All About My Mother: Brandon Taylor on Love, Rage, and Family
"My family was a series of hushed rages behind shut doors."
My mother didn’t share much of herself with anyone. There’s this idea that Southern families are full of stories, but mine wasn’t. Or, I guess, my family was full of stories, but they didn’t share them, or if they did, the stories came with so high a price that we often didn’t speak for days after divulging them.
Once, my mother told me that when I was very little, I wouldn’t give up my pacifier. She had tried to break me of it when I was one and then again when I was two, but I wouldn’t. She said that I carried it with me everywhere and sucked and sucked on it, wouldn’t let it out even to sleep. She said that she tried taking it from me when I took my bottle, but that I held it clutched tight in my hand. She could have pried it from my fingers easily. I was a baby, after all, and so could not have resisted her, but her strength failed her again and again at the crucial moment. She pulled on it, and I held it tight in my mouth or my hand and my eyes filled with fat tears, and I began to make a hiccuping sound, like swallowing something too big for my body. She pulled, and I resisted, and she didn’t have it in her to take it from me.
But one day, my stomach was upset. I had always had an uneasy stomach. Something about me was always hot and feverish, something always upsetting my belly. But on this day, I went into the bathroom alone and threw up and she came in after me because I was pitched forward into the bowl. She looked down and saw that I was trying to pull my pacifier back out of the vomit. She saw her chance and flushed it away.
She told me that story for the first time on my birthday when I was turning five, I think. Everyone was in the room laughing at me—at the boy I was, or at the toddler I had been, I couldn’t tell—and she was standing at the counter in the old trailer we lived in together. She put her hand on her hip and shook her head. Then she said, “You were always like that. Greedy.” I felt stung by that comment. I had started putting on weight. I was in husky clothes already. She said it again for good measure, repeated it, “Greedy, greedy.” Her voice rode the swell of the laughter in the room, and I sat on the floor playing with the toy a cousin’s father had bought for me. My face grew hot. And she shook her head again. “You’re spoiled,” she said. Spoiled. Greedy. Someone called me Fat Albert, and the name stuck because my father’s name was Alvin, and they sometimes called him Albert. And I husky. Fat Albert. That was the gift she gave me on my birthday. That and hot dogs that had been boiled too long and split down the middle on slices of white bread.
I find the story remarkable for many reasons, chief among which is the fact that my mother couldn’t bring herself to take my pacifier. It amazes me, this act of grace and charity. I wondered at the time what had happened to turn her from someone who wouldn’t take a pacifier from a crying baby into someone who called me greedy on my birthday for eating candy and cake. She often repeated the story, and the second thing that I find remarkable about it is how consistent the story was. When my mother told other stories, they always changed, inflected by her mood or by whatever point she was trying to support with it.
When I was very young, my mother worked as a housekeeper for a local motel. Neither of my parents drove—my mother because she had driven off the road once years before and had developed a complex about it and my father because he was legally blind—and so we didn’t own a car. To get to work, my mother caught a ride with one of my aunts or paid her brother-in-law five dollars to take her and five dollars to pick her up. At the time, we were living on an acre and a half of formerly swampy dirt and cleared brush that sat at the back of my grandparents’ land. My parents never owned any land of their own, and the trailer had been inherited from my grandmother’s sister who had moved across the property line to live at the bottom of a red clay hill on my great grandmother’s land. It’s odd to think about it now, how all of my relatives had clustered together that way, how the children never bought land of their own and stayed with their parents until they were too old or their families were too large and they dropped like overripe fruit into the yard. But it was convenient for my parents, who, as I said, didn’t drive.
My mother worked because my father couldn’t. I’ve never asked him what it is that he can see, though I’ve tested the limits of his sight indirectly, the way children often test the range of their parents’ love. I would wait until he was standing still or sitting in a room alone. It was important that he was alone because I didn’t want someone else to call out my name or give the game away. I’d stand just off to the side, or just far enough in the hall, waiting for him to turn toward me. I held myself perfectly still, thinking that if I didn’t breathe or move or make the floor under me groan, he couldn’t use his ears to find me. Sometimes, he’d come into my room and look, briefly, and even if he looked right at me, he didn’t see me. He’d walk into my room, call my name, but not the way you call someone you’re looking at, to draw them to attention. It was the voice you use when you’re searching for someone, when you’re facing a wall of trees that hold something you need out of your sight, and you have to call it, hoping it’ll come to you, hoping it will rise from whatever place it’s sleeping and sweep back toward you like the wind. He’d come into my room and say my name, and then, not seeing me, walk out again. And I’d be right there on the bed or on the floor, right in front of his face. My mother worked, and so we were alone a lot. Another game I liked to play was to wait until his voice grew hoarse and he was tired of saying my name, and then come up behind him and press my face against his damp lower back, and squeeze his sides and say, “I’m right, here, you missed me.”
And he’d groan and grumble and reach down and pinch me and say, “I missed you all right.”
When my mother came home in the late afternoon, she had no patience. She would call my name one time, and I felt something hard and cold shoot down my spine. I’d run into whatever room she was in, and she’d already be looking at me like she was mad about something. Her eyes were exceptionally dark and narrow. Her hair was black, and before she shaved her head in my teenage years, it was permed and in a bob of some kind. She wore no jewelry for most of her life. She had a kind of brutal mystery about her, as if nothing stuck to her, could stand to be near her without being torn or blasted into fragments.
I remember how the air turned dark and cold whenever she was around, and how I was afraid she’d hit me for something I had failed to account for, something that she scented in the air. My mother was not the kind of person who played games with children. Even when she tried to laugh with us, I always felt the edge of her ridicule stabbing my sides. When I first heard her weight on the steps outside, I’d hop up from bed and press my face to the window, and I’d watch as she mounted the stairs one at a time, their dusty solidity shaking under her as she lumbered into our home.
She sometimes had plastic bags with her, filled with misplaced and discarded things from other people’s lives. She brought pillows from the hotel where she worked. She brought an array of chargers and cords. She brought, occasionally, toys or shirts. At another time in my life, she worked at a hotel attached to a golf course in my hometown. And she’d bring all sorts of things home, more expensive things: mp3 players, cameras, name brand golf polo shirts, soaps and shampoos, things that looked out of place in the trailer where we lived. It was as if she was trying to lift us out of that place one item at a time, as if one can become better that way, rather than be made more acutely aware of one’s place by the curious gravity exerted by objects drawn into our orbit.
I have a brother, though my earliest memories do not contain him. He’s always been outdoors, roaming around, thumping under the house or vanishing off into the woods. Because of the way things turned out, I’m amazed at the remarkable tenderness contained in these early memories, their gray hues, but, I guess, what I find most remarkable is something that other people might find ordinary: my parents kept me at home during the first years of my life. That’s why they have this fenced in quality to them in memory. I wasn’t allowed to go beyond the yard.
When I got to be five or six, this limitation extended to the road. That is, I was allowed to leave my yard and to wander into my grandparents’ yard. I was allowed to plunge through the briars and the trees, leap over the clay banks of the ravine, or else slide down its slippery edges into the kudzu valley that grew all over the bits of cars in the ditch. But I was not allowed to cross the road to visit my father’s sister, who was known to me as someone who gave me toys and gifts and played with me and let me comb her hair. I could only visit her when my dad took my hand and helped me cross. Something else that sticks out from this time is how I never tried to lose his hand and run ahead of him. I never jerked my hand down and squirmed or fought him in the road. I never tried to harm my father at all. When I look at children in the streets, I see them testing their independence, trying to run away from their parents. I see them slipping from their fingers, darting here or there, into the street, the world so empty of danger until the very moment a car comes sliding out of nowhere and suddenly the world is much smaller and much vaster all at the same time.
But not me. I held on to my dad’s hand when we crossed the road. Or, I would ask my grandmother to take me across in search of my dad. The one time I crossed the road without permission, my mother had gone to town to buy me shoes for big boy school. I would be starting first grade in a few weeks. And I’d felt emboldened by this. And I’d run across the road to see my aunt. I stood there at the bottom of her hill, and I huffed up it, and I waved to her when she got out of her car after work. And she fed me a snack. She fed me grapes. And let me watch cartoons, then she walked me back home. And my mother was waiting for me. Or, rather, they told me that she had bought me something and it was waiting in one of the back bedrooms at my grandmother’s house. And I picked up the box of shoes on the bed, and out from behind the curtain that hung in front of the closet came my mother, suddenly, there, fierce and giant, and she took me hard by the arm and hit me over and over and over. And then she took the shoes away and said I’d have to go to school barefoot if I thought I was so grown.
But it’s remarkable to me that before that, when I was tiny, a baby really, a toddler, they kept me at home. It seems like the sort of gesture that is unfathomably tender. The sort of thing that you do when you love someone. And that’s the thing I have a hard time with. They loved me enough to keep me at home when I was four. They loved me enough not to let me go down the stairs by myself. They held my hand and down we went.
The first thing that my father said to me when my mother died was that she had loved me. And at the time, I thought, what a ridiculous thing to say. Not because her love was evident to me—it was not and is not, really, an evident thing—but because he thought it meant so much to me and I felt at the time that it didn’t. I scoffed and made a joke and he said it again, She loved you. You know that, right? She loved you.
It wasn’t sort of thing that we said in my family. My family was a series of hushed rages behind shut doors. We didn’t say I love you or good night or good morning. The very act of speaking felt strained and hard. To say anything at all felt like putting the most vulnerable part of yourself on the table. But I talked anyway. Not out of bravery or anything like that, but out of stupidity, which is how children talk, anyway. We make noise which has no meaning. But my father took to saying it after my mother died, and I made a big show of not returning the words. I thought, we’ve played the game this long according to one set of rules, and I don’t see a point in changing them.
But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this isn’t just my feeling as the baby of the family, the brat, the pain in the neck. All those years, I thought I was playing a trick on my dad, by pretending I wasn’t there, by holding myself back, thinking myself invisible.
How like the selfish child to think that he’s the one in charge, and to miss entirely that a father might pretend not to see you if he knew it would bring you joy to sneak up on him.
You miss a lot in first sight.
My mother died four years ago, this September. She had cancer for a short, intense time. I struggled with how to describe that. I did not want to say battle because it was not a battle exactly. She had cancer. And then she died from it. But we don’t have a word for that, the time we spend with an illness knowing it will likely kill us. She had lung cancer, grown from an esophageal tumor, or so that’s the story. I never know what to make of stories in my family, how much of them are true or made-up to resolve a discordant note. But I do know she had cancer and that she is now dead, has been dead for a few years.
Before my mother died, I didn’t write very much nonfiction. Even the essays I turned in for school were half-hearted. It’s the way you get to be when you’re raised in a family with a testy relationship to facts. I don’t mean truth exactly because I do think they told the truth in the best way they knew how. I mean facts, the things which we assume comprise the truth. One example: when I was very little, I asked my grandfather if there were baby chicks in the eggs collected from the chicken yard. He told me no, that the eggs we eat come from roosters, who are boys, and therefore cannot lay eggs with chicks in them. I believed that for a long time. And when I found out it was not true, I asked him about it. And he shrugged. He said, “Well, isn’t that something.”
Here is another example: when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she told me the doctor gave her the choice between chemo and hospice and she lingered on the word hospice and laughed. She said I’m a fighter. I fight. When my grandmother told me the story later, she said that it had been hard to convince my mother not to go into hospice, that she had all but signed the paperwork to wait out her death. Another story: the last conversation I had with my mother was about how annoying my brother was, how he called her and called her, wouldn’t let her rest because he wanted to bother her, get under her skin, irritate her. My brother told me he’d been on the phone with her when she’d told him that she loved him and she began to cry and cry. They didn’t talk about me at all.
I find it difficult to wrangle facts. I find it difficult to know what to do with them, how to organize them so they make sense and tell some sort of narrative. Truth is the thing which emerges from the careful arrangement of details. Fact is the word we use to describe a detail which has some particular relationship to the truth. But any group of details can be arranged so they seem to cohere into a truth—and when we have discerned that truth, we call those details facts, even if they previously were untrue. I had a difficult time with essays because facts always felt so slippery to me. My family believed in ghosts and hauntings—that if you slept on your back, a witch would climb on top of you and strangle you or curse you, that if you went to bed after eating too much pork or salt, the devil would enter your room, slit your dreams and enter them. What was I to do with essays and their order, their tidiness, their directness, when the only things I knew had to do with obscurity and the indirect. Take love, for another example, which to some people is expressed via touch or via words or some other means of affection. In my family, love was the slow accumulation of moments in which I was not subjected to great harm.
What is love if you get it secondhand? Is it a fact or merely a detail?
I am more comfortable in fiction than in nonfiction. In fiction, you get to decide what is real and not real, what is true and not true, which details are facts and which are mere detail. In fiction, I am the discerning eye, the single source of truth. But when I tried to write about my mother, all my stories were flat. I couldn’t move her into fictional language, it seemed. Indeed, my journals about the days she died are full of details about the weather and the feeling that a chasm had opened up in me. I was trying in those early days to pin something down, to assemble a body of details that might give me some hint or clue of how to go on. I also felt that I had no right to feel that way, so sad about her, after all the hateful things I’d thought about her or been subjected to by her hands.
Here are some details about my mother: she once made me wipe under my arms in front of company because she said I was musty and smelled; she once opened a journal I was keeping under the bed and read it out in front of a party; she called me titty baby and sissy baby and made fun of the way I talked; she once attempted to empty out my bank account using blank checks she’d found in my closet; she told me that she needed two-hundred dollars to buy school supplies for my niece but used the money to buy Natural Light instead; one time, she got into such a frenzy whipping me that she broke the light overhead and then made me pick the glass from my bedsheets in the dark. She was universally beloved by her friends. She had the sort of personality that people are drawn to—she could listen for hours, she had an encyclopedic knowledge of neighborhood gossip, and she was funny, could skewer you with an observation so keen and true that even if it was about you, you had to laugh. She was generous with her time. She wanted a lot of the world, and it had so little to offer her. She wanted to die, but my grandmother wouldn’t let her.“In my family, love was the slow accumulation of moments in which I was not subjected to great harm.”
The thing that kept me from writing about her, about grief, in fiction was that I lacked genuine, human feeling for my mother. Or, no, that’s not true exactly. What I lacked was empathy for her. I was so interested in my own feelings about her that I couldn’t leave room for her feelings or for what she wanted out of life. I couldn’t leave a space for her to be a person. I think, ultimately, other people aren’t real to us until they’re suffering or gone. That’s when the imagination begins to work, trying to sort things out, trying to get them right, to understand them. I couldn’t write fiction because I hadn’t yet mastered my own feelings. I couldn’t write fiction because I had not yet come to understand her or what her life had meant to her. I was solipsistic and righteous in my anger, my fear, my sadness. I missed all of the eerie symmetries between us—her trauma, my trauma, her rape, my rape, her anger, my anger. It’s not that I came to love her really. But I did learn to extend to her the same grace that my friends extended to me. That’s one of the beautiful things about writing, the way we learn about others and what that tells us about ourselves.
I think one of the hardest things to do in writing is to set aside the selecting intelligence which governs a piece and let another take over. When you write about the suffering of others, particularly the suffering of people to whom you are close, you must subjugate yourself, let yourself be subsumed into them. You can’t be waiting for them to finish so that you can quickly say how much you agree and then add your own turn or twist. It’s strange, really, that to grasp that which has hurt you, you must trust it not to hurt you when you let it inhabit you.
Do you know about baptism? How they hold you and lower you into the water? It’s like that. You have to trust they’ll lift you out.
Her name is Mary Jean Speigner. She died young. She worked jobs so hard that the heels of her feet were cracked and gray. She dipped Skoal and spat it into Natural Light cans. She watched every soap opera religiously. Her favorite fish was whitey. She didn’t eat salt. She didn’t eat sugar. She fried her chicken black. She checked her blood sugar in the morning and in the afternoon, her blood purple-red as she pressed it flat on the test slips. She had a tremor in her left hand. She had a pert nose and hooded, dark eyes. Her favorite color was green. Her favorite show was 90210. She loved Hugh Grant. She loved to laugh. Her favorite music was blues. She had a terrible singing voice but loved to sing. A man raped her when she was young, and nobody said anything about it. Nobody did anything about it. She saw him every day. She drank every day. Sometimes, she didn’t eat because her stomach hurt so bad that she wanted to cry. But she didn’t cry. She never cried. Just once. When her sister called her an ugly liar when they were full-grown. She went home and cried on the bed for hours. She hated bugs. Her voice was raspy. She hated to be touched. She hated to be spoken to like she was stupid. She hated secrets. She never told the truth. She danced all the time. She slept late. She stayed up late. She had trouble sleeping. She was afraid to hear about the dreams of other people; it was like a screeching sound to her, to hear about what other people had dreamed. She could make a joke out of anything. She loved to tell stories. She believed in magic. Nobody stood up for her so she had to stand up for herself, and after a while, she got tired of standing.
I wish I had gotten to know her better.
I think we would have been great friends.
I wish I had tried harder. Sooner.
This isn’t enough. It’ll never be enough.
But I have to stop for now.