My mother had two sisters she never told me about. When she mentioned her large family, she told me she was one of ten children. I boasted to my friends—ten kids! That was bigger than any family I knew.
My father once explained that in a family that size, there’s not enough love to go around. Was that why my mother was so cold? So unhappy? My father’s explanation provided no comfort, but many images.
I pictured the family my mother never talked about–she and Teresa, the two girls, twenty years apart, and the eight boys that came between. Everyone, even the youngest, worked hard to keep the farm running through the depression, doing chores in the cold Wisconsin mornings. I figured my mother’s tall, sturdy build was a product of her labor as a child and all the fresh milk and beef that make up the diet of a love-starved farm family.
Maybe her father was an alcoholic. Maybe he beat his children senseless. Maybe there were horrible attacks on the girls–or maybe just my mother–in the middle of the night. I could only guess.
Annie was one of the sisters that didn’t get counted. My cousin recently sent a newspaper article to me about her daughter’s film—a film about Annie and my mother that had won a prize. The article told me what I never knew.
A photograph shows Annie, twelve or so, in bed. She is looking up her pillow with wide eyes and a shy smile. Dark curly hair, just like mine, surrounds her head. My mother, a pretty girl of six, stands beside her, staring without expression.
Annie had arthritis and couldn’t move by the time she was ten. Confined to bed, someone hung a large mirror on wall in front of her, placed to reflect the window. She watched the world she could not be part of from that mirror—the farm, the animals, her siblings at play.
And my mother did have a job. But not milking cows, gathering eggs, or cleaning chicken coops. She took take care of her sister, just six years older, who was dying. My mother brought Annie food and got her glasses of water or maybe lemonade on a hot summer day. She read to her and kept her company.
The nights were filled with Annie’s screams of pain. And when it seemed that Annie might die soon, my mother’s father killed my mother’s dog, who wouldn’t stop howling, predicting and maybe bringing on death.
Annie died at nineteen. That’s all I know for sure. But I fill in the blanks with questions. Did my mother take care of her to the end? Did she bathe her, help her to the bathroom? Did she feed her, fork to mouth? What did they talk about in the stillness of that room?
My father was right. There were too many children. But was there love?
I once asked my mother why she didn’t like dogs. “We had so many dogs on the farm, they were like wild animals!” she said. So she ignored and mistreated my childhood dog while my brother and I ran to its defense. And when a car hit it, my mother told me she was glad it was gone.
And although I never asked her why, my mother didn’t like children. She went through the motions of motherhood, but kept a distance she keeps to this very day. When I look at that picture of Annie, who, to my mother, never existed, I see myself, very sick in my mid-twenties. And my mother who denied I was sick at all. She didn’t call or visit, and never once asked how I was feeling. That was the point at which I stopped trying to make her to love me. I became as cold as she.
I was close to dying then, closer than she knew.
Or maybe she did.
Fifteen years later, my mother is sick. She has outlived all of her eleven siblings. Her husband, my father, is dead. She has no friends. She is alone.
And now that I understand, I don’t know what to do. My brother and I have hired someone to care for her, to care about her. But when she’s close to dying, I try to picture myself bringing her water, keeping her company. But only for a brief period, only because she did this for someone once, only because there should be justice in the world, I suppose.
Fay Robinson has had poems published in Bark, Sensations Literary Magazine, and other journals. She has recently had creative nonfiction published in Literary Mama (under the pen-name Allison Shores), Adoption Today, and Flashquake. Fay is also the author of several children’s books.
Sunday, January 3, 2010