When bad mothers happen

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obody talks about the abuse or the familiar hands that we suffered it from now that we're (my siblings and I) are older. When we were going through it, it was like living in a war that left us nowhere to run to when we were growing up. The abuse didn't have a voice or give us one while we were growing up. My mother's love was a hell we could not bear.

When it does surface, it is haunting like a ghost from the past, it makes you live like a lie that just won't let go of you no matter what, that won't let you surrender it. It made us invisible yet it still ran like a thread, as wide as my back, like a river through fog, smog hugging a city skyline, smoke and mist, it left us begging for mercy, left us with no easy solutions for reconciliation between my mother and the rest of my family. It affected us so much that it felt like picking at an open healing wound with raw fingernails.

You are left with no choice but to fight against the sorrow and the pain that you are feeling; feeling uncomfortable and confused. I tried to protect my brother and sister yet the three of us still felt humiliated in tiny devastating blows, emotionally damaging ways on a daily basis. There was nothing that we could do about it but be witnesses to the rage, the red, furious little beast that was my mother.

I missed the sea, the seawater and the white sun on my back when I was in the hospital after my 'episode'. It was pretty hush-hush. Nobody speaks about it in the family especially in my own home. I wish I could take it back but I can't. I only relive it in my when I'm dreaming or in flashbacks. My little 'episode' was not little and it almost cost me my life. I now wore the label 'attempted suicide'. Few people could or would understand what that meant especially where I was coming from.

The flashbacks come whether I'm awake or not. They break through the sealed lid that I've shut on the past. It's something I've had to live with. It comes with the realisation that I can't completely fix something (my life that's been broken up into a million little pieces’ times infinity).

I was born with my mother's airs and graces and made sure everyone knew about that I came across in school and college. I was highty-tighty, a 'coconut' and high-minded. I never had a close circle of friends only perhaps only one or two close girlfriends that I told all my secrets to and that I shared everything with.

I thought growing up in a home where you were sad sometimes as a child, spent nights crying yourself to sleep into your pillow was normal. Where you felt lonely, confused, helpless and hopeless when you could hear your parents raised voices having an argument in their bedroom late at night.

We swallowed the pomegranate seeds of my mother's pain, sensitivity, shame and mistakes from her own childhood and teenage years whole. It was a bitter pill to swallow. It was harder to live with, to grow up surrounded by people you loved who were in the state of mind my parents were in but my father's love more than anything made up for my mother's reckless and uncalled for behaviour especially when there was too much going on that we as children had no control over.

Activities at school made up for that. I took on as many as I could possibly fit into my schedule. I wanted to shine. I had my head up in the clouds. I basked in the glory, chaos and mayhem of rehearsals for a school play and editing the school newspaper. I was in my element.

I hold my mother's face in my memory whenever I have one of my phases, when I am going through a reverie; when I face the darkness visible that is depression. Other people like to use words like 'melancholy'.

I don't. I don't find the word 'depression' as menacing and cold to the touch as other people do. I have learned to deal with it well.

I don't think she knows me well enough at all. Sometimes I wonder does she know who I am and what I stand for. Am I noble, am I a good girl, do I work hard at what I do in school, will I ever be over it, will we ever learn to compromise?

The flowers in the vase although wilted still hold a sense of wonderment for me. Also the thought that in some way I was abandoned by her. The pink light of the bloom is a flush against my fingertips.

Red seeped through a tear in my finger where it had caught on one of the thorns of the roses. The thorns scratched me. It left red dots behind on my skin. When I heard her voice, I would sometimes close my eyes and all I could see were tears.

When I was young I could already foresee the rough times ahead of me in the future. It was called for. I played jealous games with my brother and sister. I called my sister 'princess'. She has a posh accent and two university degrees. I also had a posh accent but not the academic smarts for two university degrees from a fancy prestigious South African university.

In Johannesburg where I was studying film and television production at the college I was accepted to I could hear the wind blowing when it moved, when it howled in crevices, in deep places where you could not connect to the very being of it, possibly even when you are sleeping to dream. It rushed through the branches of weathered trees, ruffled feathers on the backs of birds and touched delicate wings.

The joy and cheerfulness that comes from happy people that I met later in life when I was in my teens came in patterns of elegant, dancing, colourful spots of bright lights yet I always felt lonely against the light especially in my childhood place of birth; Port Elizabeth.

My mother had a slender figure, red lips that chanted and she smelled intense like her moods, she smelled of Opium. She sprayed it from a bottle. Each terrifying end of her bad temper meant the start of a new beginning to our relationship. It taught me to grow up quickly and I learned to fend for myself. I didn't lack the education of getting attention. I always had that know-how.

When she was angry her gaze was dangerous. It was hard to keep your distance when you could feel her anger rising and her voice shouting.

Up close she was almost the devil in disguise. She would launch into scathing personal attacks, let it go, hung up in the air like dirty laundry and then return to a sweet, tender, cooing mama again like a hen over her chicks. We tried to do no wrong but didn't know where to begin. We tried to look for guidance, an easy escape. No luck there either.

From a young age, I learnt to love to act out dramas and plays. It felt like home when I was standing on a stage giving it my all and it felt like I was finally living my dream. Being loved and adored for the first time was more than enough for me even if it was in front of nameless faces in the audiences that I captivated and whom I was in return captivated by. I only learned to call it ‘abuse’ later on when I was more grown up. I am also slowly learning that it happened to a lot of 'us'. Girls I went to school with. Girls I didn't go to school with. Girls from the wrong side of the tracks. Girls who didn't come from the wrong side of the tracks.

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Abigail George

Abigail George is a feminist, poet and short story writer. She is the recipient of two South African National Arts Council Writing Grants, one from the Centre for the Book and the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council. She was born and raised in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape of South Africa, educated there and in Swaziland and Johannesburg. She has written a novella, books of poetry, and collections of short stories. She is busy with her brother putting the final additions to a biography on her father’s life. Her work has recently been anthologised in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology IV. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film.

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