first person

A Mother’s Love That Wasn’t

Her cruelty and neglect couldn’t stop me from loving her. If only she’d been able to say the same.

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images
Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images
Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

It was a gray Christmas Eve, ten days after my 26th birthday in Washington, D.C., in 1983, and I had just finished vacuuming the living-room carpet when my mother, out of nowhere, looked at me and said, “If you ever believe anything I say, believe me when I tell you: I gave the wrong one away.” She had a look of achievement on her face, as if she’d successfully answered a difficult test question. All I could muster in response was “Merry Christmas to you, too.”

While my mother had said unkind things to me before, this felt different. When I was 8 years old, out of anger, she called me a “little bastard.” In middle school, she told me she’d kill me after beating me with a stick because I’d borrowed one of her LPs without asking. More than once, I’d overheard her on the phone say something to the effect of, “My life would be a whole lot different if I didn’t have Juan.” But that Christmas Eve confrontation was more than just cruel — it was confirmation.

When I was 13, my mother and her sister Rose were arguing in the living room. What began as something silly — a missing pair of stockings — quickly grew intense. From the kitchen, I could hear my mother snidely questioning if Rose, who was pregnant, even knew who the father was. “At least I didn’t give any away,” Rose fired back. I could hear slaps and the two of them bumping against furniture and glass breaking. I grabbed my 3-year-old cousin, who was crying for his mother, and took him outside as my grandmother ran downstairs to break them up. When we came back inside, I made some peanut butter and jelly crackers and took my cousin upstairs to my room. Later that evening, I asked my grandmother if it was true: “Did I have a brother?” (I don’t know why, but I assumed my sibling was male.) She said I did, and I never mentioned it again.

I must have still been in shock later that Christmas Eve night when I gave my mother the diamond ring I’d purchased as her present. Shortly after, I overheard her on the phone with her best friend Paulette: “Paulette, Juan gave me a diamond ring!” My senses began slowly returning then. “But I’m the wrong one,” I said sarcastically. She seemed to brace herself as if preparing for a slap. I smirked in her direction, and went upstairs before she could see my tears.

I was born less than two weeks after my mother’s 17th birthday; for much of my life, she felt more like an older sister than a parent — we shared DNA and a love of music, but the sweet, nurturing mother-son relationship I saw on Leave It to Beaver remained just that, fiction. Even when I was a young kid, she was rarely affectionate. She loved to dance, spending her Monday and Wednesday nights at nightclubs with names like Tip Tops. The weekends were reserved for parties or hanging out with her friends. But at least I had my grandfather. He was mean and ornery, according to most who knew him, but not to me.

The house I grew up in had a picturesque white picket fence but no other redeeming qualities — except for the kitchen. Everything happened in the kitchen. My grandfather would read two newspapers a day at that kitchen table, and hold “class” there too, teaching me the alphabet and basic math calculations. By the time I turned 4, I knew our address and phone number and that of his sister — Aunt Gertrude — if I ever was lost or needed help. Because of his lessons, I didn’t learn anything new until I reached the third grade.

The kitchen was also where my grandfather would shave with his straight-edge razor. He had an old mug and brush, which he used to make lather. One night, after finishing up a shave, he asked me to hug him. As he pulled me near, I placed my tiny hands on his chest to push him away. My grandfather seemed hurt, asking, “You don’t want to hug me?” I was around 5 years old and hadn’t yet mastered diplomacy; I responded bluntly, “No, your face hurts my face,” while pointing to the manicured tuft of hair below his lip. He studied me briefly and moved me from his lap to the chair. I thought I was in trouble, but he just lathered his chin and guided the straight razor in one stroke.

My grandfather died when I was 7, and my mother’s absence felt suddenly closer, more encompassing. Gone was my meal companion; there was no one to watch Bonanza on Sunday evenings or wrestling on Monday nights with; but mostly, I missed our lessons at the kitchen table.

To fill his absence, I kept busy. I did chores without being asked, washing and ironing my clothes, and I was an exemplary student in school. By the time I reached eighth grade, I was cooking every weekday so my mother and grandmother could come home to a hot meal. I figured if I made myself indispensable without calling any attention to myself, at least my contributions would be seen as needed and everyone else, but especially my mother, might actually want me around as much as my grandfather had. I made it a point to never complain aloud to avoid ever being seen as “a problem,” like in middle school when a sore throat made me feel like I was swallowing shards of glass. My ears were clogged and breathing felt difficult. I knew my mother would blame me for not wearing a hat in the cold, so I said nothing. After a week, my grandmother, who we lived with, finally complained that my whimpering and crying was keeping her awake at night. My mother reluctantly took me to the doctor who took one look at my throat — turns out, I had an abscess on my tonsils that was near rupturing — and immediately had his nurse call Washington Hospital Center.

This sort of selfless song and dance stretched beyond our front yard. If you needed help with your math homework, I would volunteer. If you didn’t have a bicycle, I would offer mine and sit on the curb until you returned. Then, in fifth grade, my best friend Steve took another kid’s side in a fight, threatening to beat me up. I wasn’t needed, after all — and I felt betrayed and mostly embarrassed. So I withdrew. As soon as the end-of-the-day bell rang, I’d rush home, spending the afternoon watching the black-and-white television in my grandmother’s bedroom, reading her romance novels, or eating. In warmer weather, I would sit alone in our backyard watching the other children playing or visit my neighbor Mrs. Smith, who, without children of her own at home, was happy to help me with my homework.

High school and later college gave me opportunities to reemerge. I made new friends and went out. I kept my home life, particularly in college, separate from who I represented myself to be. I matriculated as an orphan and used a friend’s address and listed them as my emergency contact. If my mother called me on campus, I’d say she was my aunt since we had different last names. This continued, to a degree, after I returned home after college graduation. (My mother had technically never moved out of her mother’s house, so I didn’t feel a need to rush to get my own place.)

Then, a few months after her holiday outburst — four years after I returned from college — I finally moved into my own apartment. Living alone for the first time, that same surrounding sense of loneliness that arrived after my grandfather’s death returned. So too did old habits to keep me company — once I spent over $400 on a housewarming gift for someone I’d known for less than a year. Working part-time as a word processor at a law firm, I picked up the tab for the entire evening shift when we all went out to celebrate a Christmas dinner. Some months, my American Express bill was more than my rent. It’s not that anyone was expecting anything in exchange for being my friend, but it felt impossible to quiet the voice inside that reminded me my presence wasn’t craved, and so I could easily be dropped and alone again. When your own mother doesn’t want to, say, spend a Monday night with you, why would anyone else? To feel welcomed, to feel loved, I figured, it would cost me, as it always had.

Eighteen months after I had moved, on Halloween, I learned my mother was in the hospital. I sat in the waiting room for over six hours while she underwent emergency temporary colon bypass surgery. After a 45-day hospital stay, during which I visited the hospital daily and sometimes twice, she was released. She wasn’t ambulatory, so she came to my house and I became my mother’s primary caregiver for the better part of a year. Caring for her meant I had no social life, and I even lost that part-time job because I had missed too many evenings. Whenever things were especially trying, I’d indulge in asking myself, Would the child she gave away care for her like I did? She never acknowledged the sacrifices and inconveniences of taking care of her. She never offered to reimburse me for groceries or cover any bills. I took better care of her than she had ever taken care of me.

When she finally recovered, eventually moving back into her house, I told her, “I hope you stay healthy until you die, because I can’t go through this again.”

For the next 15 years, I checked on her occasionally with a short phone call but visited as little as possible. Then around one Mother’s Day, at a greeting-card store, I felt like I suddenly couldn’t breathe. Looking through those colorful sheets of paper for one to quickly sign my name onto and drop in the mail, like I did every year, I just couldn’t do it. Once outside, I called one of my closest friends, Melanie. “She is not in those cards,” I said. “I love my mother, but I don’t like her.”

I got through that particular Mother’s Day, but I would replay my meltdown over and over. Soon after, I began therapy. Several months in, my therapist suggested I write to my mother. The five-page single-spaced typed letter addressed the cruel Christmas Eve words, along with other brutal things she had said to me.

The letter was dated December 25, 2003; my mother called me on New Year’s Eve. When she said, “I read your letter,” I started crying. I had a couple of friends over and they reached for their coats but I waved them to sit down. My mother continued, “I remember saying those words and have no idea why I did. You’re the most important person in the world to me and I’m so, so sorry.” By then, we both were crying. I asked if she would attend therapy with me. During the four sessions we did together, I learned about some of her own childhood traumas and hurts. I understood that she never allowed herself to follow her dreams, held back by her insecurities. She’d felt her sister was the favorite. My therapist often rewarded her patients with imaginary gold stars when they experienced a breakthrough. During one meeting with my mom, she said, “You both get a million gold stars.” In spite of the progress I had made, therapy with my mom was overwhelming. I needed time to process what had occurred and turned inward. I took a break from therapy and never returned.

I did begin visiting my mother more often, though, and I wouldn’t rush to leave as I’d usually done. I attended church with her on special occasions, and every few months we would go to dinner or I would cook something and share it with her.

I’d finally met my sibling — my brother — in my mid-30s, and while we weren’t close, we’ve communicated a few times since. He was present during the last few months of my mother’s life, flying back and forth from Texas where he lived. I’d watch as she’d light up when he was around, her excitement when he did something as simple as bring her McDonald’s or something from the drugstore. Watching her facial expressions and body language when my brother came around made me wonder if she really did believe I was “the wrong one.”

While therapy helped me forgive my mother for her cruelties, it didn’t alleviate my feeling of not being loved by her. Learning about my mother’s past helped me understand who she was and even why she acted as she did, but I couldn’t square away the way she behaved toward everyone else but me. She could be expressively loving to others — even my classmates — so I never could excuse her not being that way with me. Looking back, the effects are obvious. I’ve sought symbiotic relationships much more often than romantic ones, and on the rare instances where I did allow myself to an intimate relationship, I would sabotage the experience. I would hurt myself before another hurt me.

A few weeks after my mother’s funeral, I wrote a letter to her best friend, Paulette, the friend with whom she’d shared the news of my diamond-ring present on that Christmas Eve. I thanked her for being my mother’s friend and sharing her family with her. I wrote that, as she probably knew, deep down my mother was a child seeking love and approval and sense of family. As I wrote those words, I realized I’m my mother’s son.

A Mother’s Love That Wasn’t