Sometimes we will watch television together. She will sit like a crouched tiger ready to spring like a mousetrap, her frame hidden by a thick blanket, her legs resting on a stool, the dog next to her where she cuddles him and feeds him titbits off her supper plate affectionately. He doesn’t have to fight for her affections like I do. He transforms her into a maternal archetype of St Francis. When she shouts, screams, she draws blood. I experience a rush of blood to the head. I see red. A furious beast spurred on by hate and a low, awful feeling of being rejected.
I sweat. I levitate like the crescent of a half-moon, glowing resplendently in the night sky. I glow. I shine. I try sometimes half-heartedly not to give in to her insults. How else can I defend myself? My mouth is shut obstinately as if I have just tasted something unpleasant and foul. It is curled at the edges. My lips in a pout.
Is she happy? Is she sad? Is she despondent? Is she glowing? What is her ransom that she holds for my happiness? Money. She spends her pay cheque all in one go. She lives beyond her means. She buys extraordinary, beautiful things that are expensive and breakable. My father always admonishes her when she spends too much, but she never heeds his warnings.
It is my turn to cook supper. It is always a lavish affair. I always try my level best not to recreate the chaos and mayhem in the kitchen that I have always been known for. I leave everything from the vegetable scrapings to the pots, pans and other cooking utensils in disarray, but the table must always be set beautifully. My mother is still hauntingly beautiful and elegant in her pyjamas, although she is sullen, serious and quiet. The monster. I feel lost as I eat supper with my father. I feel like an orphan. I am consumed by food. Food becomes a feast. Of any food I demand that it immediately sates my anxiety, my lack of self-love and my mother’s great insensitivity. It is like poison seeping into my veins. I demand that it shifts and morphs my mother’s own depression, her dark spells and black moods, into something which is as intelligent as the red, burning sun. Burning for eternity.
I desire her to be my mother, most of all, and that her demeanour would imply that she is soft and gentle and has a sweet manner. She wouldn’t be irrational, her behaviour erratic, eccentric and emotionally unstable.
When I eat, it is here that I hide the pieces of my broken heart. I get a temporary high from the portions, from the fragrant smell of roast chicken, the preparation and the extra servings.
Gulp, gulp and gulp. Every time she takes a swipe at me, one gulp, two helpings, two desserts and junk food. I feel a great sense of peace at first, like any addiction. Then, I am filled with disgust, sickened and filled with self-hate. I also feel physical pain because I have eaten so much.
My attraction to food teaches me to forget the emotional pain. It calms me. It wants me. There are so many ways an addict validates what they are doing. It drives me to distraction, what I am going to eat for breakfast, lunch and supper, and what I’ll snack on in between.
It feeds me. It feeds my heart and my soul. I feel it is the only entity that accepts me for who I am and doesn’t reject me.
Who gave her permission to do this to me? I hear a voice from far, far away in the dark say, “I did. I did.” My lips are moving, but my mouth emits no sound. My soul has been found. The light flickers. I wish she would stay and watch the late movie on television with me, but she is getting ready for bed.
“The movie is starting,” I say. I sound as if I am eight years old again. As if I am six. I am dancing round the room, and I am growing younger, singing, “Mummy, look at me, look at me, look at me. Watch me, I’m going to dive. See how far I can swim underwater holding my breath.”
Inside, I know she’s not looking, and when I come up out of the water she’ll chastise me and say, “Abigail, stop showing off. Nobody likes a show-off.” Then I would compliment her.
“Mummy, you’re so extraordinary. When I grow up, I want to be just like you.” When I was little, I lived for the attention she would give me. She would shine a spotlight on my face with the words of encouragement she would give me, or her eyes would meet mine and we would smile alone in our special, secret world like best friends or sisters.
I wait for her to say something. I wait for her to acknowledge me. She gets up and lets the dog out for his last run for the evening and checks that all the doors are locked. “Please stay.” But I am alone. She has already left the room. There is an air of displeasure. The dishes are dirty and have been piling up the whole day in the sink. My study where I write is in disarray, and she has asked me repeatedly to tidy it. Her silent treatment is a steaming reproach.
I am fatally flawed, and she is again horribly disappointed in me. Perhaps I haven’t fulfilled all her dreams after I ran away from home the first time. My growing years could be described as the cancer years. I had a disease of pleasing everyone except myself. Through resistance, I crumbled like a paper napkin in a world that was bedazzled by light and sophistication. It illuminated every rich man’s disease I had. The agony of being born with money, of never being needy, of arrogance, of having a wilful, reckless nature, a chip on both shoulders and a perfectionist streak.
If daughters feel they have to be emancipated from their fathers, what happens to their relationships with their mothers as they grow older? I have often tried to suss out the diagnosis of the relationship that I have with my mother.
As I sat at my grandmother’s funeral, I felt sad that my mother and I weren’t talking to each other.
Mark is the shortest gospel. It serves as a plea, a benediction. Who art in heaven: place is leaning towards something which is arbitrary, trivial. There is always method, purpose and, most of all, divine meaning in prayer. I am trying my hardest to concentrate on the words. Questionable. Flagrant are words that are ringing in my ears. Behaviour. Niche. Hallowed be thy name. May the name of our Lord Jesus Christ always be praised and honoured with reverence and respect.
There is no scent of roses here, or of fragrant flowers with blossoms making curlicues and loop-de-loops. There are only wilting daisies. They didn’t ask my mother to make a bouquet for my Ouma’s funeral. The hypocrisy of small town family values makes me grind my teeth. It makes it impossible for me to love them, least of all like them or care for them all.
In this regard, the female of the species is infinitely more deadly than the male. The outsiders quietly surrender to their fate. The wife of the black sheep. The daughter of the uncle who was hospitalised with depression.
A fate worth more than the kiss of death. Mental illness. Next, they will be saying that the daughter is worse than the father. She can’t control her tongue. Her serpent’s tongue.
Somebody let slip that my mother was working in a nursery. Somebody let slip that my brother had done well in his university exams. Somebody let slip that neither my brother nor my sister could make it to the funeral. Disclose. Disclose. Disclose. God, there are no secrets here. Why won’t they just let us be, my mother and me? Let them talk among themselves. I am trying hard not to focus on the determination that the brethren, the in-laws, the cousins and the world at large have, wanting me to convert.
Off the mulberry tree came in the middle of the garden. This tall, grand tree, magnificent and stately, and all traces of sentimental childhood memory with it. I have often thought about what the history of the tree represented. It was planted at my birth. My parents had taken a fancy to the ceremony.
At my grandmother’s last birthday, I made up stories of make-believe, fairy tales and princesses locked in towers by ogres, for my nieces and nephews. “Where are you going, bagman? What’s in a name, Girly-Girl?” Luke can hardly hold his laughter in. He is five. I tickle Berniel. The adults look on, Bernice – Berniel’s mother – somewhat perplexed, and perhaps I am making a spectacle of myself, but I feel as if I am beyond reproach. I have so little faith in myself.
My mother hired a painter one day. She knew best about these matters, she said. He painted the whole day long and made a right mess of it, too, and all. All the while, I was longing to say to her, it serves you right for thinking that a man who wasn’t a professional could get the job done right. At the end of the day, they paid him a day’s work and sent him on his way. My mother’s character is defined by how she treats the hired help. Criminal behaviour. She is eccentric. Is she growing more so as she grows older, or has she always been different from other mothers, more open-minded and liberal?
We were not meant to be so absorbed in each other to the point of curbing the unlimited freewheeling freedom we had to obscure other people’s judgement and vision when it came to our own work or pleasure. What we both needed was breathing space, and in the beginning, it was the last thing that either of us granted each other. We became fixated on one-upping each other at every opportunity in my father’s presence.
But nothing can take the place of her. The fantasy I have of her turning over a new leaf, no matter what grievance she has against me, is strong and pure like the flow of water when it is mixed with oil.
I must forgive her. How can I let go? She is my mother. I love her unconditionally. How can I make her love me? She likes me more when I say nothing at all. When I pursue nothing. When I do not attempt to do anything about my circumstances. When I am driven invisible. I have become the woman I feared the most. The mad woman who is a recluse, eccentric, driven invisible by society. Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre.