Mom’s on Fire
My hair was dragged out, root to end, everyday.
“I have hair like Daddy.”
“And that’s why your father keeps it short,” my mother said cooly to six year-old me as she exhaled cigarette smoke upwards to the kitchen ceiling. I never knew her without a butt in her hand, or a drink in the other. This morning, the smoldering Merit Ultra-Lite dangled in between the pointer and middle fingers of her left hand; in her right, she gripped the hilt of a round brush. The day’s weapon of choice. Both the dragon billowing smoke and the knight in shining armor, Patricia was one to be feared and revered. She put her cigarette in the ashtray, careful to not accidentally extinguish it in her coffee cup, and painstakingly undid my curls. This happened every morning. She then fashioned my head into a high bun, or braided pigtails, or anything more manageable than the tangle of coils I was born with. I sat compliant and allowed her to battle my tendrils because I knew all too well what would happen if I complained or cried or whined about her doing my hair, and even at six years old I knew I didn’t want it. So I remained stone-still while her many rings dragged across my scalp until I was to her liking.
I looked nothing like Patricia. When she was my age, she had long, straight, dirty-blonde hair that was the by-product of a German father and an Irish mother. Her skin was fair but tanned well during the many summers at the beach house. Her eyes were hazel, but on most days they were most certainly green. They were almond-shaped. As she got older, my mother stood slim at five-foot-eight; she was a graceful yet imposing force. She was a tough girl from Queens who went to an all-girl Catholic high school. She had an IV drip of AC DC and Led Zeppelin to counteract the side effects of nuns pumping gospels and hymns into her ear canal. She got into fist fights with men on the subways after concerts. Patricia had her first cigarette around the same time she had her first kiss, first fuck, first joint, first beer. She didn’t hesitate to grab her youth by the balls.
Patricia gave birth to the opposite of her. I came out of the womb during a full moon at 12:01 AM on the Day of the Dead with a full head of jet black hair except for one streak of white in the back, yellow skin, and eyes that were like saucers. I was wild. I looked like my father. My Hungarian gypsy grandmother blamed my appearance on excessive heartburn during pregnancy, or an over-consumption of garlic – or both. My Irish grandmother damned those recessive genes and reiterated to my mother that she should have never married an Italian. She watched far too many Mafia movies in her life and had a very narrow-minded understanding of what European people did in their spare time. My mother ignored both of them, looked me deep in my giant eyes, and loved me regardless.
“We had to put you in the window like a potted plant to make your skin go back to a normal color,” my mom would jest as I got older. I was born with jaundice. Things that cause infantile jaundice include internal bleeding, sepsis in the baby’s blood, an enzyme deficiency, viral or bacterial infections, or an incompatibility of blood between mother and baby. My blood type is O negative and my mother’s was A-something. O negative blood can give to anyone but only accept O negative. I could give her my blood but never take any from her. As a result, I spent the first day or two of my life under a lamp like a fast food lunch in order to eliminate my jaundice; Patricia and I continued to differ. But she still loved me.
On the night I was born, my parents dropped my older brother off with my Hungarian gypsy grandma and my Yugoslavian alcoholic grandpa on their way to the hospital. Grandma had a cactus in the living room. She warned my brother, “Don’t you grab that cactus, Nicholas.” He grabbed the cactus. When I came home to meet him for the first time, he was so distraught with my presence that he punched me in the head. Patricia told me this story on more than one occasion. I looked nothing like my brother either; he was born with bright red hair and long, spindly arms and legs. My parents said he heard the phone ring in the hospital room and turned his neck around under his own fruition to see where the sound was coming from and it scared them both because babies aren’t supposed to be able to move their heads that way but he did. My brother did things he wasn’t supposed to from the first day he breathed air.
He didn’t like me very much in the beginning but I didn’t remember any of it. Or I stuffed it away. Patricia didn’t say much about it until we were teenagers. After she settled me into the house with my brother and dad and the very overprotective cat who wouldn’t allow my Irish grandmother to touch me I grew incredibly attached to her. I observed her in every way – applying makeup in the bathroom, doing dishes, painting her nails red, having sky-high box-dyed hair, blue eyeliner, lipstick in the color of Burnt Amethyst. It was no surprise that my two earliest memories were her telling me I was painting the closet wrong when I was less than two years old, and then making me suck in my tummy at three years old in front of family members.
“Tell everyone how skinny you want to be!”
“This,” as I lifted my shirt and pushed everything inwards. Everyone laughed and it pleased me to see other people happy at something I did for their entertainment. It made my mother happy to see my innocence so motivated.
Being the product of an addict – alcoholic, in my case – creates a tumultuous environment where the child learns early on to either do whatever they can to appease their parent, or rebel in every way. It took me until my twenties to truly realize my mother groomed me to hate my appearance; I was always too big or too short or I had bad hair. I grew up thinking that I was born the wrong way. I spent my formative years trying to fit into an idea of what she wanted based off her projections and I never, ever fit. Her addiction was full-blown by the time I was born and it simply was the norm until I was old enough to realize it wasn’t. I enjoyed seeing my mother happy from as young as I can remember; I wanted nothing more than to be around her all the time. Parts of her, though, were so withdrawn from me and I didn’t understand them at six and seven years old, but I remember feeling them. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s house and drawing her pictures telling her that she was an angel and she would take them and put them in her jewelry box on top of her bedroom dresser. That was where all her valuable things went – the jewelry box. Sometimes, when I was good, she’d let me play with the costume jewelry she kept. Never the good stuff, though – never the sapphire ring Daddy bought her, or her tennis bracelet, or her diamond earrings.
I fawned over her shiny things. I always put on her shoes. I wanted to be Patricia so badly when I was little. I wanted to be the woman who made me who I looked nothing like.
She slept late on many weekends. Most nights when I was young, she waitressed or did secretarial work – or was a stay at home mom – so I spent a lot of days with her in the summer.
Text © Kaitlin Oster
By Kaitlin Oster
Kaitlin’s Previous Contributions To Edge Of Humanity Magazine