The world right is a scary place right now. Every week there is some new crisis, violence inflicted, some new loss or terror to contend with. The world is a changing place and from day to day both my mother and I, in that vague state of anxiety passed down from her mother, to her, and down to me, have been fighting and failing to find our footing.
In our old world, when we were both so young, before the fabric of political, economic, and social life shifted, our talks never passed the boundary of home life. I was still a child blissfully unaware and she, alone and hardly out of childhood herself, was so busy trying to keep us fed, clothed, and sheltered that she had little time for current events and politics. Even in the rare instance the problems of the world would grow too big to keep out of our home, we still viewed it from such different places in life that neither of us knew what they meant nor knew they meant anything to the other.
Looking back, I don’t remember a single instance in which my mother talked about the news, with me or with anyone else, but then again, my childhood preoccupations and wonders may have distracted me from ever noticing. The only memories I have of the news even being on is one afternoon the livingroom TV was showing the O.J. Simpson trial, and she wasn’t even in the room and another memory with no visual, only a vague mention of Matthew Shepard’s torture and death.
What I do remember of my childhood is all wrapped up in suffering and struggle. I remember being worried about money, about where we would live and whether we would have new clothes. I remember cars that never started, evictions, and arguments. I remember she was gone a lot. I remember so much was up to me: to watch my siblings, to cook dinner, to make sure everything was all right for her when she got home.
And our whole world, our relationship and our dynamic was forged in that struggle and suffering. She had her responsibilities, her resentments, and anger, and I had the work no child could accomplish: being good enough to sooth all the problems a parent has ever had.
All this is to say, even though we are decades from those old days of turmoil and strife, and I am all grown up, and she a few decades more past her own fears and bitter past, I have no idea how to talk to her about the what’s going on around us because none of that has ever mattered or even existed between us.
In the past my job has always been to listen and to comfort, not to join the yelling or argue and in my heart that all I want is what I have always wanted, to make it all okay for her, to give the right answer, to sooth the rage and make up for all the hostility and grievances but just as it was all too big for me to make right when I was a kid, it’s all too big for me to make right now that I’m an adult especially when we’ve spent so little time experiencing the world together.
Even as a teenager, when I had my first brush with community tragedy that terrible April afternoon in 1999, even then, after I’d been released from school early shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, even then we barely touched on the larger implications of how such an event came to happen, what it meant for me, or how life would, or should, change after.
I remember no one was home to greet me when I got there. I remember as soon as I got through the front door of that little one-bedroom apartment (I lived with my father that year.) the first thing I did was turn on the TV. That was the first time I remember watching, really watching the news, and I did it all alone.
I can’t remember which one of us made the call and which one answered. I hold two distinct and equally true memories in my mind, one where I needed my mom so badly I picked up the phone and called and one where she was so worried about me that the phone was already ringing when I opened the door. More than likely it was both. I probably saw there was a message on the answering machine and heard her voice asking me to do what I already longed to.
I watched images of chaos and grief, fear and disbelief splashed across the screen while we talked. I remember recounting the events of the day, of how I knew what was happening and how it was I was home so soon. I remember hearing the trembling in her voice on the other end of the line asking me how I was. I remember trying to make it all right by saying I was okay. It was all okay.
The truth was, I wasn’t okay, but before I could process that I was already making it okay for her. I’m sure that wasn’t her intention and I know that at that moment she was genuinely worried about me and trying her best to reach out, to be the parent I needed but I also know that after our conversation about that day and she never mentioned Columbine again.
There was never a conversation afterward about what happened or why. No one explained to me what those images of terror and grief meant. No one checked in on me a day later, a week later. I never got to cry, to question, or to process.
The same silence met me after 9/11, after Clinton’s impeachment, after every election, after every major political or social event.
I know times were very different back then and not every family had those talks around the dinner table at night, but I wish we had. I wish I had gotten to know the side of my mom that existed outside of our home, the side that existed as a citizen, as an American. I would like to have learned about the world from her. Instead, what I know now I’ve come to on my own by a long journey of suffering, compassion, self-education, and change.
This isn’t to say my mother and I never discussed issues, but they were always presented from her narrow perspective.
I knew about racism from the story of my birth and her parent’s reaction, not from descriptions of history or systematic structures. I learned about the one drop rule through the story of her very nearly giving me up for adoption. I knew she felt the N-word was abhorrent and disrespectful, even between Black people after she learned I’d been using it in school. It was never about what was happening at the moment outside of our home, but always about what happened to her and what she thought.
Since leaving my mother’s home, I have consumed political news and information widely and voraciously. I have grown more aware, more connected, and more radicalized year after year. I have grown to be someone who lives the identity politics my mother has only just begun to grasp. Many affect me personally or touch on some passion or trauma close to my heart.
I know that though we never discussed the greater world in our home, the seeds of my political views began with her. Whether consciously or by accident, my mother raised me to be a kind, open, and compassionate being. She’s been through a lot of hard times. She’s felt the sting of invalidation, ostracization, trauma, and abuse and she’s grown from all of that and given me the tools—both by perpetuating and shattering the cycles that shaped her life—and shaped me into an image both like and unlike her.
Our worldviews and values are as much the same as they are different. I’ve grown up in a different time and experienced more suffering in some ways, and less in others. I’ve loved differently and been loved differently.
I’ve never asked my mother about what was happening in the world when she was growing up or when she was raising us. I’ve never asked her what was changing, what she hoped would change, what captivated her, infuriated her, scared her, and she never told me either. I never knew I could.
Now I wonder, how long have these issues mattered to her? If always, why did we never talk about them? If only now, why? And how am I to travel this path with her as her daughter without dampening the painful realizations, hard work, and painful growth that comes with facing your own ignorance, biases, and complacency?
Now it seems my mother watches the news all day long. She calls me most weekends to vent and lament over the current state of the world. From the moment I answer, I am met with a barrage of updates. The latest Presidential gaff or cruel executive order. The latest school shooting, police shooting, the border wall construction and the kids in cages. She tells about gun control, protests, health care, immigration, police brutality, gay marriage, elections, the President, and the pandemic. She goes on about the failures, the antagonization, the injustice of it all!
This calls always fill me with anxiety and leave me speechless. None of the information is new to me, but the source is. My relation to her and to this news is. While she shares her outrage and her worries, I’m left unsure how I’m meant to respond or engage. She is my mother still, and unlike my friends, my coworkers, or even my wife, I can’t debate her or even share in her fury or fears.
I am not that little girl empty of experience or knowledge anymore. I’m not that little girl trying to work out who she is. And she is not the mother I knew then either. This version of her that is so aware is not one I recognize. This attempt by her to discuss her fears and fury and then to hear mine in turn is not an interaction I know how to navigate.
What am I to do when we disagree? How can I tell her that something she has said has hurt me or made me resentful or angry? How can I ever tell her when I think she is wrong? And when we agree, which, I admit, is more often than not, how am I to respond to her anger and anxiety in any other way but soothing or comforting?
I’m not writing this to blame or to rebuke. This separation between my mother and I is certainly no one’s fault. We’ve both done our best. We’ve both grown and learned and changed only we haven’t done it together and now as the world drags us both along toward dire uncertainty we’ve come together as loved one’s only to find we are not so changed after all.
She’s moved past seeing me solely as her daughter to seeing me as a person in my own right, even as a friend, but I may never be able to make the same progress past seeing her as only my mother.
My wish is not that she would pull away again. To retreat into that secretive and lonely place all mothers hold for themselves away from their children, but that she might only be patient, slow, and understanding with me. For the first time the news isn’t something that happens out there but something that happens to us, in us, between us. I’m having to adapt on every level.
For the first time it’s me and not my mother that is trying to let go, to catch up, to change, to meet her somewhere up ahead in life where I can walk with her hand in hand as a citizen of the world.
Written in response to Memoir and Personal Essay: Managing Your Relationship with the Reader: Week One