My earliest recollection of my mother was as a “nice lady” who dressed and fed me, brushed my hair and held my hand when we crossed the street, but I knew she was different than other mothers. Mama was fifteen years older and thirty pounds heavier, with eyeglasses. She always wore a mustard-colored babushka and elastic-stretch pants. There was something false about her, as if she were bluffing her way through.
Mama loved the movies: “From Here to Eternity” and “Roman Holiday” on “The Late, Late Show”, the Saturday matinees at the Tri-boro. She gasped during “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and wept at “The Way We Were”. When she was swept in the inertia of her vicarious life, riding horses and robbing casinos and loving a young Russian doctor, Zhivago was his name, Mama was her most genuine and compassionate.
Then came that Saturday morning, I was in my lavender cotton pajamas playing with my Raggedy Ann doll on the floor of my room. Mama hollered at me to get dressed, but I dillydallied. What came next I never could’ve imagined. Suddenly, Mama stood over me with Poppa’s belt in her hands poised to strike. And when she did, the force of leather slicing into my skin was like the impact of a head-on collision. The shock knocked the air out of my lung. I dropped my doll. The tears blurred my vision.
I stayed in front of the TV for hours, anesthetizing the ripe Strawberry-red welts of my calves, ankles and toes with spit; soothing the gouges in my heart with images of “Bewitched” and “F-Troop”, losing myself in the hilarity of plot until my awareness dissolved into the screen and I was blissful numb inside and out.
It would take a long time to lose my love for her, but after that day, I never trusted her again.
Mama was sixty-one when Hepatitis eroded her liver and halted her kidneys. She lingered for weeks with that poisonous yellow fluid filling her lungs and discoloring her eyes. Where were her cowboys, her thieves or her Russian doctor? After a lifetime of make believe, the only tangible thing was the truth she’d always pushed away: the years of sexual abuse and beatings she endured under her father’s roof. At the end of her life, she was the same little girl fighting for survival.
Though I never regained the love I lost, I grew to appreciate the lessons she taught me. Her lessons weren’t gentle or well meaning, but she showed me the consequences of self-delusion; she showed me what love wasn’t; she showed me human frailty and forgiveness.
At times, I’m tempted to sink into a cushy chair and dissolve into movie and make believe I don’t hurt or fear. But then I think of what Mama taught me and I hold on to who I am.
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