To love my mother, I make her five. I give back the dress full of daisies her grandmother made; give back the wide brown eyes and Shirley Temple curls pinned at the sides.
To love her, I frame her in the black and white photo of before.
I remember what it was like, when loving her came without effort. Late night games of “what-if” on the porch when the fans weren’t strong enough to stir a cool breeze on hot summer nights. I remember when she told me about ice skating on the lake behind her childhood home, the way she built enough speed to feel like she was flying. She told me about the beer bottle, hidden in the cattails, and how it sliced her hand as she fell.
She showed me how she squeezed her thumb to make the blood spurt onto the snow, to make her wound more visible. To make it count.
I wish I had not remembered that story the day my husband came home, once again smelling of Diet Pepsi and Appleton rum, when I set down the onion and took the knife to my thumb. When I felt the metallic zing and watched the sink stain red. When I remembered the sight of blood from a previous wound will sometimes stop an abuser from striking, even as they resent the disruption of their plan.
Were you close?
His mother once showed me a photo of him at five. All blue eyes and a blonde bowl cut, the kind you get at the kitchen table. His kindergarten photo, taken right before she left. She thought the violence would stop, if she was out of the picture. Thought her kids would be better off with the dad who could provide even though he drank. I saw him at five, so I loved him.
Later, when I tried to talk to his mom about the violence in our home, the way he hurt me, that he said I was lucky he didn’t kill me, she said, “You knew he had a temper before you married him. I told you what his father was like.”
Thanks to her, I knew to take the children with me. I remind her of that, when she calls to tell me how wrong I was to do so.
Once, on Christmas morning, his hands closed around my throat, anger adding strength as he lifted and shook me by the kitchen stove because I refused to force our three-year-old daughter to finish her muffin.
I remembered the sound of a thrown ashtray hitting the sink, cutting into my right hand as I washed dishes in scalding hot water. Remembered the feel of a broken nose, the taste of blood, the sound of bells ringing as they shattered.
He said, “Don’t look at me like that. I am not your fucking mother.”
I remembered telling my mother he felt like home.
Two months after our divorce was finalized, two years before I would stop speaking to my mother, I took the before photo of my daughter, no longer black and white.
She was five, with long blonde hair and green eyes, sitting with her brother on a patch of grass. In the June sun, they sat, waiting for their dad to pick them up for a visit.
He brought her back with broken blood vessels and scattered bruises, with threats of what would happen to all of us if she told. Brought her back shaken, with bells in her ears that never stop ringing.
My mother said it was my fault for letting her go. His mother said I knew he had a temper and I had children with him anyway. He told the police he was mad at me when he hurt our daughter.
I can’t forgive any of us when I remember my daughter was five.