Published on May 6th, 2021 | by Leslie Lindsay2
For our youngest daughter’s fourteenth birthday, my husband and I gave her a hard-cover Mediterranean-blue Samsonite with wheels. Also, a Greek Isle-themed gathering of three of her closest friends, who are in our ‘bubble,’ because we’re smack in the middle of a pandemic.
For several years, our teen daughters have off-handedly suggested we visit Greece, where the beloved 2008 Greek-inspired ‘Mamma Mia’ was filmed. I briefly thought about tucking tickets for a future trip to Greece into that suitcase, but then remembered: pandemic. Also, money. And so the suitcase, along with the patio lights strung in the kitchen and the buoyant paper lanterns in aqua, cobalt, and teal, will have to do. She’s requesting a sleepover, too, because they are ‘epic,’ and honestly, sleepovers exhaust me. But singing ABBA tunes into the wee hours of the morning in the lower-level of our ‘villa’ will be the magic of her teen years.
Maybe I overcompensated.
When I was fourteen, my life was vastly different. My parents were divorced, and while that in itself wasn’t (isn’t) unusual, the fact that my parents had joint custody was. The reason, more daunting: my mother was severely mentally ill.
My daughter knows her grandmother struggled with mental health. She is aware that my mother and I were estranged and that she died by suicide. At fourteen, my daughter will speak of her late grandmother with an astonishing amount of sensitivity and diplomacy. “Mom,” she says, “I think Grandma was just not a happy person.” Yes, I agree, but she also had a traumatic childhood, made a series of poor choices, and genetics often come into play, too. She accepts this and spirits away to the soccer field, where she shines as a midfielder, or to school, where she keeps her head down and her grades up. Always, she returns to me midday for a hug or to show me something on Instagram or to help me set up Spotify on my phone. She rolls her eyes and smirks. I use her vernacular to try to be ‘hip,’ but I am hopelessly old-fashioned.
This is fourteen. This is how it should be.
Occasionally, at the dinner table, the topic of my mother surfaces. Over the years, my daughter has cobbled together enough facts to structure a clear narrative of her grandmother’s illness.
It came on slowly, insidiously. Before, my mother was what some might call ‘eccentric.’ She had an irresistible energy that could be charming and delightful, a gorgeous gleaming smile and golden skin that sparkled like stars against a navy sky. Other times, she became withdrawn, moody, critical. And then the unthinkable: one steamy summer day, my mother began speaking in tongues.
She claimed she was God and I the devil. She asked my father if she should kill me and my sister. My mother believed she could fly, called herself an angel of mercy. She thought she murdered neighbors and mailmen but her magical powers would reincarnate everyone, but not the Nazis because they were terrible, and I was a Nazi, too. She paraded around the house naked, cooing that we should not be ashamed of our bodies. She paced. She chain-smoked and guzzled gallons of Diet Coke and hot tea. My father coaxed her to bed, which she refused. He tried therapy, doctors, and hospitals. She fought it all.
My mother made outrageous claims my father and I threw her down the basement stairs and abused her. In truth: my father locked my bedroom door while I slept, fearing my mother would compromise my safety.
Now, when I check on my daughter at night, I am reminded of this horrific fact. I feel the quivering unease of my mother, the strength of her tendons, the press of her nails on my skin, my father shooing her away. I glimpse my daughter one last time and see her tender, sleeping form, cheeks like pudding. At fourteen, she still sleeps in a room decorated with soccer posters, clutching a stuffed dog.
After four years and countless court appearances, psychiatrists, medications, and more, my mother was awarded joint physical custody. This was 1989, when bifurcated parenting was highly unusual. My only sister and I toggled between Mom’s House and Dad’s House.
In “Mamma Mia,” Sofie doesn’t know who her dad is—it could be Sam, Harry, or Bill—and feels she needs to discover this before she marries so she can ‘find herself.’ I knew my mother, and yet, I yearned for a different one.
Eighth graders can be brutal. “Why do you ride two different buses?” they sneered.
“Why don’t you have just one house like everyone else?”
“What’s wrong with your mom?”
My mother did drugs. She grew them in the closet of her bedroom. She drank and hid the bottles, along with magazines with pink, glistening body parts and dildos, amidst the dust ruffles of her custom bed set, the one she lovingly sewed from chintz; she was an interior decorator, dressing model homes with her wares.
The walls of my mother’s home soon harbored the scent of cigarettes, of whatever drugs she engaged in, the bitter words she screamed.
“Say it,” she’d prod. “What you really want to tell me.”
“What?” I asked.
“That I should go to hell.”
“You wish I’d drop dead.” She clenched her jaw. “Say it.”
“No,” I shook my head.
“I know it’s what you’re thinking, you little twat.”
I was fourteen. Same as my daughter now. I could not imagine an exchange like this with my child.
I winced, held back tears. I went to my rose-colored room and let out a torrent of pent-up anger, hurt, confusion. I counted the squares on the Mediterranean wall calendar: how many days until Dad comes?
She screamed, “Stop your bellyaching.”
I cried harder.
She pounded my bedroom wall from the hallway. “I said—shut the eff up!”
And still, I couldn’t stop.
I thought of my mother’s home like an island. I could choose to live my life within that boundary, or I could break out and make a life elsewhere. I yearned for the image on the calendar: sun-kissed stucco, cobalt domes, a sea of possibility.
I created a pros and cons list: leave Mom or stay. The pros for leaving outweighed the ones for staying.
I called Dad.
“Are you sure?” His soothing drawl was a balm.
“Yes,” I choked out. I told Dad I had dreams of what life would be like if I stayed; they felt like a portent, a warning. Like Sofie and Donna in “Mamma Mia,” some cannot leave, others cannot stay. I had to leave.
He said, “You have to do what’s right for you.”
Does love mean that doing nothing—not taking care of myself and my needs—was paramount to keeping my mother happy? And what of my safety—physical, mental, and psychological? Was my mother’s happiness above mine?
My daughter was once cut from the elite soccer team she had played on for years. Reorganization. A bad coach. Better peers. “Sorry,” the director said. After hours of training on her own, returning for a second try-out, she was devastated. Once home, I took her in my arms and we collapsed to the floor, a gush of tears and snot. “Why are you crying, Momma?” she asked.
“I know how much this means to you and you mean so much to me.”
My father came straight from work, still in his suit and tie. My mother threw items of clothing at me, books, my backpack. “You will take nothing with you, just the clothes on your back.”
Suitcases hold clothing.
Soccer uniforms, swimming suits, passports.
Do we love our children best by protecting them—by denying their wishes—or do we love them unconditionally, even if it means a painful extraction?
My daughter wants to be a professional soccer athlete. Do I tell her the likelihood of this coming true is slim? No. I shuffle her to practice and spend hours on sidelines cheering her on. When she clamors into the car, legs caked with mud, face flushed with exertion, she is brighter than ever, ideas pouring out in a dazzling array of hope.
Here’s what that soccer coach did: he stripped my daughter of her dreams.
A mother’s job is to build them up.
Does being a parent hurt? Does it mean being a better person so your child can have a better life?
I got my daughter a personal trainer. I enrolled her in soccer clubs and camps.
After two years of grueling training, my daughter secured a spot on the elite team.
For my mother’s seventeenth birthday, the story goes, her parents gave her a copper-colored Camaro. She had been ‘wild’ and promiscuous, a golden party girl. “This is no gift!” she shrieked. “You just want me to go away.”
During my seventeenth year, I traveled to Greece as a People-to-People Student Ambassador. After exploring the ancient ruins with peers and chaperones, I spent a week independently with a Greek family tasting their food, driving along dust-caked sea-salted roads, laughing with olive-complected mothers and daughters, blistering in the Mediterranean sun. This was my dream; I found my island.
When my copper-haired daughter totes her blue suitcase in the years to come, I hope she sees it as the gift it’s intended to be: one of freedom, to explore the world, to taste new foods and experience other cultures, to play soccer on international soil. I hope her hair glistens in the sunshine, the waves lap at her feet, that she tastes the air.
For her suitcase, I ordered a custom luggage tag: a teal soccer ball with her first name engraved. I attached it to the handle. The address? Intentionally blank.
When she pens her name and address on that luggage tag, I hope she knows precisely who she is, that she is loved, that she will find her way, and that she will always have a home in my heart.