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Jessica Leonard

Lessons From My Mother

My first memory of my mother is an image of her walking away. My grandparent's raised me, which had advantages and disadvantages. I'd usually get away with things, but there was a wider than average generational gap that was sometimes difficult to span.

My mother came in and out of my life like a tide; you knew she'd emerge just as surely as you knew she would later dissolve. She would come home and go to my bed, sleeping for days, getting up only to use the bathroom. I never saw her eat. Sometimes I would sit on the floor and watch her sleep, searching the still form for recognition, something to tie her to me.

By midday, I would hear the bedroom door creaking open behind me. My grandmother's smooth worn hand would clasp my chubby fingers and guide me out of the dark room into the sunlit yard. She blamed a lack of green vegetables and sunlight for my mother's behavior. She would tell me about how my mother refused to eat anything other than Big Macs when she was five and how she caved in and let her have them at least three or four times a week. She would say it as if I was a priest and she was confessing. She'd tell me over and over. She'd forget she told me, and tell me again, her eyes studying my too familiar face.

"A child needs the sun."

At night, I would slide into bed next to my mother. Her body heat made it stifling under the quilts, but I shimmed under with her anyway. The scent of unwashed hair and sweat followed me into my dreams where I would drown in it.

I'd wake up gasping, the bed beside me empty. Mother would be gone, swept away on the same current that brought her. No one would talk about it. Breakfast was quiet. The eyes of my grandparents would meet over the table, then glide over to me.

I wondered why she didn't take me with her. As I got older and saw my friend's families, I realized mine was different. The idea of a loving mother who made cookies for your slumber party was new and charming. I never had slumber parties. My grandparents didn't like the noise. I think they also didn't like the idea of more young girls who didn't belong to them sneaking into the house. One might be left behind.

I could not understand how my grandparents produced this person – Big Macs notwithstanding. They were calm and hardworking people. I never saw my grandmother become excited or yell. When I did something to earn her disapproval, I was never met with screaming. More often I found myself on the receiving end of a glare, lips pressed into a hard line. The look in her eyes made the room go about five degrees colder. They were practical. But they never called me a burden, and that was a relief. I was aware that I did not belong to them. It was nice that they didn't talk about it.

As I got older, I understood more and more about my mother. Her brief visits acted as windows into her world. Instead of silence, I was now bathed in her soft voice every night.

"I'm just sad," she told me.

"What can I do?" I asked.

"Your grandmother doesn't want to help."

"I can help."

"She's ashamed of me."

My first ideas about depression came from my television set. I imagined my mother as the tragic heroine. I would try to impose her image over that of the misunderstood starlet, try to make the two match. I couldn't do it, so I made my mother into a myth. I pretended she wanted to love me, that she did love me, but she was too sick to show it.

My mother was restless, never satisfied with where she was. There would forever be another party to attend, another person to be with, another distraction for her weary mind. If she sat still and thought about it, she wouldn't be able to move.

Depression is no vague idea. It has weight. It's visible to the naked eye. It exists in every state, you breath it in as a gas and it lives within your lungs, strangling you until you panic. It sits heavy and solid upon your back and makes every task seem impossible. It washes over you, huge tidal waves knocking you backward every time you try to step away from it. I learned these things from my mother.

When I was thirteen, she took more interest in me. I looked older. I could pass as the sister now, and she wanted me as a friend. She would come to me in the night, pulling me from my dreams.

"Get dressed," she'd whisper, her eyes wide. "We're going out tonight."

I bounded from the bed and poured myself into jeans and a tank top. We snuck from the house, tip toeing past my grandparent's bedroom. She drove me to some dive bar, dark and dirty, and I sat alone at a sticky table and watched her get drunk, men hanging from her like dew. I longed to be popular the way she was. Her laugh was full of vibrant energy; she was the effortless center of every group. She gave me my first beer, my first vodka, my first joint.

Sometimes people would question my age, but not often. I learned to play darts. I would play 501, trying to impress someone with my shots. I was good, but caring about my darts game meant caring about me, so I had trouble finding anyone to play. Usually it was old men who spent too much time trying to sneak peeks at my under-developed breasts. I didn't mind.

The music in the bar played on a short rotation, with Stairway to Heaven coming in every hour or so. My mother was next to me at the bar. She was alone on this night and I tried to find something to talk about.

"I got a B in math," I said. My voice was soft, I wasn't sure if she would hear me over Hotel California.

"You shouldn't try so hard at math," she told me. "I was always bad at it, so you probably will be to."

I cleared my throat, trying for more volume. "Do you think I'm like you?"

"You can't help it."

I looked into the dirty mirror behind the bar and wondered why bars always had mirrors behind them. Surely no sad drunk in this lonely building ever wanted to see themselves. Deep red carpet covered the floor. Darker stains covered the carpet, left behind by spilled drinks, puke, and who knows what else. Mother turned around on her stool and faced the room.

"This place is shit," she whispered. Her eyes were far off and unfocused. I couldn't argue with her. The air smelled sour.

"My birthday is next week," I told her.

"I know. What do you want?"

"I don't care."

The week I turned fourteen, she vanished again. I got more sleep. So did my grandparents. Tension ebbed out of the house. They didn't like her being here. I heard the fights.

"She's my daughter, I can take her where I want," my mom yelled.

Quieter, barely audible, my grandmother responded. "We are responsible for her. We need to make sure she's safe."

"If she lived with me, this wouldn't be an issue."

"But she doesn't."

Thinking about what living with her would be like. Endless nights at the bars, long lonely days as she slept off whatever she had done the night before on a dirty mattress. I imagined the kitchen full of perpetually dirty pans as invisible as her daughter.

I never wanted to be her daughter, but some part of me still longed to be loved by her. Maybe it's nature to yearn for a mother you don't know, to want her and not want her all at once. She came into my life as a whirlwind. I couldn't blame her for who she was. I could never fault her for not loving me.

And then there she was once again. I was sixteen, and she was married. She brought a man to my grandparent's home and called him my stepfather. I kept my eyes trained on the floor as he studied me. Unfamiliar eyes washed over my body.

"Does she ever dress up or anything?" he asked. My cheeks went hot. I looked down at my ratty jeans and tee shirt. I couldn't remember if I'd even brushed my hair. I'd never met this man. Tears stung the back of my eyes. I wanted to make myself smaller, my shoulders hunched forward as I attempted to collapse in on myself. I glanced up at my mother to see what she would say.

"I don't know," she replied. "She looks okay."

"I guess," he said. He looked away.

"She's lovely," my grandmother chimed in. Watching my grandmother come to the table with steaming cups of coffee I understood what family was. And grace. By the grace of my grandmother, I had a home.

The four of us sat at the large round faux-wood kitchen table. The room was warm with heat from the oven. There were biscuits in there, rising and browning. My grandmother's biscuits shot convention in the face. She over kneaded them and they were dense, but delicious. She had a way of cooking everything wrong and making us love it anyway. Her pancakes were black. Her turkey was dry. But over time, you started to think you liked black pancakes and dry turkey, like a selective version of Stockholm syndrome.

"How are you?" my grandmother asked, looking at her daughter. Her eyes were unconcerned, like she was asking the mailman. Time and experience had changed the unfaltering motherly love to something different. There was still love, but it was more like nostalgia for something she used to feel.

"Well, you know, I'm still depressed," mom answered.

"Why should you be depressed? You're married, you should be happy." I winced. She never wanted to believe there was anything the matter with her daughter, except perhaps being lazy and spoiled. Too many Big Macs. Not that my mother wasn't lazy, or spoiled. I'd just decided it was possibly not all her own faults.

"I've been depressed since Kindergarten; I don't see any reason to stop now." I caught my mother's eye and drew my eyebrows together, gave a quick stern shake of my head. I sent her telepathic messages to drop it, to not make my grandmother feel bad. Mother's eyes were blank. We had no connection.

"She doesn't fucking get it," the man said, touching my mother's hand. Mother and I both looked at my grandmother. The new stepfather had just sworn in her presence and we didn't know what would happen.

If my grandfather had been there, he would have said something. He would have protected his wife, but it had been three years since his death and he was in no position to protect anyone. I had the urge to be protective in his place, but I didn't know how. I didn't know how to erase years of resentment from the mind. I didn't know how to make people love each other.

We were all broken, there in the kitchen together, the smell of dense burning biscuits surrounding us. My grandmother will never forgive herself for the perceived failure of my mother. My mother will never forgive her for not knowing how to help her.

"I don't get a lot of things it seems," my grandmother said.

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