I have just finished, closed, and set down my copy of Searching For Mercy Street—My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton. A memoir, written by Anne Sexton’s eldest daughter, Linda, it is another on my long list of books I’ve read about those kinds of mothers. Or as Anne would’ve put it—Her Kind of mother.
As far back as Medea we find this woman in literature and history, and now, most prominently in memoir. She is the woman touched by madness. Sick at the heart and the mind, weaving a terrible present and future for those around her, including herself. In her wake are flights of creativity and emotion, gumption, will, as well as deep valleys of loss and confusion.
These women, these mothers, were once called witch, whore, demoness. Now we call them bipolar, manic depressive, borderline.
The term signifies less a what than a where – a land I lived in with mother for nearly twenty years. A place between reality and paranoia, survival and oblivion. We were perched so precariously on the edge, the two of us, in our mother-daughter orbit, for as long as I can remember.
She had other children. Has. Two boys, my older brothers. They have their own stories, their own tellings of what she is and how she was. They remember things differently. They are not part of the lineage of witches.
When I became pregnant with a child, shortly before my 29th birthday, I secretly prayed for a boy. I did not want a girl—pink onesies and blankets looked like wrapping for a case of dynamite.
I once confessed to a friend that I had wanted a boy-child more than a girl. She laughed at me and asked if I was one of “those” who felt like men were more rational, easier to befriend.
That is a half-truth that rests on top of the deeper answer.
I do not know if males are more rational. But to me, they have always been safer. Despite having been attacked by a boyfriend at age 17. Despite feeling unattractive to them for nearly all my life, rejected as too fat, too homely, lacking that sparkle they seemed to find in other girls. Yes, despite all that, to me, the male of the species seems less of a threat. The greatest predator in our cave was always the female of the species.
We mothers and daughters are spirits that dance together our whole lives. Both giving life and carrying it forward deep within our flesh, we are twin mirrors, made from a single sheet of polished silver. We ease from maid to mother, mother to crone, one just a step ahead of the other. Some of us become rivals, dopplegangers, actors of old dramas, the script of which has been lost to previous lives.
Sometimes the dance is an easy one, with the elder showing the younger the steps in time. For others, it is a black rite in the woods, full of thrashing and terrifying magic.
My mother did not whisper secrets of the glory of womanhood to me, or show me how to be. For who would I ever be but the one bound to her?
The story of Demeter and Persephone is not so different from ours. Persephone is stolen away by Hades, and Demeter, her mother, mourns in response. Not the polite mourning of a Midwestern lady. No. This is an ancient mourning, the mourning of a goddess. Demeter rents her clothing, roams the earth keening for her child. The weather changes as a result of her powerful evocations. The world is wrapped in ice, frozen in her pain.
Demeter. Were you aching for the joys of your now your lost child? Were you crying for the loss of her potential, the loss of her innocence? Did you guess at how badly she hurt too?
Or did you pull your hair and scratch at your face trying to get at the gaping hole she left in you? Her, your succor, your meaning, your caretaker, your world. Perhaps a burden she did not wish to carry, a task she was born into.
Did you ask her to tell you that you were good? Did she brush your hair so you could sleep every night? Is it the loss of these ministrations that pulls at you?
Maybe she did not go with Hades so unwillingly.
Of course, not everyone sees the story this way. Of course, I do.
Now being a mother myself, there are times when I flee from my son. Sometime he cries too sharply, to shrilly, and I cringe. The sounds of his fury and rage, the need that comes with his hurts make me want to shut out all sound, to run to a cave where I can live forever with only my own feelings and the drip, drip of green water.
It is no wonder to me that I married a man of whom everyone remarks, “He is so even keeled.” I am not interested in a house filled with tempestuous energies.
But my son brings it in like a storm, every day, multiple times a day. And even though I work outside our home, and see him just in the mornings and evenings, even then it is sometimes too much. I long for a quiet calm to descend, but moreover, I am looking for the noise to end, the hum of impending disaster evoking a panic I have felt from time immemorial.
Just as I forget it, I try to make myself remember that her rages and tears were not appropriate. That’s what my therapist has called it. Appropriate. My son’s are. He is a child. He is allowed.
I was a child. Why was she allowed?
Motherhood terrified me even as I decided to try it anyway. I wanted to be anything but the mother I had. I did not want to be Medea. Demeter. Sylvia. Anne.
I was afraid that my mother would haunt my actions like some dreadful puppeteer, pulling my limbs and words out of me in ways that harmed my son before my eyes.
Instead, she manifests from time to time in the form of my child. His torrent of frustrations at a world too big for him mimics the feelings that spilled like lava from her towering frame.
In both instances, I am burned by the heat coming off the other person. I often walk away from my screaming son, letting his father hold him, because the panic in my chest at his tantrums chokes the breath from my lungs. The air is filled with hot ash. I have sat in a closet before, behind coats, as I did as a four-year-old, breathing as quietly as I could, waiting for disaster to pass by.
Perhaps I should’ve put lamb’s blood over the door.
I cannot always be there for my son when it seems as though he needs me most. He cries “Mama! MAMA!” a midst his screams of hurt or frustration, and, like it was for me, it is his father who ministers to him. Shushing and stroking his golden hair. I leave because I am drowning in the past, drawn back into the old dance.
Beautiful boy, I am so sorry. I learned these steps long ago and my body is straining to change the way it responds to the tune. Wait for me, in your Daddy’s safe arms. Wait for me, love. For I am listening for the counterpoint in the music, I am summoning my own magic wrought from this lineage of witches. And one day soon, I will dance in the right time.