By Jill Goldberg
The morning sun was streaming in through the big window, bright and nearly blinding. We were both sitting at the kitchen table; she was putting on her makeup, and I sat across from her, watching. My older brother was already at school, and my half-day school didn’t start until the afternoon, so it was just the two of us, together. She always put on her makeup, every day, at the kitchen table. She never, ever went a day without makeup. Her light-up makeup mirror was round and big and double sided, and her makeup, a mix of brands, was kept in a plastic food storage bag. As a wide-eyed five year old, I loved watching my mother’s daily makeup application.
Usually we would talk about plans for the day or something similar, but this time she wasn’t saying anything to me. I was talking to her about the doll I was holding, but she wasn’t responding. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Her face looked different to me, but I didn’t really know what exactly was different. It was puffy somehow. Then I realized that she wasn’t actually putting on her makeup, she was holding an ice pack on her face and she was crying.
I didn’t understand. I asked her what happened, why she was crying, and suddenly my world was ripped open. She lashed out at me. She yelled at me, told me to look at her red, swollen, discolored face. He’d hit her last night, and she was mad, really, really mad, at me. She was absolutely furious with me because it was my fault. It was the first time she blamed me, and it changed everything forever.
The previous night my brother and I were being difficult, we wanted to stay up late watching TV, and she kept saying no. It was bedtime and she was starting to look panicked, we had to be asleep before he got home, but we were resisting. My brother then threatened her. He said that if she didn’t let us, he would tell on her. He would tell that she called him crazy when he wasn’t home. She began to really show tremendous distress, warning my brother that he’d better not do that.
And then we heard the key in the lock. He walked in the door, saw the three of us standing there, and it was beyond bad that my brother and I weren’t in bed. It was late. He’d been out drinking, as he was so often. She was apologizing, but he was clearly already too angry to be appeased. We all knew the danger; it was palpable. And then my brother said it. That eight-year-old child followed through with his threat against his mother. But he was known for lying, and I was known as the truthful one. So once it had been said, and she of course denied it, I was turned to for confirmation. And I said it was true. I verified my brother’s words. If there was ever a moment in time that I could choose to go back and change, it would be that one.
My father then looked at my mother with pure fury in his eyes. Without even glancing at us, my brother and I were told to go to bed immediately. We left without a word.
That next morning, at the kitchen table, my mother looked at me in a way I’d never seen before. I didn’t understand her anger. I told her that when he asked me if it was true that she called him crazy, I said yes because that was the truth.
“Well, you don’t always have to tell the truth!” she nearly spat at me.
The force of her words, the venom they spewed, nearly knocked me over. If I hadn’t confirmed the truth of my brother’s words, my mother wouldn’t have been beaten. It was that simple, and it was all my fault.
Until that moment, it had always been the three of us, my mother, my brother and me, aligned together against him. My brother and I often asked her why he did the things he did, why he was so mean and angry all the time, and her response was always a hushed, “Because he’s crazy.” And that would be all that we got, it was the only explanation. She gave the love, he gave the pain. My mother was soft and warm, beautiful and kind. I loved her with all my heart; she was my idol, my role model, the center of my world.
The anger my mother directed toward me that morning in the kitchen shocked me. I had never been the recipient of her anger; I never really witnessed any anger from her at all. She told me that I should have lied in order to protect her. But I was the child and she was the adult, how did that make any sense? Until that morning at the kitchen table when I was so young, I did not know that he also hit my mother. I could not comprehend any of it. All I knew was that my mother didn’t love me anymore, and it was all my fault. Her love was conditional, and I hadn’t met the conditions necessary to receive it.
I was expected to know, even as a small child, that my words and actions could have a huge impact on another person, that I had the power to determine another’s fate. I learned my lesson, but it was a huge burden to bear.
Nothing was ever the same after that. The abuse we all suffered continued, and intensified in severity, and her anger and resentment toward me increased. Over the years I watched her change. Slowly, the joy that used to emanate from her very being completely disappeared. He criticized everything about her, and she would change to try to appease him, but of course, that never worked. Her smiles disappeared, her happy songs stopped. No matter who received the brunt of his anger, it was always my fault, due to my very existence. She told me that before I was born, she and my father and my brother were a happy family. I wasn’t a planned pregnancy; I was a mistake, and the cause of all of our problems.
That morning at the kitchen table has replayed in my sleeping and waking hours, in dreams and in flashbacks, for over forty years. I would like to go back and interrupt the scene like some kind of director/psychologist. I’d like to step in and call, “Cut!” and then turn to the mother and ask her, “What are you doing? What are you saying? Don’t you realize that you will be dooming this little girl, this child, your daughter, to a life of grief and shame and failed relationships with your accusations of blame? Don’t you realize that she will suffer because of you? Is that really what you want?” The trouble is, I don’t really know what her answer would have been. In that moment, I’m sure she did want to make me feel terrible, and she did want to put the responsibility on me.
But if I could go back to that morning at the kitchen table, not as a director/psychologist, but as myself now, a grown woman, a self-reflective wife and mother with a healthy life, I would yell “Cut!” but then I would not turn to the mother in the scene, I would turn to that little girl. I would squat down to her level, take her hands in mine, look into her sad, bewildered, pain filled eyes, and I would tell her the absolute truth. “Your mother is hurting a lot right now, honey, and she’s saying some really harsh things, but no matter what, I want you to know that none of this is your fault. It never was, and it never will be in the future. Life is going to be really hard for a really long time, but it will get better. You will make it out, and you will create a better life for yourself. And someday, when you are all grown up, you will understand that there are people in your life who love you now, and there always will be people who love you. I love you, and I will always be here for you, inside your heart.” I would hold her, embrace her, cover her with kisses and help her feel safe. I can only imagine how differently my life might have been if someone had actually held me and said those words to me.
I know that my mother was just desperate to find a reason for everything that had gone so wrong in her life. A few months ago, after seventeen years of estrangement, my mother and I reconciled a few days before her death. I held her hand as she laid on her bed, in her home, her consciousness alternating between this world and the next. She looked directly into my eyes with complete clarity and said, “Thank you.” For having returned, perhaps? For being there right at that moment? For forgiving? There is no way to know exactly what she meant. All I know now is that the intense anger I felt toward her for so many years is gone.
There is one way in which my mother was not wrong, so many years ago. All words most certainly do have consequences, and power. The power to cause tremendous harm, and maybe, possibly, to help begin a journey of healing.
Jill Goldberg is an English teacher for elementary students in upstate New York, where she lives with her husband and three sons. Her work has appeared here on The Manifest-Station, and in Kveller.com, Mothering, Natural Jewish Parenting, Parenting from the Heart, and Breastfeeding.com.