliff’s edge: black winds and debris settling their way into my wheezing lungs.
I worry if I am not Mother I am no woman. At least no longer woman-becoming but woman-declining. My skin will soften. My breasts will sink even lower. And I won't be able to console myself with the thought of my body as a pillow for a child; time will simply etch its self-portrait into my swollen, papier-mâché skin in swirls of varicose blue.
You made me a writer, Mom, asking me over and over again to, “Use your words.” I try to use them to write a different life for myself. Each morning I sit at my desk, I drink my coffee, and think about the stories I used to tell as a child. Today, every day, I just have to write one in which I can fit.
You love words too. I am thinking of those countless journals full of your loopy cursive. I made you buy me that workbook the moment I learned to write because I couldn’t wait to form my letters just like you. I wanted to write like you, to sleep in your bed, to wear your clothes, to borrow your underwear. I wanted to marry a man just like Dad and be an Engineer. I wanted to make peace. If you had it, I longed for it. If you wanted it, it became my heart’s only desire. I never could distinguish my own needs from anyone else’s. I learned that from you.
I learned to walk proud with my shoulders back, and my breasts pointing out. I learned no one should ever make me feel ashamed of myself. You told me that if I didn’t want to have sex with a man the minute I kissed him, he should never be my boyfriend, that sex is sacred and delicious. You explained to my Girl Scout troop how a threesome worked, because we asked.
I learned to want for thinness more than anything, because it’s what your mother taught you. I learned to sacrifice myself until nothing is left. And then to resent. You taught me to seek peace at all costs, to curb my anger, to let them win (except I am too much my father’s daughter to let this go on for long).
Why did you never tell me what life was like? Why did you never tell me how lonely it is to be an adult? Why did you tell me I could be anything I set my mind to, when I can’t? When you didn’t actually believe I could? I want to say you lied, but really you only told me what you wished the truth to be, about both of us. You tried to teach me healthy yearning, but I somehow learned mostly consequence, that you can have what you want until you realize you don’t want it.
I want to age in reverse. No human will ever love me like you did that first day. Except it wasn't me yet, just creation, spark, vessel, newness embodied. Even my little big brother, Allan, could feel it meeting me for the first time, holding me the gentlest he ever would, a change in the universe, a beginning star. You were not you yet that day either, at least not the you I know now, the you who struggles to find place, to say what she needs, to speak up, to sit still. You always said you were best at being a mom. Did Allan and I ruin you for all the other careers with our want and willingness to be yours?
Years ago, I called and said, “I hate you because you made me hate my body, which made me hate myself, which means I will never be happy.” And you said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. I did the best I could.” And you meant it. We had this conversation for months, and every time you were so sorry. And every time I was less angry until I was sorry, for you, because you didn’t know what you were doing, you did the best you could. And I didn’t hate my body. And I didn’t hate you. I loved you more, if possible. And it made me long for my own daughter. I would be woefully imperfect, but when the time came I would take in and diffuse her anger, and she would finally be her own.
What is Mother? She is heart, lungs, feet. She is in front and behind. She orbits, controlling gravity well beyond when she should. She is extended, immortal. Who will tell beloved stories of my life? To whom will I pass on all those things I learned, all those silly, true, terrible, wonderful things you taught me?
Perhaps Mother is not all there is. Perhaps I wasn’t born to love anything as much as you loved me that day, wasn’t born to honor the space you take up in my chest by taking up a space of my own in the chest of my own. Perhaps I was born to be yours and then to wash away like sand on the shore, a leaf ground to dust disappearing over a cliff’s edge.