||All about my mother
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|Nobody talks about the abuse or the familiar hands that we suffered it from now that we’re older. When we were going through it, it was like living in a war that left us nowhere to run to when we were growing up. The abuse didn’t have a voice or give us one while we were growing up. My mother’s love was a hell we could not bear.
When it does surface it is haunting like a ghost from the past, it makes you live like a lie that just won’t let go of you no matter what, that won’t let you surrender it. It made us invisible yet it still ran like a thread, as wide as my back, like a river through fog, smog hugging a city skyline, smoke and mist, it left us begging for mercy, left us with no easy solutions for reconciliation between my mother and the rest of my family. It affected us so much that it felt like picking at an open healing wound with raw fingernails.
You are left with no choice but to fight against the sorrow and the pain that you are feeling; feeling uncomfortable and confused. I tried to protect my brother and sister yet the three of us still felt humiliated in tiny devastating blows, emotionally damaging doses on a daily basis. There was nothing that we could do about it but be witnesses to the rage, the red, furious little beast that was my mother.
I missed the sea, the seawater and the white sun on my back when I was in the hospital after my ‘episode’. It was pretty hush-hush. Nobody speaks about it in the family especially in my own home. I wish I could take it back but I can’t. I only relive it in my when I’m dreaming or in flashbacks. My little ‘episode’ was not little and it almost cost me my life. I now wore the label ‘attempted suicide’. Few people could or would understand what that meant especially where I was coming from.
The flashbacks come whether I’m awake or not. They break through the sealed lid that I’ve shut on the past. It’s something I’ve had to live with. It comes with the realisation that I can’t completely fix something - my life - that’s been broken up into a million little pieces times infinity.
I was born with my mother’s airs and graces and made sure everyone knew about that I came across in school and college. I was highty-tighty, a ‘coconut’ and high-minded. I never had a close circle of friends only perhaps only one or two close girlfriends that I told all my secrets to and that I shared everything with.
I thought growing up in a home where you were sad sometimes as a child, spent nights crying yourself to sleep into your pillow was normal. Where you felt lonely, confused, helpless and hopeless when you could hear your parents raised voices having an argument in their bedroom late at night.
We swallowed the ripe, black seeds of my mother’s pain, sensitivity, shame and mistakes from her own childhood and teenage years whole. It was a bitter pill to swallow. It was harder to live with, to grow up surrounded by people you loved who were in the state of mind my parents were in but my father’s love more than anything made up for my mother’s reckless and uncalled for behaviour especially when there was too much going on that we as children had no control over.
Activities at school made up for that. I took on as many as I could possibly fit into my schedule. I wanted to shine. I had my head up in the clouds. I basked in the glory, chaos and mayhem of rehearsals for a school play and editing the school newspaper. I was in my element.
Every petal that belonged to the flowers in the tall, precarious glass vase on the table in the sitting room that I gave my mother for mother’s day tells a story. It tells the sad tale of the life experience of my mother including her childhood. I held rosebuds and petals in the palms of my hands and crushed them with my fingers.
I hold my mother’s face in my memory whenever I have one of my phases, when I am going through a reverie; when I face the darkness visible that is depression. Other people like to use words like ‘melancholy’. I don’t. I don’t find the word ‘depression’ as menacing and cold to the touch as other people do. I have learned to deal with it well.
I don’t think she knows me well enough at all. Sometimes I wonder does she know who I am and what I stand for. Am I noble, am I a good girl, do I work hard at what I do in school, will I ever be over it, will we ever learn to compromise?
The flowers in the vase although wilted still hold a sense of wonderment for me. The pink light of the bloom is a flush against my fingertips. Red seeped through a tear in my finger where it had caught on one of the thorns of the roses. The thorns scratched me. It left red dots behind on my skin.
When I was young I could already see the rough times ahead of me in the future. It was called for. I played jealous games with my brother and sister. I called my sister ‘princess’. She has a posh accent and two university degrees. I did not finish school because of the bullies that tormented me and made my life hell when I was at high school.
In Johannesburg where I was studying at the college I was accepted to I could hear the wind blowing when it moved, when it howled in crevices, in deep places where you could not connect to the very being of it, possibly even when you are sleeping to dream. It rushed through the branches of weathered trees, ruffled feathers on the backs of birds and touched delicate wings.
The joy and cheerfulness that comes from happy people that I met later in life when I was in my teens came in patterns of elegant, dancing, colourful spots of bright lights yet I always felt lonely against the light especially in my childhood place of birth; Port Elizabeth.
My mother had a figure as slender as a reed, red lips that chanted and she smelled intense like her moods, she smelled like Opium; she sprayed it from a bottle. Each terrifying end of her bad temper meant the start of a new beginning to our relationship. It taught me to grow up quickly and learnt to fend for myself. I didn’t lack the education of getting attention. I always had that know-how.
When she was angry her gaze was dangerous. It was hard to keep your distance when you could feel her anger rising and her voice shouting. Up close she was almost the devil in disguise. She would launch into scathing personal attacks, let it go, hung up in the air like dirty laundry and then return to a sweet, tender, cooing mama again like a hen over her chicks. We tried to do no wrong but didn’t know where to begin. We tried to look for guidance, an easy escape. No luck there either.
From a young age I learnt to love to act out dramas and plays. It felt like home when I was standing on a stage giving it my all and it felt like I was finally living my dream. Being loved and adored for the first time was more than enough for me even if it was in front of nameless faces in the audiences that I captivated and whom I was in return captivated by.
My father was a quiet man. He was respectful and levelheaded. He was always the calm before the storm – the storm being my mother. He was the perfect father. He never raised his voice to us or hit us with a belt that left behind ugly red, stinging welts. He always kept his promises and spoiled us rotten. I always went on special ‘dates’ with him and long drives. He was always in the background; always keeping a cool head in confrontations with my mother.
My mother set fire to everything she saw when she lost her temper. I was always scared she would forget about me and she did; all the time. She could never see or understand just how much she hurt us; just how much she was hurting me when she called me names.
My father remained calm and collected and balanced in spite of her knee jerking and negative reactions towards us and him. There were five of us. Me, my brother and my sister, my mother and my father.
When we took family photographs the pictures would speak for themselves. We would all strike a happy, delirious, family-orientated pose. Maybe it was fake. Maybe some sought of an identity was missing. Perhaps it left an imprint of emotional scarring. I don’t know.
I always wondered where all my mother’s anger and rage came from.
When I was in the hospital the nurses there where like saints, angels that hovered at my bedside dressed in white. I felt vacant and vague. They watched over me and I felt their protection. I had uncontrollable fits of rage and anger that I had no control over; sadness that seeped steadily into my core like syrupy medicine that had a bad aftertaste caught at the back of my mouth. I had taken a handful of sleeping pills. I hadn’t left a note.
My parents found me. I was in a bad way. In the hospital speaking to the psychologist I began to realise that my life was precious. In family counselling sessions we all finally came together and began to connect in a way that was real and relevant.
All my life I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to tell my own stories, my way. I wanted to tell other people’s life stories. It helped me most of all when I was sick when I began to express myself in a way that could be understood easily by other people as well.
When my mother was in a bad mood the results could be electric when an opposite side and opposing child was attracted to her temper. She was on fire. Words spilled out of her mouth like spells. It was only later on when I began to analyse her behaviour that I realised it was a reflection of her past, the way she grew up and the close relationships she had with the people around her that were not accounted for now.
She never owned her behaviour or spoke up about her own rich, personal experiences as a child. Not once. It was telling.
The bullying at school started with name-calling but I coped with it as well as I could. What I couldn’t deal with was what was happening at home but I was already used to that. It had already defined me as a child growing up. Abuse, emotional abuse had already defined me and my brother and sister. My father had his own problems. He was a grown up so he dealt with it the best way he knew how – with silence. He didn’t talk about what he was going through and we didn’t know until much later, until we all almost left the house the extent of the personal pain he was carrying around with him.
My mother invaded us all. She never held back.
It was tough to decide whether or not to leave home at the age of sixteen and move to Johannesburg to study film production. I was accepted at a college right in the heart of the city centre even though I didn’t finish high school. Newtown Film and Television School. I was so proud. I thought I had left all the demons behind as well as my overwhelming sadness and depression. But I didn’t. It was still there.
Keeping secrets from your family is demanding when you are a small child and don’t know any better.
The table was set for breakfast. My mother leaned over and smacked my sister hard leaving an imprint of her hand on her cheek. Not a whimper escaped from my sister’s mouth.
It was the painful traces of sadness in her mood that spelled trouble, which ignited a passion for a harmful craving, a physical cave in, the five of us falling into a make-believe empty canvas or painting that she would drag the entire family into.
Without a trace of a pathway to a hopeful predestined destination, a line to the telepathic, a loss of reaction to sibling rivalry, the creation of dependency to rampant self-medication leads to a culture of death.
It leads to the death of technology, childhood, loss of social life and innocence at the treatment for me at fifteen years of age for depression. Depression was just another word for unrelenting sadness that would not go away. Not even for all the burgers and chips and pink milkshakes in the world.
What was the world like that I came from? How was it different from other children’s happier, more functioning and productive homes? How were my parents different from other people’s parents? I questioned this and went over it a thousand times in my mind’s eye. I struggled with it from the point of view of a child and from the perspective of a teenager. I didn’t know the level of my brother and sister’s hovering, reaching predicament.
I swallowed pills that promised that my mood would behave consistently; that it would become patient and tolerant and giving in the perfect moment. This became a normal world loaded with daily cross-examinations in my journal.
I could not eat, sleep or read a paragraph without feeling sleepy. At night I couldn’t get enough sleep. I was ‘infected’ with sleeping all the time, feeling drowsy and lightheaded.
My body became a domain like a castle captured in words and pictures in a fairytale surrounded by sticky, green, slimy water in a moat. The castle was my lifeline; the water was a metaphor of me drowning in fear, rejection and loneliness. My mind was governed by an age of innocence and an unforgiving wretchedness. It was bold and dynamic. If it had been a colour it would have been a splotchy inkblot, a domineering black hole veering towards a space defined by borders, boundaries and infinity.
The essence of normality becomes a borderline reality like living well-off in the suburbs without a clue of what is really happening to people out there in the world that you have no real contact with especially people that you cannot relate to.
The word ‘normal’ becomes blurry, distorted and unclear like a mannequin standing in the front of a shop window’s features; like the aftermath of bloody feathers lying in a messy pile on the floor after the pet cat pounced on a pidgeon - a pronounced feast.
The vanishing pink traces of my mother’s fingertips against my sister’s cheek at the breakfast table, a lipstick smudge against her morning cup of coffee stretched my child’s mind imagination beyond mesmerising belief. Would I become my mother as I grew up, as I grew older, wiser and matured emotionally and otherwise? Would I cease to exist as I knew it? Would I always be consumed by my mother’s thoughts, actions, her words, her language, would I always let her in and dominate me and erase all the good I did?
My mother would only accept my calls from the hospital collect. She never called. I think it was hard for her to see me that way. I don’t think she felt confused or lonely a day in her life. I don’t think she ever felt that she was fighting a losing battle. She never gave me that image. The human heart can only feel and hold so much hurt, sorrow, rebelliousness, self-hate and trauma before it explodes on impact or otherwise. I imploded. It was a silent battle study patterned and pockmarked with deliberate precision. I had no other way out.
Would she miss me? Would I miss her? Of course I missed her. She was still my mother; that goes without saying. She did not pursue me or the insatiable instant gratification that sometimes came with having children; I pursued her ruthlessly with a vengeance.
It had been waiting all those years for a long time coming like an insider bursting at the sides with a secret that wants under all intents and purposes to be exposed, like sparks shooting out, dancing, spitting and shouting like golden flames. It hit the ground running before I could give it a name. My mother was a bully. Whether she was cursing at the top of her voice, shrieking, her voice shrill and insecure, when she was now really giving it to us she frightened me. Scared us all half to death and yet she taught us both hope and suffering in everything that she did and everything she did was with a internalised love.
We couldn’t read her from the outside. She wouldn’t let us.
She taught us that a mother’s love came with truths, little white lies that she embellished stories with that she would tell us. It came with consequences. Sooner or later the four of us would pay in some way whether it was with tears or a stiff upper lip. A temporary mask, deadpan face, pale, wan, white, our features grimacing, slightly disfigured as if viewed from above in swimming pools of clear water.
The four of us stood our ground in the face of the harsh light in that hard, unforgiving love of my mother. We refused to be swept away by it and to be protected from it by imaginary friends in our respective childhoods. We refused to be drawn only into her truly madly and deeply felt love. It was warm and kind, tolerant and giving, sometimes misrepresented and wet. Her presence, shape and view of the world dominated in our home yet she taught us how never to quit and give up on the things that we ourselves loved.
She could stop us dead in our tracks. Spread her love as she saw fit, let it burn like a fever, let it shiver like a splinter caught in a thumb or finger, shut it off, switch it on; let it spin in an endearing colour that was red that would encircle us with the skin of Valentines and shapes in the form of hearts that would protect us, soothe us like sticky sweets; sweets that melted like powder on the tongue, it would be our balm. She was our soldier of love. She was good at it too. She left us breathless; coming up for air.
The four of us would pass through wicked and treacherous waters just because she wanted it that way. There were moments when we were left floating up in the air when she made fools out of all of us, knowing exactly what we felt, she stole our heart on the sly; cunning like a slippery snake with a blade of innocent grass caught in its mouth.
She was our shadow boxer; always on our blind side.
That’s how she held us in her grasp. But there were also cool valleys filled with days that we would go wild in a café or shop where we could choose whatever packet of chips, flavour of ice-cream, cooldrink and as much sweets as we could eat. Sometimes junk food was on the menu. Fish and chips, or a hamburger, hot dogs, ribs with onion rings. How could we refuse her when she was paying?
There were also days when I waited hours for her to pick me up from a rehearsal, from an extra-lesson that I had for mathematics or accounting. She left me there waiting at the side of the road. I must have made a sorry sight. I was so small; a child then a screaming teen, just a kid hugging her books to her chest. I was a lone figure standing there; easy prey for bad people who wanted to hurt children or a kidnapper driving around in his car on the lookout. The child was gone, disappeared, vanished a long time ago. The five of us had all become strangers to ourselves. We had nothing left to say to each other. As it got dark the house would get quiet and we would all sit huddled in front of the television. Safe at last until the darkness turned into morning light.
Yet we couldn’t erase the traces of love she felt for us even if we wanted to. It was done. Burning or not, pure or not, we were not alone in her love. We were all united in a kind of skewed solidarity. The four of us were all loners in our own way. We didn’t know how to connect to other people so they didn’t know how to connect to us. We couldn’t accept ourselves because we weren’t taught how to do that when we growing up from our parents because simply it was too much for them. They didn’t have all the answers. But as children we didn’t know this. We couldn’t explain the situation we were in to other grown ups when we were children. How could they understand? We didn’t so how could we expect other people to.
Our hearts tried to have a grip completely on the situation. Yet we still loved her. We never gave up on her. She taught us what the meaning of faith was and never to give up even when we were playing a losing game. There were both advantages and disadvantages in growing up the way we did. We were a close and private family. On closer inspection we were also wildly dysfunctional.
We didn’t know how to deal with feeling angry or aggressive, self-destructive or lonely. We didn’t know what the words were or how to articulate what the meaning of a word like self-sabotage meant. How could we? We were only children and so our childhood slipped faraway out of our reach forever and very quickly. It was something that we were unaware of at the very time it was taking place. It was something that we had no control over. It felt as if we were left standing still, we were frozen like a huge lake or left touching the silky lichen in a green forest of trees that had leaves shaped like needles. It felt as if we were all meeting each other at the edges of reason over and over again. We didn’t know how to start again. How to fix the wrongs that were done to all of us in the relationships we had with each other and make them right.
We waited for the sun to come out again but it was a black sun that appeared with the morning light through the curtains. We were never alone; the three of us; two sisters, one brother. My father was alone. He was struggling with his own battles. He was already in over his head. He had known what she was like even before they got married. She had shown her true colours even then.
She could tear our heart out, our eyes, make us cry out in pain, in anger without us even meaning to; ooh she could be wicked. But what was done was done. There was nothing we could do about it.
Sure it marked us forever, left us with half of our heart; it left its own indelible print like a thumbprint. We couldn’t stop loving her no matter what. The five of us were in this together. We all rose above those circumstances. We felt liberated and freer than other children of our own age. It forced us to grow up even though it was against our will at the time.
The sadness made me feel like I was living in an unseen world. It made me feel like I was different from everybody else. As if I was a reject or an outsider. I tried to cope as best as I could. School made it easier especially being blessed with capable, funny and happy teachers. Those who were stricter weren’t that bad. Being taught disciplined was a good thing. Having rules reminded me of happy homes that I would watch on television sitcoms.
Sometimes I can hear her calm voice inside my head especially during the times when I feel like giving in again; giving up; giving into the deep, languishing and invisible thread that is depression or sleep. Perhaps she wasn’t always perfectly there when I needed her attention but she is still my mother. Perhaps she isn’t always giving or generous or loving in the ways and means that she is supposed to be but I have forgiven her time and time again. It makes no difference to me just how many times I am supposed to forgive her.
Her voice is yellow and bright. She becomes a soft, glowing, golden shining light. I blink back the tears. I brush them away with my arm. I love her more each day. I grow and learn from her. I can never take away the valuable lessons about life and breathing that I have learnt from her. I love her more than words and songs can say even if they are words and songs of heartache, heartbreak, familiar loss and of saying goodbye. I know her weaknesses and her strengths.
I know what makes her soft, elegant, beautiful, perfectly loving, what gives her gentler and more subtle edges to the meaning of the words that spill over into the air from her mouth, what fits me, my sister and my younger brother, what doesn’t. What she puts forward in front of her as a shield, when she whispered sweet nothings, a lullaby into our ears as children. I know what she pours into us when we dry our eyes. It is made of pure, unconditional and undying and even sometimes an unwholesome love.
My mother’s love can be tranquil, it left me an empty shell of a girl and it can pull you deep and under the waves; under the water before you can kick, feel the slow response and release of your body coming up for air. It can pull you away from anything that has any real meaning,
She can creep up beside you and be a monster or your best friend, make you weak or insane. She is so good at this game that you don’t know what she’ll be up to next. She never sets our minds at ease.
She makes us gravitate towards the negative. Dance, jive and sing around sadness and madness. She makes the four of us become withdrawn and quiet and turn ourselves into something that is pieced together like a soft, delicate material. Her behaviour is criminal but she is all we have known of as a mother’s love.
We have lost a lot, sacrificed our hearts, our own love and self-respect. We have not given it away out of our own free will or choice. We have suffered, protected ourselves as best we could, put on blinkers, buffers, we have made the thick undergrowth of the paths of our internal pain smooth and sweet and slow as honey to come to this realisation.
We have all been consumed by pain and bullying. We have endeavoured to pull each other across that bridge, satisfied each other when we were hungry for attention and love, released each other from the burden of carrying that secret, reached for each other and folded our arms comfortably around each other so that we could retain our balance and equilibrium.
My big secret is revealed. It is out there now. It is not easy to digest, to contemplate, to yield to, to hide or to accept like a scent or expensive fragrance on a breeze.
We are Star People. It is only at night when the sky is completely blacked out like a black hole that a blanket of stars becomes visible. People born of the stars are made out of light and particles to shine on, to have a forgiving and culpable nature, to encourage others in circumstances that threaten to overwhelm them, to understand and not to fold under despair completely.
Although I remain convinced to this day I was not made for these times. That’s the way I want it. I have chosen the life I live now. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Abuse against women and children, the most vulnerable citizens of the world is on the increase. They remain trapped in that domain of trauma; out of reach for the most part from helping hands. In Africa abuse at the familiar hands of people we know and love dearly happens so often. We need desperately to be educated about it especially people who live in poverty stricken areas.
In Africa it has become an acceptable form of conduct and discipline from authority figures. Yet I felt the mass devastation and self-destruction that comes with it needed to be highlighted.
We cannot remain neutral anymore. This story gives just one voice to that invisible thread of emotional abuse whether it is verbal, emotional or physical or a personal attack on the individual; boy or girl child.
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