Light box

As an adult, I look back and I see the paranoid schizophrenic woman who raised me, and I see the woman who raised me- and it is impossible, sometimes, to separate the two, to know what would have been different if this woman hadn’t been so paranoid, if she hadn’t been hallucinating, and what would have been exactly the same. I ask myself how much of her irregular, nonsensical behavior was just Barbara, with all her complicated human-ness, her faults and weaknesses and broken places, her nakedness. And how much of her behavior was due to her busted frontal lobe. And how much of her busted frontal lobe was due to her circumstances, her extreme isolation, the culturally imposed helplessness of women of her time.

How many of us, when pushed, act logically.

Take, for example, one of her ideas of mothering-

Barbara wanted us to be Good Children. And she knew, somewhat abstractly, that All Good Children Have Talents. Barbara felt great pressure from the outside world that her children have specific talents, and she felt ashamed that her disheveled, hungry children, aged between six and eight, had none. Then, one day, in a fit of manic energy, an idea was born- her children would learn to draw.

Neither my brother or I had any natural inclination toward the visual arts. I liked to read books and enact dramas with Barbie dolls, my brother liked to dismantle small machines to see how they worked. Our shared interests were razor blades, making flame throwers from cans of hairspray, and playing with insects. My brother also built forts in the woods with his friends from plywood stolen from construction sites, and I would tag along with that.

My mother, having been manic for a week or so, had cleaned the apartment from top to bottom, and the stark-white rooms smelled of pine sol and bon ami. She’d even rented a carpet shampooer and cleaned the carpets, and I rolled over and over on the living room floor, inhaling the good chemical smell and running my fingers through the soft, clean pile. Man From Snowy River was playing on the VCR- it was a movie my mother had rented and then taped the rental tape onto a blank VHS, and parts of it were just snow and dialogue. My mother had a crush on someone in the movie, but there was too much static to make out any of the actors very clearly. I liked to watch the movie over and over, and as I rolled in the fresh, new carpet, I worked on imprinting the dialogue into my subconscious.

On this evening Barbara bustled through the door in a gust of sharp winter air, her arms full of paper sacks of groceries. In her manic state she had filled our kitchen with things we liked to eat- boxed sugar cereal, macaroni and cheese, gallons of milk, cheap brown bread, margarine and bologna. She had done our laundry, bought us fresh new packages of socks, notebooks and pencils for school. She answered the phone and talked normally, thought ahead to the future, planned revolutions for our cheerless, humble lives. And each time she was manic it was like she had been returned to us, whole and pure, a functional mother. And each time we were pleased and delighted, but also unsurprised, because she was always telling us that our hard times would end, and so we had always expected it. We were sure we had a mother, now, like how the other children had mothers. We would be taken care of, now. So we received the groceries smugly, and ate our fritos in front of the television, and rolled around on the still-damp carpet, scattering crumbled chips into its pile.

As Barbara became more manic, however, she also became more aggressive. And it was in this frenzied, anxious state, with her eyes like hot coals and her hands like sharp, gnarled claws, that she corralled us in the living room and sat us down on the floor, in front of a glass coffee table beneath which she had stuffed a bare hundred-watt light bulb. On the glass top of the coffee table was a children’s coloring book. It was a spring themed coloring book, with pictures of rabbits and flowers and birds. Barbara ripped out a page for each of us, and set it on the glass beneath a sheet of lined notebook paper. She wedged pencils into our small hands. We were to trace the picture from the coloring book. We were to trace it again and again, until we could draw the picture on our own. And if we left the table before we had mastered this task, she would beat us.

My picture was of three chicks hatching from their eggs. One chick faced to the left, one chick faced the viewer, and one chick’s beak was pointed up, towards the sky. I drew the image over and over, my small hands making ovals for eggs and chick bodies and tiny triangles for beaks. Children should have talents, I thought, as I drew. Eventually I got bored, and ran away from the table, and Barbara found me hiding in the bathroom, and beat me with her leather belt. So I sat again, and cried as I drew. The table grew warm from the hundred-watt light, and the shape of the bulb burned itself into my retinas. My ass hurt. My pencil became dull. My brother was farther along than I was, and was drawing with a pen. I ran away from the table again, and hid in the closet. This time my mother did not notice. She had retreated to her room.

In the weeks that followed we were repeatedly hauled to the makeshift light table and made to draw. Still, neither of us were very good at it, and Barbara could not make sense of our apparent total lack talent. Her handwriting was beautiful, thin and looping and perfectly slanted, like the handwriting in the declaration of independence. She could make dresses and pinafores from remnant scraps of fabric, and sew dolls with hand-embroidered faces. My handwriting, she told me, was chicken scratch shit. She spit the words out as if they tasted bad, her thin lips pulled back into her face, her eyes blazing. I had rarely heard her swear.

Eventually the cupboards emptied of boxes of cereal, the milk ran out, and the carpet again filled up with debris. Our new clothes were dirty and stained, our socks were stale, and we had broken all of our school pencils. Barbara was asleep on the couch, her long hair matted beneath her, and she refused to get up. It was a Wednesday afternoon and we knelt on her bedroom floor, setting small scraps of paper on fire and burning off our eyelashes with our hairspray flamethrower. The light table was forgotten. We would never, apparently, learn to draw.

One thought on “Light box

  1. oh man. there is some sort of higher power at play. something that made you decide to write about your mother every day, the very same week that I am home with my sick and dying mother.

    thank you.

    Also, my mother taped Man from Snowy River too. We watched it over and over. It is a soundtrack to my early years.


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