It was just a typical day in my sophomore year of high school. I sat at my desk in the cold classroom pretending to be occupied with a reading assignment. My eyes stared at line upon line of text. In my mind it appeared as though letters, not actual words, filled each page. I made certain to turn pages every so often in order to look less obvious. But it’s likely they didn’t notice me, anyway.
There we were in one place – a room full of girls wearing pleated plaid skirts with white starched shirts, loafers and cardigans. Our desks and chairs were spaced less than half a yard apart, but the life I experienced was a world apart from theirs. I listened to them chat almost nonstop; many of their conversations overlapped, but one stood out. In a sea of high-pitched rambling, this conversation buoyed to the top instead of being drowned out.
In a casual, almost entitled tone, one of my high school peers spoke of how her mother would have fresh baked cookies waiting for her when she returned home from school. There was also mention of made-up beds and folded laundry. Many of the other girls chimed in with similar stories. I was baffled. “Could this be possible?” I thought. “Mothers who happily bake cookies and make beds for their daughters?” In that moment I was reminded of the reality I’d return home to – a reality without similarity to theirs.
As I approach the house, my heart would beat faster with every step. Sometimes tears would stream down my face, only to be quickly wiped away. “No crying!” I’d say to myself. “Only babies cry. What are you doing? Trying to get attention or something? Nobody cares anyway.” On many occasions I considered walking a long road to nowhere – to leave with nothing but a backpack and without saying a word. But I couldn’t leave that little girl behind. I couldn’t force her to deal with all of this on her own, so I turned my key in two locks and walked inside.
The most joy I ever experienced in life was seeing that little girl’s face. My sister would run toward me with open arms and lots of kisses. We’d embrace, and she’d sing me the songs she’d learned on Barney, Sesame Street, and a string of other learning programs. Some days the rest of the house would be quiet because Mother was still in bed asleep. Other days I’d be greeted by Mother’s wrath and a long list of things I either needed to do or hadn’t done right, so they needed to be done over again. It was a toss up.
What remained constant was that instead of baked cookies, I returned home to a sink full of dishes to wash and a cold, empty stove. Instead of walking into my bedroom to find laundry neatly folded and ready to be placed in drawers, I had the task of folding baskets of laundry for the majority of the household. And instead of free time before completing homework, I was busy keeping my toddler sibling occupied while hoping to get all my chores done, put a meal in my sister’s stomach, and then get her in bed in enough time for me to start my homework by 10 p.m. All of this while Mother slept, viciously yelled, or sat in a wing-backed chair swaying and murmuring in darkness.
The darkness is what they didn’t see – not family nor friends. They didn’t see her literally drag me out of bed on Saturdays because “only lazy people stay in bed until noon.” Never mind the fact that I’d gone to bed only a few hours prior in order to make up homework assignments and finish chores.
No one heard her unreasonable and contradictory demands, like:
“I don’t want you washing the throw rugs, it has to be done a certain way.” And then, hours later…“Why didn’t you wash the throw rugs? You just keep defying me! Don’t think you’re going to get away with this! Go wash those rugs, NOW!”
Those on the outside saw only smiles. Keeping up appearances in public was my mother’s forte, so parent-teacher conferences were riddled with blame toward me for arriving late to school, falling asleep in class, and a declining grade point average. I learned years prior that defending myself was a waste of energy, so I sat in silence, awaiting the end of the meeting.
Nearly 20 years have passed since I graduated from high school, and I still cringe when I drive past that place. I’ve come to accept my mother’s long naps and fluctuating moods as the norm. Her words still sting with unmerited blame, and I still bake my own cookies, make my own bed, and wash my own laundry.