…so very little.
How incredibly strange it is, to hear other people talk about what they did when they were in high school, or when they were little. I simply don’t remember.
I have a tiny handful of memories, like Polaroid pictures kept in a shoe box on the top shelf in my closet. They’re faded and discolored with age, and there are stains on them that I don’t remember putting there.
To be the daughter of a mother with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder is a crap shoot of the highest order. Simply having lived to the age where my children are grown is to have beaten some incredible odds. So many haven’t. We’ve died from overdoses. We’ve died by our own hands.
And even in the depths of a suffering so wrenching that it could cause a person, a woman, to extinguish her life, her love, her beauty, her talent – in the maelstrom of that degree of despair, there are few who could come close to believing what she would say, if she could. The human mind simply cannot find a foot hold in the idea that a mother could be so poisonous. The human heart cannot conceive of a life in which “mother” is the source of torture so profound that a fragile human life is contorted beyond repair.
So, we stay silent. We are silent, and pleasant, and accommodating. Just as we were taught to be.
I pull the shoebox down from the shelf, pull the little chain to turn off the lamp in the closet, and carry the shoebox to my bed. My fingers trace lines in the dust where the string is tied, and I wonder, “Do I really want to do this?”. A gentle tug, and the string bow comes loose and the soft cotton threads fall from around the cardboard box, colors shapes and textures that are as familiar to me as the sound of my own breath.
I’m not really concerned. Really. I remember so little. The photos inside are glimpses of nano-seconds. There’s no before, no after, no feeling to them. It’s safer that way – like looking at someone else’s snap shots.
The photos slip through my hands, slick and glossy, discolored with age, and scatter silently on the bedspread. They aren’t pretty. Where are the memories of birthday parties? Where are the pictures that make a woman smile and hold a memory to her breast, remembering an embrace, a kindness, a smile? Where is the nostalgia and the sense of what has gone before that holds a person up? Not here. That much is certain. All I feel is fear.
She was sadistic. She was violent. She was an alcoholic. She was mentally ill. She was physiologically / psychologically incapable of any kind of approximation of empathy. She cared deeply, when it suited her needs, and only then. She lived for the vicarious thrill of seeing me frightened and in pain, and went to extreme lengths to construct situations that would be terrifying and overwhelming to me.
When I cried, she beat me. When I complained, she drank, and screamed into the night that I was killing her. And, in truth, I suppose I was, insofar as I was not mirroring her beauty for her. She told me that (and how) she would kill herself because of me. She taught me that it was my function in life to make it all better for her. And, she taught me all too well that it was impossible to do so. That’s a lot for a small child to bear.
But it was all a secret. I was told that we NEVER. EVER. speak of it. If a secret did slip out, or if I questioned, I learned that the problem lay with me. I was “too sensitive” I was “a bitch”. I had “imagined it”. It never happened that way, you see. It was all my imagination because I was “very difficult” and I was “a slut” (at seven years old) and there was something terribly, terribly wrong with me. I was taught not to trust my instincts or my memory. I was taught that my remembering was the cause of her terrible suffering because I was, quite simply, wrong.
And where was my father? Alas, he was the Fisher King. Here’s a photo of him, going to work in his nice leather shoes and his prickly wool suit jacket, leaving me alone with her. “She is your mother and she loves you. Why do you have to be this way? You buck up now and stop crying. You’re a very lucky little girl. Please try to be good.” I loved him.
Funny thing about narcissists, they are pillars of the community. They feed the hungry, they carry bags of clothes to the poor. They identify strongly with God and the church. They bake cookies so that they can be on the front line where your teachers and guidance counselors and Sunday School teachers are. They befriend them long before it occurs to you to confide in these people. They tell them how worried they are about you because you lie.
Nothing is real. Nothing is consistent with what your gut tells you is happening. No one believes you. No one can. How convenient.
There are three photographs stuck together by a bit of crinkly yellow cellulose tape. In the first one, I’m about three, I guess. I’m going into the doctor’s office, holding my mother’s hand. She is tall and slender and beautifully dressed. I am tiny and terrified. I float away and watch us walk. I cling to her hand, and it feels like clinging to a machine. In the second photo I am naked and screaming. The doctor is doing things, and I see my mother’s eyes. It’s the kind of look that people have when they’re watching the juiciest scene in a horror movie – relentlessly hungry, thrilled, breathless. In the third picture, I’m standing alone on a patch of spring grass outside the doctor’s office. My little body is rigid. I stare at the parking lot. She’s not there. Where is she? I float away, and watch my soft blonde hair move in the wind.
Enough for today. I shuffle the pictures back into the box and tie up the string again, chuck the box back up onto the shelf in the closet. It’s time to feed the horses.
Soft fur. Silky manes and tails that flow like water between my fingers. The solid here-and-now sweetness of manure, mud, and hay. Soft eyes and warm breath. Hearts that reach out to me, a vital member of the herd. The honest snuffling of a velvet nose and the straightforward kindness of picking the shit out of their massive hooves.
It’s cold. Steam rises from their heated water buckets. It’s going to rain tonight.