A Joke, A Story

by Naomi Skwarna

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In an album now lost, there were four near-identical photographs that traced the complete relational arc between my mother and I. We’re at a family event, maybe a wedding but likely a Bar Mitzvah. The decorative tones are sandstone with tea rose accents, the rubbery green fronds of a houseplant reaching into the frame. In the first one, she (my mother) looks into the camera, holding me (a baby) high against her chest. In the second, we’re looking at each other in what I recall as perfect contentment. The third, she’s handing me to a tall dark-haired woman. In the final shot, my mouth opens in a muted scream, my mother entirely absent while her placeholder laughs. It was a joke in my family that I consistently lost my shit if anyone other than my mother held me. And what a joke!

I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother since I was 16, shortly after I came home to find her passed out on the kitchen floor, the pool of blood from her mouth having divided into rivulets along the grouted seams between the tiles. Finding my mother passed out was not uncommon; neither was it to discover bottles of chardonnay hidden behind furniture, amidst cleaning supplies, or nested in a pile of sweaters. On that day, I called my father — who I had hoped to never need anything from again — and asked if I could move in with him.

If there is one day that takes me into the most embittered pocket of my character, it is Mother’s Day. Not because I miss my mother, who, as the estranged/addict parent convention dictates, “I never really knew.” I don’t miss, for instance, those mostly repressed memories of her veering into oncoming traffic on the way home from school, me repeatedly shrieking car! in order for her to straighten out. Or, when I was 8, the time she instructed me to wait for her inside the mall because she’d forgotten something in the car. Frightened by the volume of adults pushing past me, I went outside to find her, even though I knew I’d get in trouble for it. Running through the moving grid of the parking lot, it was a relief to see her recognizable profile in the driver’s seat, a feeling that evaporated when she tilted a plastic cup of something into her mouth. I watched her do this two more times before turning back towards the mall, waiting and waiting until she returned what felt like hours later, emitting a tannic vapor. I don’t like accounting for these moments, of which there are too many to name, staggering in their diversity of setting and outcome. She was clearly not a Mother Against Drunk Driving.

In my teens and 20s, I lived in awe of mothers who displayed palpable sobriety. I befriended people with the sole purpose of being their moms’ ride-alongs, offering to accompany them on errands or watch them do things with a rice cooker. How magical, these capable women with their coherent opinions and short haircuts! But such relationships were hard to sustain, either because they became too uncanny, or too excruciatingly alien. So I moved nomadically from one context to another, guided by a homing instinct for maternal connection. For someone raised in an unstable household, I passed through an adolescence crowded with women both literal and figurative.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore offered a measure of solace through accessing the inner lives of her characters; then there was Rachelle, a jewelry designer who taught me to order confidently in restaurants, and gave me a narrow silver ring that I still wear. After Rachelle, there were the two women in my Thursday night sewing class who included me in conversations about their marriages, and took turns standing behind me in the full-length mirror, adjusting whatever garment I was trying to construct. They listened patiently to my thoughts on The Hours — book and movie! — applauding my insights; they chided me for skipping gym class, but also offered Ziploc bags of cashews and choice bits of wisdom about teenage boys. The kindnesses of these women still touch me, especially since I now see how ingenuous they were, how free of pity. They didn’t have to offer me any attention at all, taciturn as I was. Sure, I felt deprived and freakish, but I didn’t want anyone to treat me that way. Instead, they made me feel loveable, when most relationships hitherto had me suspecting the opposite. There have been more and other women, although fewer as I’ve aged. It’s become apparently less fitting to play the daughter, too fetishistic.

Yet, I am envious towards those who have a cache of uncontaminated memories to fall back on. “Having a mother” cannot be aspired towards, and that is generally what saves me from envy in other areas of my life: being deluded. There is no recourse back to a clean slate, a time and place where I have the relationship that the second photograph in that series of four suggests.

As an adult, Mother’s Day is all about missing your mother, or the looming idea of one; celebrating a once fierce attachment now sepia with age, no matter how fraught it is or was. Maybe you will always be her child, but you’re no longer her baby. You will likely pick up the check at brunch. And the more connected you are to your parent, the more high-stakes the day would feel, I presume. It’s not easy to be a daughter or son; I concede that presence is inarguably more complex than absence. People who I am close with care about their mother’s opinions — they worry about letting them down, or not making the right plan or picking the best present. There is pressure to fulfill within your role. Without a mother, I belong to no one.

Still, I continue to grip the motherless tag because it makes so much sense within the story I’ve built for myself. I validate my failings with a loss that can be offered as receipt. It was — is — a useful organizing principle, and one that could be leveraged if I had a sentimental impulse to confide in a friend, partner, stranger. “I haven’t seen my mom since I was 16,” I begin, from which follows a hushed, contracted version, perhaps a few items of color and flair. It made me feel gratifyingly sick to lay it out for someone else, but I could never tell who I was punishing more — me or them. Over time, it became like reciting a familiar verse — curling into the penumbra of a memory, speaking more by rote than feeling. So I tell it rarely, because nothing transformative comes in the telling, and why else would I tell a story.

* * *

One Mother’s Day past, I found a phone number online which I used to access her voicemail. It had been more than a decade since I’d heard my mother’s voice, and compulsively, I craved a reminder of her; something tender and recognizable that could bring me into that warming proprietary cloud everyone else seemed to be huddled in. I dialed the numbers and hit #, leaning into the pause before she spoke. It was just her name, the introduction we’ve all recorded at one time or another. Words that no one will hear other than you, or maybe someone coming in through the back door.

This is aggravatingly familiar — something lost, looping interminably due to the most basic of technologies; answering machine, home video, Citibank security camera. It’s the stuff of prestige TV, a trope that works because it turns an everyday deletable into something precious, exalted, even. I’ve always loved the language of alchemy. Imagining the moment when water darkened into wine. After years of nothing, it made sense that this moment would deliver. I would learn something that had been lingering just out of my reach, waiting for me to come and punch in the right series of digits.

In the message, she slurred out the syllables of her name in an amusing rendition of a drunk trying to sound not drunk. Coincidentally, it’s the voice I affect when I walk into the kitchen and begin unintelligibly berating my roommate while he’s eating his breakfast, hoping he’ll spit-take his OJ over my hilarious joke. And what a joke!

I hung up the phone and sat down, then lay down, feeling not transformed, but resigned. It was a feeling of having lost a mother that was never really mine to lose, a brief return to that locked moment when she left the frame, or I remained, not anticipating that it would end quite like this.

Every year on this day, I fumble through stories like these, paying them tribute while also hoping to cue a release, even though I know it’s not likely. And so the question is, when will I have told these stories enough?

Naomi Skwarna is a writer and theatre artist.