I was a biter. I was a hitter. I was a smart ass and spit out some fairly ugly things in anger, at my mother, who—kinder and gentler than most—took it.
Every year on October 31st, I call my mother. Not because she is particularly fond of Halloween, but because it’s my birthday.
“Happy my birthday,” I say. Because let’s face it, she did a whole lot of work that day 30-some years ago. For eight hours my mother labored with her first child: me. No doubt, she wondered about what kind of mother she would be. No doubt, she was scared and in a lot of pain. No doubt, after I was thrust into this world, she was ecstatic in a drug-induced, life-changed-in-a-flash kind of way. Slippery, probably fairly ugly, I was presented to her. And slippery, and often fairly ugly, I stayed with her.
That Halloween in 1978 was the beginning of myriad efforts, struggles, and adventures that only parenthood can bring. The ones that I’m only now beginning to understand as a new mother myself.
I was not the ideal child. Sure, I was healthy. I recognize that that is important in this world where unknowns and knowns can be terrible and trying. But pretty soon I began to exhibit “behavior issues.” I was a biter. I was a hitter. I was a smart ass and spit out some fairly ugly things in anger, at my mother, who—kinder and gentler than most—took it. She absorbed it, and it became a part of her.
I was a wanderer, rarely coming home right after school, worrying my already worry-prone mother to tears. I was suspended, more than once, from elementary school and later, middle school. I failed to do homework. I failed exams. I more or less failed to adapt to a world of social organization. (Side note: I am not sitting here writing this as an aggressive recluse; I eventually figured it out.)
In my defense, I was the victim of incessant bullying, the kind that involved cap guns to the head, whispers of cripple—in reference to my mother’s unstable gait—loud declarations of dirty Jew – in a town of Irish and Italians—and glued key locks at home.
BUT. But my mother was never ever the source of a single negative comment or a rolled eye. She allowed me to do anything I wanted. I had nearly any material item I desired. I was spoiled in a weird way.
It is also true that my father was not a good father or husband. But this story is not about him. One day, later in life, my mother said something to the tune of “I couldn’t give you a good home life, so I gave you whatever you wanted that I could give you.” She had never uttered anything before and has not since about the conditions of where and how we lived. But those few words stayed with me.
My mother gave me everything. Her entire heart. Her entire soul. Six and a half years later, she would undergo a kind of meiosis, and somehow be able to split her heart, but give the same amount of love to another daughter.
As an angry and sad child, I hit; I spit; I said hateful things. As a teenager, I gave up the physical but knew which words would burn. I singed her. I think she probably still bears the scars. I was confused and scared and had no real discipline or understanding on how to properly behave or treat people. But I still knew what I was doing. To write this is appalling to me, as I now have a daughter of my own. She too has my entire heart, my entire soul. To hear her say those awful things to me would destroy me.
So I make amends as I can. I see my mother multiple times a week. I thank her. I help her. I try to engage in conversation that is loving and inviting. I still grow frustrated sometimes, as daughters can with their mothers. But I now understand everything she gave. She is a nervous person. She is too thin. But my mother is also quick to smile. She has some physical impairments that keep her from fully engaging physically with her granddaughter. But she is, yet again, creating more space to give her love completely to this little girl.
It all began on my birthday, a long time ago; a night that is slipping further and further into the distance of history. But every year, I can’t help but think of all this woman gave to me. She made the sacrifice of her own happiness for a kind of adjunct-happiness; for her daughter to have a good and happy life. I hope that every year I can give her just a little of that back in the form of gratitude for those eight hours, for those 37, and counting, years.
That’s what birthdays really should be, I think; the continuous celebration of motherhood, the pain despite the ecstasy, the ecstasy despite the pain. In the future, I hope my daughter calls me on January 28th to wish me a Happy My Birthday. In the meantime, I’ll give her anything.
Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin schooled, Seattle based writer. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, Brain Child Magazine, Runner’s World, Prime Number, Tell Us a Story, Foliate Oak, The Well Read Fish, and elsewhere. More can be found here: www.