My sister has never had an easy relationship with our mother. Father likes to say that Michelle was born literally screaming at Mother. “And she’s not stopped screaming since,” he said recently with the doting, indulgent smile of a father who’s never fallen out of love with that wrinkled bundle of squawking, pooping mess he first cradled in his arms.
When she was 15, Michelle got into a great row with Mother over a pair of diamond ear-rings.
“Why can’t I wear them to Dionne’s birthday party?” she yelled.
“Because unless you’re the Queen of England, you do not wear Van Cleef and Arpel ten-carat flawless diamonds to a fifteen-year old’s birthday party!” Mother said in that maddeningly serene way of her’s.
Upstairs in our bedroom, my brother Jack turned to me and said seriously, “You know, I stopped understanding that sentence after ‘England’!”
“You’re so mean!” Michelle’s scream reverberated through the house. “I’m moving out as soon as I’m 18!”
“Be my guest,” Mother said calmly. “I’m sure these diamonds would look much better on your brothers’ wives anyway!”
Michelle, who’s always had the instincts of a barracuda, promptly shut up. She dropped the subject and showed up at Dionne’s birthday party in a pretty pink Target frock paired with cheap costume jewellery. But for years, she always brought up the Diamond Incident as an example of Mother’s uncaring feelings for her.
“Oh my God, is she still going on about those stupid Rip Van Winkle diamonds?” Jack cried the other day all the way from Rio where’s he hiding from another of Mother’s mad match-making schemes.
“Van Cleef and Arpel,” I said automatically. “And I’ve always wondered if Mother still has them or if she’s given them to the Mother Teresa’s nuns like she was always threatening to do.”
“It would just be so typical of her if she has,” Michelle said when I spoke to her. “I always believed she would have been much happier if she’d had three sons!”
And there it was. The unspoken fear that haunts us all at some stage of our relationship with our parents – that suspicion that we were, in fact, not wanted. For how else did you explain the careless words, the unthinking glances of disapproval and quick silences between half meant words?
More than Jack or I ever did, Michelle has struggled the most in her ongoing love-hate relationship with Mother. If it wasn’t Mother’s critique about Michelle’s hair (“Darling, do you really think purple is an appropriate colour for hair?”), it was about her sense of dress (“Darling, why are you always wearing black?”); make-up (“Darling, less is more!”); boyfriends (“Those are a lot of tattoos, dear!”); and grades (“How do you fail in Chinese? It’s your mother tongue!”).
Of course, looking back on it now, you can see so clearly where Mother was coming from but I suppose when you’re dealing with a rebellious 18, you just can’t win as a parent. You just learn to tread a little more carefully which, in turn, is interpreted as uncaring. But there’s very little you can do about the accumulating pile of little wounds which never really heal.
I remember Mother once wondering which of her three children she’d come to stay with when she got old.
“Why would you want to stay with us?” Michelle immediately asked.
“Well, you can’t expect me to stay in an old folks home!”
“What are we, life insurance policies?” Michelle murmured to me later.
“Yes, if you want her to leave you those diamonds,” I said, wise beyond my nineteen years.
Of course, one of the things about growing up is that you slowly, and belatedly, come to realise that things are never quite as black and white as they once were when you were a child shouting for your mother’s attention; that the wall we build up to keep from getting hurt might also be what’s keeping us from being loved.
“Was I a handful when I was a kid?” Michelle suddenly asked the other day on Skype.
There was a hesitation. Then: “Was I really mean to Mother?” A pause. “I think I was. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I behaved as a child.”
And just like that, a piece of brick in that high wall came loose. It couldn’t have been an easy admission to make. After a lifetime of fighting, what would Michelle’s busy heart now do with itself? Which is not to say that she’s ready to let go of a lifetime of hurt, tears and anger. There’s still the issue of the diamonds.
But it’s a good start.