My mother’s body is the first thing I remember. Before reason or judgement, I had that life-giving certainty. Before vocabulary, there are no parameters, no proper measures of heart or flesh; no insufficiency, and no excess.
The world comes in quite fast, though.
I have a clear vision of this strange tool my father kept in a locked drawer in his windowless basement office. It was a kind of giant protractor: white plastic with a spring in the middle, sharp pincers on either end. I couldn’t even tell you how it worked, only that it measured body fat percentage, which is, perhaps, the kind of measurement you might want to have access to if you are a fitness model. No one in my family was in that line of work. Almost certainly, those tines grabbed my mother’s flesh with a violent precision to which the scale could not aspire.
My mother’s body was made legible in this way: the parts of her that fell outside the boundaries of the shape of woman were quantified, tabulated, inventoried. We can only be good when unalterable, worthy when there is nothing left to take away.
An early memory: creeping downstairs to watch the shadows cast by arguments move on the kitchen floor, accusations and denials, voices rising. My mother’s suspicions were hardly baseless. Burying her face in the collar of my winter coat revealed lingering notes of perfume and cigarette smoke, evidence of my occasional visits to my father’s girlfriend’s place.
That affairs embolden us is clear enough: the grasping certainty of desire can seem the only real thing in the world, collateral damage be damned.
The life of my family in the mid ’90s seemed without a floor. The note they found with my grandfather’s body lent a brick-in-stomach feeling to the anomie. As a young man, he had been thrown (along with thousands of others) against a different machine, oceans away. He never spoke about it to me, of course; such conversations are hardly urgent when there are gardens to be tended, ships-in-bottles to be examined. Reaching back, I find no space between the afternoons we spent nibbling on nippy cheese and tearing up the heels of old loaves of bread for the ducks in the public gardens and the early evening I spent peering out my parents’ bedroom window, watching the police mill about down in the street. My mother told me that her father died of a broken heart, which wasn’t a lie. I wondered if the condition was genetic.
Undisclosed, trauma trickles down through the generations. It becomes difficult to tell the difference between scar and organ: breathing feels like bleeding.
My mother’s grief was endless. I say grief, and not madness, though I could mean either. I say grief because it seemed to me a creeping thing, twisting and multiplying through the years—I imagine it snarling, choking whatever lay before it; not raging, no earth scorched; not unravelling, nothing collapsed. Growing up, I remember how grief would take my mother at times by the ankle or the shoulder; a quick grasp would trip her, a scraping shake, loss rattling the teeth in her head. And yet none of it belonged to her.
My mother’s body was overdraft protection. Overdraft protection was my mother’s body.
My mother is a travel agent: she makes arrangements for the dreams of others. Stitching their desired pieces together, she designs seamless experiences, uninterrupted by transportation delays, food poisoning, surprises at border crossings. The going rate for such logistics seems to drop every year.
I remember walking in the late summer evenings up to the banks on the main street, following my mother as she withdrew $400 in cash from one, deposited $400 in cash in another, moving money around to pay creditors. We could not afford the house we were living in…but then, who can? The memory belongs to the same historical moment as those video rental places staffed by an automatic teller machine, somewhere between customer service and full luxury communism—after the neighbourly concern of store clerks and lesser-known others had eroded but before a utopian future without bills to pay.
What seemed a strange ritual to me as a child took on greater clarity the older I got. The evening walks to the bank were proof that, beneath the varnish of respectability, we were existing paycheck to paycheck, scraping by under the cover of darkness. The market had decided that my mother’s specialization was not the most efficient use of resources. Someone wrote some code, and in doing so pulled a lever that set the whole operation racing to the bottom. While the advent of online booking seemed to democratize international travel, it also meant that, beginning in the early 2000s, my mother received a layoff notice every summer, so that she wouldn’t be in the position of owing wages to her employer, having produced no surplus value to justify them.
In the fairer games of love and war, we say “collateral damage” to signify that which is lost or broken inadvertently. The vocabulary of economics does not allow for such acknowledgement. Instead, we find efficiencies; we de-layer. There is no line in the budget for the human mess left behind once capital’s circuit has closed. Some externalities: chronic stress, weight fluctuations, severe depression.
When the sun is out, people don’t want to fly south.
And yet, the bills must still be paid.
I had a relationship with the scale under the bathroom sink, with those bright plastic indicators you could move around the dial—a different colour for each family member. Before too long, I figured out how to cheat it; small fingers could recalibrate, set the needle below zero. Untroubled by the inconsistency (how could the air weigh less than nothing?), I would push my little yellow marker down a few pounds, step on, and feel satisfied. Here was proof that I wasn’t too much, here was my body within acceptable limits, though just barely.
My mother would sometimes ask if I had been playing with the scale. I would have to lie.
Maybe my father used the calliper on me, maybe he didn’t. Maybe the fact that such an instrument had a place in my home was enough. He took it with him when he left. Is there such a thing as a ghost of a calliper?
The hairline fractures in my self-worth seemed unremarkable to me throughout my adolescence. Daughters of mothers like mine squint at “self-compassion,” attempting to disassemble it into its component pieces. The concept seems foreign, untranslatable.
I measured the ’90s by the kind of milk in the fridge: 2 percent when I was still small, then 1 percent at the turn of the century, skim by the time I was thirteen. We watered down as the years went on.
For some time, I thought that I was loving a man who was loving me unconditionally. When things started to crumble into the chasm of the hundreds of miles of the TransCanada between us, I was naive enough to ask him why. He came to where I was living and bit his lip for hours, refusing to answer my question. I pushed and pushed, heart in my throat, until finally he told me that he might miss me more if I were thinner. I screamed.
My favourite thing to be accused of is defensiveness. Imagine living in a house where the bricks were constantly falling from the ceiling, catching you every now and then. Imagine the bricks stopped falling one day. Would you trust them to stay up there, holding up the roof? How long would it take for you to stop craning your neck to see what might be tumbling down to strike you?
When my father asked, “why are you crying?”, it didn’t sound like a question. It sounded like, “you’re turning into your mother.” Turning into that unreasonable, sopping mess, into that frail human heart, cracked open and bleeding everywhere, staining everything, only making it more difficult for herself in the long run. “Why are you crying?” must have seemed a reasonable question, which is precisely what made it so brutal.
We make bad choices. We want things we can’t have. I wanted a soul-edifying education, wanted to spend time thinking and talking and worrying about the world with the urgency it deserves. The high arches in my feet (another inheritance) wanted shoes that wouldn’t fall apart, full hips asked for fabric that had been cut with some consideration for line and shape. These things cost, and I was willing to pay, but not without some hesitation, a pregnant pause filled with dread and reprobation. The spectre of student debt loomed as I stitched together part-time jobs throughout my undergrad, finding ways to monetize every form of labour possible. Calculating the fees I would owe if I went at a typical pace, I became obsessed with finishing a year early and spent a few semesters cramming seven courses into a space meant for five.
My academic survival depended on the willingness of my professors to accommodate my completely unreasonable schedule. I rendered myself incapable of giving close attention to anything, preferring a cursory skim to the careful engagement the work merited, all for the fear of turning into my mother. Here was the defensiveness again. Desperate to avoid being bruised by accusations that I had made a poor investment, I found ways to dodge anticipated criticisms, pulling my hand from the path of the switch before it came down on my palm. If debt and freedom could coexist, I could not imagine how.
While I cultivated a sociological imagination, it would sometimes send me spiralling through the very paces of neoliberal discipline I had learned to identify and untangle. Caught, like my mother, in an economic process that would not slow to accommodate me, I imagined that I could outwit it, somehow. If I failed, it would be my own fault. I knew how the system worked: I should have known better.
Turning into my mother is a multifaceted kind of failure: physical, emotional, and financial. It is a radical failure; it means inhabiting a body that does not adhere to narrow conceptions of desirability. It means making some peace with a heart and mind that cannot always bear to submit to capitalism’s demand that we continue to work as though nothing has ever happened to us, as though our souls are not daily being thrown on a machine that has not always been here, that could be replaced by something more humane.
I don’t know in which direction the dominoes toppled. Was the body first, or the mind? Maybe it began the day I finally returned three pairs of pants I had ordered months prior two sizes too small, relinquishing a cherished reminder of my failure to shrink. Another contender: the Sunday I spent seized by anxiety and crumpled on my kitchen floor–I managed to pick up the phone, call a friend I loved and weep into the receiver that I was unbearably sad. Never before had I been so acutely aware of the shame I felt as it rose in my throat, or so surprised when, refusing to swallow it, I watched it dissipate.
When I say reclamation, I mean something more than the moment I realized that I was proud of what I had become, proud of what I had inherited—the fullness of it.
My sideways glances at life have only rarely allowed me to see failure as resistance. If I am turning into anything, though, I hope I am turning into my mother. For years, I buried worries that I would inherit her shape, her unchecked emotional needs, her unpaid and un-payable bills, her sadness—the feeling of drowning in all of it. I saw in my mother what the world told me was there: an eternal messiness, a hoarder’s cache of the unresolved, a case study in neglect. Not care and grit and humour, not mediation and attention and willingness to share. Just life’s ahistorical grime.
My mother isn’t drowning, though, and neither am I. We are both treading water, pushing something thick and ancient out of the way to keep our heads above the surface.
If I am destined to expand, and fill that same mold, so be it. I would be lucky to inherit the arms that held me through every moment of shuddering pain I have felt in my short life. Let the tendrils of my anxiety unfurl, let the stretch marks stitch like lace across my skin. If precarious employment shapes my life the way it has hers, I will give the resulting bruises proper names, and fix the frayed ends of economic insecurity and structural crisis together with something stronger than a knot. ♦
Mary–Dan Johnston is a writer and researcher living in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I’m Turning into My Mother” is from our MOMS issue (spring 2015)