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How I Learned to Stop Hating My Mother

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I didn't want to chance it in person — we are both still too raw for that — but she did agree to get into it over the phone.

This is what I remember. Tiptoeing down the beige-carpeted stairs late at night, I poked my head far enough around the wall to peer into the living room, where my mother rocked in her navy-blue chair, swigging cheap white wine. I stood, riveted, staring at her nighttime face, which was contorted with depthless rage. She never noticed me hidden in the shadows as her cigarette withered in the ashtray while she gesticulated wildly, thrusting her middle finger into the face of someone who wasn't there. This was my routine for years, compulsively spying on her, trying to figure out who this beautiful and smart and tortured woman was from a distance. I felt — no, I knew — she did not love me. Curled into a question mark, I cried myself to sleep every night.

"Nobody said that life is fair." That was her favorite saying, a stinging maternal salve in response to a daughter's tears. I know there was a good lesson in there for me, but I wasn't ready to hear it. Instead, I thought, No kidding. If life were fair, it would have smelled of home-baked cookies instead of stale booze; it would have felt like a warm hug instead of a cold shoulder.

"If you loved me, you'd stop drinking." That was my favorite comeback. Fair or not, mothers were supposed to live for their kids, I thought, and her nightly swan dive into a gallon jug of Gallo was a sloppy declaration of rejection. I took her drinking as wholly personal, and so I tried to make myself more lovable by overachieving in the classroom and on the soccer field; I tried to show her how much I was hurting by turning myself into an 88-pound skeleton. But none of that changed a thing. My mother still crawled naked up the stairs to her bedroom, still hid glasses of vodka in cupboards throughout the house, still chose booze over me.

And so I ran — up to Andover, down to Duke, across the country to San Francisco. But our reckless fights — my vicious takedowns and her slurred diatribes — carried on over the phone lines.

That's what I remember. Then my mother filled in the blanks.

One day, when my mom was growing up in a big, poor family in Alabama, her mother, Helen — an emotionally dead woman hitched to a violently alcoholic man — asked her if she wanted some ice cream. Helen had never asked my mother if she wanted anything, and so my mother, craving some ice cream, decided to test her. No, my mother said, I don't want any ice cream — hoping that Helen, for the first time, would simply know what her daughter wanted, what she needed. But Helen walked away, and my mother was crushed.

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