It came to me one quiet afternoon, a couple weeks after we were home from the hospital, my newborn son asleep on my chest, the flicker of memory sharp and quick: I see my mother’s mouth wagging, furious, the garbage can full to overflowing, my brother’s task left undone.
“Are you stupid? Is that it?” she screams, stepping toward my brother, who can’t be more than eleven, his mouth torn open by sobs, the light passing through the windows flat, gray, engulfing. “Answer me!”
I step in front of her, hot with fear and rage, and everything goes blank.
When I found out I was pregnant, I knew that I was about to begin another series of careful negotiations; the lines I had drawn between myself and my parents would have to be crossed and redrawn, possibly many times over.
What I did not know was how hard parenthood would be on my memory, how the bits and pieces of what I remember would hurl themselves at me with such raw, shocking force.
I did not realize how becoming a mother would turn me into a child, or at least, return me to my childhood, my own mouth torn open in recollection’s rush and grief.
As a writer, my subject is my family and personal history. I spent most of high school writing short stories that were really just veiled nonfiction, the narrators always teenagers who watched their parents self-destruct. When I began writing nonfiction, my essays were dotted with words like “codependent” and “emotional trigger,” phrases that my mother strung around her like a rosary, a self-help litany of protection against what she couldn’t face about herself.
As I wrote more, the focus became clearer, and my parents began becoming more themselves on the page, less psychological study or sensational stereotype, more fragile and demanding and dangerous.
That is how my parents are in real life, too—as they get older, their wounds and trespasses seem to multiply, and it can be a daily fight to interpret their intentions, their capacity for both impotence and causing hurt.