She is nine years old, squeezed into the far corner of the bathtub, fully clothed, legs folded to her chest. She feels the slap-slap sting of the belt. She disobeyed. Her heartbeat roars in her head, and she wonders if she will die this time. Her heart aches from the words. Silent tears fall, and the words and the strap stop. She sees red welts on her arms and legs but feels only the numbness of her empty heart.
She slowly rises to hide in her spot in the shed. She pulls out her diary and writes. The words her mother used are etched into her brain. She writes, “My mother hates me.”
She is 30 years old. She has a career and a husband. She knows immediately when she meets a woman whose mother loves her. She says she can just tell. She envies those women.
She is 50 years old. She has always been troubled. Numbness has given way to the uncertainty that is always there. She gets brave once and asks her mother about the way she treated her kids and her mother says her kids got what they deserved. Her father has died and her mother has dementia. At this point, I take that mother—my mother—into my home.
My mother becomes more forgetful. She lives in the past. She often tells people, “My mother hated me.” When alone together, we open the big styrofoam cooler stuffed with memorabilia from her 85 years of life. From pictures of my ancestors and my mother’s child-like narrative, I learn about my relatives. Her mother, whom I met only a few times, had the same pointy chin I do. I hope I am not like her on the inside.
I hear the stories as my mother relives her childhood. Her father becomes “Daddy,” whom she helps on the farm. Her siblings come alive and get into trouble. My mother, as the older of two girls among several boys, was tasked with most of the chores and child care for her siblings. If she faltered in her duties, she was punished with a belt. I see why I did not know my relatives while they were alive.
My mother holds a picture of a wispy-haired child in a crocheted frock, approximately six years old, whose fine locks frame her troubled countenance and big round eyes. She stares at the camera without a smile. My mother holds this picture, and I stare as I see her silent tears. I had never seen my mother cry.
“Why did she hurt her?” my mother turns to me, needing an answer.
I gently take the picture from her and turn it over to the back where I see my mother’s name and the year, 1931. She would be six years old. But I don’t have an answer. Her eyes brim over and spill more painful tears.
“She didn’t understand it,” she says slowly, and I see it then—the cycle of abuse. My throat has tightened and my heart aches huge for Mom.
“Didn’t Mama love me?” her voice sounds far away, and she must have repeated it until I could hear clearly. Because I need to know too.
But now . . . I do. Her question comes from a broken heart, and the answer lies in her troubled eyes. That answer would fill my holes, the places where love could have been. In these moments, love came and filled those spaces as only love can.
“Yes,” I answered her, “your mama loved you. I know she did, Mom.”
She smiled, set the picture on the pile, and patted it. She was a good girl, she said.
She acted in the only pattern she had ever known, that she had learned at the hand of her mother, who had probably learned it from hers. We were victims of the pattern of abuse. My mother was lovable, and so was I.
Her brow wrinkled, “What happened to that little girl?”
Without hesitating, I answered, “She grew up, Mom, and had kids. And she loved them, all of them, very much.”
Her troubled countenance changed to a smile as she laid her hand gently on mine and softly patted it. My lips curled into a smile, and my mom smiled back.