Submitted: June 26th, 2019
Status: Rejected (But, to be fair, I misread the word count requirement…)
The stories you will read here are true. However, it should be noted that the accounts are from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. Though the tone and feeling of each story about me and my family rings with absolute truth, at times, my exact recollection of any given event may be a bit skewed as time has faded these most poignant moments of my life to faded memories. Each one has left a particular taste in my mouth and, though I am familiar with the flavors every feeling emanating from these experiences, it is sometimes hard to recall the exact mixture and measure of spices that put it all together in the first place, though I knew each one intimately on its own. Had I had the presence of mind to write down each story immediately after they happened, perhaps more of the details would be accurate.
Nevertheless, reader, this is as accurate of an account as I can give of my life thus far growing up with a Filipino mother, a mostly absent father, a distant sister and a reclusive brother. To know the full truth of it all, we would need to dig deeper with the personal recollections and memories of my brother, mother, father, sister, nephew, nieces and anyone else who flowed in and out of the story we weaved together from my mother’s childhood until now. One could even argue that our stories began well before my mother took her first breaths, and they will continue on well after all of us have physically gone from this world. If I knew the whole truth, perhaps my stories would be different, perhaps my perspective would change. As it stands, I’ve done the best with what I’ve been given, trying not to embellish or hold back too much in an effort to cast my net as widely as possible and cater to a greater audience.
What I can say with absolute certainty is that, despite all of the heartache and pain and dysfunction we all contributed to the Scott-Genao-Williams household (and most likely still do), I do love my family underneath it all in that deep, ephemeral way that happens when you have the same blood running through your veins as the people around you. There is love and hate, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. All necessary to the fabric of any family.
I couldn’t imagine having lived any other life, and, if given the choice, with a few small exceptions, I wouldn’t want to change the life I’ve lived so far. Without accepting everything that is my family, I would be someone entirely alien to what I am today. I would be definitively rejecting myself, and I can’t keep rejecting these central parts of who I am as I have done in the past. And to be utterly honest, I don’t think I’d ultimately want to be any version of myself that was unable to accept the juxtaposed balance one needs to maintain familial bonds, however precarious. Even if it would have erased some of the pain experienced along the way.
And so, even though I know it’s probably much too late, I want to thank each and every part of my family, each part of me, whether you are named specifically in this particular account of my life or not. You are forever a part of the fabric of my life, the story that we’ve weaved together, the stories that we will weave independently of one another, and the story that will continue to develop well after we’ve all gone from this life to whatever it is that comes next. I am sorry if my gratitude is too late for some of you. Nevertheless, thank you for everything you have helped me become.
The Way It Was
“A mother is always the beginning. She is how things began.” -Amy Tan
Hoping for a Brighter Past
There was this time not too long ago, when I was watching families gathered in a town square in England while on holiday. It was an unusually warm and sunny day in Nottingham, and I had been wandering around inside and outside the city center for most of the day. I was sitting there at that moment, watching the people go about their lives around me, waiting for my husband to meet me after an outing he’d taken on his own. The day was elongated and time, stretched to its full capacity, allowed for those rare moments of quiet reflection and wistfulness to have full reign over my conscious mind, bubbling up from the depths to which I buried it many years ago.
There’s this large fountain in the square that draws people to it like moths to a flame. It is inescapable for the young and young at heart to not be, at the very least, tempted by the sparkling waters, promising cool relief, adventure and escape from the demands of everyday life, from reality. It is almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the mayhem that takes place around this fountain, especially on the beautiful, sunny day that this particular moment took place. The concentrated exhilaration of children playing freely, living life, laughing is undeniably captivating. The sounds alone draw one in, recalling to mind a simpler time in life where there were no deadlines, no to-do lists; a time when the day that lay ahead was full of possibility, hope and total freedom.
There were kids fully dressed and swimming around in the pools, soaked to the bone. There were kids tentatively splashing in the puddles, contemplating whether or not they would go for deeper waters. There was a little girl who decided that she no longer wanted to swim in her underwear, and, upon this realization, she heedlessly tore her knickers off and flung them behind her in wild abandon as she squealed and ran towards the splashing waters, her mom laughing at her undiluted delight while picking up the trail of discarded clothing she’d left in her wake.
There was one particular little girl that caught most of my attention. She clung to her mother’s legs tightly, moving wherever mom went in perfect, unconscious synchronicity. Her head barely reaching the mother’s knees, she held on steadfastly, hiding behind or standing between those tall, safe legs and watched as her older sister splashed about in the water. It was not that the little girl was scared of anyone or anything. The wide smile on her face obliterated this initial theory. She simply loved the comfort of her mother’s presence. This tall, elegant woman moved carefully with her little one, shifted her weight, her gaze, her every orientation to make sure the little girl’s post amongst her knees and legs was never too far disturbed or compromised. She lovingly held her tiny hands when they had to walk longer distances around the fountains as the other sister darted to and fro amongst the waters.
That little girl made me wonder. Made me hope for a past that I’ll never be able to fully recall, not in any clear detail. Was there ever a time when I only saw knees and legs, when there were these magical motherly hands that gently held my own to make sure I didn’t fall? Though I’ll never know for sure, as I watched this little girl and her mother, I hoped and ached with all that was in me that there was a time in my life when my mother and I were synced the way they were in that moment. There had to be a time when my mother was all love and care and concern, when there was no fighting, no double standards or ulterior motives. There had to be a time when my mother and I loved and understood each other in perfect union. If only I could recall a glimpse of that moment, when we loved each other unconditionally, when there was no bullshit, no ultimatums, disappointments, demands. I ache to know, even for a moment, when I wasn’t angry and waiting for a thousand apologies and she wasn’t too prideful and waiting for a million thank-yous.
There had to have been a time like this with me and my mother, where peace reigned and we met each other’s needs without question and without feeling obligated. This is the wistful hope I cling to like that little girl hugging her mother’s legs. This is the memory I want to overshadow all of the horror and shame, all of the anger and regret that we’ve both exacted on each other for most of the conscious memories we both have and sometimes share.
For most of my life, each of us has been entrenched in our bunkers and separated by a no-man’s land full of uncertainty, miscommunication, misunderstanding, vulnerability. I’d sacrifice almost anything for that unrelenting bliss I witnessed that sunny day in the town square, that subconscious synchronicity where mothers and infant daughters exist.
A Brief Family History
Though this story is ultimately focused on my relationship with my mom, it would be hard to tell it without talking about the rest of my family. We all are a part of each other, a part of her, and the story wouldn’t work without knowing them, at least in part.
Let’s start with my mom. She was born in the Philippines in the 1950s. From almost the very beginning, her life was tragically tough. She’d lost both of her parents and her little brother when she was very young. Though she never told me how her parents died, she did open up enough once to tell me about her little brother and how he met his end: she and her brother were crossing a busy street in Manilla, on their way home. Somehow, in the chaos, she lost hold of her brother’s hand. When she turned to catch hold of him again, to get him safely to the sidewalk, it was too late. Engulfed in busy city traffic, he was hit by a car and repeatedly run over by other cars speeding by too quickly to avoid their part in the tragedy unfolding on that street in Manila. He died right there in front of her. She never did tell me his name, and I suspect it is because speaking it would make it all real again, forcing her to acknowledge one of the most soul crushing experiences she had ever witnessed in her life. She didn’t want to relive those moments if she could help it.
After losing all of her immediate family, my mom told me in fits and spurts over the years a little about how she bounced around from grandparents, who she really loved and who also eventually died, to aunts and uncles, until she ended up with one particular aunt-uncle pair. If I remember correctly, her uncle was the brother of her father and her aunt was so by marriage. The aunt didn’t like my mother, not one bit, and because of this, she made my mom’s life in their home very unpleasant, a conservative description to describe the horrors her aunt put her through while living in their household. Again, I think my mom digressed from outlining the specifics, as those memories brought too much pain, and she didn’t want to confront it if she could. For people who experience hardships in the consistent way my mother has, it is often so much easier to bury it all away.
My mother never really explained the exact details of what happened to her while she lived with her aunt and uncle. (She only hinted.) Based on what I know about her now, I suspect it involved a lot of physical and most likely a great deal of emotional abuse coupled with a lot of isolation. I would even venture to say that this particular period in her life was one of her defining moments. It is a major part of what made her the secretive, resourceful, exacting, charming, impersonal, gregarious and standoffish woman she is today.
She met my brother’s father sometime in the 60s, during or just after the Vietnam War. (My memory is hazy here.) In any case, she met Daniel Scott Sr., they fell in love, got married and he took her away from her hard life in Manila. From the pictures I remember seeing, and the love letter I once discovered that she had written to the only man she ever took on as a husband, I truly believe my brother’s father was the one and only man she had ever truly loved in her life. I also believe that his untimely death a few years after my brother was born was the final straw for my mother. After him, she just couldn’t handle love and loss the same way. Death took her parents, her brother, and death, in the form of Agent Orange, took her true love, leaving her alone in a foreign country with a young son. Love for her made its final transition to something that resembled survival more than affection.
So by the time all of this happened, my mom was in North Carolina in the 1970s, raising my older brother on her own. Despite her losses, despite being a tiny, Filipina woman, Cynthia Scott had gumption. My mother from back then until now never put up with anyone’s shit. She knew how to stand her ground, whether or not she was in the right, no matter what.
One of her favorite stories to tell me about her time in North Carolina during this period in her life was when she literally fought off a man who tried to steal her car while my brother was strapped in a child’s seat in the backseat. That man literally didn’t know what hit him. He took one passing glance at my tiny mother and her small child and assumed she presented an easy score. To his detriment. He definitely paid the price for it. She beat the shit out of him until he had to concede and run away, defeated. Part of me hopes the spirit she showed that day is in me somewhere deep down, even if it’s only in a smaller dose. I’ve always admired her tough-as-nails approach to anything life threw at her, even to some degree, when she threw that toughness into my own path.
After some time, she met my sister’s father in the mid- to late 70s. By 1979, she was having her second child, my older sister. The details about my sister’s father are even hazier than the stories I vaguely know about my brother’s, so let’s just say that after some indefinite amount of time, their relationship came to an end. I don’t know if my sister immediately moved with her father and that side of our family or whether she lived with my mom and brother before ultimately making her ultimate transition away from us. What I think I know is that by the time I was born, she had been living with her family in New York City, and it would take me some time before she came down to connect with our little family in Tampa, Florida on one of her much anticipated summer visits.
My mom met my dad in North Carolina. He was in the military, stationed at Camp Lejeune. As you can suspect, I know very little of how my mother and father met, and I know even less about why they broke up and why he left. What I do know is that he is the reason we ended up in Tampa, and once we were settled into our little apartment, things grew sour between my mother and father, and he split back off to New York. Where my sister also was. It seemed like all of our family was up there, thousands of miles away from the three of us: my brother, me and Ma.
My father is about ten years younger than my mother. He was also the type who really struggled in school and didn’t really enjoy institutionalized education. Or anything regimented and rule-based. He was a doer who craved, above all else, freedom. So when he joined the Marines, it was a surprise to some in the family how much he flourished. He quickly rose within the ranks and was a part of many large scale operations led by special force units, of which he was a part. Some of which I believed he commanded. How high up he went I don’t know exactly; what I do know is that when he gave me his dog tags for a birthday present a few years back, he added that if shit ever hit the fan wherever I was in the world, all I would need to do is show his tags to someone in a US Embassy or Consulate, and they’d take care of me immediately, no questions asked. I don’t know if he was embellishing or not, but part of me hopes it’s true since I’ve been living and working outside of the U.S. since 2009. It’s always good to have a safety net.
When he met my mom during his training in North Carolina, he was still a young twenty-something kid and Ma, by that point, was a seasoned mother with two kids in tow, so, to put it lightly, my dad didn’t handle fatherhood very well. Something went off between my mom and him in the late 80s or early 90s, resulting in his immediate departure and less than consistent communication skills with the two-year-old daughter he so willingly left behind.
So though I was a half black, half Filipina girl growing up in a minority, low-income neighborhood, most of my identity was solidly grounded in being Filipino and, slightly, in being American. The usual tropes apply: second generation Asian girl growing up with a demanding immigrant parent who wants her to be a doctor or lawyer or nurse or (you guessed it) a goddamn doctor in order to live a better life than the one her mother had…while also financially funding her mother later on in life for the sacrifices she made to make sure her kids were raised in the great country of limitless opportunity. Part of me wishes I had a little bit more influence from the black side of my family back then. There were so many experiences I didn’t understand that had everything to do with my blackness; understanding this particular part of me, and where that placed me in the world around me, would have made some of the painful, awkward parts of growing up a little more tolerable, a little less confounding. It would have helped me lift up the veil of systemic racism in America a little more quickly. Being the second generation progeny of an immigrant parent already required me to grow up fast, to let go of my childhood a little sooner than some of my more privileged peers. Growing up with the knowledge and understanding of my blackness in conjunction with my “Filipino-ness” wouldn’t have dramatically changed much of how I grew up and learned about the world around me. If anything, it would have helped me be a bit more savvy when dealing with people outside my social and financial circles. I would have understood my position amongst all of that bullshit a lot sooner.
After my father, I don’t recall any other serious relationships my mother had with other men. For a long while, I did have someone who more or less stepped in and filled the role of father for us. His name is Uncle Joe. Not an uncle in any real, blood relations sense, of course; it’s a Filipino thing. Everyone is an uncle, aunt or cousin, regardless of DNA. Though I am filled with anger and a sense of abandonment now that he’s gone, now that he so willingly left without so much as a goodbye when things got really tough with my mom’s health and overall demeanor, I do think of him fondly…for the most part.
Uncle Joe walked me down the aisle when I got married, he taught me how to drive a manual car, he taught me how to fix cars, he gave me advice and affection, knowing full well I wouldn’t get much of that from Ma. He was the soft counterpart of my mother, calming her when she was angry, a voice of reason she would sometimes actually acknowledge and listen to. But like most men in my mom’s life, and subsequently mine, he couldn’t stick it out forever. Hell, he did last a lot longer than most. We had him in our lives for about three decades. I guess he felt he’d done all he could after all that time. From the last time I saw him, Christmas of 2016, he’d concluded that it was time to finally clock out.
From what I hear, he’s married now and far away. Maybe somewhere in Texas where others of the Estrada clan live. I don’t imagine I’ll ever hear from him ever again, which breaks my heart a little. How do you transition from having someone in your life, for most of your life, to accepting that they’re gone? Feeling what I feel through all of this, I can’t imagine what my mom must be going through. I imagine she feels incredibly betrayed, disillusioned, abandoned, forgotten. No one deserves that.
That is my family history in a nutshell. Of course there are many roads and insights and understandings that will break off into separate tangents, deviate from and weave back into the brief account I’ve shared here. Like a huge, infinite web of interconnected lifelines. And our small part of that web will infinitely intersect into others’ webs ad infinitum until the small roles we played in this story are no longer distant memories for anyone. That’s life I guess.
And the story I will share here is about my thread of life thus far.
The Not Quite Beginning
The relationship one has with her mother is unreadable, amorphous, strained. The only difference between a mother who is your best friend and a mother who is your mortal enemy is timing. Something in that strained relationship indicates an inability to sync, to find that wonderful place where you’re both seeing the same thing, where you’re both devoid of preconceived notions and, where your guard is down. Those moments with my mother were rare and altogether non-existent until I reached thirty. And even then, it was hit or miss. We still found it hard to find that common ground, to let go of years of built up tension, remorse, regret, anger. But when we did, I got a glimpse of what my life would have been like if neither of us had built our protective walls, definitively separating ourselves from each other.
She is an enigma, my mother. The only one I’ve ever met who simultaneously pushes us away emotionally while begging us to stay close physically. (She never did quite get the complementary relationship between emotional and physical love with us.) Cynthia Scott has to be in control, no matter what, no exceptions. She especially needed ultimate control over her life and over her version of the lives she thought we lived both in and out of her home. When we didn’t fit that mold, when she found out our secrets, we were scorned, excluded. We were expected to bear our souls for her, break our backs for her needs, but the reverse never seemed to be the same. She could remain recluse in her guarded tower, hiding her secrets from us, never quite letting us completely into her heart. I hated my mother for this, for these double standards, and yet, I never could suppress my longing to know her. But I knew better, for to reveal my true need for her and vulnerable desire to know her would only increase her thirst to control me. Loving Cynthia Scott was and always will be a contest. If we ever showed her too many cards, she concluded that she would win the game, and thus, we would have to subject ourselves to her every whim with no room for questioning.
Even now, reflecting on this many faceted mother, this woman who was so guarded, so vulnerable yet unwilling to submit, I am awash in waves of agony and anger. I want my mother and yet I do not. Because I couldn’t let her win. I can’t let her control me. I don’t trust what she would do with that power because I know she would wield it in ways that I could never imagine and in ways that I could never, or at least not consciously, do to someone who loved me.
My mother is the only person in my life who I simultaneously hate with a fiery rage and illogically love beyond reason. My love for her is what makes me hate her so. Because what she’s done with my love thus far has only been to manipulate and mold me into something useful, something to her liking and in her image. She never took my love for what it simply was. She had to use it for her benefit like she uses all things. And for that I hated her. But I’m no longer a child looking at my mother through a hero’s lens. I understand why she does the things she does. I know why her children are not spared in her need to be resourceful, to survive. For the most part, I know enough about her own upbringing that makes her this way. Conniving, cunning, charismatic. That’s how she survived. That’s how she helped us survive. And so for that I respect her, maybe even love her at times. And so I will swing from one extreme to the other, love and hate, understanding and confusion, until the day I die. Or until she does.
I’ve long since stopped hoping she would change for the better, that she could love us just to love us. Growing up and living in the real world killed that last childhood hope, but I’m better off. At least now, I can find pieces of resolve and respect for the woman my mother was and is. She was born hard, and that’s the way she’ll die. I have to respect her for that, even if it’s at the expense of her never truly knowing me or I her.
Confined in Small Spaces
“No influence is so powerful as that of the mother.” -Sarah Josepha Hale
I don’t think I quite understood as a kid what my mother did for work. My little eyes and my young mind simply saw a mother working at a desk in the living-dining room area of our small apartment, looking at large piles of papers and calling people on the phone. I remember she was so friendly and disarming. Looking back on it now, I am even more amazed at how far she got with these people on the phone because she was essentially calling numbers that were never intended for her to have or use. She was essentially cold calling hundreds of people a week with an almost perfect success rate.
Despite the fact that she was literally intruding on a person’s private traumatic event, almost everyone on the other end of the line ended up chatting with her, telling her even more about their personal lives than they intended, agreeing to meet her and go to the clinic she recommended to receive the physical therapy they definitely would need after a serious car accident. Looking back on it now, I wonder why my mother never put in half as much energy to charm her own children, to pull them in. But I guess she was good with people as long as they weren’t family. She could get intimate, share who she was, build relationships, however superficial they may or may not have turned out. There was no risk of these people needing more from her in a way that her children would demand if she ever dared to draw us in closer towards intimacy, falsely grounded or not.
At least once a week, my mom and I would take a long drive into downtown Tampa. As a little girl, I loved doing this with my mother, and it still remains one of the few fond memories I have of her. We’d always listen to Queen and James Brown on the long drive. I still love those records to this day, and will always be able to think affectionately of my mother when I play those familiar and cherished songs. Before going to the post office, we would drive to her favorite Asian supermarket in downtown Tampa. She’d get a few things here and there that she needed for dinners for that week – she never seemed to have a fully stocked kitchen. She’d let me pick out one or two little snacks. My usual go-to choices were one of two things. The first was this flat, cylindrical, metal tin with a dulled gold color to it; it had this sticker with Chinese script on it and pictures of fresh fruit. When you opened the metal container, there were all these hard candies covered in this powdered sugar, sweet but not too sweet. Once you got past the sugar coating, the candy would sing out in zingy flavors of lemon, lime, pineapple or sour grape. The second snack of choice was char siu pork belly, a Cantonese dish made from scratch in the store. I preferred the latter and still do to this day. Another good memory.
After going to the market, we’d drive to the post office. My mom would always make me stay in the car, and I would watch her go in, unlock a small mailbox and pick up a large, yellow manila envelope folded in half and stuffed full with papers. She’d quickly slip that envelope in her bag, darting her eyes from side to side, close the mailbox and come back to the car. It seemed so innocuous to me at the time. There was no hint of disrepute or conspiracy to my young eyes. Mom was just picking up her work papers. They had numbers on them, and she would call those numbers to, hopefully, talk people into meeting her chiropractor friends. She was being nice and helping people.
The veneer has long since gone. Mom was doing illegal work, and I assume that, since she had never had a normal job that I can remember while growing up, she always did some type of illegal job because it paid better. She had a friend who worked in the police department who would copy and leave those papers for her in the mailbox. She would call those people on the phone and take them to specific chiropractors at a designated clinic who would, in return, pay her a worthwhile commission for the money they made from the new clientele. Not necessarily illegal to epic proportions. No one was getting killed or hurt. The people my mom brought to the clinic always had the choice to opt out of getting therapy. They were never coerced. And quite a few of them became good friends with my mother long after she made money off of their therapy sessions at the clinic.
What other choice did my mom have? She was an immigrant, widowed at a young age from her first born’s father. She was single and had an education degree from her country of birth that was barely the equivalent to a high school diploma in the U.S. And we all know how far a high school diploma gets you in the workplace in the states. This is one of the rare instances where I would defend my mother tooth and nail for the decisions she made, however nefarious. She did what she needed to do to keep food on the table, to keep us in clean clothes, to keep a roof over our heads. I was never hungry. I never had to go without hot water, a nice bed or a television to watch for fun because the bills weren’t paid. The worst thing I dealt with was not having name brand clothes or the expensive supplies from our school lists. I try to hold on to these few good things that came out of being my mother’s daughter. She took care of us the best way she knew how. And she did a damn good job of it in those respects.
If you know Ma, when you hear her name, you immediately recall all of the amazing food she has cooked for you and, at times, forced you to eat well beyond your normal capacity. Hers is one of the best tables you will ever eat at in your life. I never understood why my mom never tried to monetize her greatest skill the way she did with everything else. Perhaps cooking for her was too personal to dirty with business or money. Perhaps she just didn’t want to work the long hours it would take to launch a restaurant from the ground up. Her choices in these respects were admittedly true to her Filipino roots: you should show off your cooking to friends and family but only in the confines of your home.
Ma is an artist with food. We would go to restaurants on occasion and she could take one or two bites of a dish, tell you exactly what was used to cook it, down to the type of oil used, the spice combinations and the cooking temperature(s) and techniques used to make the meal. But she wouldn’t stop her analysis there. She would take her musings, recreate at home what she had eaten at the restaurant (adding in her own particular spins to the dish), and it would taste better than what we’d consumed on our night eating out. I’m grateful for having had the metabolism I’d had while growing up.
There was this time when I was about eight- or nine-years old when I’d gotten it into my head one evening that I wanted to cook something to add to the dinner table. Prior to this whim, I’d been making “homemade” applesauce because the Mott’s brand at the grocery store was a luxury item we couldn’t buy all the time. (I was obsessed with applesauce at this particular time in my life.) Additionally, my mother being the practical woman she is, she concluded that fresh apples were cheaper and healthier than anything you could buy in a jar. So, whenever I wanted the sauce, I peeled apples, I boiled them, I mashed them and I ate them. And my nine-year-old palate thought I’d done a pretty damn good job. So of course, after a few rounds of making the best apple sauce of my life, I needed to stretch my expertise to new heights, and I’d decided that it would be in the form of soup.
Again, my nine-year-old brain thought soup would be the easiest thing to make from scratch and with absolutely zero know-how. Soup was liquidy, so, I would obviously need water. Soup had vegetables in it, and the potatoes and carrots in the fridge seemed to be good additions to my masterpiece; they were, after all, in most of the canned soups I loved eating, so I logically concluded that potatoes and carrots must be mandatory for homemade soup. Everything seemed easy enough.
I boiled the water. I chopped the (unclean and unpeeled) potatoes and carrots and added them in. I poured in an ungodly amount of salt and pepper. And I watched it all boil happily away. Then I realized, soup needed color. To achieve this, I got my tiny hands on a bottle of red food coloring. I mean, it did say food on it, so that was a no brainer. The food coloring, and some old cabbage I’d come across and added at the last minute, was my pièce de résistance to this soup creation. I had accomplished what I set out to do. I had made a meal just like my mother, and I brimmed with excitement as I anticipated her wholehearted approval, as I fantasized the look of pure joy that was sure to be on her face when she ate her first spoonful.
The look on my mother’s face as I placed the soup pot on the table spoke otherwise. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, her palate clearly offended. She took a small bowlful of my soup-like concoction and tentatively sniffed at it. Then she sucked her teeth in disapproval and took one small, obligatory bite as I watched, already crestfallen. I’m surprised she managed to swallow it down before she began teasing me about how disgusting it was. Too much salt. Dirty vegetables. Too much pepper. And why is it red? I was thoroughly crushed, utterly defeated. Much like my reactions to my mother now, her approval, wanted or not, weighs on me heavily. Sometimes, it literally affects the way I physically function. Just imagining her disapproval is enough to push me into an anxiety attack.
So you can imagine nine-year-old me, facing a mother at the dinner table who is not pulling her punches in her commentary on my food. Eyes brimming with tears, I hung my head low, pushed away my own bowl of soup, and ate her food in silence while she belittled me and poked fun at how bad it was. Uncle Joe, in his soft counterpart moment, ate bowls and bowls of it, expressing how much he liked it. He almost ate the entire pot on his own. I’m sure his digestive system was thankful that I’d used the smallest pot. But his kind affirmations were too late. I already knew the truth. Ma had established I was a terrible cook, and she still holds on to this belief to this day.
And then, the final dagger: on that night, at the end of our meal, as a few tears managed to fall down my cheeks, visible to anyone looking at me (because I just couldn’t take any more of her verbal jabs and jests), she concluded, “I can’t lie, Alexis. I have to tell the truth.”
It was one of those things that I didn’t quite understand until much later in life, like a haze that has been partially lifted. Well, lifted enough for you to finally see clearly what you did not understand before, when you were looking at the scene with younger, less critical eyes. I don’t even remember how old I was when I overhead my mom talking about this on the phone.
I just remember thinking, “I could’ve had another brother or sister.”
She was on the phone with someone, I don’t know who, talking round and round in circles like most Filipinos do. What she was talking about before and after I heard what I had heard has since lost all significance to me. All I remember were the tones in her voice; they were blue and slow, flowing out of her in a manner I’d never heard her speak to any of us. She was always so tough that it was hard to accept this version of her that was so alien to me. She sounded like a mother completely unlike the one I’d grown accustomed to. Gentle, soft, remorseful. My mother would never dare to lose face, especially not in front of us. This mother talking on the phone in the other room was someone I knew very little of, someone that I couldn’t coax out of the mother I encountered on a daily basis, even on my best day.
I don’t recall the words she said, the words I later recalled in feeling only. I understood what she had done before she was pregnant with me, and I don’t judge her for it because I don’t know the whole story. In that private moment I’d happened upon from the confines of my bedroom door, slightly ajar, she sounded so broken, so different from that tough mom I knew so well. Even if she never speaks of it, even if she never shows that weakness to me directly, I know without a doubt in my mind that that experience broke her in ways I will never truly understand. Not unless I’m ever forced into a situation where I have to take the same way out.
I often wonder what that brother or sister would have been like. Would he or she have grown up with me like my brother had? Or would he or she, like my sister, live in this mysterious world with family that were separated and far away from us? Would that brother or sister be the bane of my mother’s existence like I continually was, or would we in equal turns and with equal veracity irritate the living hell out of our mother in private as much as we incited her boastful admiration in public? Would I have had a consistent confidante to cry with, to celebrate with as our mother remained indifferent and lost in her own world? Or would we have given into my mother’s constant ploy to divide on conquer by pitting us against each other? Would we have been enemies with me on one side, and they on the other, mom by their side, cheering them on?
Suppositions are all I have. I’ll never know that sibling. That person will never exist, and so my questions will never be answered. The only other terrifying thought I have when imagining this person come to life is: who ultimately has it better? Would it have been better for me, or more accurately better for my mother, if I had met the same fate as this unknown sibling? To never be born and therefore never allowed a chance to irritate and disappoint her constantly. To never be born and therefore never exposed to the anger and hurt and isolation of an indifferent and, perhaps, narcissistic parent. The obvious answer would be, “Yes;” it is far better to be alive. However, I can’t ignore or deny that there is a small part of me that revels in all of the mire of what would not have been if I’d never been born at all.
The Stolen Journal
I started fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a new school. The move should have been exciting since it signified that my family had moved up on the economic ladder. We were living in a fancier neighborhood, and I was going to go to a fancier school that was right next to a fancy parks and recreation facility. I couldn’t have been unhappier. I missed my friends, kids who lived in my neighborhood, who I had all of my most cherished memories with both in and out of school. I missed my school. In my day, the kids who went to Temple Terrace Elementary were all more or less from poor to lower middle class backgrounds, so there were no real dividing lines, no real cliques felt because none of us had any money to back any kind of status. Being academic and/or athletic were probably the biggest defining factors that us kids used to differentiate amongst ourselves, and even that didn’t divide us.
Perhaps my memory of the school I left behind in that move was idealized in some ways. There were probably racial tensions and maybe similar tensions I felt at my new school that existed there in some form or fashion. With that said, there was a clear difference as to how happy I felt in one place over the other. In one place, I was different because I was smart. In the other, I was different because I was poor. If you’ve never been lucky enough to be experience either context, I can assure you, one is much more preferable than the other.
We may have moved up in the world neighborhood-wise, but it was still clear that we were not the richest people on the block. And that knowledge became glaringly clear from the first day I stepped into my fifth grade classroom at my new school to the day I finally got to leave that place and reconnect with my own. Rich kids. I’ve not had very many positive experiences as a child when it came to rich people, and my experiences at Lewis Elementary definitely ranked towards the top of list as some of the most negative encounters I’ve had with people who had money to spare. From the outset, from the very moment I made contact with Mrs. Simmon’s fifth grade class, I ruefully understood the clearly defined, materialistic terms that existed amongst the kids as to what made you socially acceptable. And they had no qualms with letting you know directly whether or not you were in, especially if you were “out.” Unfortunately for me, everything that made me acceptable to others at my old school made me unacceptable at my new one. Aside from the one pair of Nike shoes I owned (I only got one new pair of shoes once a year.), there was nothing about the clothes that I wore that mirrored my peers. They wore athletic labels from head to toe: Nike, Adidas, Reebok, you name it. That was my first strike.
I had big hair. Big, unruly, curly hair that frizzed up to epic proportions in the Florida humidity. I couldn’t afford nor was I interested in expensive products to make my hair smoother, shinier, flatter. If I could at all help it, I didn’t find commonplace with any of the other girls, both black and white, who had long, straight, smooth and, most importantly, obedient hair. Hair that they could braid or tie up in pretty ponytails with cute scrunchies or let flow down to their shoulders. My hair looked like it could eat their hair for dinner. And to them, my hair was funny. In my old neighborhood it was beautiful, natural, normal. But in my new school it was an unacceptable flaw. A flaw which the kids in my class took the pleasure of throwing sticky tack into every day. Strike two.
My mom wasn’t like everyone else’s. She didn’t hang out with the other classroom moms. She didn’t send me to school on my birthday with expensive cupcakes she bought from Publix and party favors for the class. She didn’t drive a fancy car. She wasn’t tall and beautiful and blonde. She picked me up (late) from school every day in her old Nissan 300ZX, the car I would inherit as my first official high school vehicle after getting my driver’s license seven years later. She sent me to school on my birthday with a reused Ziplock bag full of leftover chocolates from home. She didn’t attend any school functions, participate in the PTA or anything all the cool kids’ moms did. Strike three.
Needless to say, I had a lot of hate and anger from those experiences. Couple that with my mom’s indifference to me and my feelings at that time, and you’ve got an angry, hurt kid who feels abandoned and unimportant to everyone, including her own mother. And, at the time, I really hated Ma for that. Not only did she not understand me or what I was going through, but she actively (or, rather, inactively) took no interest in finding out. She lived her life with me through imperatives and through yelling at me when those orders weren’t followed. The only solace I had was my writing. I journaled every day, vented out all of the pain I felt that I couldn’t tell anyone in my family. I spent many years of my life with my family feeling isolated and alone, but these years in particular, in addition to my first years in high school, were some of the most difficult.
There were no limits to my writing back then. Every emotion I felt, however strongly, however taboo, was listened to by the tiny yellow and pink pages of my plastic journal. It never judged. It was always there, day and night, while I cried and laughed and furrowed my brow at the life thrust upon me. It always listened to me. It loved me most in the world. And for that reason, I never hid my thoughts. With wild abandon, I shared all that was in me because it was the only thing in the world that truly let me be myself. Never did I imagine that this intimate relationship could ever be violated.
I came home from school one day, placid and unaware and went straight to my room, put on the radio and threw my school bag and books on the floor. It was all quite innocuous, really, until I heard my brother yell my name from his room. It had a tone to it that I knew well and deeply feared. Aside from the occasional encounter with Uncle Joe, he was the only consistent father figure I had at the time, and unfortunately, he unquestionably wielded all the powers of one but, unfortunately, simultaneously lacked the loving patience of a parent when we were growing up. I have to give him a break here; he was in his early twenties. Much like my father was at this time in his life, my brother still had a lot of growing up to do. His role in my life was more or less thrust on him out of necessity. I wish we could’ve had a different relationship growing up, but that’s the way it was. There are no take-backs. Regardless, at this time in our lives, my brother was docile but domineering, silent and deadly when he chose to exact his power over me.
So when he called out to me in that terrifying tone to come to him, I did not want to go. I did not want to know what he was going to say or do. But like the impulse of all young children with their “parents,” I had to obey. The imperative was too strong to ignore. Running to mom proved to be useless in past incidences, so the only option was to come when I was beckoned. And so I went. I didn’t know at the time why he was angry at me, though, looking back at it now, it should have been obvious. I felt wrong writing what I did about my mother. Wrong, but not inaccurate or dishonest. Those were true feelings I had, and though I would never act on them, I never wanted to disown them. They were my words, my feelings. And he made me feel as if they were murderous plots in the making. But he was right in a way: there are some things that should be felt but never said or documented, secret or not.
However, the little girl in me still feels some anger; reflecting on who my brother was back then and knowing him now, I am angered that he took such offence back then to what I’d written. He’d fought with my mother, yelled things at her, just as terrible as the things I wrote down in secret in my journal. Things damaging to the soul, but, to be fair, we were all damaging souls in that household during those times; damaging each other’s and our own in turns. Nevertheless, despite our equality of sin, I did feel that my privacy had been thoroughly violated. Actually killing my mother, as I’d written that I wanted to do on those lost pages, was something that I would never act on. But he didn’t understand the relationship to journalling I had developed. He wasn’t a part of that process.
In any case, he led me on, not knowing what I’d done, not knowing how I’d be punished, like a cat, taking its time to consume the trapped mouse. Bite off one appendage at a time, slowly, deliberately, until the victim is incapacitated, but still living. Make them feel each piece you take away. Eventually, after a series of damaging, harsh and judgmental words on my character, he’d revealed the pages he’d torn out of my journal. If he’d had enough integrity at that point in his life, he would have just told my mother and let her deal with me. But he didn’t want integrity. He wanted power. He wanted to wield the guillotine blade over my head while I looked at it swaying just above me. He wanted me to know he was in control, and he was. With a smart slap on my face he sent me on my way, keeping my pages and leaving me to wonder when the blade would drop and sever my head from my body.
I’m still waiting for that punishment to this day.
Late Pick Ups
My mom is a notorious latecomer to every event she is invited to. She’s even late to every event she hosts, often waiting until more than half the guests have arrived before she stops cooking, showers and briefly joins in on the fun before heading back into the kitchen or sitting on the corner edge of her favorite couch. It doesn’t matter how pressing or important the event is, she will invariably be late. She was late to every single one of my performances she decided to turn up to, she was late to pick me up from school, she was late to my wedding day, she was always a late arriver to church…the list goes on and on.
There are three defining “mom-is-late” moments that took place in my life thus far which confirmed the nagging suspicions I had formulated about our relationship to each other, suspicions that reshaped and more clearly defined who we were to each other with each incident.
The first memory was from my year in kindergarten. My class had been preparing all week for the Mother’s Day breakfast we were to host on Friday. We used hot glue guns and wooden crafting pieces to make mini picture frames for our school photos. I was so proud of mine: it was a photo of me in a frilly pink dress, the pink tulle straps hanging delicately on the edge of my shoulders, hair done to perfection. My mom made me up really nicely for that picture day, one of the few affectionate moments I remember from that time. I knew she’d love the photo because I looked beautiful (one of the few times I honestly felt that way about myself), and she would be so proud as it was her doing that made me look so radiant.
I was also excited because I would get to show off my mom at the breakfast. There would be tea and cookies and other kids with their mothers all having a lovely time together sitting in front of their delicately positioned paper plates, white doilies and Mother’s Day poem place cards with their names written on them in beautiful scripts.
On the big day, we gathered at the front door in two lines, facing inwardly in the small walkway space leading from the front door into the classroom. I watched with eagerness as each smiling mother walked in, took their child’s hand and were led to their special place to have their treats. I watched until I was the last one left, waiting by the door, heart fluttering in panic, wondering if my mother forgot. And then I watched, tears unabashedly streaming down my face, as the other kids and their mothers laughed and chatted and engaged with each other in ways that I was now realizing were altogether different from how my mom and I interacted. I didn’t know mothers and kids could be so close, so intimate. Something new was revealed to me about my relationship with my mother, something I would never be able to shake off after that day, something that still prods at me, just below the surface, often times causing my heart to flurry and flutter in the same way it did that day when I realized my mother wasn’t coming, that I was left to deal with rejection, pain and fear on my own or in the presence of strangers. A feeling I would continually be forced to adjust to and familiarize myself with when facing significant moments of loss in my life long after this particular story.
My teachers approached me tentatively and offered to sit with me to have tea, juice and cookies. It was clear that my mom wasn’t coming; some of the other mothers were already giving tidying up and leaving with their kids. Some were already gone. This was one of the few moments where I wholeheartedly rejected stand-in mothers (Out of desperation, I would learn to cling too heavily to stand-ins later on in life.); I scorned their pity; I wanted my real mother.
She did turn up in the end, long after all the other mothers had left. I greeted her despondently, going through the motions that I’d seen other kids do with their moms. I was still crying and upset. My mom was late, and she was behaving…oddly. Her eyes glared at me, warning me to stop causing a scene, and there was this peculiar smile plastered across her mouth. She was trying to save face; she was embarrassed, and I was making it worse. She wanted to seem like a good mother to these women she’d rarely engaged with; she smiled that weird smile and apologized, saying something about having to stay late at the office (she didn’t work in an office). All while glaring intensely at me with those eyes, daring me to keep crying. I shut off the tears, ate in silence and left with my mom after we had had enough cookies and juice together to constitute quality time well spent.
I learned a second thing about my mother that day. Before this event, I only really knew Ma as this mysterious, sometimes irate person who was too busy working to really pay attention to us. She was quiet, and she was moody, especially if we got in her way or forgot to follow one of her rules. The woman I encountered, the woman who had to face my teachers, was an entirely different creature. She was engaging, apologetic, gentle. Very odd to our household norms. I realized that my mother had at least two masks: one she revealed to us and one to the outer world. She could switch between the two so seamlessly that she could sometimes even fool the people closest to her who knew her darker sides. She didn’t want people to know her well enough to judge her with any degree of accuracy. I learned that my mother was a little vain, a little fake, a little hypocritical, and the pride I had for her, the pedestal I elevated her on prior to this day crumbled a little when I saw her new mask.
The second memory of mom being late is one that significantly stands out to me because it added a newer, more nuanced level of understanding to what our relationship to each other was. Of course, prior to this day, she had definitely been late to a number of things, whether they were related to me or not. Those moments didn’t hold much significance to me as this particular time. I was in eighth grade, in middle school, and I was very active at the time both during and after school. I was president of the National Junior Honor Society, I was a first chair trumpet player in the advanced band, I was on the basketball team, sometimes even on the starting line up for games, and I was doing well in my honors classes. Needless to say I was a high achiever, though none of it seemed to be enough to get my mom to pay attention, ask me questions or actually attend anything related to honoring any of these accomplishments. It did, however, provide her with conversational power when she bragged about all the things I was doing (that she knew very little detail about) with her friends.
Mom and I had a system. If I had something going on after school hours, usually basketball practice or a game, I was to let her know the morning of when she dropped me off at school. Usually, on those days, I was an anxious mess, telling my mother what time she had to pick me up from school over and over until she yelled at me to stop talking, that she knew what time to pick me up and that I needed to stop being so paranoid.
I behaved this way because I knew how she operated within our system. I’d tell my mom to pick me up at a specific time (sometimes I would even tell her a time that was an hour before the actual pick up time which never made a difference), she’d nod while totally engaged in something else; then I’d tell her again…and again…and again. Soon enough, she’d be yelling at me to stop, and we’d spend the rest of our time together until drop off in a tense silence. School would eventually end, my after school thing would start and finish, and I’d go to the front of the school with my other school mates who were also waiting for their parents to pick them up. Those friends would get picked up within 10-15 minutes, while I by that point, would have already called my mom from the school phone in the front office at least 3 times. Sometimes she’d answer some of those calls and say she was on the way, that she’d be there in five minutes. Sometimes she wouldn’t answer at all, and I’d leave a few voice messages on the machine, hoping she’d hear them, or, better yet, that she didn’t hear them because she was on the way. Normally, she was never late by more than one or two hours. And then, I’d have a new thing on another day, and the cycle would start all over again.
On this particular evening, we had basketball practice. It was one that lasted a bit later, until 4:30PM or so, because we had a big game coming up. We got to the front of the school after practice, and as my friends met their parents at their cars, I went straight into the office to call Ma. She happened to answer on this particular occasion, and she confirmed that she was on the way. She’d be there in ten minutes. I sighed in resignation.
Okay mom, whatever you say. I know what ten minutes means to you.
A few of my friends whose parents were a bit later than usual for pick up offered to take me home. I declined knowing that my mom would be upset if she turned up and I wasn’t there. She’d also be upset if I dared to allow someone else’s parent to take care of me; she didn’t want to owe someone a debt; she also didn’t want to lose face. The last friend, who got picked up at about 5PM, offered me a ride home.
No, thanks anyway.
So it was down to just me and the school police officer. He couldn’t leave until I went home. We chatted for a few minutes. He made a few jokes about CPT, something he emphatically confirmed applied to my mother, even though she was Filipino. I read a little and did some homework that didn’t require much thinking. An hour passed, and the sun was starting to set. The officer checked in with me after making his rounds around the school. Did I need to call my mom? No, thank you, I already called her. She was on the way. He dutifully took a seat and waited with me since darkness was quickly settling in.
Another hour passed. It was now dark and everyone that worked on campus, including the cleaning staff, had gone home; it was just me and the cop. The officer let me use his phone to call my mom. I suspect she didn’t answer because she didn’t recognize the number. I left her a voice message, telling her that the officer waiting with me at the school let me use his phone to check in on her. Another hour passed. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t do any homework. I just had to sit there in the dark, feeling the pitying glances the officer threw in the direction of my silent, waiting figure, as I sat on the curb in the dark, begging the universe for my mom to appear.
Then, headlights. She’d finally come. Her ten minute timeline, given to me at 4:30PM, had stretched into three and a half hours. She glared at me, daring me to say something while she smiled at the officer and thanked him for looking after me. She had gotten caught up at work and couldn’t get away until just then. It was a story I was all too familiar with at this point. I rolled my eyes, got in the car, and in my head pretended to slam the door angrily. That day, I learned how low on my mom’s priority list I actually was. And this lesson would be reconfirmed over and over again until I became independent enough and moved far enough away for her to never put me through that ever again. That is, until I got married.
Which leaves us with the third and final “mom-is-late” memory. The one that fully and completely confirmed to me that my needs and wants would never supersede my mother’s. It was the day I got married. We had had a fairly stress-free rehearsal. Mom showed up about an hour and a half late to that one. No surprise there. We had dinner together at her house and enjoyed a few drinks before saying goodnight, bubbling with excitement in anticipation of the following day.
I woke up that morning numb and nervous. Everything inside me seemed to ping with electricity, knowing the full brevity of what I was going to commit myself to by the end of that day. I felt tense, nervous, on edge, but not because I had doubts. Well, I did have a few, but mostly I was just jittery. For some reason, binge watching Four Weddings while waiting for my sister to arrive at Ma’s house seemed to calm me down. My mom happily fluttered in and out of her room, showing me all of the possibilities, all of the directions her wardrobe could take, all the while remaining completely ignorant to the fact that her daughter was about to break at any second.
“Should I wear this one?”
“Yes, ma, that looks beautiful.”
She and I went through about ten to fifteen rounds of this before she realized that I was agitated. However, instead of consoling me and empathizing that I was probably, at least in a small way, freaking out about getting married that day, she concluded, as usual, that I was mean, that I didn’t care about her and her feelings. She promptly stormed off to her room in a huff, leaving me to feel the simmering anger that would no doubt bubble up later to bite me in the ass. On my wedding day. Wasn’t I allowed this one day as a pass to be a tyrant? I hadn’t used the Bridezilla Card through the entire year-long process it took me and Ian to get to this moment. Couldn’t I release some tension somehow, no matter how ill placed?
With a terse slam of her bedroom door, the answer was clear: no, Alexis, you’re not allowed to have feelings, even on your wedding day. My sister broke some of this tension upon her arrival. She came into the house in a flurry of agitation. She was late, everything was going wrong, she was frustrated. I couldn’t handle another round of placating someone else’s emotions on my wedding day, so I verbally manhandled her at and told her that I needed her to focus on me. A command I don’t think I’d ever forced on anyone in my family so directly until that point. A command I never demanded since then. She realized that I was agitated, and, contrary to my mother’s reaction, she immediately apologized and simply asked, “What do you need?”
I finally felt like I could breathe. Someone was finally stepping in to take care of me and make sure I got down the aisle. We got to the venue, and though we were about an hour off course from our intended arrival time (CPT is something nearly every member of my family suffers from), I got ready with time to spare. After about another hour, it was approximately forty-five minutes to show time, and our family started arriving, ready to bear witness to our special day: moms, dads, brothers, sisters, nieces, one nephew and one grandmother arrived with smiling faces and excitement. All but one mother. The marriage hour had come, the time we were meant to kick off the ceremony, and Ma and Uncle Joe were nowhere to be found.
Everyone started calling them. Luckily someone managed to get through after only a few tries. Ma was on her way. I’d heard that one before. Instead of lamenting and stressing out, we maximized on the extra time, taking candid and posed photos, giving and receiving kind words of advice and encouragement, generally enjoying each other’s company. But even after all of that shared joviality, mom was still hadn’t arrived. No longer taking our calls, we had to hold our tongues, suppress our now tense smiles and wait it out. I peeked through the door from the room where I had gotten dressed and ready (Ian wasn’t allowed to see me before the ceremony.) and looked at all the smiling faces chatting and frequently checking their clocks. Inwardly my heart sagged, knowing that my mom was actively missing out on another beautiful moment meant to celebrate me.
One hour passed. No sweat, there was still time to start and finish before the wedding after ours was to take place the late afternoon/early evening. Another hour passed. Everyone was starting to become more visibly agitated and on edge. Then another hour passed, leaving us with approximately forty-five minutes to get the show on the road and vacate the premises before the next wedding was due to arrive and set up for their big day. That’s when my mom finally showed up in her classic Cynthia Scott style. Big smile, rocking an amazing wedding outfit, perfect makeup and hair, ready to be received by her audience. It was her day after all.
She got seated with everyone else, and we began. Despite the initial stress Ma caused with her tardiness, the wedding was a perfect combination of all of us. It wasn’t just me and Ian standing there, proclaiming our love for each other. It was my mom, laughing with everyone when she forgot to say her lines approving our union; it was Ian’s mom handing me a tissue when the tears of joy wouldn’t stop flowing down my face; it was my dad and grandma yelling, “Amen,” when Ian and I said something sweet to each other during our vows; it was Ian’s dad and step-mom cheering louder than the rest when we kissed at the end; it was my sister and Ian’s brother smiling with tears in their eyes as I walked down the aisle; it was my brother recording the whole affair with his iPhone from the pulpit as he married us; it was my nieces and nephew watching and laughing and witnessing something special in their aunt’s life, even though she lived so far away for most of theirs; it was my partner, standing across from me, confirming that everything that led us to this moment was a mere glimpse into the wild adventure we’d have being husband and wife; it was everything.
We smiled and laughed and kissed and hugged and took way too many photos. We met for dinner at Columbia restaurant later that evening, where Ian and I treated our family to a meal to celebrate, a restaurant that my grandmother wasn’t allowed into when she was a young girl. Everything, including my mother’s tardiness, happened as it should have.
That is, until the next day.
Phone calls and texts raged on my phone when I turned it on the next morning. Ma was furious with me. I had embarrassed her, yet again. I had been callous, unfeeling. I needed to apologize for treating her so poorly on my wedding day. I didn’t give her enough attention or thanks. I didn’t recognize or praise her enough in front of everyone during dinner. I had been the sole cause of her losing face.
And the fun didn’t end there.
That next day would be filled with everyone on my side of the family being late to our reception, with my mom taking first place, arriving three hours after the start of the party. Now, I must admit that I also made conscious choices that day that I would later regret and aptly label as petty, but the one thing I held on to that I learned about my mom that day was that there was nothing I could do to change or move her, that no matter what was going on in my life, good or bad, unless it directly affected her, she was not bothered about it, not really. My life wasn’t important unless it directly reflected her needs, her wants and what she wanted to project to the world. My success and achievements were only meant to bolster her pride, to stroke her ego. I wish I’d accepted that before my wedding day.
In my middle school days, my mother and I fought like we were getting paid to do it. Our fights were incredible, scorched-earth type battles where we both came out scarred to no end and a little harder of heart. I’m not even sure what we fought about in those days. Usually it began with my mom gently stoking the fire, poking me, prodding me with any little comment or remark to activate my inner rage. She could never let things just be, she always had to have the last word. With each battle, I tried to hold the anger in for as long as I could, but at some point, I would always break. And that’s when the real fun began.
My mom is a proud woman. She doesn’t apologize. She doesn’t forgive. It’s a part of her that to this day I have a hard time accepting which is why I still cannot find peaceful ground with her. If I could truly and wholly accept her for who she is and try not to take what she says and does too personally, I think we would get along great. But I’m as proud as she is in a way, I guess. I cannot sit silent in the face of something I think is unjust or unfair. I’m not quite sure what my mom and I were fighting about this time around. I just remember I reached my breaking point, as I had in previous fights, as I had after this particular fight, and as I am positive I will reach in future arguments until one of us finally gives up or backs down. Thinking back to this day, I only remember flashes of noise and color that led me to my room, frantically stuffing clothes into a large duffle bag. I called my friend Michelle.
In between rants of anger and sobs, I convinced my friend to get her mother to come pick me up. I no longer had the will to be under the same roof as my mother. I didn’t want to be anywhere near her. My mother said nothing to me as I silently walked to the front door, duffle bag in tow and stepped outside to wait for Michelle. She didn’t even know that I made that call. The wait was angry, regretful and lonely. At no point did my mother come out to talk to me, to convince me to come back inside. She only came out when Michelle and her mother arrived.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she spat at me.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I made my way to Michelle’s mother’s car, but before I could take that final step to leave my mom, Michelle’s mother stopped me. She wasn’t going to take me with her to their house. Not like this anyway. Michelle and I stood to one side while the mothers talked. I was angry to see how calm, friendly and polite my mom was being. It angered me because I knew it was all a facade. She was acting so normally to save face. She never showed her ugly side to outsiders, and I hated her for being so dichotomous and hypocritical. Why couldn’t she treat her family with the same respect?
Ultimately, the mothers decided that I was staying put. I gruffly thanked Michelle for trying and quickly carted myself and my things off to my room to be away from it all. My mother didn’t come talk to me after all of this took place either. Not to console me, to repair the scars. She let me remain alone, isolated, friendless. Part of me, the proud part, was glad she never came. But the other part of me, the vulnerable part that just wanted a mother’s love, died a little more that day.
The Fist Fight
It seems that many of my stories during this period in my life start with my mother and me fighting. I wish I could weave a different story, but that’s what it was like with Cynthia Scott. Constant fighting. We fought like nobody’s business. We fought because, at this point in my life, growing up was awkward and lonely, because I didn’t have much family support to get me through it, and because, understanding this period in my life now as an adult, I now know that my mom and I were more or less at equivalent levels of emotional maturity. Like all things at this time in my adolescence, I don’t remember what we fought about, similarly to the condition children have when trying to remember why they were fighting over some random, plastic toy. The heat is there, it rises to a boiling point and before you know it, you’re rolling around on the floor crying, kicking, and screaming to no end. Because you wanted something that wasn’t given to you, and you couldn’t move on or compromise.
Mom and I were fighting, and I had decided that I’d had enough. I walked away to the kitchen to do something, anything else than face her. This was the only way I knew how to concede. To physically go to a place in our house where she would finally shut the hell up. Looking back on it now, I laugh mockingly, wishing that poor, younger version of myself would get a clue: Ma never concedes. You walk away, she follows you. You apologize, she ridicules you and another fights starts up from there. The best way to avoid a fight with her was to keep your mouth shut. To agree and concede whether you meant it or not. That is the only recipe for peace under Cynthia Scott’s roof. I didn’t know that at the time, considering that my level or patience was pretty low and unforgivably intolerant, as it would be well into my twenties. And so, fighting with my mom was just a regular part of life back then.
After our first round of verbal sparring, I retreated to the kitchen, getting things out of the fridge to cook. I needed to physically do something productive after a fight with my mom, no matter how small; it was the only thing that could calm me down.
I looked in the fridge and made a decision on how I would be productive in the throws of anger circulating through my veins: there were some leftover, uncooked pork chops from dinner the night before that I wanted to fry up and eat in my room, the only place it seemed I could get some peace of mind. Where I could escape all the shit I hated about my life. I thought we were done at this point, that she would let me stew in silence in my corner while she stewed in silence in hers, until it was all over, until the next round. I was facing away from the entryway to the kitchen, looking at the pork chops frying, wishing I was anywhere else in the world. And then I heard her coming. That specific footfall that could only be my mother’s. One of the few familiar sounds in my life that still makes me tense up in agonized anticipation of some fresh new hell to come. It’s amazing what small things still stick with you.
I didn’t turn around. I knew she was there, and though I could hear her turn on the sink and clean some dishes, I knew that wasn’t why she was there right behind me, roughly grabbing dirty bowls and plates, gruffly wiping them with a soaped sponge, splashing water in all directions as she rinsed them off and slammed them into the dishwasher as hard as she could without breaking them. I wasn’t stupid. She wanted to let me know by her clamorous, angry presence that she wasn’t done with me. There was still a lot of scolding and criticism left in her arsenal to hurl at me. I only had to provoke her, and if I’m being honest, when my mom is at this point in her alpha dog, “Don’t cross me because I run this shit and will make you pay,” persona, it doesn’t take much to provoke her. I was immature back then and couldn’t let her pointed proximity of anger go.
“Why are you slamming things?”
That’s all it took. She laid into me like I was her enemy, like I’d just spit in her face and told her to go to hell. That’s how she fights with her kids. Like we’re good for nothing strangers on the street who’ve somehow offended her. There are no boundaries to the insults she will scream at you when she’s in this state. I don’t dare repeat or try to recall the details of anything she’s said to me in these moments. They would be too soul-crushing.
I can’t recall the amount of yelling, screaming and cursing that went on, but I can recall that I’d finally reached a breaking point and didn’t hold back all of the anger I had inside of me. All of the resentment I felt for being treated as less than important, as someone that has no opinion or feelings, as someone that has no real thought or value. I screamed at her with all the force that was in me to expend. It didn’t help a damn thing. Hate begets hate. Anger begets anger. And with my mom those sayings couldn’t ring with more truth.
“Oh, you think you’re some big shot, do you?” she goaded. “Come on, show me how grown you are.”
And then her fists went up. I froze. I had no idea that this was allowed. Fighting with parents is one thing, but having your mother push you, curse at you and then raise her fists ready to physically fight you is a completely different thing. At this point I couldn’t back down, but I was terrified to even think about punching my mother because I didn’t want to hurt her. One look in her eyes told me she had no qualms with physically hurting me. She hit me a few times on my arms to make me angry enough to fight back. But I never could bring myself to physically hit her, no matter how much she ravaged my emotions. I could never connect the rage I felt towards her, even then, to physical action. I think I pushed her to the side, eyes welling with tears from the shock, as she threw a few punches at me while I walked away. I didn’t cry outright, though. I never cried in front of her. That was something I saved for the privacy of a room and a locked door. If I’d cried then, there would be no sympathy from her, only more goading, anger, criticism. And I wasn’t strong enough to face those things. I’m still not strong enough for that.
If you read this story to my mom today, she would deny it at all costs. She would have her own version of how that day went down or she would write it off as some dramatic story I made up to make her look bad. Don’t bother asking her if it’s true. You won’t get anywhere with her in trying to confirm the details of this story or to gather her account of that event. In her mind, she was the perfect mother, and I’m okay with her thinking that. But I remember these stories to stay strong, to try and deal with my anger and to keep note of when and if I’m ever a mother. If I ever take on that role, I will do everything in my power to never engage with my children the way my mother had in this moment. I wish my mom had that kind of compassion. But if she did, she wouldn’t have lifted up her fists in the first place.
There was a time in my life where I genuinely believed my life was shit. It had absolutely nothing to do with what I had or didn’t have. It had absolutely nothing to do with being bullied or being unsuccessful at school. It had everything to do with how I valued myself.
I’ve since learned from looking back on this time in my life that a lot of it had connections to the perspective my mom had of me, though I cannot place all of the blame squarely on her. That would be hyperbolic and completely unfair. What I can say is at that time in our lives together, I was the only daughter upon which she could exact her will. I was the only doll she had to play with and mold to her liking. The problem was that I was anything but compliant. She wanted me to play the saxophone. I played the trumpet. She wanted me to wear dresses and epitomize the perfect Filipino daughter. I wanted to wear my brother’s hand-me-downs and play sports with the boys. She wanted me to show off my talents to her friends. I wanted to hide from the limelight.
In almost every conceivable way, I was the daughter she never wanted. She never said it in those exact words, but, unfortunately, as is the case with these types of familial ties, daughters will almost always have some weird, subliminal bond with their mothers, one that inherently points out when you’re doing something she approves of and one that will scream in your face when you’re doing anything contrary to her will. I felt in my heart that I had disappointed her in almost every way, but at this time in my life it wasn’t something I could understand clearly, it was only a feeling, a sense that told me that everything I was doing was wrong, everything I was doing was a disappointment. If only I could be more feminine, bolder, then I could be accepted by her. Then I would be beautiful in all the ways a young girl should in my mother’s eyes.
Confidence shattered, I spent a large portion of my freshman year in high school feeling low, unacceptable and ugly. Saying this now, no one would believe me: I excelled in school academically, musically and athletically. I was open, boisterous, amusingly scathing and self-loathing with all of my friends, but inwardly I struggled to accept myself for who I was because, ultimately, if my mother couldn’t accept me, how could I? I got praise from friends and teachers, but all I really needed was hers, and I never got it. Never a word or conversation or even a small touch to make me feel like I was on a good path, making decent choices, worth something.
I increasingly devolved inwardly, growing more and more angry with who I was and my inability to reconcile the way people saw me to the way I saw myself. I tried to turn to God, I tried to write to soothe the anger, resentment and pain. Nothing helped. I hated myself, and that was that. I’m not sure when I started contemplating it, but the idea got into my head as it does with many. There was only one way out.
The first time I found it, I was in the garage, sitting at my mom’s work desk, thinking hard about something that I can’t quite recall. I started looking through my mom’s drawers, looking at the random collection of papers, pictures and coins she let build up in them. I remember reaching in the far back corner of one of the top drawers and feeling the cool smoothness of it for the first time. It was a standard handgun, heavy and silver. I held that gun for what seemed like an eternity that night, contemplating. The first thought I had scared me so much I immediately put the gun where I found it, shut the drawer tight and scurried off to my room. But there was no going back at that point. I found the gun. The seed was planted. And my mind waited for me to accept what I knew I wanted to do more than anything else at that point in my life.
It was some weeks before anything happened. I lived my “normal” life. I went to school. I did my homework. But for those weeks, I always had that nagging thought waiting around in my head, beckoning me to acknowledge it, to act. I just couldn’t decide if I should do it alone or if I should let someone see my final moments. In the end I decided to end it all with a splash, in a last ditch effort for drama with the hopes that I would gain some value in her eyes at the very end.
My mom and I fought that day. I don’t remember what it was about, and I don’t even think it was the fight that decided it. I think it was more of a confirmation of what I thought the first night I found the gun: I was a worthless piece of shit and nobody would really miss me. My mom hated my guts, and I truly believed my death would save her a world of problems. I wasn’t the daughter she wanted, and now I had a way of removing myself altogether. After we fought, I went to the garage. I opened the drawer, picked up the gun, and I walked to the door leading back into the kitchen. And then I waited. I knew what would come next. True to her nature, my mom came to the door to find me so that she could berate me with another tirade of how I was a disappointment, how whatever the hell it was we were fighting about was all my fault and how I was causing her so much stress and trouble. And then I said it.
“Would you care if I died?”
She looked at me like I was a crazy person. There was no remorse or sadness in her eyes at the thought of losing her daughter. The look she gave me was tinged with revulsion and mockery for having the audacity to say something so stupid. And then I pulled the gun up to my head. But before I could make my next move my mom snatched it out of my hands. I lost my shot at freedom.
The saddest thing about this particular tale is not the fact that I wanted to and ultimately attempted to end my life. The saddest part of that dark place in my life was that my mother continued to do nothing. She took the gun away from me, and that’s all I remember her doing. She walked away, left me alone in one of the most vulnerable times of my life and didn’t say a word. The next day my godfather carted me off to his house for the weekend. He cried and asked me all sorts of questions about why I tried to do it, what I was thinking, how I was feeling. My mother never spoke to me about that. She never made the connection that what made me the most unhappy with life was not being accepted by her, and if she had, I doubt even to this day that she would acknowledge it. After all, that would mean admitting that she had failed me as a parent in some ways, and she could never admit defeat. It had to be my fault somehow.
Somehow I moved forward. Years of repression, acceptance and finding solace in any person or thing that would have me. Somehow I healed, though never fully. But it was never at the hands of a loving mother. Perhaps I would’ve healed better, more quickly, more completely if she had been the type of person to forego pride. I’ll never know how that story would’ve played out in the end. I’m just lucky enough to have healed somehow.
I was so excited when my sister moved back to Tampa. Well, mostly excited. She’d lived in New York City with her dad’s side of the family for most of my childhood, so I did have some reservations about sharing a room with a sister I knew but never lived with. At this point in my life, I was pretty selfish and didn’t like the idea of sharing space with my sister and her young baby girl, something about which I feel guilty to this day. But this story isn’t about that. This story is about why my mom lured my sister into our home in the first place. Why was my mom so suddenly concerned about my sister’s well-being? My sister had visited us once or twice during summers prior to her official move, but there were no phone calls between our house and hers on the in between. No birthday cards sent either way. No communication whatsoever that I was aware of. But now my sister was in a bad way – she was struggling with life in NYC and didn’t have many other options aside from moving in with us.
I remember she slept a lot. It was like she had so much stress going on in her life that her body finally gave in. I remember she had really cool, “big city” clothes which she offered many times to let me borrow, being the generous person she is. I remember her daughter, my niece, cried like no other in the night, every night. It made the school day hard for me to get through, and it made the bedroom space feel particularly cramped. But, as mom explained, my sister needed us, so I had to just deal with it. After a while, the routine got easier. Mom got a new dresser for us in our room so that she could have more space for my sister’s things. We learned how to move things in the bedroom strategically and efficiently to get in and out of closets and dressers with minimal frustration when we got ready for school and work in the morning. She got a job. I got used to sleeping less and babysitting after school. Things seemed to be going smoothly as the transition period in my sister’s move to our home began to feel like she had always been there. Things reached the best possible form of stability and consistency, and we were peaceful.
One day, a few years after her move to our house, my sister asked me what I thought about her getting married. I didn’t have any strong opinion one way or the other. If she wanted to get married, that was her choice. I didn’t even know she had a serious boyfriend. Then she told me who she was thinking about marrying. Mom wanted her to marry Uncle Joe. I couldn’t believe my sister was seriously considering it.
The situation had quickly turned into one of the many poignant moments in my life that indicated how my thought processes were vastly different to my family. I was the only one, or at least it seemed like I was the only one, ringing the alarm bells, warning my sister that marrying our mom’s boyfriend to help him get citizenship was a dangerous game to play. One where legal consequences were very severe. At the time, my opinion was heavily motivated by strong religious beliefs. I thought divorce was a sin no matter what and my sister was entering into a situation where divorce was inevitable. I’ve changed in those beliefs since then. Aside from that, the other motivating factor was that I loved my sister, and I wanted her to marry someone she was actually going to stay married to, someone who loved her, someone she loved. I wanted her happiness.
Mom wanted my sister to pay her back for taking her in, and this is how she saw the bill being paid.
There was no question as to why mom couldn’t marry her boyfriend herself. If she did, she’d lose her widow’s pension from the government for having been married to a military veteran. Losing that money was not an option for her, even if that meant coercing her daughter into an uncomfortable situation with potentially dire consequences.
There was no amount of warning, and at the time in my life, no amount of Bible quoting to get my sister to change her mind. She’d always been soft towards my mom, wanting to please her more often than wanting to exert her independence. I think my sister really believed she owed it to mom, a stigma mom instilled in all of her children. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that most moms, and most parents in general, did things for their children because they love them, not because they wanted anything in return. My mom is not that kind of person. Everything is a transaction; everything you give warrants a return; family was not excluded from this understanding. So, much to my chagrin, my sister got married. And I hated mom for pushing her do it.
Things weren’t so bad in the beginning. There was new mail that came to the house with my sister’s new name, and some mail that had both hers and his name on it. The dynamic at the house didn’t change much. We didn’t have any visits from immigration. They didn’t go to many appointments to meet with an immigration officer, just a few here and there, and there weren’t any bad reports that came from the initial meetings. Things got worse when my sister started dating someone. He was a childhood friend of ours who had fallen in love with my sister on one of her summer visits from our days living in an apartment complex. He was a nice guy who treated my sister well. That wasn’t what made things with the marriage visa go wrong, her dating him. Everything went wrong when she got pregnant.
My sister wanted to get a divorce. Mom wanted her to give the baby her Uncle Joe’s last name to keep up appearances. Immigration got more suspicious of the goings-on in our household, and there was not much anyone could do to make the situation go well. I had called it. I knew this was bound to happen, and my sister shared with me many times over how much she should have listened to me, how she regretted the decision she made to get married. I didn’t gloat. Quite the contrary, I got more and more angry with mom and all the mess she had created because of her selfishness. My sister was pregnant, and it should have been a happy time for her. Instead, she was constantly berated by my mother with all the, “How could you do this?” “Don’t you know the problems this is causing?” and all the other guilt-invoking bullets she had loaded in her arsenal.
Then my sister decided it was time for her to move. She and her boyfriend were going to have a baby, and they wanted to start a home together. She also wanted a divorce. And all of this caused even more issues with the marriage visa. I was still pretty young at the time, and I’m sure that my mom and sister didn’t share the whole story with me, but in the end, my sister did move out, and I was glad that she had because I really felt she needed that physical distance from my Ma’s toxicity. My sister and Uncle Joe got a divorce, and somehow that didn’t affect him getting a green card in the end. I am very hazy about how all of this worked out for them without more serious repercussions, and I’m sure each party involved could give clearer, first-hand insight into how it all went down towards the end, but there was one thing I was absolutely sure of after the sun set on this particular event: my mother was selfish and messed up, and she had no boundaries for what she would try to get out of her own children. And knowing that frightens me.
Growing up in an apartment complex, one gets used to sharing space, though begrudgingly, with roaches. To this day, I loath every type of roach with a deeply hostile, vociferous rage. I remember many a battle I’d had in the years we lived in this apartment complex with roaches, trying in vain to keep them at bay.
I used to stuff bits of bread into the small holes in the kitchen cabinets (the entryway for all kitchen roaches). Of course, this was counterproductive and perhaps motivational for them as they’d simply eat their way through, thank me for the free treat and continue along looking for the next source of food. We used to wipe down and vacuum every surface in every living space on a daily basis with cloroxes, powders, liquids and detergents, hoping in vain that the clean smells would drive them away to less sanitary spaces. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, feeling those damn things crawling in the space between my earlobes and head. I would fling them away fearfully, forcefully, afraid to go back to sleep because I didn’t want to wake up to that sensation again. Recalling that feeling still makes my skin crawl.
Small roaches, baby roaches, flying roaches. We had them all in Florida. One variety for every insect-induced fear one could develop living in close quarters with them.
We eventually moved to a house a few blocks away from the apartment complex I grew up in. For me it wasn’t a very devastating move, not as impactful as the move that stationed me for a brief stint in a richer part of our county; I could walk about two minutes down the road towards our old apartment complex, go through the gates leading into it and play with my schoolmates who still lived there. I could invite them back to my house to play basketball on our driveway. We could rollerblade together up and down my street. Coincidently, my family also enjoyed the added bonus of fewer encounters with roaches. All was good.
Then one night I heard a familiar sound emanating from a small cabinet in a dresser drawer where I used to store my small collection of books. I knew that sound well: it was the scurrying of tiny roach legs. All over my books. I didn’t read for weeks, for months, from anything that was caged in the now terrifying cubby. I anxiously listened every night for the scrapes and scuffles. One night, I tested out my theory of what I suspected was inside it by gently tapping the cubby door, never daring to open it, in order to confirm my suspicions. Whenever I tapped, the scurrying stopped. After a few moments, when the intruders knew there was no danger, the scuffling and shuffling continued. I taped the door shut.
After what seemed like years of being tormented by their presence, by their close proximity to the bed I slept on that leaned right against the cubby of intruders, I finally cracked. I needed to face my fears head on, get rid of the vermin and reclaim my books. Those possessions were mine; they were me; they meant everything. I had to save them from destruction. I put on a long sleeved shirt and a pair of sweatpants that I strategically tucked into my thick socks. I tied my hair back into a tight bun. I grabbed the biggest shoe I could find with the thickest sole possible and readied myself for the war.
I opened the door to silence. The scurrying non-existent. Had they run away? Or were they merely frozen, assessing whether or not I was a true threat? I had no time to think; I pulled out the first book I touched and began the battle. Several large roaches began their scurry, seeking out a new dark refuge in my bedroom. Inwardly I screamed, heart racing, muscles tensed as I slammed the shoe down on each and every one that tried to escape. I pulled each book out of this cubby in terror, one by one, and methodically killed each shiny, brown insect.
When the battle was over, I was still left with a huge mess to clean up. Grabbing a roll of paper towels, I began scooping up and squishing within the folds what seemed like hundreds of dead roaches, piling up the dead bodies in a small, plastic grocery bag. Then there was the faeces I had to attend to. With Windex in tow, I sprayed down every surface in the cubby and wiped it clean of the excrement they left behind. I saved my precious books for last, lovingly wiping down every inch of every cover. Opening up every page to let the grime those pests left behind fall to the floor. Gently I swept a soft hand towel over every page, trying to restore them back to normal, or as close to normal as I could get. There were a few that, unfortunately, had to be thrown out along with the dead foes that felled them. There were a few that bore the small, brown marks of their former captors. I mourned for each one. I vacuumed the carpet, and I showered away all of the disgust in a long hot shower.
When it was all over, when everything was restored and sanitized, I closed the cubby door, hoping I’d never have to hear that scurrying sound again, hoping I didn’t have to once again war alone and clean up the mess all by myself.
Little did I know at the time, this event in my life would perfectly mirror how I would be forced to deal with problems on my own. Or, even, how I would allow problems to fester before exploding, reacting and dealing with the losses that came with avoiding fate’s first calls to act. The build up of anxiety and tension. My hand forced. The onslaught. The clean up. All the while without anyone witnessing or being aware that I often had very real and very big problems to deal with. All anyone in any home I ever lived in saw was a closed bedroom door. All anyone ever heard was a TV, the radio or complete silence on the other side of it. For most of my life, I was utterly alone left to deal with the roaches life threw in my way.
I suspect my mother and brother also felt this way, though I’ll never really know for sure.
The Drift Towards Separation
“A daughter without her mother is a woman broken. It is a loss that turns to arthritis and settles deep into her bones.” -Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Too Late for Praise
When I was in high school, I started going to church. For me at the time, it was a really good fit. I found a group of people who accepted me for who I was, at least the parts I wanted to show. I was desperate for acceptance, for connection, and meeting a group of people who seemed to be so close and so joyful was very tempting to me. Now, I don’t want to imply that anything sinister was going on. The people I met during this part of my life, the people who I went to church with, to school with, dated or befriended were all really good people. Looking back on this time now, I know for certain that what I wanted, even more than forgiveness for my sins, was connection and acceptance. Plain and simple.
So, I’d found my connection, and I had been going to church from the age of about fifteen all the way through to the first few years of college. My family were neutral about my going to church. Mom was okay with it; we’d grown up Catholic and went to mass a lot when I was younger and less frequently as I got older, but she had no problem with me going to church. My brother was practical and cautious. He warned me about churches that tried to control you, that tried to make you believe that random things like going to prom, or dancing or other equally innocuous things were sinful. I wish that I had listened to him more carefully back then as the church I was going to at the time was preaching these types of beliefs. But, as I said, I was desperate for connection.
My brother and mother were not really interested in coming to church with me, and I never really felt compelled to ask them. Church for me back then was something that I wanted to be separate from my home life. I needed an escape from the uncertainty and intensity that came with living in a household with Ma. And, I am ashamed to say it, I was embarrassed of my family at the time. I didn’t want people to know what my home life was really like.
One day, when I was a sophomore in college, however, I’d gotten the idea into my head to ask my mom to come to church with me. At this point in her life, things were going south. She was losing money fast, she was in and out of the hospital and our relationship was more strained than ever, since I unabashedly had replaced my actual family with a spiritual one.
She agreed to come to church with me. It was one of the most quiet, surreal moments in my life. I can feel and see the memory in my head, but the voices are dimmed, the details blurred. I remember taking my mom to church. We said our hellos to people; my spiritual family was kind, welcoming. We sat through the service, engaged in polite small talk afterwards and said our goodbyes. Then I drove her home.
Leaving the church, we pulled to a stop at a red light. The air between us palpable. I glanced over at her once or twice, but didn’t dare say a word. I hung in the air, waiting for the famous Cynthia Scott disapproval…
In one of the quietest voices I had ever heard my mom use to speak to me (I’d only heard her speak this way to me one other time in my life.), she let out a soft sigh and said, “Alexis, I’m really proud of you.” At the time, that comment hit me like a ton of bricks. She had never expressed anything like this to me before, and I was utterly elated. I was praising the strength and power of God. I reaffirmed my faith that He could work miracles.
Looking back, I still think of this moment in my life fondly, but maturation has altered the lens through which I analyze this interaction. I rewatch the images of taking mom to church, of her meeting people there, of her quiet, contemplative demeanor throughout. And I see it with new eyes: she was deflated. Her daughter would rather spend her time in a sea of people who look and act nothing like the family she already had, the family that raised her, the family that made her. And to that, my mother resigned to her fate, to what her relationship with her daughter had become. We were strangers to each other. I abandoned them, turned my back on them, and sadly, I would continue to do so in the years following this moment.
It took me three decades to figure out who I was in the world, to fully accept all parts of me, both good and bad, and to stop letting my need to please others rule over and smother who I actually am. This is one area where Ma always had me beat. She knew who she was and was completely comfortable with that, even if it meant that she lost people along the way. I’m just now learning to own that type of confident resolve.
I look at my life now and cringe from the person I used to be. The people pleaser. The do-gooder. The rule follower. The person who’d say anything for a pat on the head or a gold star. I surrounded myself with a sea of upper-middle class whites who had no clue what my real life was like. I escaped into them in direct rejection of myself. Now, that I am picking up the pieces of who I am, and wearing them like badges of honor rather than hiding them deep in a dark closet, I finally feel what I believe my mom felt at that moment. Her daughter was not hers. She had chosen the company of strangers over her own.
These days, I’m secretly fighting to reconnect to anything resembling my actual family. I want to make up for all the time I spent blindly accepting my place amongst the Christian whites, not thinking for a moment of the importance of being connected to my own culture. There was nothing wrong with what happened, and I do not regret my choices nor do I believe friendships should be valued more or less because of race or gender or whatever. I only wish that I had learned balance. Engage with the new, the unknown, the unfamiliar while also being proud of who I was and where I came from. I am black. I am Filipina. I am from an immigrant mother and an absent father. And I am so much more than this, extending into places within that are filled with variety, complexity and change. Because I am human.
I never should have rejected any of that for that small slice of acceptance.
Hoarding Gone Wrong
My mother became quite the hoarder in my early high school years. After spending her entire life living from paycheck to paycheck, she rather luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, came into a lot of money after winning a case about a pill that made her sick. For the first time in my life, we didn’t have to think about how much money we spent. We went out to eat a hell of a lot more than we had before. My mom had large parties (which I called “Steak Parties”) where she would buy loads of prime cuts of beef, food and drink and invite her friends over to eat as much as they wanted and revel in her nouveau riche lifestyle.
I didn’t like the change, mainly because it changed my mom. Perhaps it didn’t change her so much as it revealed her true nature. Her whole life she lived in a more or less powerless state, shifting and adapting to the whims of other people. Of course to her, power went hand in hand with how much money you had, and so, her new bank account number, thanks to that wonderful settlement money, meant she was finally amongst the powerful in her Filipino community. And she wanted everyone to know.
As is the sad story of many people who come into money, particularly with people who never had much of it before, my mom began hoarding. She bought everything and anything. Now, to her credit, she was also very generous to others with her money, almost too generous, but, overall, there was no stopping her in stocking up personal items for her home. Electronics, paintings, jewellery, clothing, the list went on and on, and the piles stacked higher and higher. They got so high that she quite literally filled two houses worth with her collection of things. Sale or not, if there was a use for it or not, my mom would buy the equivalent of a local shop selling the product, noting her economy as overstocking on food, toiletries and clothing meant we would never go without if we ever ran into hard times again.
The money soon ran out. The friends stopped coming around. The second house was lost. And the boxes never lessened. We moved back to our old home, the one that had essentially become the storage home when we moved to a larger, more luxurious house. She was devastated, but that didn’t push her to regain that logic, that practicality she once had before the money. She still wanted to have it all. And she did have it all. They were stuffed into every drawer and closet and box, both inside and outside of the house. I was so thankful that by this time I had already moved away from home, as even my room was not exempt from this need to store instead of tone down. She has since been living her life walking around this home, occasionally shifting boxes around from one cramped space to another, completely unaware of the toll it takes upon her, both emotionally and physically.
I remember one of these moments of shifting boxes. She had her partner and a close friend moving around some boxes outside that were stacked ground to ceiling under a tented tarp in our backyard. I’m not sure what they were doing this for exactly. I do remember they were still moving boxes from our “We’re Rich Now,” house to the old one, so they needed to move these boxes around (aka stack them even tighter and higher in this small space) to make room for the boxes that would be coming in. I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on. I hated those damn boxes, full of useless crap, wondering where the real important stuff we used to have had all gone. Where were all of our photo albums? Family pictures? School certificates? They’d been lost for years in the mire that was my mom’s new found wealth.
Suddenly, I heard her scream and wail and cry outside. I thought she’d gotten hurt and rushed to the back of the house to see what was going on. She trudged into the house, sobbing like a child whose dog had just died, carrying a water warped box. Oh, no. I didn’t know what it could have been, but it was clearly important enough for her to weep over. I shuddered to think of the family memories that had been in that box, sitting outside to ruin in the humid, wet and damagingly changeable Florida weather.
I took a look into the box, as my mom walked around quietly wailing and weeping over her loss, and I was surprised to see what was inside. Several damaged framed paintings, nothing that I recognized at all. The glass on the front of some of the frames were cracked. She nudged me aside as she picked through each of the items, continued to cry and lovingly laid each piece on the tabletop. Uncle Joe and the friend began bringing in more boxes with equal or worse damage, and for each one she was increasingly more anxious and upset, and she even began to get angry with her boyfriend, because in her mind this was all his fault. If he had just stacked her boxes of things more carefully, more lovingly, this never would have happened. And now, because of him, she had to look at how each thrift store item she had within these boxes was ruined beyond repair.
I rarely saw my mom in this kind of vulnerable state. She wasn’t a crier. She didn’t dare show that weakness to anyone. Even during those years when she was constantly sick, bedridden and in and out of the hospital. Even when she came home after another unsuccessful evening out with her Filipino community who constantly and openly degraded her. Even when one of her closest friends died several years back. She certainly didn’t cry out of joy or frustration over her kids. But here she was, crying over what to me looked like useless, stupid junk. She was crying over piles of shit.
I painfully admit that I hated her that day. She never showed so much sympathy or care over anything that, to me, should have actually mattered. Seeing her like that didn’t spark empathy or even begrudging understanding; it sparked the anger I feel every time I think of how little she cares for her own flesh and blood in the face of the material. It makes me wonder whether my mom would choose me over endless wealth if the situation presented itself. And sadly I think I know the answer to that, and it’s not one that any child wants to believe, even when they know it’s true. I hate her for her selfishness. I hate her for her lack of empathy towards her children. I hate her in many ways, and it’s a struggle that I continue to have to this day. In that instance, she loved boxes more than anything, and it only amplified what I knew her to be. That little girl in me still needs mommy’s validation, care, interest and this memory only reconfirmed that I may never get that. She may very well die before she ever grieves over me like she did for those boxes.
Ma is Depressed
When the shit really hit the fan for my mom financially, she took it really hard. She had spent most of her life struggling, striving and scraping by with money, and she did a fantastic job holding it all together. It was surreal when she got the money. It was devastating when she lost it all.
For my mother, getting that pay out was life changing. She literally got sick for that money. When we briefly moved to a richer part of town during my fifth grade year, I remember coming home nearly everyday to my mother, her face hovering over a steaming plastic bowl concoction of water and Vicks Vapor Rub, kitchen towel draped over the back of her head to make sure she inhaled as much steam as possible. She had trouble breathing. She was constantly in and out of the hospital. Ma was sick.
Of course, this being my family, mom never really talked us through what was going on. It was only years later, when the settlement money came in, that I realized how serious her health issues were back then. She had been prescribed a drug by her doctor called Fen Phen. After researching what the drug was used for, I learned that my mother most likely used it for weight loss reasons. I am not surprised at this as she made a similar choice back in the 70s to take a drug to help with her morning sickness while pregnant with my brother that had ill effects for him when he was born. However, I can’t really judge my mother for this; she trusted doctors to make the right choices like we all do. If they said a drug was safe, it must be so.
So my mom took some pills and after months and months of illness, she came out of it with pulmonary hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and a cool 1.3 million dollars in settlement money. Though she couldn’t literally buy everything, she really did try. She turned up to school to pick me up one day in her new Plymouth Prowler. This was the moment I realized she had truly transitioned into someone I would barely recognize when compared to the thrifty mother I’d grown up with. She bought anything that tickled her fancy on her almost daily shopping runs to Costco, she bought us all cars, she hosted many of her infamous, though short-lived, “Steak Parties.” There was no stopping her.
She also donated quite a lot to her friends and people in need. Though I suspect that some of those in the donation line were taking advantage of her, because when the money ran out, so did they. It took mom a long time to really understand and accept that she was out of money and that there was very little chance of her getting any of it back. She made good investments, and she made poor ones. Like many people who experience the roller coaster of becoming instantly rich, she realized that any amount of money can go as quickly as it comes. I’m not sure if even now, after all these years, it’s sunk in for Ma that the money is never coming back. We’ve all moved on, but she’s still holding on tight, promising us everything under the sun once she gets her money back from the awful people who artfully swindled it right out of her hands.
During one brief moment when she accepted that she had to start over, that the money was really gone, depression took her over. Though she would never admit it to us or even herself, the signs were there: she was despondent, her weight rapidly fluctuated as did her eating habits, she slept a lot. (Many of these signs I would recognize in myself later on in life.) She just couldn’t understand how life could treat her thusly after so many years of hardship, and in a lot of ways, I can finally feel what she must have felt in those moments. She was lost, disillusioned. She didn’t know where to turn. It seemed as if every door was closed up tight, leaving her stuck in limbo with no clue where to turn.
And for another brief moment in this spell of open depression, she turned to me. I was home for some reason, though I can’t quite remember why exactly. It may have been Christmas time or some other holiday that required my presence at home since I was no longer required to be present at school. I was hiding in my room, the usual go-to move for me and my siblings whenever we’ve stayed at home with Ma, and, true to her nature, she opened my closed door, walked right in and made herself comfortable. A true Filipino through and through.
I knew something was pressing on her mind because she didn’t come in with her usual gusto: her definitive footfall increasing in volume as her feet plodded along closer and closer to my bedroom door, followed by a forceful knock and a loud, “Alexeeeeeeeeees,” (in her distinctive Filipino accent), the door swinging open loudly and roughly. That was her calling card, her usual move. This time around it was more…guarded. Unusually quiet and deceptively calm.
She walked the few steps it would take to get to my bed and leaned against one of the pillars that was a part of the large, wooden bed frame. I watched her for a few seconds while she quietly stood there, contemplating. She sighed.
“Mom, are you okay?”
This was not a normal way for me to start a conversation with Ma. An open expression of concern was rare for me to verbalize so freely, knowing full well that it would only lead to an even longer monologue of all things Cynthia. However, this time, I had to. The tension and sorrow emanating from her quiet figure sagging against my bed was too tempting. My heartstrings were vibrating in response, begging me to do something, anything to alleviate the pain she was clearly experiencing in that moment.
The only part I clearly remember of our conversation was her lamenting about the fact that none of us, me, my brother and my sister, were close with her. She didn’t say this in those exact words, but she danced around that theme, asking me why we didn’t open up to her, why we were all moving away, why we didn’t call or visit as often as she expected any good Filipino child would do. She, at one point, and in so many words, demanded to know why we didn’t love her, all the while defending herself and saying she did the best she could. And, knowing my mother and seeing her through a different lens than I used to, I agree. She did do the best she could. It just, unfortunately, fell a little short of the things we sometimes needed from her at different points in our lives. I can’t blame her for this; her expression of love is different to ours, and we never took the time to let our guard down for long enough to understand these things about each other with any real depth.
I tried to confirm with Ma that it wasn’t that we didn’t love her, it was that we were unsure about where we stood with her. We didn’t know our place as her capricious affection and often irate mood swings were exacted on us in ways we couldn’t fully comprehend. In this moment, I tried to bare my soul to her, to tell her that we wanted to love her more deeply, differently, but that in order for us to reach that place together, she might have to start accepting all parts of us, all parts of who me, my brother and sister were, not just the parts she liked or pretended to be true about us. All she had to do was listen.
Ironically, that was the very thing she didn’t do in that moment. And, like she had threatened to me once before, she openly contemplated suicide, leaving me feeling that much of that was due to my inability to please her the way she needed. I promptly shut my mouth and quietly allowed my mom to finish her monologue before she exited her stage, my room, in the same fashion she had come in.
She left me with a haunting remark about how we were like little birds in her nest. She cared for us, she protected us and she loved us in the best way she knew how, and now that we were all grown up, she was left with nothing but and empty nest and the memory of what it was like to feel connected to us. She knew we were never coming back. I wrote a song about this analogy she detailed for me, her feelings about us growing up and moving on. I’ve never played it for my mother, and I don’t know if I ever will. Perhaps I will when she vacates the nest she made for us, never to return again.
I’d finally moved away from home in a way that gave me enough physical distance to finally breathe, to finally explore my own identity and to be (with some caveats) myself fully. The first move for physical space happened in the summer of 2004; my first college roommate and former high school friend was on the volleyball team for our small, Christian college, so she was able to move into our dorm room during the summer as she was training with her team in preparation for the start of the season. We lived in the same city as the college we were moving to, so it was perfect timing for me to transition out of my mom’s house and into my college life.
Ma was very upset. She didn’t understand why I needed to move out of the house when the college campus was only twenty minutes away from home. I told her that the school required Freshmen to live on campus, hoping she’d believe the lie. Not a great start for a person enrolled in a Christian college, but I was desperate for a change; I craved freedom and selfishly snatched at it whenever it presented itself. As we both eased into my transition towards semi-independence, I found another window of opportunity to create even more space after my two-year stint at the Christian college: Kentucky.
By the summer of 2006, I had a really cute boyfriend, a realization that I wanted to train to be a teacher and a sister college in Kentucky so closely connected with the two-year Christian college in Florida that they offered students who wanted to transfer the state resident’s price for attending college at WKU. The boyfriend was already there. Check. The teaching college at WKU was nationally recognized. Check. The price tag was significantly cheaper than and/or financially comparable to most other offers I would get locally or nationally to finish my undergraduate degree. Check.
For me, it was a no-brainer. Everything seemed to align and point me towards the move, and, during that time, I was very spiritually and faithfully-minded, so those coincidences seemed to be signs from God pointing me to Kentucky. And in many ways, they really were signs. Like my mother’s experiences in the Philippines with her aunts and uncles, Kentucky was one of my defining moments in life: it rewarded me and beat me to a pulp emotionally, taught me how to be fully self-reliant and resilient and connected me to people who I love and cherish to this day. Without that move, I don’t think I would be where I am today.
To be fair, my mom had a big part to play in finalizing my move to Kentucky. She provided for me in the best way she knew how by giving me the money I needed to buy the necessary things to get my life started. I am so thankful to her for that. She was not able to give me much in life, financially or otherwise, but she did give me what she could when the moments really called for it; and in this case, she gave me the exact leg-up I needed. That money got me my bedroom furniture, groceries and gas money to get me to and settled in to Kentucky. I never thanked her fully for that sacrifice; to give me that final gift while also inwardly hating the fact that I, once again, chose something over her. I wanted something different to the life she created around me and, sometimes, for me; and somehow, she still funded this path. In that moment, she had given me a mother’s true love and sacrifice.
I wish that those moments with her lasted longer than a small, fleeting spark that dissipates all too quickly. I wish that I expressed that gratitude more fervently. But, true to our nature, we both said very little, took a lot and lived in the silence those choices created in the vast space between us.
While I was in Kentucky, things continued to go south for my mother financially. She took the hardest blow in 2008 when she realized that the end was imminent: she was losing the amazing house she started renting in Lutz during my Junior year in high school. It was the last vestige of financial prosperity she had in her arsenal to show off to others. Moving fully out of that house back to the one in Temple Terrace, only minutes away from the small apartment complex I grew up in as a child, would prove to everyone that she had failed, that she was poor again. And she didn’t want to admit defeat. She never does.
That’s when I got the call. At that point in my life, my mother and I were still speaking fairly regularly. And by regularly, I mean she called and texted me a lot, and I often avoided responding or answering her calls until guilt, fear or shame forced me to answer the phone or dial her number directly. Those calls would last for forty-five minutes to two hours, and would be filled with my mom gossiping, complaining about our family and talking about her health and/or financial troubles. Often times, she’d hit on every single one of these topics within the first ten minutes of our “conversation” (if you could call it that, since I rarely got a word in edgewise), and she would then circle back to each topic, elaborate a bit more and run off on a thousand tangents before circling back and starting all over again. Her conversations were spiralled marathons, each segment intersecting and weaving into one another, comprehensible to me, but not to most who haven’t been exposed early enough to “Filipino-ese.” I’d been listening to those conversations my whole life, and neither the subject matter nor the way in which it was communicated had changed much over the years.
This particular conversation found me after a Wednesday evening church gathering in the park. This was a normal practice for our group during the summer, as the weather was nice and we could socialize while the kids played after first coming together to sing and talk about God. Out of all the churches I was a part of, I loved this group the most. They got the closest to drawing out the real me during my time with them.
Mom rang. The conversational topics focused on finances. She was desperate because she was about to lose the big house, the final guillotine was falling. And that’s when she asked me one of the hardest things I had to say no to in my life. She wanted me to sign a loan in my name for 100,000 dollars so that she wouldn’t lose her house. She needed me to help her save face. I knew the deal. In that moment, my mom was thinking about all the things she had ever done for me financially: the car she bought me, the money she gave me over the years to help with my move, the time I didn’t understand our family phone plan and came back one summer with a $2,000+ bill for all of my calls to a boyfriend in California. The list went on.
Most moms wouldn’t ask their kids to do this. Most moms wouldn’t keep a financial ledger with their child’s name on it to reference when money received is needed back. Ma, as you have probably guessed if you’ve made it this far in my story, was not most moms. In this moment, I was her last resort, her Hail Mary pass as the final seconds on the clock wind down to zero. She’d ruined my brother’s and sister’s credit statuses by that point with lesser financial burdens, and hers and Uncle Joe’s credit scores were not in good shape either, so that left me. To be fair to her logic as well, I was the most reliable member of the family financially. Outside of college fees, I had incurred no debt, I saved a lot and always lived within my means. Since the day I started working at the age of sixteen, I rarely had to turn to my mother for financial help. I paid my own bills, I bought my own gas, I funded my own entertainment costs. She, of course, helped me with big things like car insurance (or so I thought at the time, but that’s another story); but everything else was paid for on the dollars I earned working part-time during school and full-time during the summer.
Ma begged me, pleaded with me to help her; a rare occurrence for me to bear witness to as she was not one to show weakness to anyone, especially her children, but like I said, she was desperate. There was a small part of me that was about to give in, to relent and let her have her way. She is a charming woman, and even with years of experience with her on my plate, I was still almost tempted to fall into her trap. My only release from fully giving in was to tell her that I needed time to think about it.
I hung up the phone and went to my church deacons to talk to them about what had just happened. This, for me, was a rare occurrence as, like my mom, I hated to show weakness. And, moreover, I hated to reveal the secrets of my inner family circle; at this point in my life, it was less about me being embarrassed about where I came from and more about me wanting to live in a fantasy world where Cynthia Scott could not penetrate, where she didn’t rule supreme. The looks on their faces confirmed my gut instinct. Of course it would be ridiculous for me to take out a loan of that size to bail out my mom. And, if she was nearing financial ruin, what would that mean for me in the long-run, if I signed in and boarded that particular sinking ship?
They joined me in a circle and prayed for me and my mother. They told me to call them if anything else came up that they could help with. They offered to do some research, make some calls to see if they could connect my mom with anyone who could help her directly in Florida. They did what I now know most parents do. They looked out for the kid who was in way over her head; they stepped in and made me feel safe and cared for. I feel my heart pinching now, knowing that my mom rarely ever reacted like this for me.
The story ends with me calling my mother a few days later and apologizing to her for not being able to take out the loan. I held my breath and waited for the onslaught after explaining to her that I didn’t want to ruin my credit if anything went wrong, that it was too big of an ask, that I had my future to think about. Eyes closed, breath on pause, I listened as she painfully detailed the reasons why I was ruining her life, as she listed all the reasons I was a terrible daughter, as she berated me for abandoning everyone and everything that was my family, as she confirmed with anecdotes from our family history that I never cared for them, that I was mean and selfish, that I thought I was better than all of them. (These were insults that would be hurled at me for years to come.)
But her final dagger, the haunting ghost she left me with from this conversation, was after she expended her verbal rage on me. Now deflated and realizing her last resort was a brick wall instead of a door, she sighed and told me how she wanted to end it all. If this thing she asked me to do couldn’t come through, if it didn’t happen, she had bottles and bottles of pills that she could just take to make all of her problems go away. Her ultimatum: make my financial problems go away, Alexis, I or will. I flipped a coin and called her bluff, though gently.
“I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry you feel that way. I just can’t do this for you.”
The sound of a click. Silence. Mom had hung up. I didn’t breath for a long time after that conversation. I knew what the feeling of desperation could do with a person’s psyche. I still do. Many years ago, in a fit of isolation and defeat, I’d contemplated and attempted the same thing, though with a different weapon. I knew that to take that chance on someone who verbalizes a wish to end their life was risky, but part of me knew my mother well enough to believe that she wouldn’t be able to do it because she’d survived this long and worked so hard to get things done. How could she give up that easily? She was Cynthia-fucking-Scott. Nothing could take her down.
Luckily, my breath came back. A few months later, out of guilt, I called her. Her tone was cold, guarded. The usual punishment for wronging her, for not jumping when she said jump. I knew this aspect of our relationship would last for an indefinite number of days or weeks or months before she stored that hurt away, to use to my detriment the next time I pissed her off or disappointed her. I was glad to hear her voice and know that she decided to keep fighting, even if at that particular moment, it would be me.
Ma Meets the Fiance
Ma meeting my boyfriend, soon to be fiancé, for the first time was a near complete success. She had never quite taken to other boyfriends of mine that she had met in the past. In fact, she had never really taken to most boyfriends and girlfriends my brother, sister and I had brought into her home. She placidly accepted each one in their turn, and in their absence, warned us to be wary or gave us her unsolicited and unedited opinion on their characters.
With Ian it was different. She laughed with him, smiled at him, and all in such an uncharacteristically uncalculated manner. To be fair, Ian’s unassuming charm and genuine nature often lands him in situations where he is universally liked, openly spoken well of and fondly missed when he leaves. But Cynthia Scott was tough, and her critical, and often ungrounded judgements were given without provocation and held on to forever. So I walked on pins and needles for the entire two weeks she spent with Ian, meeting him face to face for the first time since we started dating in 2009.
On our last day in Tampa, before flying back to China for our new teaching jobs at a new school, I happened upon my mom washing dishes and preparing some things for a meal she wanted to cook. I walked quietly into the room and shuffled around, looking for something to snack on.
“I really like Ian. I hope you marry him someday.”
I was taken aback. Never in my experience had mom uttered these words about anyone I’d deemed important enough to bring home to meet her. Hell, she’d never said that about anyone we brought home. Though ultimately I knew I would make my own decisions about my life with Ian, much like all the other decisions I made for myself despite her open disapproval, her conclusion of Ian did solidify our relationship with me on many levels. If someone as tough and demanding and critical as Cynthia Scott could express such open adoration about a potential life partner, having only just met him, I knew that person would be a keeper. And with Ian, he definitely was; my mother’s approval was just a bonus, though a rather large, unexpected one.
To this day, she still can’t say a bad word about him, which does not surprise me at all. And equally unsurprising, I am almost certain she prefers his company to mine. I’ll take it.
Nephew and Nieces
It was an interesting dynamic getting to witness the third generation of Scotts and Genaos growing up, however briefly, in Ma’s household. True to the usual grandparent stereotypes, Ma loved each of them thoroughly and in a vastly different fashion to how she loved us when we were growing up. She spoiled them, cuddled them and sometimes even laughed when they challenged her authority; things I couldn’t dream of experiencing first-hand. I got a small glimpse into how she must have loved us when we were little, completely unaware of the rarity that is Cynthia Scott’s unconditional adoration.
When they all started growing up and started formulating opinions of their own, separate from that of Ma, I started noticing particular parallels between her levels of adoration for her grandchildren and her adoration for her kids. There were three of them just like there were three of us; there were two girls and one boy, just like us. The only difference was the order. Elsie was the oldest; then came Sammy; then Greyson. All beautiful and wonderfully varied additions to our little family in Florida.
Greyson, of course, parallels my brother’s relationship to Ma. A few years back, he fought Greyson’s mother for a very long time for custody. It was tough for Jr.; he had to sit back and accept that his battle with Cristina would be long and hard as courts almost always favored mothers over fathers, even though he and my mom both knew and agonized over the fact that Greyson was in a bad place with his mother’s new spouse. Despite Greyson’s obvious preference to be at home with my brother and Ma, on paper Cristina had the upper hand as she seemed to have her act together: she was married, she had a steady job and she lived with her husband and their new daughter, Greyson’s sister, along with his step-father’s kids from a previous union. My brother, on paper, seemed less stable: going back and forth between living at home with his mother, unmarried, etc., but if courts ever bothered getting a child’s opinion on where they’d like to live, at least in some cases, Greyson would answer firmly that he wanted to be with his dad and Ma.
Through all of the stress the custody battle caused to everyone involved, it was clear that my mom deeply loved and felt for Greyson. Knowing that he was going through a similar thing that she had gone through with her aunts and uncles after her parents had died, drove a knife deep into her heart and made her feel like she needed to take action to protect him in ways no one did for her when she was an orphaned child. Greyson, to my mother, is wonderful beyond comprehension. She loves him thoroughly and blindly, and even when he does things that make her mad, the guilt she sometimes feels for not being able to protect him during this vulnerable time of his life, trumps any real action she could take to discipline him more firmly.
Samantha (or Samy as she is more affectionately known), my sister’s younger daughter, is the pillar of beauty. She is tall, lean, porcelain-skinned, quiet and graceful with a long flowing head of dark curly hair. She is patient and slow to express anger openly, even when provoked. In that sense, she is the spitting image of my sister, her mother, in many ways. She also physically resembles my sister very closely, much like my sister resembles younger versions of Ma; more closely than I do. Samy has also split much of her time between her father and my sister, mirroring in a lot of ways how my sister split her time between her New York and Florida families. With Samy, my mom is always trying to make up for lost time; she’s also trying to live vicariously through Samy, taking on her natural beauty and grace as an image of her own.
That leaves Elsie. She is strong-willed, independent and argumentative, mirroring many of the traits that Ma relied on to survive and thrive despite adversity. Elsie is an intellectual, she is beautiful and confident in ways it’s taken me many years well into adulthood to cultivate for myself. She is the kind of person who will do what she wants, when she wants, no matter what anyone else thinks. She looks vastly different physically to her mother and sister; that is because she resembles her father. In a very literal sense, she is a louder, more confident version of myself.
You can probably guess which of these three mom connects to the least.
It’s funny watching our family history repeat itself before my very eyes. I see Ma look the other way for Greyson, allowing her guilt at not being able to protect him stop her from giving him any real structure; I see her unabashedly shower Samy with affection, compliments and praise for everything she does, big or small; and I see her with Elsie, swinging on a pendulum between overly critical remarks and affection that comes too late, well after the sting of her judgements have taken its toll and buried themselves deeply in the receiver’s psyche.
I have also been present for the other sides of their relationship with Ma. With Greyson, it was being a quiet comfort or refuge to him after one of Ma’s famous verbal tirades. We found silent common ground with each other, as I provided any small amount of indirect support while he licked his wounds. With Samy, it was a knowing confirmation when our eyes met that she didn’t lose her place with us, even though it was clear to everyone that she was Ma’s favorite. She was and still is uncomfortable with receiving the undeniable praise that every one else rarely gets. And with Elsie, it was metaphorically and emotionally holding her hand when I could, swapping Ma war stories and redirecting her attention to the wider world and all of the things she could look forward to when it seemed as if Ma’s summation of her was what everyone else also thought to be true. Fortunately for Elsie, she had a kick ass mom who constantly reminded her that she was amazing and that one person’s opinion, no matter how piercing, wasn’t the complete picture.
Despite the clear parallels between the second and third generations of Ma’s progeny, I believe and profusely hope that they will come out of her shadow a little less broken than the second generation came out. That the scorn and ridicule and capricious moods Cynthia Scott exacted on them didn’t cut as deeply as it might have done for the rest of us.
Mother of the Bride
The story of how late my mom was to my wedding day has already been told. However, the parts leading up to the wedding and the parts following have not been told in full detail.
When Ian and I got engaged, my mother couldn’t be happier. She yelled joyfully and congratulated us. I imagined she called her friends afterwards to tell them of the good news (and perhaps to gloat a little). The start was all well and good. It was when the ecstasy of receiving good news died down that things really started to heat up. Fortunately, most of the wedding planning was done remotely from China since that’s where Ian and I were living and working at the time. Couple the vast physical distance with my mom’s knack for not following through, and I had a recipe for being able to plan and carry out what we actually wanted to do for our wedding with little to no detours or roadblocks.
The few times I did talk to my mom over the phone about wedding plans were more or less harmless, though still fully charged and engulfed in impasses, hurt feelings and tension. Ma and I couldn’t really get through most of our interactions without this combination of outcomes. The conversations on the phone are altogether lost on me; I only remember feeling incredulous at pretty much every request she made for my wedding. The only thing we did seem to agree on was that Uncle Joe (in addition to my biological father) would walk me down the aisle and that a specific portion of the Estrada family would not be invited. With that said, I did gain quite a lot of weight from stress eating at least one bag of Ruffles chips after every phone call I had with my mom about the wedding. Ian always made sure to stock up the week leading up to the each of those fated calls.
The most heated argument we got into happened about a month before we were to fly out to Tampa. She made a request that I wasn’t sure I could meet due to the time sensitive nature of the changes she wanted me to make. By June, we had everything booked and almost all final numbers confirmed for guests. Though we already wanted a small wedding, we were also on a tight budget as we were paying for the ceremony and reception in its entirety. Our numbers for the reception couldn’t really exceed 100 people as this number was confirmed and planned for with our caterers and the wedding venue’s maximum capacity.
And that’s where Cynthia Scott, completely ignorant of the meticulous planning and penny-pinching we’d done to get to this point, stepped in. She promptly requested that we add in four new guests to the reception, people completely foreign to me, people I’d never met in my life. Why did she request this? Well, it was simple. She needed to invite them to something where she could wine and dine them, albeit on someone else’s dime, in order to gain favor and encourage them to help her with her ongoing court case. (She was still chasing after the money she’d lost in years prior.)
At that point, every seat and nearly every guest that was invited months prior was confirmed. There were no more tables. There wasn’t enough physical space to fit in four new people unless four cancelled last minute. Though in terms of food and refreshment, we’d have enough for extra people, I didn’t want to promise my mom seats that I couldn’t deliver to her on the day. That conversation ended in a huge argument, and when she hung up on me, it also resulted in my immediate intake of one and a half bags of Sour Cream and Cheddar.
Being true to my nature, I quickly let guilt settle in and take over once the anger subsided. I moved things around, worked creatively and paid additional fees for last minute changes to make sure this request would work for my mom, none of which she was aware and still isn’t to this day. Our limited wedding fund stretched thinner after those changes. At the end of it all, her additional guests didn’t even come.
There were a myriad of other, equally frustrating gems my mom produced throughout the entire planning process leading up to our wedding day: requesting that I arrange a VIP table for some of her more “honored” wedding guests when she met us at the gate the day we flew in to Tampa from Beijing and asking us to change the seating arrangements so she didn’t have to share a table with my father were two particular highlights that I distinctly remember.
After the actual ceremony, the fun continued. She failed to arrive to help us set up for the wedding ceremony like she promised because she felt that cooking several hundred egg rolls for the appetizer table was more important than the thousands of other little things that needed doing. (Ian and I worked from early morning until people started arriving in the late afternoon setting everything up.) She brought a whole roasted pig to the wedding without my knowledge or request, and ignored me for the entirety of our wedding reception when she realized this upset me. To be fair, for that one, I should have just let it go, though I suspect even now, six years after the blunder, she still wouldn’t fully accept my apology. She called everyone under the sun the day after the reception to complain about how ungrateful I was.
All of this I have honestly let go of, even though the memory of each moment during that time in my life still hurts me with the same intensity it did back then. Ma had once again confirmed to me that she could never step aside to let joy fully surround me, especially if that joy wasn’t according to her liking. She couldn’t and probably will never be able to just celebrate me, but most damaging of all, she confirmed that she just didn’t know me, not really. Nor was she interested in the truth of who I was back then, who I am now and who I may become in the future. She’s just not that invested or interested. That understanding hurts more deeply than any social faux pas we could ever exert on each other, conscious or not.
I’ve heard many conversations my mother has had about me with other people. I know the feeling well whenever it dawned on me that the topic being discussed that I was clearly eavesdropping on about me: heart racing, ears throbbing, feeling panicked at what was being said and to whom. Sometimes, the panic would subside when I realized that what she was saying about me was more or less positive. However, most of the conversations I’ve eavesdropped on that were about me were of my shortcomings, and sometimes, they were conversations she’d purposefully engage in loudly, knowing that I would be listening. In those instances, she wanted to drive her usual main points home to me: that I was a disappointment, that I’d screwed up something somehow, that I needed to start changing or else.
Like a lot of things from my time with Ma, the details are a bit hazy but the tone and feeling of it all is deeply rooted within me. This one, when I recall it, covers me in shades of dark purple and dull blue, pulling me down to a quiet, lonely and frightening place. Like pulling the covers over your head at night when you think you’ve seen a monster staring at you from the darkness of your closet. The bright, piercing eyes stare you down into submission, and you, too scared to flee, hide beneath the thick blanket, hoping for the bad feelings to go away. They never really do.
My mom was on the phone with someone, talking in those blue and purple tones. Sighing in resignation. All I remember is hearing something to the effect of, “I just don’t know. She’s different. She’s changed…no, I don’t think so, Gi.” I froze, ice cold. She was lamenting me and everything she’d concluded that I’d become with my sister. And in her voice I could feel a sense of defeat. She’d given up. On me.
In that moment, I realized I’d become someone entirely alien to her. She didn’t understand me, and she didn’t want to. Not that we had been very close to begin with, but it felt as if the last shreds of what linked me to Ma were thinning, she was looking at those ripping strands, holding a pair of scissors, contemplating.
I know I shouldn’t feel anger towards her for this. I’d done this to her many times over in my own mind and heart. When the shit between us became too much to handle, I’d cut myself off, vowing never to return again. Then guilt and shame and remorse would set in, and I’d slowly open myself back up to Ma, only just, in the hopes that the next time around would be different. It never was.
Only this time, it was Ma who was thinking about leaving me, about letting me go. Of all the horrendous things we’d done to each other, her truly leaving me, fully and willingly letting me go, physically or emotionally, was the one thing I always felt like she’d never do. Wasn’t this against the Mother’s Code? She’d preached so much to me for my whole life that no matter what ugliness fell between you and your blood, you should always remember that family would be there when no one else would. There was nothing you could do to sever those bonds. No matter what had happened between me and Ma until that point in time, I’d always believed that. And here she was, back-tracking on all of it. What I had done to push my mom to this, I still don’t know. I only know it forced something down inside me; a tight, obtrusive knot buried deep inside my gut that I don’t think will ever unravel.
The Last Christmas
I think a lot about Christmas in 2016. The motivations for me being there were less than noble. My mother flippantly goaded me during the summer prior to this holiday about how she guessed I’d moved on with my life, that I had no need for her or our family in Florida anymore. This was her reaction when I told her that it was the UK family’s turn for us to be there for Christmas. My husband and I have separated parents, making holiday visits tricky. The best way we knew how to cope with that was to have each parent on rotation: when we were in the UK, one parent got Christmas and the other New Years. The next year we’d do the same with our US parents. Then we’d flip-flop what holiday the parents got the previous year and follow the same pattern. This way, we got to see both sets of parents during the Christmas/New Year’s season every other year. It was the best solution we could come up with for a complicated reality.
Out of pride (and this definitely went before the fall), I changed all of our holiday plans and decided we’d go to Tampa for Christmas. For some reason, I needed to prove to my mom that I didn’t think I was better than everyone else. It was my passive aggressive (and expensive) way to prove a point. That was my first mistake.
My second mistake was entirely my fault. Looking back on it now, I did behave rudely and reacted with judgement when I was trying to help. The problem was I didn’t do it the Filipino way; I’d been long out of practice on the roundabout way a Filipina is meant to help her parents solve a problem. I’d come in, guns blazing, wanting to fix all of my mom’s problems, namely the dilapidated state of her house. What I should have done was give my mom time and objectivity. She didn’t want her problems solved. She just, for once, simply wanted my company. I’d ruined that the day I left her home to stay in a hotel and the day I came back to her home with my sister and her boyfriend to clean Ma’s house, top to bottom. I shamed her. And openly at that.
Tensions building, Ma finally had her breaking point with me. I’d come over to bring food for my nephew because mom was unwell, and I figured she might like the help in caring for him since she was having a hard time moving around on her own. I paraded in like an idiot, food in tow, talking at Ma too quickly, once again arriving too abruptly, presumptively trying to solve her problems without her consent.
She broke down into a tirade of anger. Looking back on it now, I can accept and apologize for driving her to this and let it go; what I cannot forget is what she said in her anger. She told me to get out of her house. She didn’t want me there anymore. I had a new family (my husband’s), and I should just focus on them. She was happy for me, that I found people to love me, and I had a husband to take care of me. She told me to stop coming around and that she was okay for me to stop trying.
And then the final knife, stated to me verbatim, “I’m not your family anymore.”
Because of the conversation I eavesdropped on between my mother and sister about this exact theme, I wasn’t surprised at the conclusion. I was more shocked at the tone of her delivery, at the fact that she was angry enough to tell me these conclusions so directly. I remember her face: eyebrows furrowed, mouth scowled, arms crossed, hate gleaming from her eyes. She meant was she was saying, and she was finally angry enough at my behavior to tell me the full truth. I wasn’t wanted. I didn’t fit in, and I needed to get the hell out. Now.
I think I managed to stammer out an, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Ma,” and an “I love you,” but her ears were deaf to my gentle reassurances. She was done with me. The verdict was given. Get the hell out.
She ignored me for the entire Christmas gathering, even with close family friends openly and loudly admonishing her for behaving that way with a daughter who flew across the world to see her. She tolerated me at New Years (we decided to stay for both holidays that year to our chagrin), and on the day we were to fly back to Oman, she refused to say goodbye, to hug me, to talk to me or even to look at me. She openly rejected me in front of my husband, my sister and a close family friend, knowing full well what she was doing. It was straight out of the Cynthia Scott playbook: treat everyone in front of Alexis with extreme kindness, love and syrupy affection and act as if she isn’t even there. I knew this tactic well as she once explained her strategy thoroughly to me, “If you hurt me, I make sure to hurt you back worse, so you know how you made me feel.” Always an eye for an eye with her. It made sense: that’s how life treated her for her entire life, so why should it be any different for anyone else, even if it was her own kid?
I left despondent, shocked, listless, fully believing that that would be the last Ma ever heard from me or I her. The separation was complete. I was cut off, so I had to cut her off too, lick my wounds and hope to adjust to a life where Ma existed for everyone except for me.
Our flight out of Tampa was cancelled that day due to snow storms. I didn’t tell Ma. I didn’t go back to her home to try to mend things, to try and give her a second chance at saying goodbye, until next time. I acknowledged the rift, drew my own line in the sand and settled into planning for and executing what my life would now be like devoid of a mother.
For Now, It Ends
“No daughter and mother ever live apart, no matter what the distance between them.” -Christie Watson
All My Regrets
There are very small windows of opportunity that exist between me, my mom and my brother. Windows that open just briefly and lead directly to our waiting, vulnerable hearts. In all of the stories told in this collection of memories, one or all of us attempted to make those windows apparent to the other. I’d like to hope that even a fraction of those attempts were recognized and acted on. There are enough good memories that I have with my mom, brother and sister to know that we were astute enough at times to go through those windows with caution, with care.
I missed so many of them with Ma. If only I’d been more mature, more patient. If only I’d been more like my sister, full of patience and forgiveness and love. If only I’d been more like my brother, making mom proud at my fearlessness to show off my talents. But I am inescapably the flawed person that I am, the one with so many caveats, fears, preconceived notions and prejudices that it’s hard for me to accept myself, let alone anyone who is close to me. If I’d been a bit wiser, I would have seized upon those moments my mom opened her windows to me. If I could go back to those moments and change my attitude and approach to her, even a little, I would. If.
There was one window in particular that haunts me a lot, now that I recognize it for what it was. I was fourteen or fifteen, going through that phase in life where I tried so hard to outwardly mask how much I hated myself inside. I’d gotten really good at doing makeup, and one evening, before my mom was to go out with some friends, she asked me to help her with her eyeliner. She even complimented me, saying I did such a good job on myself that she wanted me to do her makeup for her that night.
Looking at that younger version of me, I am screaming at her through the wall separating that memory of the past from the present. I am yelling at her to recognize the signs. Mom openly complimented you. Her voice was tentative but soft and reassuring. She was testing the waters to see if you’d take the bait. She trusted you fully to do something for her that she’d been doing for herself for longer than you’d been alive.
And the idiot that I was back then saw none of that. I reacted harshly, disgruntled. I made her feel like she was wasting my time, like I somehow had better things to do. I made her feel small. I missed my window.
No part of me believes that this particular moment in my life would have had a large scale chain reaction leading to me and my mom loving each other openly, never fighting again and wandering off into a glorious sunset in perfect mother-daughter union. I’m not naive enough to fall into that trap again. But it would have been nice to look back at that moment fondly. Maybe we would’ve laughed about something. Maybe mom would’ve shared something with me that I could cherish and hold on to tightly. Maybe I would’ve opened up my own little window in turn for her to look into and find her connection with me. Maybe.
Instead, I cringe, and inwardly, the knot I buried deep inside me when I realized mom was letting me go grows a little bigger each day.
Ma is Sick
This is a tough one to write about because my mom has been sick for a long time now. From the time I was in fifth grade until now, Ma has been sick and ailing on and off, always coming out on top. So this time around, when Ma got sick again with kidney failure and then cancer, I fully believed it was a matter of time before she’d beat them both. Cynthia Scott is a fighter; there was no way anything was going to take her down if it wasn’t 100% on her terms.
I believed this blindly for the past three years, despite my anxiety and depression taking its toll on me while living and working in Oman, because Ma is Ma. She’s strong, fiercely independent, and she always finds a solution. This belief was solidified when I spoke to her not too long ago, and she told me that 95% of her cancerous tumor had gone. She was doing dialysis regularly, and she was sounding more and more like the Cynthia Scott I rued and loved in equal measure.
I believed until the messages from my sister got more and more intense. Until I kept getting updates every week that mom was back in the hospital. When I talked with my sister one early Sunday morning before going to work, she was at her rope’s end. Mom had been in and out of the hospital about three times, she wasn’t doing well on her own at home, she was getting into accidents constantly and she was refusing in-home care that would lift some of the pressure off of my sister.
That settled it for me: I needed to come home. So that’s where I am going now for the summer. I’m coming back after three years of avoiding my mother, after the backlash of our last Christmas together when she told me she didn’t want me anymore and I stopped talking to her for nearly a year. Mom is not the same, my sister says. Be prepared for that. How could Cynthia Scott not be her? I almost hope that my physical presence will anger her enough that some of her old fire will come back. If she’s not openly hating me, fighting me, pushing me, is it really Ma?
When I first started writing this story over three years ago, I fantasized a provocative opening where my sister called me on the phone to tell me Ma had died. In that fictional version, I was strong, immovable and relieved to hear the news. Now, when we may very well be coming to the end of it, I am scared at how close to the fantasy the truth has become. And the reality is that I am not strong nor am I immovable. If I feel any relief, it’s that death will stop my mother’s suffering; it’s relief knowing that she may finally find peace and comfort at the end of it all. I will feel relief knowing that my sister will have me to help her and will have time to herself to process what is happening right now.
This time around, I am coming home with no ultimatums, no expectations, no hopes, no wants. I will simply play my part, however minor, in helping Ma find some peace, some calm. To help her reach the end fully holding on to the belief that she did the best she could with us (and she did) and fully believing that she was a good mother (she was better than many). I don’t want apologies anymore. I just want her to feel the comfort and peace that was stripped from her when she was a young girl who lost her brother and her parents too soon; to feel the comfort and peace she briefly had when she was truly in love and free with Daniel Scott Sr.; to feel the comfort and peace she tried so hard to have with us, with me, that I was never humble enough to fully give to her without expecting anything in return. Something I frustratingly seemed to do for everyone else except for her. My biggest regret.
I’m sorry, mom. Please forgive me. Even if you never say it to me in those exact words. I hope I finally learn how to fully love you someday, even if I can only give it to you in spirit.
The Not Quite Ending
There’s not much I know about my mother’s life. I only know my memories of her. Maybe it is better that way. I’ve gone a long time now without that need to know her, to really get to the core of who she is, find common ground and reach some happy place where we can mutually exist. I know I’ll never get there with her now because she will only reveal to me what she reveals to the world around her. She is ruthless. She is headstrong. That’s what kept her alive and what kept her from being vulnerable to anyone, including those she should have loved the most, her children. But who she was and who she chose to be with us is what ultimately kept us all alive. Just not happy.
In my own way, I do love her, but not in any normal, real way. Most of the love I feel for her stems from guilt and pity. Guilt that arises from all of the insecurities she planted in me, all the ways I was inadequate as a daughter that she made me believe through my experiences with her over the years. Pity that arises from the sorrow I feel seeing her all alone now, nearly friendless and desperately trying to build loving relationships with her children who are far too scared or angry to really be ready to accept her love and give it back in any real way. She wants so badly to lean on us, to have us be true friends to her, and it’s not happening as quickly as she’d like. We can’t force those feelings out of nothing; I wish we could. But I pity her greatly, knowing that I can’t make my heart feel something it really can’t, even if she is my mom.
I am alive and well and much of that can be credited to my mom. Probably not as much credit as my mom gives herself, but she did some things that positively contributed to the person I am today. I am driven and ambitious. I am fiercely independent. And those qualities are within me because of her.
But I am also insecure and lonely. I am overly negative and closed off, though these days, new relationships, particularly the most cherished one I share with my husband, are helping me grow past the bad seeds my mom planted in me all those years back and tended to throughout my entire life. The only thing I know for sure from all of this mess, from the mess that I still am is that I don’t love my mother. Not fully. I don’t love her in the way that children should love their parents. I feel a sense of duty to her. I call, I visit. I feel pity for her and a simultaneous combination of guilt and anger because she makes me feel like I’m never living up to her expectations and because she still has the power to make me feel like that in the first place. I don’t love her in the textbook mother-daughter way, but at least now I don’t hate her with the same fury as I had in times past. I don’t love her the way I hope my children will love me someday if I ever have them. I wish I could.
Call me what you need to call me. I know my mother never beat me, and I would never accuse her of things she didn’t do. But I also can’t pretend that my mom created any kind of supportive, loving environment when we were growing up. She met our basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and that is more than many moms have done. But she was indifferent to us and never truly tried to discover who we were. She only tried to define us, and she still tries to do that to this day. It is the only way she knows how to be, and I’ve moved on from trying to change that. But no matter what you think of me for saying that I don’t love her, I can’t lie about what’s really in my heart. Like she told me once, when I was hanging on a thread, wanting her to just lie to me and say she loved the soup I made (rather poorly) for her: I can’t lie. I have to tell the truth.
Maybe someday that truth will change. Even now, the child in me that longs for a true connection with her mother still hopes for that day.