39 Lashes: Just Write Something about Your Mother

by Lara Lillibridge


1. Do not speak of things that will break your mother’s heart. These may include:

• bullies at school
• altercations with your mother’s One True Love (OTL)
• how out-of-style the new clothes she bought you are.

2. Keep a corner of your chest cavity dedicated to yearning for your mother. Choose the left ventricle. Use this space accordingly because:

• She will die before you. You must live every day preparing yourself for that eventuality. It’s best to start young, say nine years old.
• She will devote the majority of her time to her One True Love. There will never be enough left over for you.

3. Break rule number one and tell your mother every way in which her One True Love has hurt you. Even though this brings you no peace, do not regret it. Wish you could yell it from the roof or take out a full-page ad in the paper.

4. Realize that everything the One True Love did was sanctioned by your mother, or at least tolerated by your mother. Become very angry with your mother.

5. Remember that time you brought your mother your favorite blue blankie when you found her crying, back when you were a toddler. Allow yourself to long for the softness of your mother’s lap for ten solid minutes, no more. Feel incredible guilt for your newfound anger.

6. Dress up as a Playboy bunny for Halloween: wear one full-body floppy terrycloth bunny costume two sizes too large, one bustier crammed over top, and one pair of silver lamé panties with a slit carefully made for the bunny tail. Feel burning ice in the pit of your stomach when the One True Love comments on your “shiny pussy,” with eyes riveted to your panties. Run upstairs to cry or throw up, whichever comes first. Listen to your mother tell you to wear the costume anyway because it was ironic and funny and how she told her One True Love not to use the word pussy. Be unable to forget the One True Love’s open mouth and fat stubby finger pointing at your pussy. Wear a different costume for Halloween.

7. Consider if this essay would be more honest if you explained that the One True Love is, in fact, a woman. Contemplate whether describing the OTL as a man trapped in a woman’s body is accurate. Think about all the ways she is more like a man than a woman. Try not to think about all the details you know about her sex life. Consider the ways she resembles Archie Bunker. Feel the words, “We are all women. Nothing about this is inappropriate,” echo in the spiral of your memory’s cochlea.

8. Consider the impact of your memoir on all the nice, normal lesbians you know—the ones who aren’t creepy or inappropriate. Weigh the obligation to defend gay parenting as normal with the need to tell your story honestly. Try to find a way to explain that it wasn’t her gayness that was a problem; it was her mental illness, her lack of boundaries, or her inherent personality.

9. Wake up to find the One True Love sitting at the edge of your bed during your senior year in high school, holding your mother’s vibrator. Listen to the One True Love tell you that you should masturbate, and offer to let you share their vibrator. You run from the outstretched hand holding the ivory torpedo, run out of the house, and vault over the bushes at the edge of the yard.

10. Decide once again to never to tell your mother the vibrator story. Decide to delete this story from your essay. Remind yourself that the One True Love was on lithium at the time and has no memory of the event. Do not respond when discussing the event with the OTL many years later when you are told, “I’m sure I didn’t say borrow. I’m sure I offered to buy you one of your own,” as if that made a difference.

11. Try to forget all of the times the One True Love commented on your “beautiful body” with a hungry tone or gaze. Do not ask yourself why you still wore bikinis in front of the One True Love.

12. Run away from home. Live on couches for three months. Rent a room in a stranger’s house. Hate the fact that you needed your mother to secure a place to live because no one will rent to a seventeen-year-old except a friend of a friend of your mother’s. Get a job. Take two buses to school and two buses home every day. Graduate high school with a 3.0.

13. Sign a promissory note to the One True Love for a sizable loan to cover your mortgage payments for a year after your husband has a severe accident. Realize you never would have made it without her help. Remember that you didn’t even have to ask—it was her idea to step in and save you.

14. Drive thirteen hundred miles with the OTL from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Key West, Florida, to escape your violent first husband. Sing together loudly to “I Will Survive.” Consider feeling guilty for all the years you hated the One True Love. Take four days to complete the drive.

15. Open an envelope at Christmas from your mother and her One True Love. Find enough money to pay off your debt from the divorce.

16. Pick up an apple core the One True Love left on your coffee table while visiting. Listen to the OTL explain to you how you aren’t a gracious host when you comment on the residue left by the half-eaten apple. Collect all the dirty dishes she left lying around the house and deposit them in the sink. Explain that no, you really don’t have any chocolate.

17. Explain to your new husband that you really cannot convince the One True Love to wear pants when she visits. You have been trying and failing your entire life. Remember your father’s full frontal nudity every time he visited. Wonder why your mother only marries people who completely disregard the need for pants in polite company.

18. Try to pretend that you don’t notice how sad your mother is when you visit your in-laws instead of her.

19. Tell your parents you want to leave your second husband, the father of your two small children. Register surprise when your mother discourages you but the One True Love rallies to your cause. Cry with gratitude when the OTL and your mother buy a house to rent to you at a sub-prime rate so you will always have a home for your children after your second divorce. Remember what the subsidized housing looked like when you thought that was your only option, and how afraid you were of the playground. Stop hating the One True Love.

20. Ask the One True Love to draw you completely naked because you really wanted a charcoal sketch of your nude figure to help you reclaim your sexuality after your second divorce. The OTL is a decent artist, and you are broke and you don’t think anyone else would draw you for free. Do not think about how you are contributing to blurred boundaries.

21. Get drunk and overshare with the One True Love about your sex life.

22. Feel your mother’s tears soaking through your shirt when the One True Love falls in love/becomes obsessed with another woman. Delete the email the OTL sends you explaining that the OTL does not love your mother anymore. (But read it to your mother first, to help her stay strong.)

23. Realize that your mother is going to reconcile with her One True Love.

24. Admit to yourself that now that you have children you have no choice but to play happy family because they adore the One True Love, perhaps even more than they adore your mother. Spend a few awkward years pretending once again to be a happy family.

25. Have an anxiety attack while visiting your mother and her One True Love. Confide in the OTL about a terrible memory which has come back to haunt you. Feel relief when the One True Love tells you that you have nothing to be ashamed about. Take the Xanax the OTL offers and go to sleep.

26. Watch your children’s eyes light up when they play with the One True Love and snuggle on your mother’s lap.

27. Write down all of the worst stories from your childhood. Realize that you can never publish them while your mother is alive.

28. Talk to the One True Love about her biggest shame—the night you ran away from home after the fight when you wouldn’t stop screaming, and the OTL slapped you across the face over and over. Listen to the One True Love tell you how afraid she was that someone would call the police from the noise and that you would be taken away from them. Remember how you were trying to drown out the voice that said, “This is all your fault,” with wordless screaming. Remember how the threat of a straitjacket was the only thing that stopped your shrieks. Feel surprise and relief when the One True Love tells you that you must write that story.

29. Realize that the details of the fight would damage too many other people to tell. Write it anyway. Vow to never publish it. Tell yourself it wasn’t that important in the scheme of things. Recognize that this is a lie. Stop writing memoir and focus on essay.

30. Wonder if you will ever allow yourself to love your mother with complete abandon again. Consider whether the protective shell you have built is a good thing or a bad thing.

31. Feel guilty for not calling your mother. Wonder why she never calls you first.

32. Contemplate how much longer your mother may live, and how much longer she will have her faculties. Do the math and realize that it’s likely to be under a decade.

33. Spit out your drink when the One True Love asks you what semen tastes like. Try to answer the question. Hate yourself for participating in the conversation instead of walking away.

34. Do not encourage visits with your parents. Wish you still enjoyed visiting your parents. Do not allow yourself to long for your mother.

35. Go to Disney World with just the One True Love and your children, because your mother had surgery the month before and can’t go. Observe that the One True Love has the worst navigational skills you have ever seen. Remember all the times that the OTL screamed at your mother on road trips. Remember how your mother held the map close to her face as she struggled to find the proper exit. Remember the voice of her One True Love yelling, “Judy! Judy!” Forget all the words that followed. Have a pleasant time at Disney World anyway.

36. Observe your mother forgetting things and confusing people. Discuss with the One True Love whether or not you should tell your mother that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Do not tell your mother for one year. Decide to tell your mother. Observe that she does not follow up on the diagnosis. Decide to doubt the diagnosis with your mother. Perhaps your mother’s memory loss is instead due to downing a bottle of wine every night and the subsequent morning hangovers. Learn later that your mother had a series of mini-strokes that went unnoticed by everyone, and that these were the cause of her memory lapses. Wonder if you should have been paying closer attention to your mother.

37. Get drunk with your mother every time you see her. Encourage your mother to drink until she can’t walk up the stairs. Tell yourself she deserves to have fun after abstaining from alcohol until you graduated high school. Ignore the One True Love’s negative comments about drunks.

38. Tell your mother the vibrator story as justification for why you don’t visit very often. Notice how this does not have the desired effect, how your mother ignores your words, how it changes nothing at all. Watch the word “vibrator” turn to ashes in your hand and blow away.

39. Dread the next time you will see the One True Love. Long for your mother. Feel guilt for typing the word dread. Consider whether or not it is too harsh. Leave it as written. Accept that you will never be able to write something about your mother.

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