I wish I had been less worried.
If you ask me how I wish my childhood had been different, that would be my answer. I wish I had been less worried.
It’s not a good thing for a child to be worried. Every day. About things outside of her control. About things she didn’t cause and can’t control. About things that exist, like the air and the rain, but aren’t named.
I worried constantly about my mother. When I say constantly, I mean constantly, from the beginning of conscious memory until I grew up, married and moved away. I worried that she was sad. I also worried that she was sick. Since she was almost always sad or sick or sad and sick, it wasn’t unreasonable to worry. It wasn’t as if I was imagining monsters under the bed that weren’t really there. The monsters would have been a relief, frankly, from the oppression of worry on my little kid self.
“What the matter, Mama?”
“Nothing’s the matter.”
Every day, many times a day, I’d ask. It was so obvious that something was the matter. The silence in the house made me tiptoe so as not to bother her. When my brother, nine years older than me, came home from college and started blasting Harry Belafonte on his bedroom stereo when my mother wasn’t home, it felt like jubilation from the heavens.
Day O, day o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home
Day, me say day, me say day, me say day
Me say day, me say day-o
Daylight come and me wan’ go home.
It made me feel joyful and hopeful, like a prisoner with a life sentence allowed to work in the warden’s flower garden. There were happy things. There were ways to be happy. Music was one of those ways. Why didn’t my mother listen to music, I wondered. Why did my brother always turn the music off when she came home? Maybe we all would have danced. We wouldn’t have. He knew that better and longer than me.
Children growing up with a chronically and seriously depressed parent have a burden they can’t describe. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I even understood that my mother’s depression was unrelated to any event or person although I’m sure it worsened in some times and improved in others depending on our family situation. Her depression was hers. When she was asked what was the matter, it’s likely she had no way of explaining. This was in the sixties, when treatment for mental health issues was sparse, alternatives meager. Better to be mute than risk other people’s panicked reactions. Maybe that’s what she thought. I don’t know. We never discussed it.
A few years ago, I sat up late one night with my older brother, the one whose Belafonte music blasted through the neighborhood. I asked him about our mother’s depression, what he thought caused it.
“I don’t know what caused it. All I know is that she was always that way.”
I don’t feel sorry for myself or blame my mother for anything. She was always kind to me. She was gentle, her hand on my cheek the most precious memory from my childhood. She was just never happy. I don’t remember her laughing, not once. There’s no picture in my childhood inventory of my mother with her head thrown back laughing, clinking the ice in a glass on a hot day and smiling a big grin. That’s someone else’s mother.
But she stayed alive. Sometimes I think she did that just for me.