My Mother Taught Me That Sometimes The Only Way Forward Is Walking Away
By Carla Bruce-Eddings
I was 23 years old when my mother went to jail.
It was an occasion ruled by emotional dichotomies: necessary and horrifying, inevitable yet unthinkable. I can’t recall the official details; I have no memory of court dates, police sirens, or shaky signatures. I remember moving boxes and packing tape; my mother’s emptied refrigerator. “Take the toaster,” she offered lightly, as we gingerly stacked plates, threw away half-emptied ketchup bottles and A1 sauce. “And the microwave. I can’t exactly bring them with me.” And we laughed, somehow, because humor has always been one of my mother’s strengths. In those days, I sought warmth from it constantly, like frigid hands to a flickering flame. I didn’t know when it would go out.
My parents’ marriage was an experiment doomed from the start, a union built on the unsteady pillars of misplaced trust and irrational promises. Their young romance was sudden and violent as a flame, and just as vulnerable to outside pressure, soon wisping out. They were successful and good-looking and both had two children from previous relationships; neighbors and friends called them the Black Brady Bunch. They weren’t. Many years after they met, just as my mother began to find the courage to walk away, fate prevailed, and I was conceived, adding eighteen additional years to a relationship long past its expiration date. They finalized their divorce when I was in college, a long and hard-fought battle finally marched to its bitter end.
I don’t think I am to blame for their unsuccessful marriage, but I am also aware that had I never existed, these two people could have broken ties, with no flesh-and-blood chain keeping them irrevocably shackled. I would never have seen stark images of my childhood bedroom splattered with blood; a former refuge of mine turned photographed crime scene.
Beneath my mother’s constant battles with my father raged a relentless struggle with alcoholism. I realized she was unwell when I was around twelve years old; I watched her, as her relationship with my father worsened, fall hapless victim to an affliction I couldn’t process. And I recognized within myself how my affection for my mother curdled into the same bitterness and disappointment she held for my grandmother. Ignorantly, and selfishly, I read her desperation and depression as conscious withdrawal. As a child, I had no capacity for any more than the basest level of empathy; I didn’t understand addiction as disease, only as weakness of will.
I viewed my parents’ unhealthy relationship with a similarly scandalized resentment: their misery was so patently clear; why wouldn’t they just end it and spare us all the continued heartache? I watched them agonize over the finality and dubious morality of divorce, and silently raged against God, our church, the Bible, Christianity itself, for turning what should have been an obvious solution into a grossly protracted spiritual conflict.
Just walk away, I wanted to tell them. Let this go. Accept defeat. I believed that they hated each other; and I, in turn, hated their being together, hated their ability to hurt each other so effectively, so exquisitely. My mother retreated to the bottle; my father retreated into himself, and while I knew each believed their side to be the correct one, I struggled to find either absolutely blameless or absolutely culpable. They were my parents, and I loved them, and I had accepted that they didn’t love each other. I pleaded with a God I was convinced had stopped listening for them to accept it too.
They couldn’t, though, not for a long time — because the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy. And the stubborn force that held my parents together wasn’t personal weakness, or addiction, or God. It was me.
Moving out of their house was the catalyst: my parents fell apart like severed halves of a rotted fruit, unable to maintain their tenuous bond a moment longer. My father kept the house; my mother moved out. My father remarried; my mother tried and failed to move on. I unofficially, and then officially, took my mother’s side: her grief was easier to understand, to empathize with. Her drinking worsened, and I was angry and worried. I took care of her when things got bad, and pummeled every ugly emotion into soothing numbness. I wanted to wrench them fully apart and place them on opposite ends of the earth, where they could finally stop wounding the other, even from the desolate ashes where their marriage had once stood. But she couldn’t stay away. My mother went back to the house, when she shouldn’t have, and ran into my father’s new lover, which she shouldn’t have, and the events that followed resulted in injury and blood and wildly conflicting stories — and fourteen months in jail for my mother. (She was ruled not guilty more than a year later.)
We pass judgment on each other all the time, as humans; we naturally position ourselves as the standard, whether it be negative or positive, and use our beliefs and experiences as a filter. A filter becomes skewed in trying to view your own parents through it — or, at least, it did for me. How far can your trust extend when you know for a fact that a parent has lied to you in the past? Is it traitorous to doubt intention, if not action itself? But if you give in to that doubt, how can you trust yourself, your own instincts? How do you relinquish that foundation of belief in the one who gave you life? I couldn’t. I accepted that I might never know the concrete truth of what happened in my bedroom that day, on steps that I sat on to play with my Barbies, in the kitchen where my grandmother cooked me macaroni and cheese with tuna, in the living room where I cried over Dumbledore’s death. My mother had made a mistake, and I didn’t know the extent of that mistake, and, what’s more, I didn’t care that I didn’t know. I believed her. I trusted her.
And in trusting her, I walked away from my father.
Her sentencing came while I was accepting congratulations for landing a teaching job in New York, while I was going on OKCupid dates. I was leaving behind a life in New Jersey that felt aimless, meaningless; and in leaving, I was abandoning my mother to an unknowable fate. She gave me all the money I needed to pay my deposit and first few months of rent; she gave me appliances, furniture, whatever I needed to live comfortably away from her. I want to know that you’re safe and settled, she told me. And I felt bloated with useless guilt as I packed my bags and hers, made preparations for our lives to violently diverge in a way that I simply couldn’t imagine.
I wasn’t there the day she was taken to Middlesex County Correctional Center. I was on a hot college campus somewhere in Brooklyn, learning how to make a class of unruly children pay attention, weeks away from stepping into a classroom of my own. The sheer terror I felt at the prospect of being a teacher was loud enough to drown out the steady undercurrent of grief over my mother’s incarceration, my father’s total absence from my life. I had no choice but to walk away and keep going. And then the school year began.
I didn’t necessarily want to become a teacher, but it was the first job I was offered; it felt dubiously fated, as my father had taught for over two decades, and had the added moral bonus: it was the noble profession that strangers at bars and parties would thank me for having. “I could never do it,” they’d laugh. I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself, like I was performing a Great Good. I relied on some combination of my affinity for kids, vague guilt, and a lack of other career prospects to keep me there for a few years, at least.
After one year, I wanted to leave. I wasn’t prepared for the level of emotional stability I would need to maintain to excel in my job, and keeping my parental trauma a secret was incredibly wearing. The kids terrified and confounded me. I have a naturally sedate demeanor to thank for what my former colleagues perceived as quiet strength. I retreated to the bathroom to cry between classes multiple times a week. I had no idea what I was doing.
By June, things had improved slightly, and I thought, next year will be different. But it wasn’t, not really. Nor the next, nor the next. My pedagogical skills improved and the passage of time made me a familiar face, easing the friction in my relationships with my kids. But at the core, I wasn’t fulfilled. I wasn’t happy. I was serving time, I felt, and despite my efforts, I couldn’t mold myself to fit into the cast of motivated, innovative educator that I saw in all of my colleagues. I was letting myself down, my co-teachers down, my kids down, but my guilt was keeping me shackled, tethering me to my post. We need caring teachers. You can’t abandon your kids. Think of the community! And then I got pregnant.
My daughter was a surprise; I have no qualms admitting that. I thought of my mother, 27 years ago, staring down the reality of my imminent arrival, another kind of sentence, albeit a more joyful one. I thought of myself, and felt my future both contract and expand in dizzying, unfathomable ways, but it felt free of the sheer dread that she refused to admit to experiencing while pregnant with me. Our situations differed wildly; I knew this, but feverishly drew comparisons anyway. I didn’t know if my constant conjecturing was born of guilt, or relief, or both.
My mother was now a few years out of jail, living with assorted family members, the majority of her belongings in a storage facility in my hometown. She’d written her memoir while behind bars, and asked me to edit it, so while my daughter gestated, I read, in full, my mother’s story. I resisted the urge to skip or water down the more painful passages, the chapters that reduced me to tears. I chalked it up to being “hormonal,” as if I wasn’t regularly immersing myself in my mother’s formative trauma, in the decisions she’d made that ultimately led to her darkest moments. I hated my own weakness in approaching her story, ashamed that I wanted to stop, particularly at the parts concerning my father. She warned me before sending the more sensitive passages, assuring me that I could skip them if I wanted to; my husband fretted over my obvious anguish, suggesting that I step away from it for a few days. I ignored their thoughtfulness. It felt like pandering to an emotional fragility I’d spent years trying to dissemble. What was my discomfort in the face of my mother’s sacrifice, her pain?
Reading and editing her words had the bizarre effect of both closing and widening our distance. I was learning a new, intensely personal side of her, but on the necessary reread, my close attention to her syntax and diction made the revelations feel clinical. I relived my childhood in her words, filtered through a thick lens of disillusionment, emotional injury, and the enduring tenacity of her love. I saw my father morph from friend to lover to patriarch to antagonist, and wept for what he had lost too — perhaps in an earlier part of his story, one I still didn’t know. I cleaned up her sentences and rearranged paragraphs, wishing I could do the same with history. Clean. Rearrange. Reset.
Working through my mother’s memoir, coming to grips with my mounting anxiety from my job, all while counting down the weeks until my daughter’s birth — I was piecing together a narrative of chronic dissatisfaction and inherited guilt that I wanted to do my best to bring to an end. I was beginning to understand some of the decisions my mother had made that I previously found illogical, because they were fueled by love and strength that persisted in spite of deep reserves of pain. I had spent so much time scorning my parents’ unwillingness to divorce while I was still a child, but there was no way to know if they actually would have been happier choosing to leave their tumultuous love behind. The past had already decided that we would never know.
I walked away from my teaching job when my daughter was ten months old. I did not leave with much fanfare, or elegance, for that matter: it was abrupt, and anticlimactic, and some of my students cried. I had myriad reasons for leaving, so many factors I could easily blame, but I forced myself to steep in the knowledge that I was simply unhappy, and able to change my situation, and so I did — and I accepted the consequences. There were parts of my job that I did love: my kids, the conversations I had with them, the easy frankness of teenagers, teaching them to understand and love books. Despite that love, despite the stability I enjoyed, despite the camaraderie I enjoyed and the resentment I knew my leaving would foster, I had to go. So I did. I do still feel that guilt. But it’s no longer burdened with miserable obligation. When I smile at my daughter at the end of a long day, there are no tears lurking behind my exhaustion. I wanted that for her. I wanted it for me.
I don’t delude myself: I can control the trajectory of my life only to certain point. I can make moves, make plans, lay groundwork and watch it all crumble in a year. But accepting fate’s innate instability shouldn’t result in inaction. I’ve watched my mother evolve from charismatic professional, to bitter divorcee, to suicidal misanthrope, to introspective advisor, and finally, to triumphant survivor. Instead of sinking beneath the guilt, the regret, the shame, she — eventually — kept moving forward. She isn’t perfect, she still struggles, but she keeps going. For my sanity, for my daughter’s well-being, and for the sake of simply rewriting an outdated, stunted narrative, I have to do the same.
Lead image: Blondinrikard Fröberg/flickr