I finally saw Brave this past weekend, and I can definitely say that I had the reaction I imagined I would: weepy and joyful, my mind filled with the film’s images long after my husband and dog fell asleep.
I had deliberately avoided seeing the film because I knew that its plot would strike my heart deeply: a young girl struggles against her mother’s difficult love to discover both who she is and who she isn’t, and in the movie’s words, looks to “mend the bond torn by pride.”
In my life, my bond with my mother hasn’t been torn by pride, but by misguided love. And if Merida, the film’s fire-haired heroine, had been around when I was a girl, I might have had a way to scaffold what my mother and I went through, a plotline that could have anchored us.
I have been trying to discern a plotline for my mother’s and my story since I was in high school, where I wrote sparse, angry poems about her affair, her quick temper, her long binges at the bar.
I’ve written more since then, but so far, the line is circular, a loop of images that keeps me up at night, my mind trying to untangle an interpretation that would set us both free from the hurt in which we have lived for so long.
Any story that deals with generational dysfunction has a circular shape. In Brave, Merida discovers that the action she desires—a spell to change her mother—is, in fact, the repetition of an earlier spell, one that has haunted her family for years.
My mother has been haunted by her mother’s absence my whole life. Everything, it seemed, hinged on what my mother grieved and raged against: her parents’ drunk, terrifying brawls, their divorce, the way my grandmother died alone in a trailer without any of us knowing.
My mother had no plot to guide her own mother-daughter story, and as a result, could pass nothing onto me but the blinding sense that things were skewed, wrong, not the way they should have been.
When I was getting married, I hoped that the rush and excitement of it all would propel my mother into normalcy. I wanted to arrange flowers with her, and taste-test cupcakes with her, and laugh and weep at the beauty of a moment that was supposed to be special for mothers and daughters.
I wanted us to somehow fall back into the natural state that mothers and daughters are supposed to share, one where the mother cares for the daughter in a way that sets her free to care right back.
What happened was what usually happens: I was shrill and demanding, trying my best not to fall into the traps that my mother is so good at setting, saying, “You are not letting me do anything. What did I come here for if all you were going to do was not need me?”
For a long time, I imagined that, if my mother changed, everything would be fixed. We would enjoy each other, our words charged with affection, the past gone and gone forever, no more dark nights for our hearts to untangle.
But what it is starting to look like is that, instead of one of us changing, we both need to see each other differently. Not in a way that excuses, or pushes past what we’ve experienced, but in a way that opens us to metanoia, to the true turning of the heart away from hurt and towards the love we look for.
St. Theodora of Thessalonika, who lived during the ninth century, came to a convent to live a quiet, devout life. Her young daughter was being cared for at another convent, and when the girl was brought to Theodora, all the woman’s attention was on the girl, keeping her from full attention in prayers and Sunday liturgy.
When the abbess saw Theodora fussing with the girl’s clothes in the middle of a prayer service, the abbess told Theodora that she was to refrain from speaking to her daughter, at all, until the abbess granted permission.
That permission did not come for years, and the mother and daughter had to live, work, and pray together without acknowledging their bond, or offering any words to each other, until Theodora was old, and her daughter an abbess of her own convent. When they did finally speak, they “spoke to each other as though they were strangers and foreigners to one another.”
It is a harsh story, but one founded in love.
What both women came to see, in their silence, was the depth of their spiritual bond, one that helped them behold each other without expectation, or baggage, or even honest need. They were able to encounter each other openly, to seek God’s image before the titles they gave each other, regardless of the blood that tied them together.
And perhaps this is what I’m seeking in the night, the image of God in my mother, who falls asleep these days with prayer books on her pillow, her dog at her feet while she dreams about a childhood I’ve claimed to understand. Only now can I see that it’s too big for me to discern fully.
And perhaps, as we pray and dream alongside each other, the love that has guided us so poorly will be mended.