the difference

Every once in a while, someone will ask why I write so often about my father and so seldom about my mother. This can be awkward, particularly since the someone asking is me.

My mom and I had a "difficult" and "complicated" relationship. The scare quotes aren't to mock; they're to acknowledge the nebulousness and overuse of two words that, at the end of the day, don't say much about what two people mean to one another. The shorthand works for shallow conversations (and blog posts), but it doesn't get to the heart of why I'm mostly mum about my mom. So I thought I'd explain why it is I rarely blog about her. (Explain to myself, that is.)

When I think about my dad, if I let it, the flood of memories will come fast and furious. I can easily picture him in a hundred different settings, saying a hundred different things to me. Random associations pull me from thought to emotion and back again, and if I'm not careful I'll get whiplash from the ride: the horsehair shoe brush on the shelf of his closet, sitting near a stack of thick, scratchy wool sweaters he used to wear in Alaska when he had the handlebar mustache from those epic Polaroids; I can see that same expression twenty years later and ten states over -- laughing, holding a beer, that dangerous twinkle in his eye when he'd had too much and he'd sing too loud and he'd smack my shoulder with a comradely slap like I wasn't a child at all but a drinking buddy like I wasn't his sensitive and hesitant and people-pleasing daughter but his brother or his son...

And so it goes, ranging as far and wide as I want it to.

But with my mom, there isn't this facility and clarity of reminiscence. Thinking about her with prolonged, concentrated intention - as I do with my dad now and again, to keep him alive and close and familiar - is like swimming out into the ocean, holding my breath, and letting myself sink down beneath the waves...then trying to take stock of what I see. It's possible, but it isn't easy. It isn't easy to see things underneath the blue, which turns quickly to black the deeper I go. Even on the brightest days, when my heart feels full for her, I look at my mother through a wall of water that distorts and disfigures whatever truth is there.

Have you ever stuck your hands below the surface of a fountain or a pool, and noticed the way they shimmer and twist, light and liquid playing tricks with their shapes? That's what it's like, remembering my mom. She's both the light and the liquid and my shimmering, twisting hands. I can't make out what's reality and what's trompe l'oiel.

Why is this? Simple: We just didn't know each other very well. We began our slow withdrawal from one another when I was about twelve, and family dysfunction took as its first victim our preteen-mother relationship (it eventually took a toll on all relationships in our foursome; no pairing was spared). She retreated in her own way, to her own safe havens, and I retreated in mine, to mine. And over the next ten years, as I fled the nest and began to build a new one of my own, her role in my life evolved into something best described as aunt-like. We saw less and less of one another (and one another's homes), knowing less and less of one another until eventually, I couldn't tell you whether she still used the dish set I'd grown up with or if she'd replaced it - or how she felt about doing so. Or how she felt about anything at all. And then another ten years slipped by before we knew it, as if we'd hit the snooze button on our own lives. And then she was gone.

I have to go back pretty far in my mind, to reassemble the collection of various household objects that speak of my mother. There's no horsehair shoe brush within easy reach, leading me to the next emotional totem, and so forth, such that I can resurrect for myself, for you, for anyone, the narrative that was Ellie and Her Mom. Because we stopped writing it. And when two people cease constructing a narrative with one another, they have two choices: they can either quit altogether, and move on with their lives; or, if it's too painful to just leave a void, they can continue to construct that narrative on their own, filling it with whatever stories and facts they need there to be, for their own sanity and peace.

I think that's probably what we both did, my mom and I, for a while. We told ourselves what we needed to about why it happened, and we told ourselves who the other person was, that we no longer knew, but whom we would always love. And I can't speak for her, and she can't speak for herself anymore either - but I know that I'd rather let my version of our narrative float just out of view and out of reach, underwater, rather than tell a story that isn't true. And everything I know about us is tied to everything I know about her, and both sink a little bit deeper every day, no matter how good a swimmer I am. No matter how long I can hold my breath to take stock.

That's the difference, anyway, between remembering and writing about the two people who made me.