It was the night before my third birthday, and as my mother sat at the edge of my bed, gently stroking my hair and saying the evening prayer, Shema, with me, I wrapped my arms around her and pleaded with her not to leave my room for the night. “I have
to go bathe the baby,” she said, and leaned over to kiss me. “But we’ll get to spend a lot of time together tomorrow at school. I’m coming for your party!”
“No,” I said, impulsively uninviting her. “You can’t come.” She offered to wear a pretty shabbat dress, or to put on makeup, thinking that perhaps I was embarrassed by her post-partum appearance, but it wasn’t that. “No,” I said again, firmly. And she lay in bed next to me while she sang my song of choice, then got up and left the room, leaving the door wide open. It was too dark to see her face.
It was a daily occurrence for me, feeling the pain in separation as my mother would escort me to my nursery classroom. I would hold onto my her leg, wrapping my arms around it as if I were trying to climb a tree. She would inch closer to the entryway, and instantaneously, the tears would begin. The teacher would then pry my hands off, finger by finger, until I was left grasping at air and staring at the door as my mother escaped behind it. “Mommy, don’t go,” I would whisper, my voice echoing in her absence.
For a few minutes every morning, the feeling of isolation would hover over me like a ghost, engulfing my small limbs, my tiny fingers. I felt choked, and my breaths would come in shallow bursts, rapid and sprite. I missed my mother. And then it would pass, tiptoeing away to the far recesses of the room, and I could smile again. I could forget about my longing, until I was safe in her arms in the afternoon.
My mother respected my wishes and didn’t come to my birthday party that year, nor did I let her come to our performances or graduation. The teachers sent home hazy Polaroid photos of me wearing my birthday crown, blowing out my candles, and reading my birthday book. My mother smiled at the images, a smile that hid the sadness of her exclusion.
I am a mother now, and I visit my children occasionally in school. They let me, though I sometimes feel unworthy of this privilege, like I don’t deserve it, because I never allowed my own mother to spend time in my classroom. They also do not cry when I drop them off, nor do they even glance back at me, and I wonder what good deeds I must have done in a previous life to deserve this convenience. I worry maybe they don’t love me enough.
And then one day I was invited to visit my daughter’s Pre-K class for the morning. I prepped my four-year-old the night before. “Emmanuelle, I’m coming to your school tomorrow. Are you going to talk to me while I’m there?” because usually she doesn’t, choosing to play with her friends instead of with me. She looks at me and shrugs. “If you want, I can pretend I am someone else’s mother, like Rachel’s.” This suggestion makes her laugh.
The next morning, I slide in next to her at the dress-up corner. She looks shyly at me, then back at her friends, then back at me. It is like she is 15, embarrassed by her awkward mother who lingers around her posse of friends, gawking. When we head over to the snack tables for an intermission from a hearty session of role playing, Emmanuelle squeezes in next to Rachel, where there is only one available chair, leaving me stranded. I feel like I am the loser, the un-cool friend who was shafted at the cafeteria, forced to sit with the nerds because the last seat was taken at the popular table. And also because the popular kids don’t like me. I sit alone, folding myself into the nursery-sized chair, my knees banging at the top of the miniature table. Immediately, Annie comes by, and as I glimpse her mismatched outfit, awkward bow perched on a tuft of brushed out curls, and striped tights, she rests her head on my shoulder and links her arm through mine. “I want to sit next to you!” she bellows. Hooray for Annie, but I felt stiffed. Ignored. Maybe I shouldn’t have come.
After an hour or so of being shunned by my child, I plop down next to her for some circle time. During the songs, I whisper in her ear some of our private jokes, trying to make her laugh, and in an almost inaudible voice, she looks at me and mumbles, “Mom, you can go home now.” And just like that, I am dismissed. For a moment, I sit blinking.
“What?” I ask, unable to accept my sudden expulsion. She repeats herself. And so I have no choice but to disengage myself from the circle of children, sitting and singing happily. So this is it. Revenge on my past. I gather my things, and exit out to the hallway. I pause to look at our family photo pasted on her cubby, and while I am zippering up my coat, I hear a child in the classroom, in hysterics, coughing and crying. Emmanuelle.
The door opens, and suddenly we are in the hallway together, the small walls trapping and echoing her cries. “Mommy!!” she gasps, reverberating off the ceiling and shuddering through the displayed artwork on the bulletin boards. Her hand is stuffed in her mouth, and drool is spilling down her wrist, wetting her sleeve, as she struggles to regain composure, to tame the sobs that wrack her body. I am surprised at her moment of desperation, at the emotion that courses through her so liberally, uninhibited, after the bravado I had witnessed. “Looks like she had a change of heart,” the teacher informs me, and I acquiesce, unzippering my coat and dropping my things where they had previously been.
We reenter the class, hand-in-hand, and it is like a foreign child by my side, a newly adopted puppy, clingy and needy, longing for attention and affection. I try to engage her in activities, to sit her down with some friends, but every few seconds she looks up at me with her tear-filled blue eyes, etched in crimson and gray. No words are passed between us because I know what she is thinking. Mommy, don’t go.
Eventually, I do go, as I knew I would, as my own mother did, because that’s what mothers do. We leave. And I realize as I am walking home that this was why I didn’t let my mother come to my birthday party. Because there was the morning drop-off; painful and lonesome. And then a second leaving after the party. Unbearable. Like Emmanuelle, it was a request made out of an overwhelming love. It was a love so intense that my three-year-old self didn’t quite know how hold it, to peer at it with a discerning eye, and so I wore it quietly, overwhelmingly on my back.
A few days later, I empty out Emmanuelle’s school bag, and it is filled with papers and projects. Most things I file away in the garbage, tucked under an empty milk carton or some other obtrusive piece of trash, but something she has written on a half-sized yellow piece of craft paper catches my eye. I’m not sure what it says, as she is just beginning to learn to sound out words, and so I leave it on the kitchen table for the morning.
“I wrote, ‘Mommy, don’t go,’” she explains, over waffles the next morning. “That’s from when you came to my school and I cried. I’m so sorry for crying. I just love you sooo much,” she says, the veins in her neck bulging and twitching as she emphasizes the word “sooo”. I don’t think that I’ll go back to school to visit for a while because it pains me to leave her in her state of anguish. That little forlorn child was once me.
My mother stops by for a rare evening visit, and although we only have a short time together, I manage to apologize for my three-year-old self, for my mysterious behavior. “It’s because I loved you so much, and didn’t want you to leave,” I say. “It wasn’t because you didn’t wear makeup.” We laugh, trying to overcome years of a pain I might have inflicted, and I notice she is not wearing any makeup at the moment. Her eyes look tired, like she is overworked, a paler and thinner version of her youthful self. And I marvel at how even after 25 years, a few shared minutes of conversation on the couch can still spark my own longing, my lifelong wish for her not to escape, to depart, to leave me on my own. Mommy, don’t go, I think, as I close the door behind her. For I am both a child and a woman, a daughter and a mother, pulled in two directions, leaving and left behind.