“You see? Everyone will ultimately betray their mother.”
Mine (mother, I mean) always made powerful prophecies. (Most of them self-fulfilling, which is actually mighty scary, if you think about it.) On this occasion, at some point in the late 90s, we lay sprawled in our respective armchairs in the living room, half-heartedly watching Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (a biopic) on our tiny TV. My mother’s comment was aimed at a scene where the actress, at age seventeen, was engaged in smiling conversation at a street-side café with her father, whom she was seeing for the first time since he had abandoned her mother when Sophia Loren was but a child.
I was a teenager then, estranged from my own father, who had been more interested in his work than in me for the first thirteen years of my life, and then largely absent after my parents’ subsequent grotesquely ugly divorce. To be honest, he was never interested in me at all, and that was fine because I had my mother. I was her staunchest ally for a very long time – unflailingly on her side in all circumstances, her most intimate confidante and her most trusted adviser, her best friend, her biggest love, her greatest pride. In our narrative, my father represented the greatest evil and embodied everything that was ugly and despicable in a human being.
Naturally, therefore, my mother’s comment resonated with me, and although it was inconceivable then that I would ever reconcile with my father with the same smiling nonchalance that Sophia Loren was portraying, I promised myself anyway that I would never betray my mother by making amends with my father.
Of course, I did see and talk to my father since then. With the knowledge and consent of my mother, moreover. I spent a few holidays with him in exotic locations and accepted his money (after asking for it) when I made the decision to study abroad. But he was always the enemy. Not to be trusted, but to be mocked and to be faulted. The last significant time I spoke to him was in 2003, when I asked him for the last time to pay for my studies. After that, we never communicated. Until I received an e-mail from him fourteen years later, in early 2017.
Looking back now at my teens and twentues, I see myself as a prisoner of my mother’s mind. Living in an enchanted tower of a worldview that she spun around herself – and around me by proxy. A world that was (and continues to be for her) malignant, dangerous, and untrustworthy. Moving out of her realm of influence – and I mean intellectually and emotionally rather than physically (although both are connected) – was one of the most important milestones of my life.
It was some time after I had emancipated myself that I received my father’s email. Yet still, my first reaction was a primal, debilitating fear. My father was asking to meet me, and I was certain that his only intention could have been to hurt my mother through me. Luckily, a second reaction came on the heels of the first, carrying with it a speck of hope and curiosity. My father – whom I don’t ever remember hugging me or praising me (to think of him telling me he loves me seems absurd), who happily ignored consecutive years of birthdays and Christmases, and of whose life I presently knew nothing – was reaching out.
I agreed. We met in a café. We chatted. We smiled, and even laughed. I never told my mother.
We met again last week, after another prolonged absence (however, this time we exchanged birthday and holiday greetings – twice!) and I feel that a comical unfairness has been orchestrated by the fates.
Because my father, over coffee, is actually a very nice man.
I scrutinised him thoroughout our conversation – looking for parts of me in his features, his mannerisms, finding evidence of common characteristics in the things we talked about. It was pleasant to talk to my father – we discussed books and current events, we came to eerie understandings on certain issues that were more emotional than factual (and therefore not as inviting of accord). I found myself hesitatingly admiring him – his wit, his knowledge, his understanding of the world – and even being endeared by his antiquated old-man opinions.
And that’s what’s comically unfair.
It’s not fair that I can have a pleasant and stimulating conversation with my father, to whom I have no emotional attachment, while my relationship with my mother, who loved me and cared for me through extreme hardship, is drowning under emotional baggage.
My relationship with my mother has… evolved. Today, there is very little we talk about that I find stimulating or interesting or informative or amusing. Every minute I spend in her presence, I study her meticulously so as to absolutely prevent becoming (or being) what I see her to be – a fearful, ignorant, selfish child. I make every effort not to snarl in frustration and exasperation at this child for whom I can only scrape the meagrest positive human emotions: an ounce of pity and a quantum of affection, wrapped with the stiff bow of daughterly duty. Whatever has my mother done to me to deserve this?
I know, I know. It’s not about her at all. It’s all about me.
After our last meeting with my father, while crossing a busy street, he said something that seemed to be a boulder rolling off of his chest, pushed out by the wave of emotions lifted at the urgency of our parting. Smiling sheepishly, and putting his arm around my shoulders he blurted out, almost in spite of himself: “I wish I hadn’t lost so much time.”
It’s not fair. But that’s the way it is. And I’m grateful for all of it.