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 house I had lived in many years before as a young boy myself, but it was not a drawing of me.
It was of my older brother, who’s no longer with us. It was drawn by my mother, who’s 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.
Even though it had been there for a long time, I’d never really paid attention to it. And I didn’t pay too much attention to it then, either. It was just something that was there.
My grandmother explained that my mom had a natural artistic talent. While the drawing was charming, it wasn’t high art or genius in any other way save that it was charming and drawn by someone I knew.
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 knew my mother, but not 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 artistic talent. She stopped drawing because of a “fever” she had as a young girl. I never asked how this would have destroyed my mom’s artistic ability as a grown woman. I never thought to pursue that line of questioning. Even now, when I read that sentence, I see how glaringly senseless it is.
The “fever” was 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’ve never known anyone more even-handed. I came to love him fiercely as I grew older. How very different he is from me, with my talent of flying off the handle for random reasons. Why he and my mom divorced, I’ve never understood. I didn’t pursue this line of questioning either, and my grandmother was never forthcoming about it when I asked.
But what I came to know about my mother I now realize is filtered through an untrustworthy lens: my grandmother. Whether she intended to or not, she planted things in my head that made me fear my mother, fear being raised by her, fear living with her, which is probably why I never managed to live with her for very long.
The unspoken idea given to me by my grandmother about her daughter was that she was crazy. Unstable. Incapable. Why, 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 more 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, always in need. Chaos was constant. 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.
My grandmother raised a shadow between my mom and me. I think to make sure I would never love her as much as my grandmother. So 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.
I came to understand all this many years later. I had to reappraise everything about the way my grandmother raised me, everything she told me.
It came too late to confront anyone. By the time I realized these things, my grandparents and my 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.
More likely, my grandmother, and maybe my grandfather, too, planted things in her head that made her never trust herself, never believe in herself, 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 any more.
I remember my mother always being apologetic, constantly condemning herself for what she did to me, my brothers and sisters, all of us. 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 have said the same thing about myself a few times. And I have meant it. So I know precisely the flavor of this despair.
My mom never did anything to me, except, perhaps, to not be able to love me the way I should have been loved because of all the evil, poisonous seeds my grandmother 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 die young, the mean live on.
One of my sisters told me about a comment my grandmother made when my mom died. I won’t repeat the comment here, other than to say it was so mean, so cruel, that when I heard it, 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.
The veil had been raised between my mother and me, between my mother and all of us. I never pierced it. I was made to be so afraid of her, then to 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.
And my mother was never able to raise the veil because the same poisonous seeds about herself were planted in her soul, too. 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 lies like these took you 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 that no one thinks I’m laying everything at my grandmother’s feet. I have to acknowledge that there were things done to her, too, bitter crops planted in her mind that made her the way she was.
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, how I stayed away, how I stayed distant. I am distant even now.
And there are others in my family who will call this a lie. They see things from the vantage point of their world, 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 now know I never knew her. I loved her as much as I could with what had been put into my head. It wasn’t enough. That can never be undone.
The loss to the world is irreparable – people who never got to be who they really were, all gone. Unknown. And never known. And perhaps me too, who was never able to love anyone the way they should have been loved.
Rob Archer, Los Angeles, May 9, 2021