My mother wrote letters whenever she was angry. Pages and pages typed on her electric typewriter, filled with reworked accusations framed by Whiteout and multiple X’s savaged into the paper. Clearly written in a flurry of rage. It was enough to make anyone hate letters.
At least, it was enough to make me hate them.
The letters to us kids were usually spurred by a specific incident: answering her back in our nastiest tones or failing to load the dishwasher or leaving dirty laundry scattered around so that the stench sank into our bedroom carpets. But once my mother got rolling, she couldn’t stop. The letters morphed into exquisitely crafted diatribes that enumerated every one of the recipient’s failings and tracked them years into the past.
My father received his share of letters too, about the times he was hours late from work, absent from family events, absent when she wanted him to hold her hand through a medical procedure or take her to a party she’d been excited about for weeks. Absent. No matter what the details, her letters to him were always at their heart about his absence from her life, his inability to commit himself to her and their marriage or to at least make her a priority.
This was also true to a certain degree about her letters to us, her children. As we grew older, more defiant, less connected to our volatile family, she was left more and more alone. My younger brother, my twin sister, and I had school, chorus, plays, sports. My mother had her business, a small PR firm that turned out elegant press releases and brochures. But eventually she came home to an empty house, or to a house where we kids had retreated to our private corners, intent on whatever tasks could keep us out of the inevitable fights between her and my father.
Absent, all of us.
Though she wanted desperately for us kids to strike out on our own and have the experiences that she’d denied herself in favor of marrying my father (Ivy League universities, graduate school, travels around the world), she wanted us with her too. She wanted to be part of our lives, to be paramount to someone.
Which meant that any whiff of defiance or rejection sent her down the letter-writing rabbit hole.
Whenever I discovered one of her missives waiting for me at the breakfast table (she was a chronic insomniac who did her best stewing in the depths of night), I begged for a different punishment, any punishment. Ground me. Take away TV for a month. Hit me (though she never did). Anything but another letter.[bctt tweet=”Ground me. Take away TV for a month. Anything but another letter.”]Then I’d have to sit there and read while she puttered around the kitchen and eyed my reaction. “You understand why I’m mad, right?” she’d say as I flipped pages, not too quickly or she’d realize I could barely get myself to skim her words.
It’s not that she didn’t have a point. Most times, she did. Most times I’d done something to deserve her wrath. And I always recognized the beauty of her letters. They were carefully structured, well reasoned, artfully articulated.
But they were painful too, so all-encompassing, extending far beyond the inciting incident. They were difficult to forget, even after I ripped them up and threw them away. There was something about seeing her hurt in writing, about reading a litany of all the ways I’d failed her, that made those letters more official and memorable than any verbal harangue.
I learned to dread letters or cards of any kind. And I found personal writing–journaling, and, yes, letter writing–intimidating. To this day, even writing a card feels daunting. It’s too risky to expose any emotion, which would allow others to see me at my weakest.
That’s ultimately the way we perceived my mother: as weak. We didn’t see the strength in her willingness to reveal her pain and demand that we recognize it, answer to it. We saw only the excess. The need. The desperation for more, and more again.
Once I moved away to the other side of the country and we saw each other less, I stopped getting angry letters. Maybe an occasional upset email, but nothing compared to what she’d written in my youth. Instead, she sent cards with nearly illegible inscriptions about how much she loved me and missed me. How proud she was of me. How she had faith in my ability to achieve anything I desired.
She expected cards in return, the more saccharine the better. If I forgot, I heard about it. Her need was still there. Her yearning to connect. It felt overwhelming. Childlike and unquenchable.
But I tried. I bought the fucking cards. I didn’t write much in them, maybe a line or two. “I love you.” “Thanks for everything.” “You’re the best.” The worst clichés imaginable. She glowed when she read them. Hugged and kissed me, or called to say thank you. She displayed every single one on the mantle along with all the others she got for her birthday, Mother’s Day, Christmas.
After she died, we discovered a huge bin of cards she’d received over the years from us kids and my dad. In another box buried in a closet, alongside brittle corsages from long-ago dances, were love letters she’d written to my dad when they were teenagers. She’d kept his responses too. I’ve been meaning to read them, but I’m afraid of the hope I’ll find there. The innocent belief that one person could define her destiny, that the love of a single person would fulfill her every need.
Squirreled away in my own closet are a pile of her cards to me. I haven’t looked at them in years. But I know they’re there. I know there won’t be more. No more nearly illegible notes of love and pride. No more longing. No more loneliness. No more vulnerability.
And I’m left sitting here, wishing for one more goddamn card.
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Colette, A lovely post-Mother’s Day piece. “The innocent belief that one person could define her destiny, that the love of a single person would fulfill her every need.” I think that sums up the protagonist in a novel I abandoned years ago. Maybe I’ll pull that out this weekend. Thanks.