My mother and I don’t talk about why I don’t call home anymore. Or why I don’t visit except for on Christmas, and soon maybe I’ll stop seeing her even then. We don’t talk about the slurred words during our single phone call of 2018 when she called to tell me my grandfather had died. What my mother and I don’t talk about is her drinking.
And that’s not to say our silence is her fault. We have equal blame to share. Perhaps I even have a more considerable burden of the responsibility to own. I’ve never told her that I’m concerned about her drinking. Me, her physician daughter, who daily discusses drinking habits and risks with her patients, has never uttered the words “Mom, I am worried about your drinking.” She’s never told me she wants to stop. We’ve never spoken about it directly at all.
Alcohol wasn’t a part of our lives growing up. My dad drank a beer occasionally with dinner, and we kept a large jug of cheap red wine in the cabinet next to the stove for cooking. But for the most part, drinking just wasn’t part of how our family existed. My mother’s drinking didn’t start until I was an adult, already living on my own. It was years after my father had passed away, and she was dating again. It started with a margarita during a dinner date; I know because she has told the story of that date so many times. That margarita became a glass of wine over dinner, which became a glass of wine over lunch. And the man that bought the margarita would go, but the wine would stay. At least a bottle a day, I estimate, but I don’t know because I don’t ask.
Instead, over the years, I called less, I visited less. Because when I did call or visit, it was no longer my mom I was talking to. The drinking makes me feel like I’ve also lost my mom. That’s what we don’t talk about.
So when the cover of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About came across my Instagram feed, I had to have it. It is a collection of fifteen stories that break the silence of words previously left unsaid in one of our most formative relationships, that which we have with our mother. They range from the heartbreaking Alexander Chee’s boyhood belief that he had to protect his mother from the sexual abuse he experienced to the comical Cathi Hanauer’s exasperation trying to communicate with her mother without her father’s interruption. Each story examines that vital relationship between mother and child and the lifelong impact of that relationship, for good or bad. Some of the authors tell of repairing damaged relationships with their mothers; others speak of coming to the realization that their lives were better off without their mothers in them. Regardless of the outcome, the common thread was each author taking or creating an opportunity to voice the unspoken tensions and traumas in their relationships.
These stories spoke to me and the world of things my own mother and I don’t talk about. Though none of the stories was quite the same as my own, I felt a camaraderie with the authors and comfort in knowing that my silence was not entirely a personal fault but a more common coping mechanism than I realized. Many of the authors used their essays to open a channel of communication with their mothers. I am still undecided about sending this to my own mother. Regardless my internal monologue has changed about what my mother and I don’t talk about.