The Gifts I Received

By Ben Leib

I was surrounded by relatives. There were seven of us staying in my folks’ place alone, not including Dad and Janice. Thanksgiving wasn’t for another several days, but people had started rolling in from out of town as early as the weekend prior.

I had the phone to my ear, dodging aunts and cousins, and made my way to the extra bedroom, my room.

“Hey Ma,” I said.

“Hey you,” Mom said. “So when’d you get into town?”

“I drove up last night.”

“When will we get the chance to celebrate your birthday? I want to see you guys.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “and I can’t speak for Ely, but I just wanted to let you know we’d gotten in. We’re pretty busy over here. It looks like this Thanksgiving is going to be pretty crazy.”

“Well, I definitely want to get some time with you, too.”

“Of course. We’re gonna work something out for sure. Let me check with Ely, figure out our schedule over here, and I’ll call you back tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Mom said. “I love you my big boy.”

“Love you, too, Ma.”

My brother and I did our best to avoid our mother over the holiday. His future in-laws were coming into town for the first time, and Ely and I conspired together to keep them as far from my mother as possible. What this meant for my mother – she got penciled in for the Sunday morning slot, three days after Thanksgiving, the day after Esther’s parents had safely caught their return flight to Santa Monica.

So, after nearly a week of festivities with my paternal family, my mother was relegated the dregs of our vacation time. It was as if, by one unfortunate and unintentionally cold gesture, we had articulated the true nature of our relationship with her. I assured my brother that it could be no other way.

“Dude, am I being an asshole?” he asked. “Should I introduce them to Mom?”

“Absolutely not,” I advised. “Don’t introduce them to her until your wedding day.”

Mom called several times over the long weekend we avoided her. It was unsurprising that her feelings were hurt. Here we were spending quality time with her ex-husband’s family and all she got was a few lousy hours for breakfast. I did feel a bit guilty, but I understood the situation Ely was in. I had spent my fair share of the time protecting past girlfriends and their families from my mother. No matter how normal a person seems, it’s always jarring to find that they have a parent who’s just strange enough, just unpleasant enough to make you ponder the hereditary likelihood of passing along such traits.

Of course, I’d been in relationships with women who, like Esther, had insisted on meeting my mother, not quite understanding that the anecdotes were understated rather than exaggerated. But the love of a good woman will inspire her to carry a torch for many causes. Although Esther had already met my mother once, knew how potentially uncomfortable the situation might be, she insisted on accompanying us.

But her parents would not be invited on that particular outing. Ely was a wreck just having to entertain the future in-laws for five days straight. Brokering an introduction with my mother would be as relaxing as mediating disarmament between two nuclear powers.

I supported Ely’s decision: Esther’s family could not be allowed to meet Mom.

“What are we going to do with her?” Ely asked.

“I say a brunch is a good holiday get together.”

“Have you checked anything out?”

“Yeah, there’s this super fancy place in Sebastopol called the French Garden. They do a Sunday brunch and I think I can make reservations.”


“So that’s when we’ll meet up,” I said. “Maybe we can tool around Sebastopol for the afternoon, just hang out for a bit.”


“Are you guys planning on making it back here at all in December?” I asked him.

“I don’t think so,” Ely said. “We’re supposed to go to New York to visit Esther’s family, and I don’t think we’ll get a chance to do holidays here.”

“So the next question is, should we get Mom anything for the holidays?”

“Oh man, I don’t think so, dude.”

“I’m with you.”

“She’s already got too much garbage filling up her house,” Ely said. “Have you ever been over to Adrian’s house?”

“No, I haven’t visited since she started staying there.”

“But you remember her old apartment in Guerneville, right?”

“Yeah, it was a fucking mess for sure.”

“Her room now puts it to shame.”

“Shit, man. Has she overflowed into the rest of the house?”

“Now? I don’t know. I haven’t been there in, I don’t know, four years. But I doubt that she’s stopped collecting shit since then.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “So you think brunch is enough?”

“You said it’s a nice brunch?”


“Then that’s enough.”

We met Mom at the French Garden at ten. She’d beat us by a minute or two – a shock since punctuality was not one of her strong points – and was standing in the parking lot looking almost normal. She was wearing black jeans that fit her, though they were splattered with trashy looking bleach stains. She wore a sweater and a black leather jacket. It was a conservative look for Mom, none of the crazy blouses, pants less trashy than usual, nothing that had been purchased for less than a dollar at a second hand store, her mullet neatly quaffed.

“Hey my boys,” she hollered as we pulled in.

“Hey old Ma.” I jumped out of the car and hugged her.

It had the potential for being a good visit. Mom was, at first impression, looking pretty good. She’d been recently diagnosed with diabetes and had lost quite a bit of weight since I’d last seen her. She claimed to be following her diet rigorously.

“Happy birthday my big sweetie!”

My thirtieth fell on the day after Thanksgiving. It had been a small and traumatic milestone.

“I’m getting old,” I told her.

“You bought yourself a new car?”

“Yeah, pretty sweet, huh?”

“My boy’s growing up,” she said, beaming. “So it sounds like you guys might have a hard time getting back up here again during the holidays, so I brought gifts for all of you.”

“Thanks, Ma.” The politeness was formality.

“It’s my pleasure.” My mother spoke over her shoulder as she ambled toward her car. Inside the trunk were three canvas satchels, each containing a plastic storage box. “There’s one for each of you.”

The mystery boxes – each year the mélange of refuse that she compiled for us seemed to get worse, cheaper, more useless. When Ely and I were little, even into our teenage years, the mystery gifts had been exciting. My mom would invest some thought in picking stuff out for us, and she had a knack at the time for identifying the random little trinkets that might pique the interest of a child or an adolescent. As adults, the gifts that Mom presented seemed more like bargain hunting rejects than anything she’d picked out with either of us in mind. They were worse than useless – they were someone else’s garbage.

She loved bargain hunting, the intoxicant of the untreated hoarder – and it wasn’t the only intoxicant she indulged in. Searching for deals at thrift stores and estate sales was just one of her many excesses.

Ely and I looked at the bags my mother was pulling from her trunk and we both frowned.

“All right Ma,” I said, “we’re late for our reservation. Should we go get our table?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Here, take these. You each get a bag.” The more my mom spoke, the more I realized that this wouldn’t be one of her good days. Her speech was slurred, her mouth drug-dried and dehydrated. She spoke in spurts, blurting out sentences as if she couldn’t wait to get rid of the words and move on, as if linguistic communication was some painful necessity to be dispatched with as rapidly as possible.

The French Garden – there was a small stage on one side of the dining room, couches arranged around a fire place built into the corner, clean tables, linen napkins, table cloths, ornate wooden chairs. And because of the niceness of the restaurant, its understated and classical modishness, I was embarrassed of my mother. And because I was shamed by such a reaction to my own mother, I felt pained to conceal my discomfort.

Even as an adult I had difficulty recognizing and embracing my mother’s humanity in ways that might allow the idiosyncrasies of her personality to exist unquestioned, that would allow me to accept her love instead of seeking its evidence in actions that seemed designed to disappoint.

The restaurant had just opened for the day and the dining room was empty. The moment the hostess left our table, the busboy was over to fill water glasses.

“I checked the menu online,” I said. “I already know what I’m getting.”

“You gonna try the Benny?” Ely asked.

“You got it dude.” I began practicing my pronunciation of the French entrees. “Pommes frites. Fromages…”

When we set our menus down the server materialized, as if called into existence by a subtle and wordless cultural language. He was smarmy and long winded, and spent too much time trying to up-sell us.

“And I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at our breakfast cocktails yet…” he said. “We also have some delightful charcuterie…”

He looked at me like I might not know the definition of charcuterie.

We didn’t want the fromages plate. Nobody wanted a goddamn breakfast cocktail. I wasn’t drinking at all at the time, for fuck’s sake, and now here’s this guy making me feel like a negligent consumer for not ordering a spruced up twelve dollar mimosa. I certainly didn’t want to get Mom going that early, though sitting beside her, in such close proximity, I could smell the booze and knew that she’d gotten started early regardless.

“All right guys,” my Mom blurted, “time to open gifts. Let’s start with you my big thirty year old.”

“Okay, what have we got here?”

I pulled the plastic storage box from the canvas bag, pulled the packing tape away from the sides of the box, and removed the lid. It was dusty, and the contents smelled of mold, possibly a hint of decay. Resting on top, the most accessible of my gifts was a little disco ball, about four inches in diameter. It looked as if it had sat in a dirty basement for the past thirty years, and a grimy resin had accumulated in the crevices between each mirror segment.

As I grabbed the ball and began to remove it from the box, my mom shrieked. “No!”

She startled me, and I looked up at her, annoyed.

“What the hell’s the matter?”

“You have to grab it by the base.”

“Oh, I didn’t even realize that there was a base.”

“Yeah, like this.” My mom grabbed the disco ball by the little pedestal onto which it was affixed, removed it from the surrounding junk, and set it in the middle of the table. “See, it works like this. I got it for your car. Now you can have a moving party.”

The ball was mechanized: the base had tiny spotlights that focused on the mirrored ornament and a motor rotated the little ball. When my mother turned it on, a spinning pattern of lights reflected across the breakfast table.

“I’ll use it every day,” I said.

I reached back into the box, removed a pair of sunglasses. A slim rubber tube traced the frames of the glasses, led away from the left ear piece to a hand held remote control.

“Ooh, put them on sweetie,” Mom insisted.

I capitulated, placing the glasses over my eyes with one hand while I held the remote control in the other.

“Turn the switch,” she instructed.

I hesitated. “Are they gonna shock me?” I asked.

“No they’re not going to shock you. Just flip the switch.”

I eyed her for a moment longer and then turned the glasses on. Ely, Esther and my mother chuckled. A long, tubular light ran through the rubber trim along the frames, and it now shown a bright and gaudy blue.

“Flip the switch in the other direction.”

I flipped the switch in the other direction. The blue light began blinking rapidly.

“Jeeze, Ma, a disco ball, remote controlled glasses – it’s like you’re trying to get me laid.”

“Who could resist?” She said.

“Oh wait, I almost forgot.” She pulled a sandwich bag full of key rings from her purse. “For your new set of keys. Take a look. Maybe Esther or Ely will want one.”

I pulled them out, one by one, naming them as I went. “…a slinky, a Halloween Snoopy, a lanyard, Samurai Swords…”

“Now those don’t come out of their sheaths,” she informed me.

I tugged at the little copper swords. “No, they sure don’t,” I acknowledged before moving on. “Here’s a compass with an LED light. And here’s another compass.”

“Just in case you get lost in your new car,” Mom said.

The compasses were so old that their plastic covers had browned. It was difficult to see the reading, to find just which direction was north.

“This one’s got a whistle,” I observed.

“Now, I rinsed that out with alcohol, so it’s sterile,” mom announced.

I imagined her dipping it into the tumbler full of vodka that she was likely in the middle of as she put together these gift boxes.

“Well, that’s a relief.”

I held it with the tips of two fingers, assuming that it might still transmit some unknown contagion.

“You can blow it next time someone tries to rape you,” Ely informed me.

I resisted giving it a test blow.

I dug back into my box, and pulled from it a series of bumper stickers: a DARE sticker (which, I guessed, was meant to be tongue in cheek), Just Wear It emblazoned over an enormous silhouette of a condom, This Car Stops At All Garage Sales, several more. My favorite read, Celebrate Diversity – Pride ’01, and the text was scrawled over an enormous rainbow. I date women, so the sticker didn’t seem appropriate, but, in any case, what self respecting gay man is going to put a faded, 2001 Pride sticker on his new 2009 automobile, as if he’d saved it for eight years until that glorious, celebrated day that he was finally able to afford a car?

Ely and Esther went through their respective boxes with much the same result: Esther’s box contained, among other useless artifacts, an ugly looking crystal in a decrepit leather satchel, an off brand Leatherman, and an egg timer.

Ely’s box had a stack of temporary tattoos an inch thick.

“Because you’re too much of a chicken shit to get the real thing,” my mom explained.

She’d been trying to convince us to get matching tattoos for years.

“Great ma,” Ely said with what little enthusiasm he could muster as he flipped through the stack of childish stickers.

I tried unsuccessfully to convince him to wear the purple Pegasus, flying into the foreground from a castle in the clouds.

When Ely pulled out a musky old tin box, my mom felt it appropriate to give him a warning, “This one’s kind of weird,” she said, “but I just thought it was so cool…”

The box was shaped like a shell. It looked as if it might contain toiletries of some sort, a fancy compact or something.

“Where’d you get it?” Ely asked.

“I got it from an estate sale. An old lady passed away.”

“Is it her ashes?” Ely asked.

“No, it’s not her ashes.”

“It’s her teeth,” I shouted, convinced that the box actually might contain the last of old lady’s teeth, saved as the memoriam to a time when she’d been able to eat apples and steak with abandon.

We all laughed, though no one seemed genuinely thrilled at the moment.

Ely removed the bit of packing tape holding the box closed and slowly its lid.

Looking over his shoulder from where she sat at his right side, Esther shrieked and lurched away in her seat.

Ely’s gaze slowly rose to address my mother. “What the fuck, Mom?” he asked calmly.

“Aren’t they cool?” Mom was unconvincing.

“What the fuck is it, dude?” I was dying to know. “Is it her teeth?”

“It’s bugs.”



He passed the dusty, malodorous box over the table. I looked at him before opening it and could see that, though he remained stoic, my brother was genuinely angry. I opened the box. Sure enough, there they were: a pair of dried out, dead bugs, looking like a couple of gigantic fleas or over-grown dust mites. They were round and about a half inch long each – desiccated shells of lifeless insects. Because a long-passed death had left them dehydrated to the point of weightlessness, they rolled around the box freely, fragile to the point that the modest disturbances of transit had cost each of them a limb or two, which rolled about amongst the other sloughed flesh in the corner of the box. They made for a strange holiday gift.

Ely and Esther had been struck speechless.

“Jesus Ma,” I said, “you bought these from an estate sale? The old lady was probably senile when she caught these bugs in here and forgot about them in the back of a bathroom drawer.”

I understood what drove my mom in this case; I knew that it interested her, the value with which folks come to imbue objects, the strangeness of the items that they stow away and keep for years. Unfortunately, this sentimental value is not so easily transferable, nor is an esoteric personal history, and these truths shed light on the irrationality of my mother’s project.

We shifted in our seats and Mom seemed not to notice. “Now,” she announced as she pulled out a small, cardboard jewelry box, “there’s one last thing I have for you guys. These things are really cool, they’re collectables. They’re really worth something.”

I looked at my brother and his fiancée: Esther, poor thing, seemed so thoroughly disturbed that she was at a loss for the etiquette, for the politenesses that such a situation might call for. She sat there, looking nervous, wringing her hands through the cloth napkin. Neither of them wanted to open the final gift so I took one for the team.

“Let’s see what we got here.”

I removed the trinkets one by one and showed them to the table, and Mom took a moment or two to describe each of them.

“That’s an owl,” she said. “It’s carved out of malachite.”

“Oooh, and that one’s a monkey,” she said. “It’s a little hard to tell because the stone has corroded, but I think that means that it’s old, don’t you?”

 “What’s this one, Ma?” Ely asked, pointing to an inch tall figurine of Thing 2, the character from the Dr. Seuss book. I’d seen these little toys before and I happened to know that they were dispensed from gumball machines.

“It’s a Dr. Seuss toy,” my mother informed us. “It’s part of a set. They’re collector’s items.”

I chose not to tell my mother where the figurine had come from.

“What the hell is this?” I pulled what couldn’t be anything but a bird’s talon from the box. It smelled of decay.

“It’s a bird’s claw.”

“Where’d you get it from?” I asked.

“I pulled it off a bird.”

I inspected the talon more closely. It still had a bit of meat protruding from the base of the nail.

“You what?” Ely said.

“Yeah, there was this dead bird on the side of the road. The claw was just so big. I thought it was really cool.”

“Well, at least the bird was dead,” I said. “I was imagining you wrestling a falcon, trying to break off its toe while it shrieked and clawed at you.”

“Actually, it wasn’t even a whole dead bird,” Mom admitted. “There was just a leg laying there.”

We were all silent for a moment. Then I laughed in a way that approached hysteria. I grabbed the final artifact from the bottom of the box. It was a wooden bead, maybe a third of an inch from end to end. It was black with some red and yellow abstract designs on it.

“So where’d you get this one, Mom?”

“Oh, I found that one on the ground.”

I continued laughing. “You found it on the ground?”

“Yeah, isn’t it cool?” she asked.

“It’s all right. It’s just that you pulled out this box like it might be full of gold, like it was fuckin’ treasure, but now that were looking through it it turns out that you found this stuff on the ground, at garage sales…on a dead bird!”

“A dead bird’s leg,” Ely corrected me.

“I found it on the ground at the rotary club, after Adrian snuck me in there one night.” Mom said this as if the story of its finding might increase the desirability of the uninteresting little bead.

“Really?” I asked her.

“No, I found it on the ground at Colleen’s house, but that would’ve been cool, right?”

I was laughing uncontrollably–everyone at the table was, including my mother. “This stuff’s really special to me.” She was laughing, but I could tell her feelings were hurt.

Our lunch arrived. Everyone but my mother made sure to wash their hands before eating. Mom told us about cases she was working. She’d been a public defender for twenty years, which seemed incredible considering the morning we’d spent with her. She was defending a sexually violent predator who was nearing the end of a fifteen year sentence. The state wanted to keep him incarcerated at a mental health facility, but my mom argued that he’d paid his dues. Another defendant was a serial burglar with a penchant for unnecessary violence, facing his third felony and life in prison.

I’d been trying my best to keep an uncomfortably surreal situation from deteriorating further but the truth was, I was upset. I was angry about the gifts. Granted, my mom possessed her own brand of eccentricities, but the presents felt like just one more emotional manipulation to me. It was her forte: she gave us a bunch of useless crap that took a half an hour to open and sort through – the gifts were less than useless, they were a burden. We had to open the gifts and we had to feign appreciation, and my mother got to sit there like the parent of the year while we dug through dirty old key chains, dead bugs, and bird talons.

She expected us to treasure the gifts, to take them home and keep them safe for years to come, so the burden of the gifts endured even after my mother left the breakfast table and put considerations of the day behind her. Ely and I were left with presents that represented, not the thoughtfulness of a parent, but dread that my mother finally may have reached an point of madness from which she could not return, that she had abused herself into oblivion.

The sentiment that we attached to her gifts was fundamentally different from the sentiment with which she’d invested them. To her, they seemed something special, prized even. To us they were one more reminder of something approaching painful neglect – a resentment that exceeded our breakfast together, one that spanned three decades. No, despite my mother’s expectations we would not stockpile these gifts, we would not store them for her, would not keep her treasures safe. Instead, we would bring them back to my father’s house and dispose of them, every last one.

After a breakfast like that, the day could have ended. We’d seen enough of crazy for a single morning. But the meal had only taken an hour and a half and we still had at least another ninety minutes to go. After having neglected, avoided, and ignored her so thoroughly for an entire week, we felt obligated to grace my mother with at least a full afternoon of our company.

One of my favorite bookstores was located downtown there, and I figured that book shopping was a relatively silent, solitary enterprise, and that I would thereby be able to hinder the destructiveness of my mother’s social impulses. But, having experienced our less than enthusiastic reception of her gifts, my mother sunk into a morass of self-pity, a landscape in which she truly felt at home.

We parked on a side street and walked through a farmers market to get into town. I paused at a booth showcasing handmade prints – etches and lithographs.

“What do you think of ‘em, dude?” Ely asked me.

“They’re pretty cool,” I said. “This one’s badass.” I gestured to a print featuring a tree with labyrinthine branches, a dark background.

“You want it?” My younger brother was far more successful than I was.

“You’re offering to buy it for me?”

“Yeah, for your birthday.”

“I like it, but I don’t really have a place for it. I appreciate it though, dude.”

“Are you going to buy me something?” my mother interjected.

We ignored her.

Walking through town, Mom spotted a rock and crystal store.

“Look guys, let’s go in here. Do you mind?”

When we entered, Mom’s voice seemed to raise several octaves. Apparently she was excited to be looking at all the crystals, and, again, that mania struck me as terribly embarrassing.

She yelled across the store. “Oh my God, look at this one. It’s huge. I bet it weighs a thousand pounds… There’s one over there that looks like an enormous egg… Oh, I love opals. I used to have an opal this size… Look at this one you guys. Can you believe it..? This is a fossilized tooth… I love all of this stuff, you guys… Have you had a chance to check out their jade over there? It’s beautiful… Oooh, look at that. What do you think that blue stone is?…”

She was screaming. She went on and on. It was getting weirder. “Hey you guys, did you know that I used to find all of this stuff when I was a kid?” I knew that she couldn’t have found all of it, for many of the minerals on sale were geographically specific. “I would go rock hunting in the desert,” she said, “and I would find all of this stuff. Opals, quartz, geodes, amethyst, everything, every different color you could think of.”

She was getting too worked up and I began bustling our little party out of the store.

“My God, did you guys see this one?” Mom was pointing to a huge piece of quartz in the window display. The crystal was at least three feet across, a foot thick. “I once found a quartz this size.”

“No shit?” I asked.

“Yeah. But my mom, that fucking bitch, she made me give it away.”

Why is she bringing up her mother? I thought to myself.

“She made you give it away?” Ely sounded confused.

“My mother made me trade it for a piece of rose quartz.”

“Did you get to keep the thing you traded it for?” I asked, unsure what she was getting at.

“Of course not. My mom stole it from me. Everything valuable that I ever found, my mom stole from me.” Her voice was raised. She made sure that we could hear her.

It was turning into one of the worst visits I’d ever had with my mom. It was difficult for me to reconcile this drug-addled woman, near dementia in her current state, with the county employed attorney who defended disenfranchised felons. I was worried. If she acted this way at work, even if it was only occasionally, her job would be on the line. If she acted this way in the courtroom, she’d be done.

Mom had made it clear many times over the years that Ely and I were her backup plan. When she reached the age of retirement we were expected to step in and take care of her. I knew that she’d have a pension of some sort, but I had no idea to what extent she’d destroyed her finances. She’d spent stints of time on disability, had once sued the county. She’d declared bankruptcy. She had terrible credit – in fact, she no longer maintained a single line of credit. She rented a room from a guy named Adrian in Guerneville. She’d been homeless from time to time.

Ely and I had no intention of taking care of my mother. Neither of us had any aspirations toward greatness. We never expected to be able to give my mother the free and easy lifestyle that she anticipated nor did we want to. Helping my mother maintain her habits once she gave up her job was a haunting proposition.

Occasionally, she’d even suggested that she would like to move in with one of us, that we’d live together. She expected to be taken care of even before she’d grown too old to take care of herself. It was an absurd suggestion, considering that she had been incapable of taking care of us when we were younger. It seemed that she wanted it both ways: she was too wrapped up in her own dilemmas to be a parent to her children, but when it came time for her kids to give something back she had absurdly high expectations. We were her insurance plan, her one and only plan. And this was the prospect that loomed before us.

I led us down the street and into Copperfield’s Bookstore. The moment we entered I ran off to the mystery section. Ely and Esther perused politics. My mom buzzed around the store exuding discontent.

She approached me as I surveyed the crime fiction.

“Sweetie,” she said, “there’s a book I want you to see.”

As Mom led me through the self-help section, I rolled my eyes. I’d be damned if I was going to let my mother suggest some self-improvement literature, if I was going to stomach her diagnosis of my faults, and I was ready to rebuke her.

“I don’t really think that you and your brother understand me,” she told me. “I don’t think you really know what I’ve been through, what I fight with everyday.” Mom led me to a book titled The Courage to Heal: A Woman’s Guide to Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse. “Do you have this book at home?”

“Why would I own that book?” I asked.

“Because it’s really important and well known,” she said. “Besides, there must be so many people close to you who have suffered sexual abuse. Of course you know that I’m a victim of sexual violence.”

“Um, no, I don’t own it,” I said. “I’ve never felt the need to read it. Haven’t the authors been discredited, though – they were kind of just making up whatever sounded good without proof or credentials.” I had heard of the book.

“I don’t know about that. It describes what I’ve gone through, what I continue to go through. I’ve told you what I was subjected to as a child, but I don’t think you understand what I have to go through every day of my life. It helped me to retrieve all those memories about my father. I want you to read this book.”

I was furious and I felt heartless for my fury. Once again, I had to do the work. I had to read the suggested literature. I had to educate myself that I might understand what was wrong with my mother, that I might forgive her. And if I did the work to understand my mother, then she’d be expiated her transgressions. Her sins would become my guilt for a lifetime of expecting motherhood from this damaged woman.

And it seemed to me that she was fundamentally misinterpreting the lesson of the literature she was suggesting.

“This is why I don’t have any friends,” She insisted. “This is why I find it so hard to be around people, why I act so strangely.”

It was as if she had read descriptions of the behavior symptomatic of sexual abuse, seen herself in those descriptions, and been granted legitimization in her own dysfunction. She read the lines, said to herself, Ah, now I know why I am what I am, and never found the need to recover.

My mother had been sexually abused by her older brothers. This behavior was tolerated, if not outright sanctioned by her own mother. My maternal grandmother, Bernice, had been a cruel, abusive woman. But now, years after Bernice’s death, my mother continued to operate mechanistically under her control. Bernice was, by proxy, guilty for all of my mother’s sins. It was as if my mom had lost all agency. Her circuits had been cast, her wires routed, her programming uploaded, and her dead family operated the controls from some phantasmal in-between. She dwelled in perpetual victimhood, gloried in it as if a state of grace. Victimhood was amnesty, indemnity, and she was able to dispense with all culpability. In exchange for this cosmic innocence, my mother relived her trauma second by second. This was her plea. Now she was presenting her children with bugs and rotting talons. She made a decision at some point that she was incurable, and, to her benefit, what therapeutic magnetism, what pharmacological alchemy could change her, could make her function once again as Mother?

There comes a point in a story at which one expects, demands even, some tenderness, some compassion. Did I pity my mother? Did I recognize the inhuman cruelty of the crimes to which she’d been subjected? Could I see her as fallibly human, as opposed to the image of perfection against which parents are so often unfavorably and unfairly measured?

I answer, emphatically, Yes.

I have known and loved my mother for a long time. I’ve bared witness to the infinite incarnations of her personality – her intelligence, her humor. I have been her son and I have been her friend. But any idyllic reveries sunk into despair, a despair born of the love for someone incapable of disentangling their own love from an infinite resentment, so that the one would forever poison the other. There could be no pure hate for my mother just as there could be no true love.

Would I ever cease loving her? Would that love forever be imbued with a pain so profound that it haunts me at all times, haunts my very core? Though, to some, the answers to these questions may not be obvious, I read them and know that their asking is redundant. I am haunted, and I myself must fight against the self-pity of a disappointment that will never leave me. I too will turn to powders and drink in search of a peace of mind in a world that does not operate according to my philosophies or expectations.

As we left the book store, my mother turned to me.

“You know,” she said, “I could die tomorrow and you wouldn’t even fucking know it.” She spit the words at me like their venom could poison by proximity and vehemence.

And she was right, though it seemed her choice alone. It would be years before my mother spoke to me again.

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One response to “The Gifts I Received

  1. Pingback: Scissors and Spackle – “The Gifts I Received” | Josh Barlas