I mothered myself by imagining that I'd been handed to the wrong mother at the hospital somehow and that the mother to whom I really belonged would come and find me—knowing, all along, that the mother I had was the one I'd been born to. I could see my mother's reflection in my face, just as easily as I could see, standing on a chair in the bathroom, the red outlines her hands left on my back when her anger left her speechless.
As I got older, my mother's menace diminished, though not her meanness or the mystery of her rage. With the birth of my brother when I was nine, I saw that my mother could love a child who wasn't me.
Try as I might, I couldn't puzzle it out; what was it about me that made her so angry? Why didn't she love me? When I asked her just that, as I would time and again over the course of many years, her answer was always the same and maddeningly indirect: "Every mother loves her child, Peggy." I knew it to be a lie, but I didn't yet see then that she lied to protect herself, not me.
There was no reconciling the mother I knew – the one who literally shook with fury and missed no opportunity to wound or criticize me – with the charming and beautiful woman who went out into the world in the highest of heels, shining jewelry on her hands and neck, not a hair out of place. She flirted with everyone – even my girlfriends and later my boyfriends – and they pronounced her delightful. Her secret—and mine –was closely held; who would believe me if I told? And so I didn't. But she was all I had left when I was fifteen and the two men who had loved me– my father and my grandfather – died within three months of each other.
By then, the struggle between us took a different shape. She could still hurt me – I never forgot the moment she told the first boy I loved that despite my pretty outside, I was rotten inside – but she couldn't scare me. I watched how she acted with her own mother, a dance set to a melody of jealousy and competition. Slowly – very slowly – I had my first inkling that how she treated me might have nothing at all to do with who I was.
I was younger, smarter, better educated than she, and I began to realize she was afraid of me and the truths I told. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had a countdown of the days before college – it was more than 1000 – and that made my life trapped under her roof seem almost temporary and gave me the illusion of imminent freedom.
But I still wanted her love as much as I wanted to be able to answer the question I couldn't answer as a child: why didn't she love me?
I know the answer now and that knowledge absolutely co-exists with a terrible longing for the mother love I never had and never will have.