Dear Little Girl Jane,
I’ve never given you any attention. I’ve barely acknowledged your existence. I never thought that I owed you an apology or an explanation. But I think I was wrong to let you fade away so quietly.
Let me think about you now―how you were, how you were treated, how you closed doors on yourself, how you built up a wall, layer by layer until you were almost gone from sight. I only remember pieces―things my mother told me, fragments of memories that flash into my consciousness, roused feelings from photos or objects.
When you were born, your parents were overjoyed. A little girl after two boys, aged three and five. You were delicate and pretty, with wisps of strawberry blonde hair and soft blue eyes. You were named after a stranger, another little blonde girl they once saw, a flower girl at a wedding. Already expectations were placed on you. But you threw off your diaper and painted the walls with poop. You had stitches in your head before you were two. And remember what you always heard: “There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was very, very bad.”
You became a worry and a problem for your mother. With no car and a husband often away, your mother would hold your near lifeless body in the taxi on the way to the hospital. Pussy willows, animal dander, feather, fir trees, even grass. They all stifled your breath. The “terrible twos” were indeed terrible. Your mother held you while the doctor made deep scratches up and down your back dropping samples of allergens and waiting for a response. Once, when you were in an oxygen tent, your father, out of the country, was sent for. You were not to live through the night.
Somehow, you did survive that night. You lived a day, and then a week, and then a month. But you were always a worry. Your mother wanted more children but had to look after you. She blamed you for limiting her family. Your brothers blamed you too―you were why they could not have a dog and why they had a fake Christmas tree. You weren’t really the cause―you were the scapegoat, an excuse the parents could use to avoid battling with the boys.
You were a stubborn, independent, precocious child. You would not let your mother comb or braid your hair, or do anything with it. The one time she tried to curl it, she accidentally touched your head with the iron. It was the last time she was allowed. Word on the street is that you wore some wild outfits to school in the early years. Your mother was mortified and tried to explain to the teacher that you would not let her choose your clothes. You didn’t do the girl things simply because they were girl things. You would never wear pink; blue became the flag of your non-gendered childhood. When your mother was a little girl, her sister always got pink. She always got blue “to match her eyes.” She really wanted you to wear pink. She felt shut out. You shut her out. You wouldn’t be the daughter she wanted.
I can’t explain why you shut your mother out of your life―some animal instinct perhaps that made you distant and contrary. I can’t explain why you were so independent, so ready to prove that you didn’t need anyone else. I can’t explain why you always put yourself on the outside, trying not to look in, but looking in anyway. Yes, I can explain that. You were so scared that you wouldn’t fit in (like you didn’t fit into your family), that you would be rejected, that you did it to yourself first before anyone could do it to you. Just to be safe, you would not conform or give in. You made your own life lonely. You have no one to blame but yourself.
I have never felt sorry for you. I have never allowed your pain and longing to surface until today. What made you so scared of people, of life, of yourself? You were damaged before you even got started. And no one is to blame. I’m sorry I blamed you. Maybe this is where the self-loathing develops. I hate that I am not like everyone else. I hate that I want to be like everyone else. I hated you for learning so well the self-abuses you still make me practice. I hate that it happened to you. I hate that you felt you had to do it.
And, at some point, the deep hatred of others started to grow. You hated pretty girls, girls with ribbons in their hair, and, yes, girls wearing pink. You hated the other kids’ mothers because you knew they looked at you with suspicious eyes because you were the bad one, the one that was not going to be controlled. You hated the fathers who worked nine to five, Mondays to Fridays, at home when your father was on deployment. You hated sisters because you had brothers. You hated people who told you that you had a bright future ahead―you hated their empty promises, prophecies they could not foresee. I don’t hate them now.
I remember you used to think your soul was like a communion wafer, whole and round and white. With each sin, it got a little ashy, tarnished with your errors, until eventually you realized that the whole wafer was blackened. Now, it is completely crumbled. I don’t know what to do with that.
You were the first girl in your grade to start puberty―early, not on schedule―can’t be like everyone else. You got your first period when you were riding your bike home from Susan’s house. You were horrified. No one had told you that this would happen. Somehow, you knew that it was, ironically, “normal” and part of the transition into adulthood. You cried and cried for the loss of the childhood you were so desperately trying to avoid.
I remember your father (your father!) coming into your room to explain this single defining moment of womanhood. You mother couldn’t (or wouldn’t) muster the strength to share this with you. Maybe she thought you would reject her again. But you held on to this moment because this was the make-or-break moment in your relationship with your mother. It broke. You never wanted to be like your mother or be with your mother ever again. The relationship remained broken for a very long time. Now, with my own children, I am starting to understand some things. I forgive her for what she did or didn’t do, whether it was intentional or not. (Recently, my mother told me that, in fact, she did not tell me about the “girl things” because I wouldn’t let here. See? Everything is my fault. It’s probably true. I have, notoriously, been independent. What’s that, you say? Stubborn? Yes, perhaps that is more accurate.)
The other consequence of the onset of puberty was your sudden weight gain when you were eleven. Your mother, taller than you, weighed less than 90 pounds. No wonder she thought you were obese. But just as quickly as it came, the chubbiness went away and you were forgiven. Do you know when you stopped eating? You were always a disordered eater―a few weeks of nothing but hot dogs, a stint of something else, meals at odd hours, never breakfast or breakfast food―you would always vomit that (not on purpose; your stomach just couldn’t take it―even your stomach was not a “morning person”). You avoided liquids so you wouldn’t have to use the school washroom. Because of that little habit, I had a very painful kidney stone in my thirties―thanks a lot. In high school, lunch started to dwindle away. I don’t know why. Why did you let yourself get below 90 pounds? To make your mother love you? To love yourself? So others would love you? Or was it a fear of going back to that pubescent chubby girl (who wasn’t really even chubby at 105 pounds)? Or was it a slow form of suicide?
You started me on a dangerous path―a roller coaster of dieting and stomach upsets, irritable bowels, muscle pain, fatigue, and foul moods. Now I am chubby (really, I am). I still starve myself for days. But now I binge afterward. I know it doesn’t make sense and it is ruining my body, but you started me on this course more than 20 years ago and you still whisper in my ear, “You’re too fat.” I don’t really blame you for this―not when I know from where you’ve gotten it.
But I still hate you for being a bitch. You learned those lessons well too. Everything bothered you (maybe because of low blood sugar). You made your father’s mornings miserable. When you were in college, it was just the two of you getting ready so early. And you made his mornings hell when he was already suffering what I suffer now. He didn’t deserve your rage. I will never forgive you for that.
I’m sorry that you saw life in such a skewed way. I’m sorry that you turned from that much-anticipated beautiful baby into that stubborn, independent little girl, into that miserable teenager full of hate and rage, into that young woman who was selfish and mean. I’m sorry that you had to grow up all alone, isolated. I’m sorry that you tortured yourself and dreamed of visiting the dead. I’m trying to make things better for me, but for you it is too late and I’m sorry for that.
My Dearest Sons,
I love you more than I can ever express. You have done more for me than I can ever explain. You have changed me more than I ever believed I could change. Thank you for making me a better person, a better woman, a better spirit. Calmer, nicer, more forgiving.
It’s true that I never planned to have children. I saw motherhood as one of those woman things that would hold me down, prevent me from accomplishing something important. I saw motherhood as a liability. Being female was a weakness.
Despite my years of denial, Mother Nature tricked me into wanting children. I was worried about growing old all alone―a pretty selfish reason for having children. But there were also pressures from my parents, the church, and society. So, between biology and sociology, I started having children.
Nevertheless, I was delighted when the first of you arrived, and also when the second came. But I knew the third would be my last, and I wished for a girl―a chance to have a real mother/daughter relationship. Instead, I had another boy. And as much as I loved my baby boy, I did feel some kind of loss that I would remain without females―no sisters, no girlfriends, no daughters.
Now I’m glad you were all boys―it made many things simpler in the house. There were always playmates and hand-me-downs and partnerships among the three of you. I know that sometimes you fought with each other, but I hope you all enjoyed each other and stay close as adult brothers.
And know that I did my best, even when my best wasn’t good enough.
Dear Oldest Son,
You made me a mom. We spent the first 15 months of your life as a tight pair. You trained me―I knew nothing about babies or toddlers. Thank you for being so easy. You slept through the night at six weeks. You always had a bright smiling face. You always knew your job as the oldest brother―you babysat, you drove your brothers and their friends, you set an example for them at school and in life. You should be proud.
I’m sorry for the burdens you had to bear for me. I’m sorry that I was too weak to hide my illness from you and too weak to be the mother you deserved. I’m sorry you had to mother me. I’m sorry you had to be the head of the household when your dad was at work and I was crying, or sick, or asleep. And I’m sorry that your heart and mind had to know, from an early age, what depression was. But I really believe that you were the one who got me through it all (except when you were in Grade 8 and went through the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” phase―don’t feel too bad―both of your brothers went through it too). Thank you.
Don’t let your feeling of duty to and care of your mother get in the way of your living your life. I couldn’t bear that. You always say you’ll stay home for college and then always live near me. As much as I would love that, don’t make your decisions based on me. You do what is right for you. Now is your time.
Dear Little Mom,
I forgive you. I love you. I’m sorry. That’s all there is to say.
A Letter to My Grandmother, long gone from me:
You died when I was only 15 years old. I grieved for many years. My life was changed the day you died―I will miss you forever. Even now, more than 30 years later, I can’t look at your picture. As I write this letter, I am on the verge of tears.
You, in your gentle, quiet way, held us all in harmony. Everyone I ever knew that knew you―relatives, neighbours, friends―everyone loved you. In my family, you were almost a god. Each of us would do anything you asked―but you didn’t ask for much.
I’ve heard many stories about you since you left. I knew you were a charitable woman, giving your time to the church, knitting socks and mittens for children who had none. I didn’t know that when you owned the little grocery store that you caught people stealing from you and you gave them twice what they took. I didn’t know that many people bought things on credit and you never called in the payment. You saved many people from starving to death in the post-depression era.
For me, you were the church, holier than the pope. It was an honour to be allowed to sit at the front of the church with you and your friends rather than with my parents. I wanted to be with you. I wanted to be good like you. I wanted your approval, and you freely gave it. You were always proud to have me or my brothers sit with you.
I always admired your spunk. For such a mild mannered person, you were quite adventurous. As a 70-something-year-old woman, you got in my brother’s little sports car to go for a drive with him. At 80, you took your first plane trip. I’ve heard the story of how you “forced” my dad to marry your daughter. And with a Grade 3 education, you could read and write in French and English, and run a business. I like to think I have some of your spirit in me.
You died the week before Christmas, which would have been your 86th birthday. The presents you bought us were under the tree. Ours to you were also there. I had bought a nativity scene and given everyone a piece. Yours was the angel. The unfinished afghan was still by your chair. No one used your teacup. I wasn’t allowed to see you at the hospital―probably a wise move on my parents’ part. It was hard enough to have the image of you being taken out of our house on a stretcher in my mind. I couldn’t go to your funeral. It was in PEI and it was winter. I never got the chance to say good-bye. But I took solace in my belief that you knew how much I loved you. And I know you loved me.
A few months later, your spirit came to me. You told me that you were okay and not to worry. Thank you for that.
With your death and assumable ascension into heaven (if you couldn’t get in, who could?), began my phase of religious zealousness. I believed you, like God, could see everything that I did. I didn’t want to let you down. When I was about to cross a line, I would ask myself if you would turn away from me. I didn’t cross any lines for at least another five years. My parents couldn’t stand me―I started reading the Bible and saying the Rosary every night. I strictly adhered to the old-fashioned sanctions placed on Catholics―no meat on Fridays, no carnal thoughts, tough Lenten promises. And with my new holiness came my new “holier than Thou” attitude. I looked down on everyone who “sinned”―people who had premarital sex, people who abandoned the church, people who were just living their lives without being charitable. I was self-righteous. I missed the entire essence of your goodness.
My head is ringing, my sinuses are plugged, my skin is eaten up. I feel nauseated; I want to eat everything in sight―but I’m terrified of being fat so I will just eat nothing. Because now I’m old and ugly and a bit fat, but if I eat I’ll be a lot fat and I can hear my mother say nice things to me but really she is thinking how fat and slovenly and pathetic I am. And I hear other people saying, “Look at that fat old lady―she’s pretty funny” as they think how totally physically unattractive I am. And they are thinking I should just get a bunch of cats and be a crazy old cat lady because no one, no man, could actually love someone like me. And now you, dear reader, are reading this and thinking how pathetic and self-centred and shallow I am. And that you’re glad you don’t actually know me and that maybe I really should be locked up or I might as well die because I’m useless and a drain on society―a waste of oxygen. But I shouldn’t put words in your mouth or thoughts in your head.
Stop being so hard on yourself. Stop blaming yourself for everything. Stop blaming yourself for being inadequate.
Your therapist told you to make a list entitled “Things I Like about Myself.” That was a difficult task. Eventually, a list of about ten entries developed. Your therapist was not impressed―every entry was qualified by a deprecating joke (ironic for a person who takes herself too seriously). And what about the list of your children’s memories? Do you remember how the boys helped you with the list and …
That’s not all there is to say. I am angry with you. I really am. Even now, you get to me. You still comment on my weight, my hair, my laziness, my disorganization, my uselessness. You are still hurtful, but not, as I once believed, hateful.
I used to think we had a typical mother/daughter relationship. I thought all mothers treated their daughters with malice and spite. I thought all daughters regarded their mothers with hate and anger and fear. But it’s not true. Sure, lots of mothers and daughters have problems, especially in the teen years, but we have a dysfunctional, toxic relationship and it makes me angry. I don’t know what I did to make you dislike me, or what I did to be such a disappointment to you. I don’t know why you are the way you are. I dare say you would never explore your mind and past the way I need to, but something must have happened to you to make you so negative, so controlling, so bitter, so unmotherly (didn’t I call myself that?). I know you were always the one to have the responsibility at home―your brothers and sisters were long gone by the time you were a teenager and you had to look after your aging mother and the house. Maybe you were deprived of her attention because she was so into her charitable societies. I know you were deprived of the romance and even the wedding you planned, wanted, deserved. I know you felt like the ugly duckling (like mother, like daughter, eh?) because you were skinny and wore glasses. And I know you didn’t have the opportunities that I have had. But how did you end up so afraid of life? And why did you have to drag me down with you?
So there it is. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to be like you. I don’t want to be hurt by you anymore. I am angry. I am hurt. I am sad. But I do love you and, actually, I feel sorry for you. I’m sorry your life was a disappointment, a disillusionment, perhaps a bad deal. But I have to stop reliving those things in my life because I am not as strong as you are. I have cracked many times already, and soon the Band-Aid fixes won’t be enough and I will completely come apart and nothing will be able to put me back together again. Humpty Dumpty is not my idea of a good role model. Neither are you.
Stop being such a miserable bitch. That’s it―just stop being miserable and stop being a bitch. You are so completely wrapped up in self-pity and self-loathing that no one can stand you. And anyway, no one cares. Everyone has their own problems, most of them way worse than yours. They don’t have time to feel sorry for you or try to fix you. Get over yourself.
A Letter to My Former Husband:
You may want to take a stiff drink before you read this because it is going to hurt. I’m sorry about that, but I’ve been lying to you and to myself and keeping my feelings and emotions in a dark container in a back room in my mind and the lid is about to blow off. So, before I explode into a spewing mess, I have to write this down. You don’t even have to read it, really. That isn’t that vital to my project and if you want to avoid the pain, you should just stop reading. Some of this will be venomous. But it is how I feel and how I think and I really believe you have no clue about that. So read on at your own peril.
On second thought, I don’t want to do this. It would not be helpful, just mean and spiteful. What I need to say is that even though you say you love me (and you may even think you love me), you don’t. You couldn’t. If you loved me, you wouldn’t treat me like your inferior, your servant, your child, your charity case. You would try to understand―come to the doctor or therapist, like I’ve repeatedly asked, or talk to a pharmacist, or go on-line at least. And you wouldn’t have threatened me, abandoned me, or abused me.
When we got married, I was mentally ill. Stated that way is both a little funny and mean! But that is the truth. I was hurting and it got worse and worse. Now I am better and I am not the person I used to be. Neither are you―people, “normal” people, change with time, why shouldn’t we? But we haven’t changed together; we have changed apart. We haven’t been emotionally or spiritually married for years.
You don’t deserve to be with a woman who can’t, and doesn’t, love you, and I don’t deserve to be unhappily married for the rest of my life because you don’t believe in divorce (because you’re Catholic, yet you don’t even go to church). Let’s just part without any more arguing, fighting, game playing. I guess that’s good-bye.
P. S. It didn’t go smoothly, did it? Divorce and arrests and lawsuits and battles and spite. I can’t believe how bad it has been.
A Letter to My Lover:
Mr. Sweet (Can you believe I ever called you that?),
I am writing this five months after you left me. Five months since the day that you told me, at least three times, that you love me. Five months of my trying to get over you.
When we met, we were both very wounded, physically and emotionally. We brought ourselves out of desperation and depression together, as lovers, friends, and confidantes. We laughed and were silly, and acted like love-struck teenagers.
But my kids gave you a very hard time―harassing emails, crank calls, and idle threats. And you were scared because I fell in love with not only you, but your whole family. And maybe we choked ourselves, practically living together for the last four months of our relationship.
I don’t know if you really stopped loving me, or whether you never loved me, or whether you loved me only as a friend. Maybe you just couldn’t stand my circumstances any more. Maybe you thought you were doing me a favour by no longer providing a target for my sons. But you left.
And as much as that hurt, what hurts even more is that you obliterated me from your mind so quickly―started a new relationships only two weeks later, as if I never existed.
Despite my disappointment and bitterness, I have to thank you. You saved me from my self-destruction and you saved my life. If I hadn’t met you, I would still be in an abusive marriage. And, you taught me that I can love, and be loved, that I am a good person and I can make my own happiness. You taught me to be a freer spirit, to live less planned, to relax. Thank you for starting me on a better path.
I loved you the moment I met you. I love you now. Perhaps I will always love you even though I will never see you again.
I know that you did love me, at least for a little while. When we played house babysitting your nephew for a week, you loved me then. And in Ecuador, one night when you turned to me and said, “Good night, Sweet Heart,” kissed me, and we fell asleep cuddled up, you loved me then. And when in a fit of revenge my son lied and had me arrested because he was “scared” of me… remember, I tried to break up with you that day, and you held me and said we were together, you loved me then.
So you loved me for a little while truly, honestly, without conditions―but just for a little while.
Was that enough?
No. But I’ll carry on.
Jane Arsenault, from Prince Edward Island, writes creative non-fiction as part of her journey through severe and chronic depression. Her Work has appeared in Island Parent, Canadian Stories, and Mothering Canada: Interdisciplinary Voices. She has mothered three sons.