Have you ever noticed how wonderful and happy memories can be as slippery as dry sand, eventually pouring away between your clutching fingers until what's left is a shadow of that seemingly unforgettable moment, lovely to look at but two-dimensional like a photograph -- while a terrible and humiliating memory forever retains the ability to race physically through your system with the visceral full-bodied punch of the day it happened?
I'm sure there's a neurological explanation for this, how cringeworthy moments are hard-wired to your synapses so they never lose the ability to turn your face red and send your heartbeat soaring all over again. It's unfair as hell, though, isn't it? I couldn't tell you exactly how I felt the moment my babies were pulled from my body -- despite how I believed I'd carry those memories to my deathbed -- but I can still feel with perfect clarity the time I was certain my mother hated me.
It was at least 30 years ago.
I was in fourth grade, I think, and my chronic homework-avoiding habit had caught up with me in a big way. My report card, full of poor grades, had been sent home with me, and after I'd taken a look at all those Ds I decided to hide the evidence. I told my mother a whopper of a lie: every student's report card was late, due to some unfortunate administrative error. She bought my story, but after a few days had gone by and I'd continued to claim there was an ongoing delay with getting our grades, she drove me to the school to find out what was going on.
I waited in the car when she went inside, and it's the only time in my life I can remember resorting to prayer. Please, God, I repeated in my head, over and over. I had no specific solution in mind, I was just hoping against all odds that some deus ex machina would save me.
What happened, of course, is that my mother was informed that all the report cards had gone out on time, and then she learned just how bad my grades had been. It seemed like hours had crawled by as I sat in the backseat of that car -- I can still remember exactly where we were parked, and how my breath came in nervous pants like I'd been running -- but she finally returned. And oh, her face.
It's the memory of her face that brings it all back to me like it was yesterday. Her cheeks were flushed and mottled, her mouth was a thin angry line. She yelled at me, but it was her expression that sunk in and stayed with me for all these decades since. Her humiliation, her anger, her complete and utter disgust with me. I was a disgrace, I was a disappointment, I was bad. There was some sort of punishment, I'm sure, but I couldn't tell you what it was. It was secondary to the sensation of being given up on. My unworthiness had crossed a line and there was no going back, not ever.
I'm finding it hard to even type this. I remember that day and I feel bad all over again. Not regretful -- although yes, that too -- I mean I feel bad. Like a bad person. Damaged goods. Crack me open and you'll find that little girl who never left. She's been whispering in my head for years that I'm a piece of shit, that I don't deserve nice things, that no matter what I accomplish I'll always be a fraud.
Please understand, I'm not saying every stupid mistake I've made can be traced back to that one event. I've never shifted blame away from myself for any of the things I've done or the faults in my character. But I am saying that there are repercussions in how we react to our children when they fuck up. There are echoes that go on and on, like the ringing of some great mournful bell.
I think about that moment a lot, for many reasons. I wonder if it marked the start of what became a broken relationship with my mother -- not an angry one, but distant to the point of near-estrangement. I wonder what made me cling to that stupid lie, even though I knew in my heart it would make things so much worse. I wonder if her reaction was, as was once gently suggested to me, more about her own issues than mine at the time.
But what I really think about are the times I've been completely fed up and angry at my own children, and I wonder: what did my face look like? Was I transformed into something they barely recognized? Did my loss of control translate into a message I never meant to send? Will they remember it forever? (Please, god. Please no.)
Do you have any memories of a bad interaction with your parents that you hope you won't repeat with your kids?
Image via Linda Sharps