Eerily, as if following a script I’d bequeathed her, Julia acted out scenes that had unfolded decades before she was born. She came to me while I was sleeping and pried my eyes open with her fingers, as I had done to my mother before she moved out. Once I was up, she insinuated herself between me and my clothes, me and the coffeepot, me and the newspaper. She made sure I never closed the bathroom door when she wasn’t on my side of it. What would I have done, I wondered, if the third had come first? Impatience wasn’t among my flaws (in fact, my husband felt I was so slow to anger with our older children that it amounted to indulgence), but I’d needed a decade of practice to navigate Julia’s demands with the grace I expected of myself.
And I’d needed something only Julia herself could have given me—a way to cast off the resentment inspired by my attachment to my older children, to stop asking why love hadn’t held my mother hostage and kept her by my side, why it hadn’t made her feel as I did, that leaving was -impossible under any circumstances. Under eyes as predatory as the ones I’d fixed on my mother, I found myself no longer able, or even inclined, to judge her. Julia taught me what it was to want to extricate myself from my daughter’s hot little embrace, put her down and bolt. Sometimes, held captive, I’d feel my heart hammering in my chest, the kind of acceleration inspired by a stuck elevator, claustrophobia segueing into panic. But among the advantages I had and my mother didn’t—college, career, husband, adulthood—was this: The baby in my arms was so familiar in her needs, I never had to guess at them. I knew when it was OK to unwrap her arms from around my neck, pull her legs from around my waist, set her down and take a break. And I knew when I had to count to 10, or 50; I sensed when separation would feel like punishment, just as I knew, before symptoms arrived, when any of our children was falling sick. When a good-night kiss wasn’t enough, I left my husband as the lone host of a dinner party. If a plan with a friend fell on a night I couldn’t leave without inspiring desperate tears, I canceled it. Julia saved invitations to functions I told her I wouldn’t attend because I’d have much more fun at home, with her, adding each to her collection with a radiant, triumphant smile. And yes, I allowed her to open my eyes with her fingers, because I remembered what it did to me when my mother pushed me away and, worse, answered my wanting her as I did with anger.
The picture of me at 50, my older children in college, my youngest at home, was recast by our third child, at once the easiest, in that I didn’t worry about what retrospect revealed as insignificant, and the most difficult, rarely satisfied by anything less than my undivided attention, even when I was asleep. Would I have leaped so eagerly into motherhood a third time had I known that my mother, 18 years old and terrified of the baby in her arms, would greet me, summoned by a granddaughter she’d never met? I’d wanted to eat my mother alive, to possess every last little bit of her. I wanted so much more than I got, and losing her as I did would always inspire grief. But now the anguish I felt wasn’t so much for me as for my mother, whom I forgave without trying, my rancor like a pulled tooth. I kept looking for it, just as I’d feel, with my tongue, for that missing part of me.
I had the means, now, to reinterpret if not rewrite history. Had I been my mother, I might have left me, too. And the speed with which my taillights disappeared down the driveway wouldn’t have proved a lack of love. All it would have meant was that I’d been unequal to staying; the misery on my face wouldn’t reflect my disappointment with my child, but how torn I was, how divided against myself. All along, I’d known we were both unhappy, my mother and I. It took Julia to point out what I didn’t see, that our grief hadn’t been separate but a thing we shared.
KATHRYN HARRISON’s memoir The Kiss was recently reissued in paperback.