“I love you,” she would say, my mother. She said that all the time. But what did that mean? To a battered, lonely little girl it meant the world, really. To try to believe that she was loved. I wasn’t very old, no more than two, when I understood that love was different with her. Thanks to my gentle, sweet great grandma, I had a measure for what love was. Thanks to my dad, whose love I remember in the shadows of memories of being held tenderly and of blue eyes gazing into mine as he cooed and talked to me. I remember reaching my arms out to my dad, and to my great grandma, and being gently lifted, warmly held. I never had enough of that. She made sure of it, my mother. She took me far away from my dad, maybe to punish him, but, mostly, I truly believe, to hurt me. She took me away from my great grandma, too. I know it broke Grandma’s heart not to get to be with me. She told me later how much she missed me, when I couldn’t be with her any more.
For me, it was like a light burnt out in my soul. Life is pretty bleak for an unloved child, abuse notwithstanding. I think all the beatings and bites and slaps across the face, a broken tailbone, scars, and harsh words and even the sexual abuse could have been withstood with less damage if there had been one person in my life who truly loved me. The tender arms of my great grandma after a slap across my face from my mother were so soothing and sweet, a true haven of love that calmed my breathing and slowed my frantic heartbeat and made my tense, fraught little body melt into a peaceful release. My dad’s strong, loving arms and my head on his chest as a toddler, listening to his heartbeat made me feel steady and secure and safe. So, if I had to be brutalized as a child, the least she could have done was let me have the one thing I needed more than anything, to really be loved. She couldn’t let me have that. She took away the only real hope I had of it, leaving me to feel so empty from before the age of 2, I began curling into a ball in my closet or on my bed, pretending next to me was a warm, loving body of someone holding me when I cried, helping me to fall asleep when I was afraid, stroking my hair and humming to me when I was sad.
“I love you,” she said, my mother, but not the morning she picked up a plate of toast and smashed it into my face when I was six. My tummy was in knots and I couldn’t eat, and it made her mad, so she smashed it in my little face and turned the plate over and over while she held the back of my head. I had scratches all over my face from that, stinging and shiny with butter. When my teacher asked me what happened, I told her my cat had scratched me. We didn’t have a cat, but I knew how to lie about my bruises and cuts, maybe not even for my mother’s sake, but for mine. I was ashamed of whatever I was, for my mother to have to smash toast in my face. I was ashamed, of myself for having those scratches.
“I love you, my little curly headed girl,” she said, my great grandma, on the mornings she got up before I did, when I slept over in her bed, getting to be cuddled in her soft arms, and crept into the bedroom to run her fingers through my curls, cooing, “come get your goosey ganders!” Goosey Ganders were the odd shapes left over after she made biscuits, and used a glass to cut them out. The shapes around the glass she saved and baked on a separate baking sheet, just for me. They were my goosey ganders, and my tummy was never too in knots to eat them. I was never ashamed there, because love is stronger than shame… real love, that is.
“I love you, dear,” he said, my dad, every time I saw him or talked to him after I finally got him back in my life. And he did. I heard it in his gentle tone, saw it in his blue eyes that lit up for me, in the tears he cried when I sang, the smile he had just for me. And when I sat next to him, holding his hand as he gripped mine so tightly those days he was dying, his eyes bore into mine, groans he couldn’t form into words as he tried desperately to tell me something. I told him, “I know you love me, dad, and I am so thankful that I got to have you in my life,” and I sang to him, and tears formed in his eyes, because he loved me. And when I lost him, that familiar emptiness filled my soul again. I lost him, again, and it hurts as much as it did not to have him as a little girl.
“I love you,” she said, my mother, the day she thought she was dying. I wanted her to have peace, so I told her I forgave her, and that I thought she did her best. It wasn’t true. I didn’t forgive her, and I wanted…I needed… so badly for her to say, “I’m sorry; it was wrong; you didn’t deserve any of it.” That was all I wanted, to be loved enough, to be important enough, for her to say any of that, to even admit it, to admit it mattered, that I mattered, and that might even mean I could believe that she loved me. It might even have taken away some of my shame. But she didn’t say any of that. She said, “you always had the brownest eyes.”
I don’t even know what the fuck that means. Does it mean that you saw those brown eyes wide in terror, brimming with tears, lonely, searching everywhere for kindness, when I was a little girl? Or was it just something to say, to pretend that none of it happened? No, you couldn’t do it. You couldn’t give me that one thing that I needed. So, in the end, no, you didn’t love me, Mom. But guess what? I loved you.