I finally snapped at my mother on the way out the door. I had managed to keep it all submerged for two days, but the pressure finally got to me. When she tried to give me advice about packing the car, suggesting that I could simply sit with a large suitcase at my feet in the front seat for the three-hour ride home, I lost it. She might have thought it was okay back then to try to squeeze us in the back seat with all her furniture and other things at our feet, and in our laps, and poking into our sides, on the long rides between New Jersey and Connecticut every weekend. Those trips were so indicative of the priority of her things over her children. It really wasn’t okay then, and I will certainly not put up with it now. My outburst hinted at, but did not truly approach, the twenty years of crap that will never truly be resolved between us.
She moved away from me then, choosing to wave good-bye from the safety of her glassed-in porch, perhaps to spare me another five minutes of her nit-picking, her lack of faith in my judgment, her inability to give me the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, it’s just as likely that heading back toward the house was an unconscious decision on her part and that I was the only one in the exchange to feel any guilt, any kind of burden of the past. She absolves herself of any responsibility for my brother’s poor choices by blaming genetics; “he’s just like Dad’s brothers,” she says in the same tone she used to remind me how much I looked like her mother-in-law, whom she clearly resented.
It is enough that I must bring my two rambunctious boys to stay for two days in a house full of antiques. It is enough that my sister has bailed at the last minute and that she and her family are not there to act as a buffer between me and our mother, as I have so often been called upon to do for her. Having more of us there blurs the focus, spreads the critique; reassures each of us that we did not imagine the dysfunction with which we were raised. Now it is only my husband and I, listening to her constantly berate our boys for their odd posture and involuntary leg swinging at the table. We are compelled to join in the nagging, lest my mother’s furniture be ruined by them just being boys.
In one of her stories, my mother recalled standing at the foot of the stairs yelling for my brother day after day so that he would get up and get out the door to catch the school bus. I wondered, but did not ask, if it ever occurred to her to go up the stairs and into his room to speak to him – one human being to another, instead of some overbearing master yelling at a dog. I was a freshman in college before I realized that most families do not communicate by screaming at one another. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that many siblings did, in fact, enjoy each other’s company.
It is hard being the eldest daughter in my mother’s house, and even harder to simultaneously be the mother of two imperfect boys. In my mother’s presence, I see them through her eyes; note every misstep, cringe at every jump and slide and lean and push. It is so hard not to bring her wrath down upon them in my own voice. It’s hard enough in my own house, never mind hers.
On this visit, Pumpkin was freaked out by the radiator, something that had never bothered him before. This time though, he insisted that it sounded like a man, standing in the corner of their bedroom, sniffing. Last night, I watched him walk around my mother’s house before bedtime, counting all the radiators (perhaps his way of controlling his fear of them). While I sought to calm his nerves against this formless hissing, I felt the usual dread that consumes me on these visits, reveal itself as menace. The cavernous Victorian house felt claustrophobic, and the world outside its windows threatening. I could not wait to get back to safety.
On the car ride back to Massachusetts, pressure valve released, I could not stop crying. I struggled not to completely lose it on the boys squabbling in the back seat. I was exhausted from protecting everyone, including myself and my mother, from the ugliness of the past. It also occurred to me that it was finally time to acknowledge that I was never going to move back to Connecticut, that I would never be comfortable there, and that even though I still had lots of friends in the area, the simple fact was that I was strangely reminiscent for a time that had really not been all that great to begin with. Never mind that Piper would never consider such a move; it had been in the back of my head since I left 25 years ago, always the possibility of getting back to my roots.
No more. Perhaps it’s not so much that you can’t go home again, it’s more that sometimes, you just really shouldn’t.