Thursday morning, I remembered my glasses, my umbrella, my book for the train (Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce) – and almost walked out without my keys. Fortunately I caught the door just in time before it locked behind me. An ordinary careless moment, except for some of the anxiety it triggered, which kept pace with me as I walked down the street, illuminating old memories floating at unseen depths.
We used to sit in the backseat of the car, my sister and I, and watch as my mother locked the door to the house behind her in preparation for leaving. Then she unlocked it. Then locked it again. Unlock. Lock. Unlock. Lock. Minutes passed. We watched in silence – it would have been risky to demand we get going. Lock. Unlock.
Sometimes turning off a light switch involved the same process. Off. On. Off. On. Off. I’d watch her, wanting to understand. Was the light really off for her the first time she switched it off? Can she see that it’s off, or not? If she can see that she’s turned the light off, then what does she gain from repeating it more than once? What signal, invisible to me, indicated that the process is complete, that this time the light was off, the door truly locked? Or perhaps she was never really reassured, and some other instinct eventually overrode the anxiety, drowning it out without removing it entirely.
It sounds silly described this way – how can anyone with working eyes not be able to tell whether a light is on or not? It was something she seemed to need to do, though, and perhaps I’ll never know why. She never wanted to talk about it, other than some remark that she needed to “make sure the door was locked,” “make sure the light was off,” or make sure something was clean, for that matter – cleanliness was paramount as well. My eyes used to well up every time she washed a new book I had brought home, as I watched the pages warp and the glue in the spine melt when she sponged it down. It might have brought germs into the house, otherwise.
One thing I want to be very clear about, whenever I write about the past – whatever I write about the past – is that I do not write what I do in order to say, “my mother was crazy.” If she has obsessive-compulsive disorder, as others have suggested, then ‘crazy’ is a cruel term to lob at someone with this condition, particularly when untreated. Conversely, if she doesn’t have it, calling her crazy still isn’t useful to me. It doesn’t change anything and it sets us at opposition to each other – she’s crazy, I’m her hapless victim. I’m not interested in either of those roles.
What I’m interested in is taking a good hard look at myself as an adult estranged from a parent – a monumental decision even if you factor in abuse, mental illness, the works – and trying to understand myself better, the anxieties and fears and preoccupations that shimmer below the surface of my mind. It’s important to me that I know where they come from, so I can better address them. Because of that, it’s important to me that I understand my childhood perceptions of my mother as best I can as an adult. I can’t hide behind, “oh, she’s just crazy” and the big blank wall that statement builds around the past. No, I need to step back into that kitchen as an adult and watch the covers slide off those paperback books, as she tried and failed to wash her own fears and anxieties down the drain. I’m also a person whose instincts tend toward not talking directly about what I’m struggling with – as she did. If I can look at the past with clear eyes, maybe it’s possible to fight those tendencies.
This is not to turn a blind eye to other things that happened, behavior more harmful than the washing of books and the turning of locks. I have been warned, more than once, that she will take advantage of my empathy, my attempts to be non-judgmental. I’ve found, though, that estrangement does not allow me to banish memories along with physical presence. The past can’t be changed just because you’ve drawn a dividing line to protect yourself. I still find I need to observe it from a safe distance.
Early one morning – I think I was in middle school – she was upstairs switching the lamp in my bedroom on and off. (I had turned it off earlier myself, but she wanted to be sure.) Unexpectedly, the doorbell rang downstairs, and rang again. A neighbor was at the door, concerned after seeing a light flicking on and off in an upstairs bedroom. My mother gracefully reassured him that everything was fine, she had just been trying to wake me up for school using the light. He apologized for bothering us – he just wanted to make sure everyone was all right, he said: it looked like someone might have been trying to signal for help.
Maybe she was.