Degrees of Communication
For the first time in six years, I invited my mom to sleep under the same roof with me. I was graduating from college the next day, and I wanted her to be there when I walked across the stage in my green cap and gown, triumphant against the odds. I wanted her to happy-cry, Baby, my baby, the way moms do in the movies.
I had to drive over an hour and a half from Denton to Nevada, Texas, to pick her up. She’d just had knee surgery, the operation date so close to my graduation that she worried she would miss it. Because of the painkillers she was taking, she couldn’t drive. (Her friends and loved ones will tell you she’s not a great driver, even when she’s not under the influence.) She was living with my uncle at the time, and I had unlimited tickets to graduation; he could have come. He could have driven her the next day, but he didn’t want to come. That hurt, but I didn’t have time to wallow in that sting. I needed to focus on picking her up and driving her back to my rental house just off of campus.
Mom had seemed so upset at the thought of missing my graduation—as upset as I felt, I was surprised to find. I had learned to navigate the world without a mother: She couldn’t provide for me financially, she didn’t understand systems or people well enough to give me advice, and she had a hard enough time dealing with her own emotions, so she wasn’t an emotional support system to me. Still, I needed her to be there, and I felt relieved that she wanted that too.
I would be the first person on my mother’s side of the family to graduate from college. Although my mom never went to college herself, she had bought into the marketing of higher education in the late 1990s and early 2000s: a degree meant more money. She would ground me if I averaged less than a B on a school progress report and praise me when I got As. She was convinced that I was one of the smartest people she knew, and she told me so often. When I told her I wanted to grow up to be a writer, she believed in me. She thought I could be Stephen King–famous, make Stephen King–money. She kept as much of my writing as she could, embarrassing stuff: a Goldilocks and the Three Bears retelling I wrote in the seventh grade where the three bears were secretly superheroes and Goldilocks was the villain, poems I wrote in high school during my Super Christian™ phase, even some essays I wrote in community college, one about getting my belly button pierced, the other about how The Gospel of Thomas wasn’t so different from King James’ gospels. She kept them because she was proud of me, and I wanted her to be proud of me now.
It had taken me eight years to graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I thought it might never happen. For four years, I worked full-time to support myself and went to school part-time at a community college. When I got to a university, I changed my major three times, went through one serious breakup that set me back financially, and scraped by working part-time as a driver at Jimmy John’s to finish my degree. I worked so hard that, in the end, the degree I had taken so long to acquire didn’t feel like much of an achievement at all. The only thing I was leaving college with was a large sheet of cardstock paper with my name on it (that would be mailed to me at a later date) and tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt.
If my mom wasn’t proud of me, then what did I do this for?
Mom had come to visit my campus for the first time earlier that year. We walked my usual path between classes, and she’d had to take frequent breaks, the weight on her fragile knees was unbearable. She was so happy, she’d said, to visit an Ivy League campus. “Mom,” I’d said in a hushed voice, glancing over my shoulder, “it’s just UNT. It’s not Ivy League.” Her knowledge of college was from what she saw on TV and in movies, so she’d thought any university was on par with Harvard or Oxford. I was embarrassed of her then. I was often embarrassed of her because she was a symbol of where I came from. She didn’t know how to be a chameleon like me, my only natural talent, shifting my appearance and moving my body to make others see what they wanted to see. She had been proud of me in this moment, but it was a kind of pride I couldn’t accept because her view of me wasn’t real.
I pulled into the gravel driveway, and she was already waiting for me on the porch, sitting in a raggedly inside chair that she’d turned into an outside one, its faux-leather exterior cracked and weathered like her skin. I was grateful I wouldn’t have to knock on the door and have it open to me, revealing the two-room trailer. Two-room, not two-bedroom. A shower had been newly installed, but for a while, the only thing my mom had been able to clean herself with was the bathroom sink. A “whore’s bath,” my mom called it, chuckling. Lately, the things that made her laugh and the things that made me sick were starting to overlap.
I got out of the car and helped Mom down the ramp, keeping pace awkwardly with her as she used a new walker to navigate the uneven gravel. In the car, she spoke to me about all manner of things: the church second-hand store where she volunteered full-time, the Mary Kay products she sold on the side. I could hardly get a word in. She wanted to know about me, but she never knew what to say when I shared my life with her, so I eventually stopped sharing. She knew she couldn’t be a good listener, let alone a good mom. That knowledge was a burden we both had to bear.
When I moved out of the apartment she and I shared when I was 19, Mom had slipped a note to me in the glove compartment of my 1991 Honda Accord, dated 2/24/11. It said, “Amanda, hi, I’m hoping you find this after we’re all moved. You know—like a surprise. I love you—this is not really how I pictured us parting, but I knew we would. You are very blessed. I am very proud of you. I’m not a very helpful parent. But I will always love you. I just wanted you to know that. Love you, Mom.” When I found the note, much later, I felt guarded. On the one hand, I had been validated, relieved to see her admit she hadn’t been helpful, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to be manipulated by her sadness anymore. I fought the urge to rush to her side as I did in my childhood and say, “No, you’re good. Don’t cry; you’re good.” I didn’t want her to cry that she wasn’t a good mom; I just wanted her to do better. I wanted her to do the work on her own, to know what to do to be different without my having to say so.
How embarrassing to have to tell your own mother how to love you.
After an hour and a half in the car with a broken radio, I pulled into the driveway of my rental house. It was just a simple, wood-paneled house, but it was the best place I had ever stayed with my name on the lease, and it was several classes above anywhere my mom had lived. I wanted her to see I was doing well. I wanted her to comment on the fixtures, the decorations I had picked out. I helped her up the steps, down the hall to my room. There was a step down that I rarely thought about anymore. With my mom with me, with her limitations, I saw my room, my space, my belongings in a new light.
“You can take the bed,” I told her, gesturing to the queen in the center of the room. I made the bed for her: a beige bedspread with maroon and chocolate embroidered flowers. “I’ll sleep on the couch.” There was plenty of room for both of us in the bed, but we weren’t that close. I couldn’t imagine a lingering hug, let alone lying beside her. It’s strange because I did sleep in bed with her until I was about eleven, still scared of the dark, of being alone, the looming possibility of danger. I used to curl up next to her, sink into the softness of her back and feel comforted by her deep snores. I had learned since then that she couldn’t keep me safe from things that lurked in the dark, but I didn’t understand why that robbed us of our affection to one another.
Over the bed hung a mostly black painting with a white, yellow and red burst in the center, vaguely mouth-shaped, and a faint scratch of a signature in the bottom right-hand corner: her name and date, 6/13/00. My friends and one-night stands told me it looked like a vagina, and sure, maybe it did if you looked at it sideways, but it was a painting from my mom, by my mom. From when she called herself an artist.
Seeing her eye it, I said proudly, “I kept it,” and I thought she would know what I meant. She and I had been homeless when I was in high school. We sold our VHS tapes and DVDs, our media players and TV, trying to keep our apartment, but it was already too late. People from my mom’s church took us in, trading us around when we eventually wore out our welcome. There was no room for our furniture, our dishes, our family photos. There are only two pictures of me left from my childhood, neither of which are flattering, but I had managed to keep this painting, a reminder of my mother’s creativity, that she was more than the role of “mother.”
I kept her painting the way she kept my writing. I kept it even when we were homeless, hung it on the wall in every place I lay my head at night. I was ashamed of the way I had grown up, neglected and poor. I was ashamed of being the smelly kid who went to school hungry. But this, her artwork: I was proud of this. I wanted to show her that I could be proud of her the way she had been proud of me
I wasn’t conscious of it, but I wanted to show her that I understood my place. Yes, I was about to graduate with my liberal arts degree, but I knew that she was the artist, not me. Paint was a luxury she could rarely afford, even now, so as a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play with those liquid hues. I felt I wasn’t allowed to mirror her. In eighth grade, I took art as an elective because I couldn’t afford an instrument for band, the mean popular kids took choir, and creative writing wouldn’t be available until high school. When the art teacher told me I showed promise, I told her, “My mom’s an artist. That’s where I get it from.” I was always careful to credit my mom, not to cross the domains we had been assigned. I never took art again. I was the writer in the family.
But every year after that, every year that I focused on growing my vocabulary and designing syntax and building suspense in my narratives, my mom understood me less and less. It’s strange, how it happened: this reversal of roles. She never used “baby talk” with me, always spoke to me like an adult, so she had inadvertently taught me the words “exhilarating” and “excruciating” when I was in elementary school. I’d often get them confused (“This homework is exhilarating”). When exactly did I have to start explaining what my words meant?
“I kept it,” I repeated, and she said, “Huh,” not in question but in grunt. “Huh [period],” like she thought she had heard everything she needed to hear from me, and she had nothing more to say.
I told her, “It took me 12 years to figure out it’s God’s mouth. You always told me it was God speaking the earth into creation, but I never knew you painted his face.” I’m slow, I wanted to tell her. I wanted to build her up, so we could have our movie moment, to imply that she had had something smart to say in her art, and I was the one who didn’t understand it. Me with my fancy education.
This was supposed to be a special moment, where the music in the background builds and one of the character’s shoulders slump forward and they cry loudly, much louder than is socially acceptable, and the other character holds them and says, finally, for the first time in that person’s life, “It’s OK to cry. I’m here. I’ve got you.” I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid, my electronic babysitter, and I knew this was how motherhood was supposed to be: caring, intuitive, selfless. The roles were supposed to go in this direction.
I had been embarrassed of her my whole life, and I was ashamed of myself for that because her life had been hard too. Mom didn’t get to go to art school like she wanted. She wasn’t supported by her own parents. She had hopes and dreams too, and didn’t she deserve everything good? Why did I deserve it—why did good things happen to me, if she couldn’t have them too?
So, yes, tomorrow was my graduation day, but I didn’t know how to get real-life love from her like a mother; I only knew how to get it like a vending machine.
And in this moment, in front of my freshly made bed and a seventeen-year-old canvas, didn’t she see? I was trying to make up for the years we didn’t speak because I couldn’t talk to her without screaming, just as she kept my writing to maybe make up for not protecting me when I was young.
Mom stood there with her mouth slack, probably tired on her sore knees, aching to sit. Probably high for the first time in years on the Hydrocodone she was taking, numb from the pain in more ways than one.
But when she opened her mouth to say, “Well, yeah,” then shrugged and asked, “Where’s the bathroom?” ending the discussion, I heard her ignore me. I felt her reject my bid for validation and affection. In the silence she left behind, in the silence where I could not ask her to love me differently, I heard her speak words she did not say.
Like, I am not touched.
And, I am not proud of you.
And, Tomorrow, I will not cry, “Baby, my baby.”
Amanda Woodard is a queer poet, essayist, and ghostwriter, as well as an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She studied Social Science and Journalism at the University of North Texas and attended writing workshops at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and Writing Workshops Dallas. She has been sober from drugs and alcohol since March 24, 2019. Amanda lives in the Dallas Metroplex with her very anxious emotional support dog, Sirius, and her little cat, Young Bernie Sanders.