My mother gets up every day at 4 o’clock, no exceptions. It was no surprise, then, that on Easter Sunday last year my mother was awake at dawn and chatting gleefully on the phone with her sister by 6 am. I was asleep in my mother’s back bedroom, my daughter in the room next door. I heard a restless holiday rustle coming from her room at around 6:15, the kind kids make when they know they shouldn’t be up yet but are about to have chocolate for breakfast. I chose to ignore it because I’d only gone to bed four hours prior. I spent my Holy Saturday hosting a comedy show, blinding myself to the fact that Jesus – like the price of gas – was about to rise again.
I’d thought about taking my daughter to Easter mass to make my mother happy, and I took solace in knowing I wouldn’t have to be there til 11 o’clock. That would give me enough time to get home from the club and sleep for 8 hours. No problem. Besides, I’ve always gone to church on Easter Sunday, mostly because I like having an excuse to wear pantyhose once a year. (I wear pants at Christmas. No one should have to shave in the cold.)
My mother heard the rustling, too, I guess, and – unable to resist doing anything that will cause strife – shouted offhandedly, “Come on down here! I think the Easter Bunny left you something. You better hurry up and go find it.” I often find my mother’s voice shrill, but it’s especially so at 6 o’clock in the morning. I think the Easter Bunny left you something? You better hurry up and go find it? I couldn’t believe my ears! Who do you think the Easter Bunny is, lady? He’s me, and he’s not out of bed yet!
Before I go on, you have to understand – this was not the kind of encouraging, warm holler that starts a family holiday off with jolly enthusiasm. My mother has long maintained that “holidays are just like every other day – except they’re twice the work.” So to my mother, my daughter finding her Easter basket was no big deal. Her assertion to my daughter was more of an admonishment to me, really, a passive-aggressive threat meant to insinuate, “If you care about this sort of thing, Carolyn, you should get up at 6 am. And if you can’t get up at 6 am, maybe you need to re-think your priorities. You can’t make a kid wait for candy, after all.”
I was livid. “If you just said what I think you just said and did what I think you just did, you’re [bleeping] dead!,” I yelled, half-comatose, my head barely lifted off the pillow. My mother, not one to take any form of criticism lightly, said to my aunt, indignantly, “Well! Carolyn just told me I’m [bleeping] dead! Because I told the little one she could have her Easter basket. I guess that means I better get off the phone.”
Before she’d even hung up I was at the top of the stairs, shouting, “Do you have any idea what you just did? Do you ever think about anyone but yourself? You just told my child she could find her Easter basket without me. Don’t you think that’s something I want to be a part of?!” I admit, I was a little out of my mind from exhaustion, but I had a point. It wasn’t just that she was going to let my daughter find and indulge in her Easter basket without me, but that she was going to let my daughter find and indulge in her Easter basket without any supervision, without anyone there to savor the moment, as if Easter tradition – or childhood – didn’t matter at all.
“Carolyn, you’re overreacting. You’re way too emotional about this. You’re acting like a crazy person.”
My mother has always had a terrible habit of dismissing my feelings in order to make me feel like I’m manufacturing her passive-aggressive behavior. I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew I was right, that she was being a jerk, that the candy could wait, that I deserved to be able to sleep in past 6 after working ’til 2 and most importantly, that I was the one who should be making decisions involving my daughter. I screamed, “I’m not being too emotional. You never even cried when your parents shot themselves in the face, so why should I give a [bleep] if you think I’m too emotional? You don’t even have emotions! You spin everything to make it seem like you never do anything wrong, then when I try to explain to you why I’m hurt, you go into your, ‘Oh, so I’m a bad mother’ routine. Yes, you are a bad mother! You’re horrible. You’re selfish and awful and I [bleeping] hate you!”
It was the same pathetic rant I’d been giving since I was, I don’t know, 12? “I am the way I am, Carolyn, and if you don’t like it, leave.” We’d danced in circles like this since I was a child. So I left. On Easter Sunday, at 6 o’clock in the morning, I stormed out of my mother’s house sobbing, my daughter in the living room watching TV.
Behind my parents’ house is about an acre of land we like to call “down back.” I headed down back for the first time in ages, probably years. I stopped underneath the weeping willow (because misery loves company), and I thought about the dog my dad buried there two decades before. She was a beagle. My dad named her Dolly (because of her big boobs). I thought about my dad, how he was dead. I thought about my grandparents. They were dead, too. They shot themselves. (Did I mention that part?) My grandfather had rheumatoid arthritis and my grandmother had Parkinson’s disease. She was crazy. For real. She suffered from anxiety her whole life and had two nervous breakdowns while my mom was growing up. My mom was the oldest and had to take care of all her siblings while her mother was in the loony bin. She never learned how to deal with her feelings about that so she ate her pain away. She shoved food and her pain as far down inside herself as it would go when she was a kid and as an adult, after her parents killed themselves. She never cried. If she cried, she’d have to acknowledge she was hurt. It was easier for her to be angry. To be bossy. To be mean. She could control that, or so she thought. She didn’t know how badly her anger hurt me. She should have – after all, I’d been trying to tell her for 20 years. Maybe she didn’t want to know. But it wasn’t her fault she was like that, I decided. Or my grandparents told me, there down back. They came to me while I was thinking of them and they told me all that, somehow.
There’s something about being dead, I think, that let’s you be greater than you ever were while on Earth. I mean, look at Jesus. Sure, he did great things during his tenure as a human: he walked on water, then turned it into wine, then healed everyone who got sick from drinking all that wine. But as a dead dude, Jesus does so much more. He’s the inspiration for millions of people who want to be better than they actually are. The mere idea of him incites transcendence. He allows people to transcend. And so it is with my dead relatives. When I feel my dead dad or my grandparents “speaking” to me, I perceive them as being whole. They understand things now as spirits, ideas, figments, friendly ghosts that they didn’t while they were alive, and they teach me to see things in a way I otherwise couldn’t. It doesn’t matter whether they really “visit” me or “speak” to me or “come” to me or not. All that matters is that when I connect with what feels like their healed spirits, I heal, too.
And so I walked back to my mother’s house, at 7 o’clock, unsure of what I’d face. I half expected to find my kid at the kitchen table, mouth, cheeks and hands covered in chocolate, sitting next to my mother, who’d be eating a bowl of sugar-free, diabetic-friendly jelly beans. But instead I found my daughter in the living room, where I left her, and my mother coming out of the shower. I walked upstairs, to go back to bed, I suppose, but she stopped me in the doorway of the bathroom across the hall.
“Can I have a hug?,” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. I put my arms around her, and she started to cry.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was wrong and you were right. I should have waited for you to wake up before I told the little one to get her basket. I don’t know why I did that. I wasn’t thinking.”
“You’re never thinking,” I said. ”Everything has to be your way all the time. You have to stop being like that.”
“I know,” she whimpered. “It’s gonna be hard, but I’m gonna make an effort to change because I don’t ever want to lose you.”
I pulled away. I think I intimated that I expected as much. Not to rub it in her face, but to make it clear that I meant business. I wasn’t going to let anyone walk all over me anymore – not even my mother. I went back to bed, and I never did make it to church. The family came and we had a nice dinner. My daughter ate her chocolate. Time went on, and my mother did make an effort. She’d catch herself being mean and apologize; she stopped yelling if something was out of place. Sure, she fell short here and there, but a year later, I’m astonished at how much she’s grown, and what a truly loving, caring person she’s become. This is my first Easter without her, but I feel closer to my mother than ever, all because I dared to leave.