An Essay on Emotional Legacies

Courtesy Karen Zhao

owards the end of my mother’s life, our ability to communicate dried up. Like George Costanza, I made mental notes of talking points to cover when I made my weekly call. The free-flowing dialogue we had once enjoyed had evaporated. I was on one side of the Atlantic and she the other.

The two of us, back in the day in New York

On my occasional trips back home, I started taking her to the movies as a means of silently sharing company. I could tick the mom-box, satisfied that I had fulfilled my duty by spending an entire afternoon in her company.

On one such occasion, we went to ‘Man from the Plains’, the Jimmy Carter documentary. Afterwards, in a bid to jump-start a conversation, I asked her what she remembered most about his Presidency. She looked me straight in the eye and said evenly, ‘I could never understand why he made such a fuss about his daughter, as if having a girl is such a special thing’.

Her words slapped me. I was too stunned to ask her what she meant. And I regret that. Not because I craved a confrontation, but because I missed an opportunity to dig deeper and explore the legacy that brought us to that moment. I could have learned something about the decrepit state of us, but instead I let it remain unsaid.

The historical landscape between us was a rocky terrain. I experienced the best of both worlds in my mother — it could be fulsome or fallow. She loved her children to the best of her abilities, but those abilities were limited by her troubled self-identity. Her parents objectified her and in turn she objectified our father in his death. She never completed her Masters or became a qualified pre-school teacher, even though she was in her element in the classroom. In short, she never took herself seriously. Her capacity to love was limited by her inability to love herself. That emotional ambivalence took root in me.

The concept of self-love never entered my vocabulary until I became a teen. The words felt odd and a little dirty, as if it were something vainglorious or inappropriate. It was a voice I had a hard time hearing, due to the noise in my own head. In those loud years, I ricocheted into adulthood, making random and often reckless choices that led me to drop out of college, marry a man I barely knew, get a series of McJobs and move to England.

It was no surprise that my marriage ended; what surprised me was the clarity of mind that it induced. One night, I dreamt I went to my own funeral and put my ashes in a lavender envelope. I awoke with the realization that I was tired of pinwheeling through life and vowed there and then to stop spinning. I took six months ‘off’ to recalibrate. In time and with reflection and inner work, I found so much of what I had been seeking in the form of love, a second husband and then children.

Before I became a parent, I was secretly terrified that my emotional history would trip me up and that I would let down my child, or that we would fail to bond. The moment I saw my daughter Esmé, the first thing that struck me was a sense of her depth. She felt like an old soul; there was a steadiness to her gaze that belied her being just minutes old.

I grew with her. My head became quieter. I was able to be more present, and less pre-occupied with my past or an imagined future. I relinquished certain dreams that had grown old and found new ones to follow. I found more room in my heart for my mother and understood that her limitation were as much a burden for her as they were for me.

The summer my son Laszlo was born, Esmé announced, “I love four people. You, Daddy, Laszlo and me. I love myself, you know.” Her statement floored me. Her self-knowledge at age five surpassed mine. I knew then emotional legacies can change.

I wish I had recounted what Esmé said to my mother that day at the movies — I wish I had been more honest, and less guarded. I wish I had challenged the cruelty of her statement and asked how that related to herself. I wish I tried harder to collapse our distance, instead of passing afternoons in silence in a darkened movie theatre. If I had, then maybe we could have found more peace. Now that she’s at peace, it’s a wish I will have to carry in my heart.

  • Kaethe Cherney #happyaslarrynyc

Author of ’Happy as Larry: A New York Story of Cults, Crushes and Quaaludes’, which has been optioned for a TV adaptation. @happyaslarrynyc

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