It’s almost moving day.
The boxes are partly packed and the walls are naked. Without paintings and family photos as camouflage, I can see all the scratches and dings we created over the years. Here, you threw a picture book into the wall—you wanted me to read a different one. There, the mirror chipped when I dropped it. I was hanging it as a surprise for you because you loved to make funny faces at yourself. The ceiling fan is a bit crooked from when you tried to stop it from spinning with a pogo stick. To me, these divots are part of our story. To the next owner, they will be broken bits that need to be repaired, or perhaps just trash.
If I close my eyes, I can still see you wandering home from the bus stop after school, examining some leaf or worm you picked up along the way. You wore pink ribbons that never stayed in your wild hair and sparkly sneakers that never stayed tied. It was a ninety-second walk from the bus stop home. Sometimes it took you five minutes, sometimes the rest of the afternoon.
You showed me again and again how mighty you could be. A thunderous girl, two speeds only—stop and go. The crazy curly hair, a perfect metaphor for your chaotic soul. I cried when you straightened it, and wondered who you were when you dyed it black. The rebellious years—the boys, the cars, the late nights—I played right into them. You may have lied about where you were going—I’m not sure. You knew I wouldn’t sleep ’til you were home, but you stayed out anyway, sure that I was wrong to wait up. I knew I was safe, you’d say. Don’t you trust me? You’d look me straight on, gold flecks lighting up your sea green eyes, daring me to admit that no, I didn’t trust you. I never did tell you that. What kind of a mother would I be if I did?
When you left me at 18 I was bereft, relieved, frightened, ecstatic, and undone. You went to save the world, you said. You needed to get far, far away—from me? From yourself? With your absence, my world might have opened up. I should have been free to explore, but I wasn’t. I had made your shackles my shackles, your pain my own. And then you were gone. You were empowered. I was disemboweled.
Here in your room there’s a shelf on the wall that holds my favorite knick-knack–a replica of the Venus de Milo you bought for me on a fifth grade class trip to the Art Museum. I remember asking why you chose it. You said she looked powerful, like a superhero, and she must have been extra special to be powerful even without arms. You knew that strength and beauty lay in the imperfection. You were ten.
I once heard that a mother could only be as happy as her least happy child. It occurs to me now that this is a sellout—an easy way to shrug off the challenge of learning to be happy yourself. It’s so much easier to focus on fixing things for your child. It makes a mother feel better to think she’s doing something.
Now, it pains me to think how I got in your way, stealing your birthright of opportunities to grow into yourself. How did I fail to recognize that each obstacle I removed from your path would necessitate a bigger one taking its place? How would you weave your own way, wipe your own tears and dress your own wounds, how would you grow into the glorious, wounded, repaired, fragmented and divine soul that you are, if I kept fixing everything? I was too close to the angst of each moment. You had to pull away for me to retreat and gain some perspective. There was no other way for me to see all of you, all of us.
From where I sit now, I marvel at how the corners of this modest room barely contained you. Your magnificent imperfections burst beyond space. At three, at nine, at twelve—and now in your adulthood—your laugh might on occasion be too loud, but it rings of joy. Your body outgrew its softness—it is as hard and unforgiving as your opinions and self-righteousness. But you love your hard edges and your ideas and all the relentlessness that you say is your integrity. You charge into the house and whip us up in a tailspin of crazy. You bemoan the state of humanity and then bless us with your hope and vision and faith in the promise of a better world. You blow out as fast as you blow in, and when the door slams behind you, as it always does, each and every time, I sink into my chair with exhaustion and wonder what has come over me.
I know your passions are the essence of who you are. I love you with all of your flaws and extremes. But I do not know myself in this way. I accept that to love someone is to love all the parts, even the ugly parts, even sometimes because of the ugly parts. But I do not know how to turn this knowledge inward, to accept that I don’t need fixing, that my imperfections are essential to my story. This notion that my weaknesses are part of my entire narrative—this is something I understand in my mind, but struggle to know in my heart.
It’s time to leave this room, and I am ready, but it is very hard. I am afraid. Not of what I leave behind—I believe I have reached an uneasy peace with that. But where will I go when I push beyond these walls? And who will I be when I get there? Will I recognize my own story? Can you tell me how? When I close my eyes and cease my chatter, who will I be? The protector? The fixer? Venus de Madre, the powerful. Will she emerge, if I let her? Will she stand strong, will she be proud? Will there be someone else to be, when all I’ve ever done is be your mother?
The full length version of this essay, titled “Venus de Madre” was originally published in the online literary journal, Amarillo Bay, Volume 16 Number 2 — on 19 May 2014
Stefanie Levine Cohen studies and writes about birth, death, afterlife and the human condition. Her stories explore moments of transition in characters’ lives and focus particularly on the intersection between the psychological and the spiritual. How does a person reconcile the need to understand his or her place in the universe with the tug of that person’s emotional truth?
Stefanie teaches memoir and fiction writing, works as a volunteer friendly visitor for Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ, and serves on a number of boards of mission-driven, nonprofit organizations. A mother of three young adult daughters, she is actively exploring her Second Act! Learn more about Stefanie’s work and read more stories at stefanielevinecohen.com
I love this article. I am having a difficult time allowing my 10 year old daughter to fail. I know that by helping her with her school projects, I am in fact hurting her. We are getting ready to move because of some mean children in the neighborhood that rarely cease in making her feel very bad on a daily basis, and I’m afraid by running away from the issue, I am not teaching her a very good lesson. I am making so many mistakes and fear that she will not know how to help herself when she becomes a young adult, but I am finding it very very difficult to let go. Do you have any advice for me?