The following story is only as true as you think it is.

On the wall of my grandparents’ house where I was raised, there was a drawing done in colored pencil. It was a charming picture of a small boy riding a tricycle by the front porch of a familiar house.

It was a picture of my older brother, who’s no longer with us. My mother drew it. She is also no longer with us. She drew it when she was young, a first-time mom proud of her son. So proud, she used her talent to commit him to paper. It wasn’t high art or genius in any other way save that it was charming and drawn by someone I knew.

My grandparents were raising me at the time, and my grandmother explained that my mom had a natural artistic talent. What was odd was that I don’t remember any of my mom’s other drawings being displayed. Maybe they were there, and I don’t recall. Or maybe they weren’t. Or maybe that’s all my mom ever drew.

I didn’t know my mother well. I only lived with her for brief stints, and whatever stints I can remember were chaotic.

My grandmother went on to explain how my mom never pursued her talent. She stopped drawing because of a “fever” she had as a young girl. I never thought to ask how a fever could destroy a talent for drawing.

But that “fever” was also supposed to explain why my mom had so many problems. She’d married my dad at a young age and had three kids—my older brother in the drawing, my older sister, and me.

My dad is a solid sort. I came to love him fiercely as I grew older. He is very different from me, with my talent of flying off the handle for random reasons. Why he and my mom divorced, I’ve never understood.

But what I came to know about my mother I now realize was filtered through an untrustworthy lens. Whether my grandmother intended to or not, she planted things in my head that made me fear my mother, fear being raised by her, and fear living with her, which is probably why I never managed to live with her for very long. Having to spend time with her filled me with panic and anxiety.

The unspoken idea given to me by my grandmother about her daughter was that she was crazy. Unstable. Incapable. Look at the men she took up with after she divorced my dad. Some were criminals. Violent men. Alcoholics. Men who hit her and us kids. Men who gave her children and then left her with them. Men who were abusers. Men who were child molesters.

All of this, somehow, was my mom’s fault. She couldn’t take care of herself. She chose the wrong men, all of them completely different from my father.

My mother was always in trouble, in need, and surrounded by chaos.

My grandmother never stopped complaining about how much she had to help her. This, too, fed my mind ideas about what kind of person my mom was.

I was caught in the middle, and a seed was planted that grew into a lifelong struggle with anxiety attacks.

My grandmother raised a shadow between my mom and me. I think she wanted to make sure I would never love my mom as much as her, that I would never depend on my mom the way my grandmother insisted I depend on her. The world was evil. Satan was everywhere. Everyone had demons, especially my mom. And only my grandmother could protect me from them.

The veils were lifted many years later. I had to reappraise everything about how my grandmother raised me and everything she told me.

It came too late to confront anyone. By the time I realized all this, my grandparents and mother were no longer with us.

But there is a newer revelation. Just as my grandmother planted things in my head that grew into giant walls, making sure I would never make an effort to love my mom the way I should have, I realized that everything that was “wrong” with my mother wasn’t because of some mysterious “fever” she had as a young girl.

My grandparents planted things in my mom’s head that made her never trust herself, never believe in herself, and never have confidence in her ability to live her own life. To never be able to love herself. To never be able to be herself.

And maybe there were even darker things that were done to her that I will never know. And do not have the courage to ask. Not that there’s anyone I can ask anymore.

I remember my mother constantly condemning herself for what she did to me, my brothers and sisters, etc. She constantly condemned herself for the “mess” she made of her life and our lives. She went to her grave feeling this way. I remember her saying the world would be better off without her.

I’ve said the same thing about myself a few times. And I’ve meant it. So I know precisely what this kind of despair tastes like.

My mom never did anything to me except, perhaps, not being able to love me the way I should have been loved because of all the evil, poisonous seeds that had been planted in her head.

My grandmother stole my mother from me. She stole her from all of us. She stole her from the world.

She outlived my mother by a few years. Life’s like that. The good ones die young, and the mean ones live on.

One of my sisters told me about my grandmother’s comment when my mom died. I won’t repeat it here, other than to say it was so mean, so cruel, it shocked me to my core.

And I knew it was true. Because suddenly, I realized that’s how my grandmother was my whole life. Full of bitter poison and meanness.

The veil had been raised between my mother and me, between her and all of us. I never pierced it. I was made to be so afraid of her and look down on her “inability to live a stable life” that I never tried to see through it. I never tried to lift even a corner. Oh, I loved her, of course. But only so much.

I only have this small comfort: My mother loved me as well as she could. She loved me to the limit of her ability to love.

The hardest lesson to learn is that the people you think are good are evil, and the people you think are evil are good. And when you realize how duped you were, how easily you were taken in, how can you ever trust anything again? How hard does it become to see good in the world? Good people are only evil people faking it.

I hope no one thinks I’m laying everything at my grandmother’s feet. I have to acknowledge that perhaps what she did to my mother had been done to her.

Some people in my extended family won’t speak to me for reasons I don’t fully understand but probably have something to do with how they think I treated my mother, stayed away, and stayed distant. I am distant even now.

And there are others in my family who will call this a lie. They see things from their vantage point, with its gravity bending light into the shapes of what they see, just as I do from my distant, self-critical world, with all its fractured and frantic light throwing itself to and fro.

I miss my mom. I miss her because I never knew her. I loved her as much as I could with what had been put into my head. It wasn’t enough. And that’s something that I can never undo.

When someone never gets to be who they really are, it’s an irreparable loss to the world. They remain unknown, and never known, by themselves or the ones they love. And perhaps this is me, too, a person who could never love anyone the way they should be loved.

I’m sorry.

Rob Archer, Los Angeles, May 9, 2021