Posted on March 24, 2011


In December, I was watching the television series Weeds with my mother. The character Conrad was advising the drug-dealer-cum-suburban-mom Nancy Botwin on how to deal with her delinquent children: “My mom shot me,” he said. “In the leg. I was legitimately afraid of that woman.”

My own mom turned to me. “Were you ever afraid of me like that?”

Had I not been trapped on the couch by cold, abject terror, I would have calmly walked downstairs, got in my car, and hid somewhere across state-lines.

My mother’s reign of terror began when she tried to bury me in a snowdrift. I was five, and I had thrown a snowball at my younger sister Hannah, who, even at the age of three was kind of a bitch. My mother grabbed me, and pushed me face-first into a snowdrift, then pulled me out, the same way one would dunk someone in ice-water during an interrogation.

“And how does that feel?” she said.

I didn’t really say anything: just sputtered and cried, snot dripping down onto my snowsuit. But she seemed satisfied: “That’s what I thought.”

As the years progressed, Mom switched her tactics to a form of psychological terror. She was a lawyer, who mostly defended the government from frivolous lawsuits; this made her strong, and angry. When I was seven, she told me a story about her colleague: his family cat was approximately eighty years old, and had severe Alzheimer’s. It kept pooping in people’s beds bed, falling off of fences, and wandering through yards full of dogs, but his daughter wouldn’t let him put it down. One day, apparently pissed that the cat had crapped in his cereal, he decided to take a more proactive approach to the cat’s mortality. So, he drowned it in the neighbor’s kiddie-pool. It was really a crime of opportunity: the cat had somehow ended up in a few inches of standing water, so it seemed like the logical course of action.

Then he realized that his daughter would be coming home from school, and it would be difficult to explain to her why the cat was both dead and waterlogged. He spent the next half-hour blow-drying the cat, arranging it in a patch of sun, and occasionally sliding it across the floor with his foot as the  sun moved.

I had trouble interpreting why exactly my mother was giving me such juicy blackmail material about a federal employee. Was the point of the story “I can kill you and make it look like an accident?”

Perhaps it was more direct: “if the dog ruins one more of my carpets, you may come home to find her both very well-coiffed, but ultimately dead.” Or the point of the story may have been more self-referential: “Should I ever lose my marbles and start defecating in your father’s raisin-bran, just, sort of, take care of me quietly.”

Regardless of what she meant, mom never had to clean up dog-vomit again.

The issue of parent care was a surprisingly frequent topic of conversation. When my father first threw out his back and was trapped on the floor, my mom and I stood in the next room, watching him struggle and call for help.

“You know,” she said “If this were the middle-ages, it would be the perfect time to kill your father.”

Did she really just say that, I thought. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t really ready to commit to patricide at that point, and Mom apparently had more to say.

“Go Hamlet on his ass, isn’t that what you’d say? Just bump him off and take the throne. You wouldn’t even have to make it look violent.” She shrugged, and wandered off to have a look at what was in the wine-rack.

She could very well be serious: maternal sympathy just wasn’t part of her character. She often refused to pick me up whenever I was sick in school. There was one time that she did drive me home, though the experience was more akin to such historical events as the trail of tears than an act of mercy.

“Slow down,” I whined.

“You’re not sick,” she said. “I have things to do today.”

“I have a fever.” It had been 102, to be exact.

“They just don’t know how to read a thermometer.”

I got into the car, and lay on the floor of the backseat, shivering and twitching as my mother ran thorough red lights.

“You can stop pretending,” she said, “we’re out of sight of the school.”

I puked.

It hadn’t been the first time I’d been forced to throw up in that particular car. The previous summer I’d been stricken with some sort of superplague. When mom refused to pull over for me, after shooting down my appeals to let me sit at home trading my attention between Thunder Cats cartoons and the trash-can between my knees, I simply hung my head out the side window, and unleashed some sort of virulent sputum, more akin to the substance excreted by the creatures from Aliens than vomit, which ate the paint off the side of the car.

Whenever possible, my mother her delegated child-rearing duties to my nanny, Jessica, who had raised wolves on her family farm. One day, unimpressed with the quality of service I was receiving, I decided that it was a good time to employ some managerial clout: “I’m going to tell mom about this.”

Jessica nodded, then picked up the phone. “That’s fascinating. Let’s see what she says.”

It was like being in a car crash: I began to sweat, hyperventilate, see spots. Jessica dialed and handed me the phone the way the way samurai passed around the small swords after losing a battle or forgetting to zip their fly or something: you’re doomed anyway, so you might as well take care of it yourself.

“What is it?” Mom demanded.

Not “hi,” or “this is Mrs. Black speaking.” It more along the lines of “why the hell are you calling me here on a Saturday? I went to work to get away from you.”

I started to mention Jessica, but she cut me off.

“Let me tell you something about Jessica: I like Jessica a lot more than I like you. It would be a lot easier for me to have more children than it would be to find another Jessica. I could sell you to the gypsies in the park if I wanted to. Understand?”

I said yes.

“Well I’m glad that’s clear. Now be good, sweetie.” Then she hung up, probably so she could go back to telling some poor family from Oregon that, no, they could not have five million dollars just because their child was mauled by a bear when they visited a national park, while I went upstairs to impotently vow revenge.

However, the tables have begun to turn as both my mother and I aged. Sometimes I’m subtle about it. “You don’t look so good,” I’ll say during an argument, or maybe “Are you really turning fifty-three this year?”

The turning point in our discourse probably came last summer, when we had been arguing about driving directions: “If you touch the wheel one more time, I will place you in the most repugnant nursing home I can find. It’ll be in the middle of Arizona, where nobody will want to come visit you, and the Gestapo-staff steal things.” I turned to her, in the passenger seat as I pulled into out driveway, “And when you die, I will use your ashes as cat-litter.”

It’s one of the few threats that gets through to her when we find ourselves in a serious argument. Because while it sounds really bad, my Mother would much rather give me power of attorney: because all these years later, nearly fifteen since she shoved me headfirst into that snowdrift, she’s beginning to realize that my sister is really kind of a bitch.

Posted in: Stories