“Is this everything?” I asked.
“I haven’t touched anything in the closet yet,” my dad explained. “Take your time.”
Take my time—that was the only way I’d get through this.
The closet wasn’t particularly large, and there was no denying that most of the things inside belonged to my mom. My dad’s two suits—he said only lawyers and CEOs needed more than two—were hanging neatly at one end with a few button-down shirts and pants that were reserved for formal occasions. Otherwise, the closet was undeniably my mother’s.
Her five pairs of heels—mostly in black and neutral colors, although one was a pop of purple, and all on the lower end of heel height because of her weak ankles—sat on a shoe rack, which some dresses obscured. She hadn’t dressed up in quite a while because she hadn’t attended any fancy occasions. She’d been too sick to go to things like that in the past couple of years, worried that somebody with a cold might pass it on to her, and it’d be too much for her immune system to handle. Even so, she’d held on to the dresses. She doesn’t declutter often— I mean, she didn’t declutter often. Every now and then, I found myself slipping into talking about her in the present.
I flipped through the hangers even though I knew my mom and I weren’t the same size, so it wasn’t like I’d be taking any of the clothes home with me. I understood that we should donate these to someplace in need, but seeing all of her things here without her felt like history. Almost like we should make a little museum out of her things. But I knew that was ridiculous.
As I pulled clothes out of the closet to lay on the bed, I noticed a cardboard shoebox tucked into a back corner. I crawled halfway into the closet and reached out to it, my fingers grasping at the corners. I dragged it out to see it a little beaten up and faded. The design printed on the box appeared dated, for shoes many decades ago.
I moved myself and the box to the bed and removed the lid. Inside were holiday cards and thank-you notes, but beneath those was a leather-bound notebook, about seven by five inches. The cards were pretty standard; my aunts and uncles wished us a “Merry Christmas,” and my grandparents told her to have a happy birthday for many years. My grandparents had a habit of dating every card they sent. The last one was from eight years ago, about a year before they passed away.
That’s the weird thing about death. A lot of things you make will last far longer than you ever will.
I held the closed notebook in my hands with the care a parent would hold an infant—afraid of crushing the poor thing.
My mother had always been a private person. She didn’t speak much about her childhood or her time in college. I got occasional glimpses of her younger days when I would complain over the phone about school, roommates, men, and so on. I don’t mean to imply we weren’t close, because we were. It’s just that she never felt the need to talk about her own experiences in detail, so I couldn’t even fathom what secrets were kept in this notebook. Should I read it as if examining it closely? Should I leave it alone to respect my mom’s privacy?
My curiosity won out, and I could almost hear my mom laughing. She’d always said my “inquiring mind” got me into trouble with others but that it would also forever be an asset.
The first page didn’t list her name anywhere, but I recognized her handwriting. A date in the top right corner read January 1, 1980. I had never flipped through someone else’s diary before. Well, actually, that’s a lie—I got a peek at my sister’s when we were young, but it’s not like her angry scribbles about how much she was mad at me actually meant anything. This…this was different.
These would be the writings—whether they be rambles or focused ideas—from someone older than me, important to me, and gone.
I took in a deep breath and began reading the first entry.
Do people even still write “Dear Diary” past twelve years old?
Happy new year. It’s a new decade. New year, new decade, new me, I suppose. Or at least I like to think this will be a new year for me.
Last year was terrible. This year will be better. We always say that. I always think I’m going to do something different and make a big change, but people aren’t capable of redirecting themselves so quickly. Change is inevitable, but it’s slow and disappointing.
Well, look out, world. I’m gonna be happy for a change.
Tonight, I’m meeting up with Daryl (once I finish nursing this hangover). I’m breaking up with him. It took me a long time to finally admit to myself that we’re not working out and that this isn’t on me. Daryl’s a sack of crap. He treats me poorly, he calls me names, he fails to recognize his mistakes, and the sex sucks.
“Wha—” I nearly slammed the diary shut.
Well, that certainly was a shock. Yeah, obviously my mom and dad did the do at one point, but it’s not something I wanted to think about. Gross. Ugh.
I vaguely remembered my parents mentioning the guy Mom dated before she dated and married Dad. They never gave specifics; they only said he was verbally abusive and told me to always trust my gut instincts when a guy was making me uncomfortable.
My eyes scanned farther down the page. Mom’s tiny handwriting could pack a lot of information into one page. Her letters were straight, all the same size. It was like the perfectly printed characters I had to imitate when learning how to write neatly in early elementary school (but my handwriting has reverted to a fairly illegible mess by now). She had been an elementary school teacher for a couple decades, so I figured it made sense why her handwriting was so perfect.
I redirected my attention back to her words. She didn’t have much more to say about Daryl in this entry, but she ranted about him to herself for the next couple of days in the diary. I flipped through the pages, and his name came up less frequently over time until eventually, she stopped mentioning him completely. I couldn’t help thinking, Good job, Mom as I noticed this.
She didn’t write every day, but she always seemed to write more frequently around the beginning of a new year. I think she was the type of person who wanted to improve something about her life as January rolled around.
January 5, 1982
I’m certain John (my boss) thinks he’s smarter than me and all the other teachers. Just because he’s a principal doesn’t mean he can bully us. Know what he left in my mailbox this morning? A complaint. A fucking formal complaint that I’m injecting my opinion in our history classes. A student asked me if I voted for Reagan (I have no idea where the question came from—we were focused on local history and community), and I very heavily implied that I would never vote for a man who didn’t have the common man in mind. I knew these kids were too young to understand economics, but I thought it was a good point, considering our lesson, to talk about how important it was to look out for people worse off than you.
Well, a parent got upset about my “biases”—rich asshole—and reported me to John, so now John has an observer sitting in on my classes for all of next week to make sure I don’t divulge from the curriculum.
If that wasn’t enough, Mom and Dad got pissed at me for not visiting them for Christmas. It’s not like I don’t want to see them—OK, I’m mad at them for the shit they said to me at Thanksgiving about putting on weight—but I wanted to spend time with Dave and his family for the holidays. Just…
Ugh, fucking shit. 1982, fuck off already.
And so, that entry ended with plenty of blank space left on the page. My eyes were glued to the page as my mouth hung open.
I had never heard my mom utter a single swear in my life.
Do you ever really understand all the parts of someone’s life? Is it possible to know someone else as well as you know yourself? I had lived with her for nineteen years, and I had only ever known her as my mom. The person who frequently lectured me about things she didn’t approve of; the person who always seemed to be on top of it all; the person who sacrificed parts of her life to look after the rest of us.
Reading this diary made her feel…so different. She seemed so much like…well, me. And that was weird.
When I was young, I never ran to my mom first for help. She kind of intimidated me. She was the “no” person between my parents. My dad was much more amenable to letting me have cookies before dinner or messing up my dresses while I played sports in the back yard. He was fun; she was a “party-pooper.” As I got older, I sought her advice more frequently, but even then, I had only known a part of her.
As I continued to read through the diary, skipping past any mentions of sex with Dad, which she did write about a few times to my horror, I saw an anxious woman who was doing her best to trick the entire world into believing she had everything under control. She presented herself as an upstanding young lady who would never dare to raise her voice, but in her diary she was volatile. She was bursting with joy. She experienced things strongly, recreated scenes with vivid detail when she decided to fill up an entire page, or even two.
By the time she was writing in the late ’80s, her entries were even more sporadic than before. She typically only wrote when she felt strongly about something, whether it was worry about something she said to Dad in the heat of the moment or elation when they bought a house and started planning having a family. She was apparently terrified when she got pregnant, and I skipped a lot of those entries because pregnancy has always made me feel squeamish. And as I flipped the pages ahead, I caught my name.
March 25, 1989
I was having a relaxing Friday night. We put Emma to bed. Dave poured me my second glass of red wine, and when I finished it off, it felt like I was floating on clouds. A movie was on TV as a soft murmur, just background noise, as I leaned against him on the couch and giggled at his dumb yet charming jokes.
Then Emma started crying. Dave went to check on her, and after a few minutes, she quieted down. He wasn’t sure what woke her, but she went back to sleep quickly.
He and I hadn’t spent much time together in a while. Work used to keep us both busy; now it keeps him late, and I spend most of my time at home. I haven’t gone back to work yet. I keep saying yet like it’ll happen eventually, but something keeps holding me back. Was it the stares I got from Jeannie and Gail and all the other teachers in the lunch room when I was still pregnant and talking about my plans for taking care of the baby for a bit and then resuming work? They looked at me like I’d sprouted antennae. Is it that odd for a mother to love both her baby and her work?
Emma will turn one year old in just a couple months. A part of me yearns for work again. I wasn’t meant to be a housewife; I’m so bored here. I love our baby girl, I do. But I want to teach. Dave isn’t against me going back to work, but I think he has the impression that I’m conflicted about it. He’s not totally wrong, but what I mean is I think he worries that I feel obligated to prove my parents wrong about myself, that going back to my old job will be a “Fuck you, I’m not like you” to my mother. But it’s not about her. I feel alive when I teach because I love seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when they learn. And I don’t want to worry him about this, but I worry about our finances with me not being at work.
The problem is I’m not sure there’s a place there for me at that school anymore. It’s not unheard of for women to return to work, but most of the community is made up of conservative folks who believe women should stay at home with their children.
Anyway, Dave starts going through the bills. I attempt to pull him away from them with a few lighthearted jokes. He chuckles, but he says he’d rather get them out of the way. He says it’ll only take a few minutes.
Then a few minutes takes half an hour as he picks up the newspaper from this morning and starts flipping through it. I just wanted a romantic evening at home together, and I want to tell him how much I want to take things to the bedroom, but all of the conservative women’s banter I’ve heard over the past many years just get to me at my core. I’m a heathen for wanting to protect women’s right to contraceptives, apparently. And I know they’re all wrong, but those gazes pierce me to my core, and I just feel so dirty when I’m the one who initiates things now. But Dave is always so busy that we usually don’t end up doing anything for weeks, even months.
I got irritated. I snapped at him that he cares about the news more than he cares about spending time with his wife, which sounds really dumb, now that I write this down. He took offense to it, and he used a sharp tone in return, apologizing a moment later, explaining that he’s had a rough week at work, and it’s got him on edge. Something broke in me, and I yelled at him that I feel like I’m suffocating at home. I’m so busy taking care of Emma; being a mother was far more work than I ever expected. I want to go back to work, but everyone’s busy judging me, so I feel like all I can do is be a stay-at-home mom.
But that’s not where the night ends. My screaming woke Emma up. I groaned. Dave got up to go check on her, but I put my arm in front of him and insisted that I would go see her. Dave tried to gingerly suggest that I just go take a breather—that I’m angry and inebriated—but that just made me more headstrong about being the one who goes upstairs.
I stormed into Emma’s room, picked her up in my arms, and tried to hush her into a calm state once more. I rocked her softly, I kissed her forehead, and yet she continued to cry. I tried to breastfeed her, but she refused. I checked her diaper, and there was nothing to change.
Emma cries a lot. She seems agitated a lot of the time. I don’t understand why such a young girl can be so angry—unless she can somehow understand how frustrated I am being at home all the time. There are some days I desperately do not want to be a mother, and I worry she somehow knows, somehow thinks I don’t love her, but I do, I really do. Nevertheless, I feel stuck in a rut. Like my life is over.
As I pat her back and did everything I could think of to calm her, Dave waited in the doorway, watching us both. Emma continued to cry, so Dave asked if he could see her. I handed her over carefully, and once Dave securely had her in his arms, I stormed out of the room.
I’m a failure. I can’t do this. I can’t be a mother. I was excited about being a mom because everyone says it changes your life for the better. They never fathom you might not be cut out for this. I mean, I had never considered that as a possibility. Surely I could handle this.
I can’t, though.
I need to apologize to Dave. And we need to talk.
Mom stopped writing as much after that. About half of the journal was blank pages. She seemed to feel better, but she didn’t end up writing about what she and Dad talked about.
I did not know this woman. I never would have known about all these anxieties. I offered a heartfelt apology to her; I had never stopped being a pain in her ass, but she had always been kind even when strict.
Why did I have to learn about all of this after she was gone?
I never said “I love you” enough times.
That’s what hurt the most.
I closed the diary and set it back in the box. My chest ached, and my eyes were burning. I went into my parents’ bathroom—just Dad’s bathroom now—and flushed my face with water.
“You all right, kiddo?” my dad called. “I just came to check up on you.”
He was standing in the doorway from the hallway to the bedroom. Dad had always been the sort of person to wait at the entrance of a room; he liked to give people space.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I answered. I knew if I answered honestly, I’d start crying. I’d done enough of that already. I wanted that part of my grief to be over.
People say time heals wounds, but I think we’re just used to routines. Once you’re able to resume your routine, the sadness won’t always be there, but it won’t be gone forever. It’ll creep into your heart years later on a bad day and be enough to make you grieve again. At least, that’s what I think happens.
Dad knew the true, unspoken meaning of your words and when not to press further. He changed the topic. “Find anything you want to keep?”
“I don’t really have a use for any of her things. I’d like to look a bit more, though.”
“Sure thing. And I won’t be getting rid of things too soon, so don’t feel like you need to make a decision right now.”
I strode out of the bathroom and back to the center of the bedroom. “Dad, did Mom… How much did she like being a mother?”
He paused, mulling over how to answer the question, I assumed. His eyes drifted over to Mom’s diary, which I had left on the bed. He seemed to get the gist of my question. “Your mother struggled for a bit. She had a lot of amazing qualities, but one of her flaws was that she always got very caught up in how others saw her. She worried too much about what other people expected instead of focusing on what made her happy.
“You might not remember many of the details, but she loved every minute with us all,” he continued, but not before taking a breath for some composure in his voice, which had started to shake. “She never went back to her old job, and I regret not giving her more encouragement to return. I regret not paying her more attention, not fully understanding how she felt until she had to sit me down and explicitly tell me. But while motherhood presented challenges, she loved you and your sister very much. She was ambitious, and she was capable. But she was far too hard on herself.”
I nodded and looked at the diary again. “Have you read it? Her diary.”
“No, I haven’t read it—yet, at least. I knew she had kept one off and on. I saw her write in it a few times. The first time I tried to talk to her while she was writing in it, she chewed my head off.” He laughed. “Ever since then, whenever I saw her writing in it, I knew she needed that time to herself. And if she wanted to talk to me about something, she would when she was ready.”
I nodded again. When neither of us said anything for a bit, he gave me a quick hug. “She loved you a lot. And so do I,” he said.
“I love you, too.”
Once he had left the room, I reopened the diary. I flipped through the latter half one more time to see if I had missed anything, and to my shock, I had.
Near the back, about ten pages from the end, I caught one last entry. It was undated, and it was brief.
Dave, Emma, Sophia
I love you all more than anything. And I will miss you all. Please take care of yourselves.
I found a blue pen on the bedside table. Underneath her message, I wrote:
We love you, too. I love you. I wish you were here.
P.S. Today is my birthday, so any comments and support is SUPER appreciated!