It is picture day tomorrow in grade two and my mother is getting me ready by washing my hair. I am leaning over the sink kneeling on the green padded chair that matches the Formica kitchen table and I am screaming. I always screamed when she washed my hair; she scrubbed so hard with the rubber brush bought from the Fuller Brush man. Silencing my screams did not lessen her tension on my scalp, the water to rinse so hot. It felt as though my head was burning. Was I, at seven years old that dirty? My mother must have thought so.
I had long, thick, unruly curly hair. When was very little it was let to go free and breathe, but now, that I was in school it had to be tamed to be respectful. After the washing came the combing, drying, and pulling out of knots. It was then gathered and weaved into two braids and the torture was done. I was given one instruction from my mother for picture day. “Take off your sweater beforehand.”
When I brought the pictures home I handed them to my mother with apprehension. There, in the picture was the smiling little girl with the space between her teeth. The only statement from my mother. “I told you to take off your sweater and you couldn't remember that!”
The next year my oldest sister was teaching school. She must have attended a teacher conference on boosting child self esteem. As my mother swept the floor after dinner one night, my sister starting praising me for something I could do that in her eyes no one else could. She continued to extol upon this virtue until my mother had to ask what it was. My sister said, “Christine makes the best capitol 'I' I've ever seen.” I actually felt a little elated by this. Thinking back, she must have had to grasp at more than few straws to come up with this one thing I did well. My mother told me to write one, which I dutifully did. Her remark, “Hmm, I wish she could do something else right,” cut me with a jagged blade.
Each day at noon I came home for lunch. When I attended school, children ate at home. We all lived within walking distance from home, and the lunch break was ninety minutes. My mother and I sat alone every day eating in silence. I don't remember there ever being a conversation between us. I can't speak for my five siblings, but I suspect the same is true for them. One day she told me she was going to lay down after lunch. I felt relief that I could be alone. I left the table as it was and when the time came, walked back to school.
That night at dinner my mother had an announcement to make. She told everyone that Christine didn't clear the table or wash the dishes after lunch when she went to lay down. My siblings audibly expressed their disgust with me, and I hung my head. I held back tears, but my mind shrieked, “I didn't do the dishes because I hate you.” Each time she admonished me unfairly I retreated to the bathroom, and through silent tears repeated the same statement over and over, “I hate her, I hate her!”
In sixth grade I had a particularly strict teacher. Everyone's grades fell; even the smartest kids grades were in the seventy percent range. I tried all year to explain this to my mother, especially when I presented her with my report card exposing the sixty-five percent grade, but she would not listen and I was reprimanded yet again.
On the last day of school, I walked with much trepidation into her bedroom where she had been bedridden for a week. I handed her my report card and then walked over to the window, my back to her, so I would not have to gaze upon her dissatisfied look when she saw my grades. This time her words were no different.
Later that day she was taken to the hospital. I leaned into the back seat where she was sitting and with tears in my eyes said goodbye. I knew she was never going to come home. I don't know why I cried. She said nothing.
Three months later as my mother lay dying, her last words to me were, ”Be a good girl.” Not, “I love you.”
I do not believe I have ever grieved her death, because I have never missed her. I have grieved the idea of having a mother who praised and loved me for who I am, and I in turn being able to say that my mother was my best friend. I have known people who have had a mother like that in their lives. I hope they realize how lucky they are.
I want to know why this woman whom I called Mom was in so much pain that she couldn't love. It is much more than want. I need to know. I have to know why she was so bitter and in my eyes, so absorbed in Martyrdom. Why couldn't she share with us that she was ill, enabling us to understand her, instead of pushing many away? I can't help but think that she may have been hurt and abused badly while she was growing up, and not being able to come to terms with it, or speak of it, could not show love or affection. If I ever find out the truth, I may be able to tell how sorry I am for not doing the dishes all those years ago. I may be able to forgive her for not saying the words I so longed to hear from her, “I love you, Christine.”