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Her Mother's Daughter

Meg Tuite comes to terms with mom's mental illness, and her own greatest fear.

By guest blogger Meg Tuite

My mother was terrified of many things–my father, driving a car, social events and going crazy.

Her fear seemed not only justified to me, but seeped into my internal organs and my blood, as if she had given me a kidney or we were hooked up to one of those blood transfusion IVs. Her panic attacks, agoraphobia and paranoia of most people in general were draining into me drip-by-drip. I was a tiny replica of my mother in every respect, so every day, wherever we went, I heard, “Oh my God, she’s her mother’s daughter, if I ever saw it.” They had no idea that our Lithuanian, glazed-over blue eyes and tightly drawn lips were just the serene looking masks that hid the flinching layers beneath. My siblings all had ways to survive in our household, but somehow mom and I had a common goal of invisibility when times got brutal.

When dad came into a room I would watch mom feign the tiniest of molecules, tightening her small frame into a smaller one until I could squint my eyes and almost look right through her and I, who had become a gymnast by the age of seven, learned how to roll myself up into neat little balls or stand on my hands against the wall, attempting to be the wall. My dad would yell or hit us regardless, but we survived it by working the Houdini escape through deepest-concentration-translated-to-no-bodies kind of formula. Dad was volatile, mom was meek and the two were like a high combustible. The quieter she became, the louder he rocked the house.

Mom had actually gotten her driver’s license at some point before any of us kids were born and the only memory I have of being in the car with her driving was chaotic and treacherous. Mom stopped at some point after she’d swerved into oncoming traffic a few times, shaking with her face all pasty white and her eyes in a stationary position, no longer blinking or looking peripherally and said to us, “I won’t drive this damn thing, I tell you. We’re going to have to walk home.” I didn’t know where we were, but my older sister did. She was only ten and could barely see over the steering wheel, but got behind the driver’s seat, told mom to relax, and proceeded to drive us back home. She was a lot more like our father than any of us, so we listened, including mom who sat in the passenger seat like some sort of zombie, paralyzed and relieved when my sister actually pulled up in the driveway to our house.

When the holidays came around there were family gatherings with cousins, aunts and uncles and mom always did her best. She wore the apron and cooked the meals, but I always detected that same plastic overlay, like Saran-wrap, that kept her smile in place until all the guests had left and then she sat drinking wine in the dark with a bewildered look in silence. I could sense her going over the day, moment by moment. Had she done or said the right thing? Did they think she was strange? Dad was always there to blast her either way. That was something he did well.

And then mom’s sister committed suicide. She had four kids around the same age as us. She was already in her forties when she decided to off herself. Mother walked beneath that black cloud of possibility and angst forever after. She became an even smaller atomic particle than she had been before. This was long before we knew that matter is made up of basically nothing. Mom and I had somehow absorbed that theory by osmosis and had been practicing it for years.

But every summer, when school let out for the year, mom took my siblings and me on an excursion no matter what was happening in the household. Every Saturday, all of us trudged over the shimmering weariness of flat concrete, past flies swarming garbage cans in alleys, mosquitoes, dandelions speckled over empty lots and the tired hiss of fat, green buses that passed us until we finally retreated into the coolness and eternal hush of the public library. Within the stacked shelves of this perpetual kingdom, mother reigned. Here is where love radiated from her with a capital L. Here is where I felt that love pulse through my blood stream.

The fraudulent substance that had looted the greater part of mom’s life spent cooking, cleaning and coping was left outside on the street with the smoldering sun. Mother, who had circled the perimeters of our house like a cellblock, now grazed through the endless bookshelves with the territorial sanctity of a pastured cow.

Here, inside these cheaply plastered walls of a neighborhood library, our mom was the queen. She’d read everything, knew everything and her face glowed with an inner beauty that lifted that dead-eyed despair to reveal a luminous interior filled with copious love.

My younger sister and I clung to mom, asking countless questions, tugging at her arms while my older sister and brother fanned out independently, disappearing behind the monstrous shelves. They’d appear sporadically to display the treasures they had uprooted from the bowels of these shelves, waiting with pensive faces for mom’s approval at their brilliant choices before disappearing again. Mom would steer my sister and me to the children’s section and with a gentle, fluid authority, produce from the endless mass of bindings, three books for each of us. Three colorfully, exotic books swollen with the indecipherable black symbols that promised to drain from them, strange children and families, a raging civilization of beasts, horrible and tamed, witches and princesses, kings and thieves and my sister and I clutched these books tightly in our fists, drugged with the vision of bedtime, alone in our bed with mom, the flat hand of her daytime shaky, voice mysteriously gloved, vaguely traceable beneath demented howls and cackling creatures, barreling tongues of fat, old kings and high tinsel-twittering of princesses. My sister and I kept from dissolving completely into the void of these formidable pages through mom’s scent of tobacco, Double-mint gum and the soft note of roses wavering up out of her chapped, tight skin to secure us in our beds, our room.

When it was time to leave the library each Saturday, we lined up at the front-desk with our library cards. White, cardboard squares that we pulled from plastic purses and wallets–eyeing our card that displayed our name boldly on it, separating us officially from each other for the first time. We’d step up and hand the card and books to the librarian, watching closely as she stamped the books with a precise, authoritative punch, now mating these books with each one of us for a week, momentarily silenced by the tremendous weight of this worldly exchange.

Mom’s deep love filtered through the books we read, baited by thousands of other’s we hadn’t read yet–aisle after aisle, shelf after shelf, just as it had been for my mom throughout her childhood. A love for the unknown, for worlds we may never have physically reached, but discovered and explored through each volume we picked up and inhabited. Mom transported us out of that stifling, beaten-down neighborhood and showed us the way to the spaceship and time travel without ever having to pick up car keys again. We transcended any border. We became invincible–worldly and otherworldly.

Meg Tuite's writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel Domestic Apparition (2011) is available through San Francisco Bay Press and her chapbook, Disparate Pathos, is available (2012) through Monkey Puzzle Press. She has a monthly column, Exquisite Quartet, published up at Used Furniture Review. The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011 is available. Please visit her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.

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