“Do you ask her how she is?” my therapist asked.
“Not unless she acts out,” I said. “I try to ignore her depression.”
“How old is she?” We’ve talked about this many times, but she asks anyway.
“She’s about 14.” Shame rises from my belly and floods my face. Am I talking about this again? Still? I’ve explored this in a hundred ways since the 1960s, but the wounded girl in me refuses to die.
“She’s the age I was when my dad died in 1959. His funeral was on a Friday. I returned to school on Monday. No one mentioned him or asked how I was. Not my mother. Not the other kids or my teachers or the guidance counselor. We pretended nothing had happened.”
After Dad’s death, my mother stuffed her feelings with chocolate ice cream and career success. She stopped cooking unless you call putting a TV dinner in the oven cooking. She didn’t pick up piles of dirty underwear and towels she left on the floor. She didn’t pretend to be a mother. “You’re very mature, Elaine,” she said. That was her code for “don’t you fall apart.”
She focused on her master’s degree and learning to tease her hair and apply make-up.
I liked to eat so I learned to cook.
Why do these scenes replay like a broken record? I understood long ago that my mother did the best she could. She was depressed and grieving without support. I was fortunate. I wasn’t raped or hit. No one purposefully hurt me. My grief was ignored. That’s not the worst thing.
After school, I sat on the floor near the heating grate and did my homework. My dog Amigo snuggled next to me. Mom was usually out at night classes or investment club meetings. She kept busy. My brother was away at college. I did my homework and fixed myself dinner. Either too much or too little. I was hungry for sweetness but starving for perfection.
The best way to get my mother’s attention was to get good grades, do well in school, and stay thin. Was it my mother’s longing or mine that convinced me to eat 800 calories a day followed by hidden binges when I was alone?
By the time I was 16, girlfriends had cars. We cruised local drive-ins for French fries, cokes, and boys. I returned home to a dark silent house. I didn’t want anyone to ask how I was doing. It was easier to hide. My fragile defensive shell would have been easy to crack. I only needed someone to ask, “How are you?”
My dad, the most nurturing parent in my childhood, had disappeared into a grave. My mother couldn’t look at her grief or mine. She taught me the art of abandoning myself.
“You have so much will power,” Mom said with admiration when I ate 500 calories a day and hunger kept me awake all night. I didn’t need to lose weight, but binges balanced starvation. I was lonely and heart-broken. My grief seemed invisible. Motown songs were about lost boyfriends, not dead dads.
I was hungry to be heard and comforted. Hungry for ice cream and hamburgers. Hungry to be skinny and cool. I needed to cry, but tears made a mess and it hurt to cry alone. I learned to ignore the wailing voice in my body.
I met my husband Vic when I was 21. He asked about my longings and mothered me as my mother never had. We mothered each other. He held me when I cried. After his death ten years ago, the broken-hearted girl showed up again. She doesn’t understand “get over it.”
She waits in hiding with unruly feelings and appetites. I hear a scolding voice say, “You should have this sorted out by now.” I tried hard to help her, but she’s still here. She still hurts.
I put a pen in her hand and gave her a pink notebook so she won’t hide. Can’t I agree to ask her every day? “How are you? Where do you hurt?” Can’t I agree to listen every day and accept that even though some pain never goes away, it helps to be heard?
Do you have childhood scars that never go away? Do they disappear a while before resurfacing or do you just stop noticing they’re there? For other articles about my dad, see When Dads Die Young. For another article about my mother and the healing that arrived before her death, see A Mother’s Blessing.