A couple of weeks ago, on 22 November 2017, my mother died.
Her death is something I have been expecting for a year more, and I am glad it happened while I was in Vietnam, because it meant I had a good excuse not to go to her funeral. How could I eulogise kindly about a woman who did so much damage? A woman who was unkind at her best, and nasty and violent at her worst, which was often? A woman who should never have had children? A woman who had carved a powerful message deep into my psyche that I, her first born daughter, was essentially unlovable?
I was surprised by my feelings the two or three days following her death. Emotions bubbled to the surface that took me unawares, mainly because — given that I hadn’t communicated with her for around 10 years — she was essentially dead to me. I had made my peace, or so I thought. I didn’t love or hate her. I didn’t care about her, which was the best place to be. I rarely thought about her, except when the deep emotional wound she inflicted — that has never really healed — was picked by some situation or other and started to bleed. Again.
I have written many times about my mother, the latest piece when I came back to Vietnam from Australia at the beginning of October, but I have never written to her. That’s why this essay is a letter. A letter to my dead mother about what it was like to be her daughter.
Tessa told me via Facebook Messenger that you had died. While I’m not sorry, I do hope you find the peace you were searching for your whole life. You were looking for someone to save you from yourself, but I don’t believe you were ever brave enough to look deep inside for the answers. Confronting yourself is difficult. Much easier to blame others.
You never did tell me the whole story of why you were like you were. I heard bits and pieces — snippets — about being abandoned by your own parents at a young age, and sent to live with Papa’s sister, Auntie Lil. I’ve been able to scrape together information, mainly from my cousins, that Papa had issues with alcohol and was violent. There was domestic abuse. And while you weren’t a drinker, you continued the pattern of violence with two of your three children. You continued the family legacy.
Even so, I craved your care and love and approval. I thought there was something wrong with me, and in my teens and twenties, I sought care and love and solace in the arms of men.
I grew up living in fear, afraid to open my mouth in case I said the wrong thing and was hit. That’s not a childhood. That’s hell. The slightest infraction would set you off. You would arm yourself with whatever weapon was closest — usually a shoe — and lay into me. I’d run to my bedroom, jump into bed and dive under the covers so I had a buffer against the pain. The bruises faded, of course, but the psychological scar runs deep, like an endless abyss. The beatings stopped when I was 17 — the day I hit you back and moved out of home. I gave you a black eye — but you deserved more, much more, than that.
Even so, I craved your care and love and approval. I thought there was something wrong with me, and in my late teens and twenties, I sought care and love and solace in the arms of men. Many men. Except it wasn’t love. Or care. I had confused sex with intimacy and love and caring, and couldn’t work out why I was so empty and unfulfilled. Those years of promiscuity and casual sex turned the endless abyss into a bottomless canyon, and it’s taken me decades to work out why: If your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else?
My teenage years were hell on steroids. At a time when I should have been going to parties and discos with my friends and kissing boys and drinking passion pop and enjoying my freedom, you wanted total control. You made having a boyfriend difficult. You were so rude and nasty to any boys I did bring home that they dropped me like a hot potato. They knew they weren’t welcome, and they weren’t going to fight a battle they couldn’t win. They were teenage boys. Who wants to get involved with that? There were other girls out there with nicer parents, and so they moved on. Quickly. I eventually got the hint (I’m a slow learner) and stopped bringing boys home. You won.
Except you didn’t. Slowly, I came to understand, to know, that it was you, not me. There was something indelibly wrong with you. I saw other mothers, mothers of friends and acquaintances, and they were not like you. These mothers were kind and caring and interested in their children. These mothers wanted their children to be happy and successful. They wanted them to achieve. You were not like this. But it wasn’t until I had my own daughter that I truly understood what was wrong with you: you never should have had children. You probably liked the idea of being a mother, of being married. But it is not something you should have done.
You ruined the lives of three men, and at least two children (I have no communication with your other child, my half sibling). The men you married: if they didn’t have issues before they became involved with you, they certainly had by the time they divorced you. My biological father — who you admitted you married on the rebound — left you when I was four, a broken man and an alcoholic. My stepfather, and your second husband ended up with psychological issues. The third one, who tried to be kind to us in the face of your unkindness, survived by becoming distant and withdrawn — and divorced you within two years. I had no role model for what a good marriage — even an OK one — looked like. And I have never married — not because I didn’t want to — but because I made terrible choices when it came to men. It is only now, in my mid-fifties, that I am in a place where I feel I am able to have a loving, caring relationship with a good man. After years of trial and error, I finally know what to look for, what to expect to void the script carved deep into my being: If your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else?
Slowly, I came to understand, to know, that it was you, not me. There was something indelibly wrong with you.
As you moved towards the end of your life, I wonder: did you ever reflect on it all, what came to pass, how it all came to be? Were you aware of the damage you were causing? Caused? I always said I did not want to be like you, both as a mother and in the way I live my life. You lived a mean, little life, with not much joy or happiness. My life is so much bigger than yours. I have filled it with love and generosity and knowledge and freedom and admiration. I want to live a life of no regrets, of adventure, and travel and experimentation and service. Despite everything, everything that you threw at me, I survived. Even better: I thrived. I have a strong spirit, confidence and an inner beauty that cannot be quelled. And I am proud of the mother I turned out to be. I’m not perfect, but I’m damn near good enough.
I was mentioned at your funeral, apparently, and how proud you would have been of me. I call bullshit on the whole pride thing. You have never been proud of me in your life. You have been controlling, violent, nasty, dismissive and uncaring. You’ve never shown any real interest in my education, my child, my career or my relationships — other than to discourage them all. Of course, eulogies are not where one speaks ill of the dead, but even in death, you being proud of me is something that has no meaning.
Because while you were alive, all I ever wanted was to matter to you.
This is the 22nd essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!
Photo: my mother and I at Port MacDonnell, South Australia. I was 15 years old.