The True Daughter
This is what my mother told me, after the divorce:
During the time when she and my father were married and my brother and I were growing up, she was living a fantasy. She had an imagined family with whom she lived day after day, a husband who loved her, appreciative children. For all those years when she was cooking, planting hyacinths, driving me to swimming lessons and my brother to violin, we were living side by side with a shadow family.
There was another girl beside me, just out of sight. Now it seems that if I'd turned quickly enough I could have seen her, but it doesn't matter, I know her, I knew her then, this other girl who slept in my room. She rose to the alarm without complaint, helped with breakfast and the washing up, walked down the hill on time for the school bus, confident, responsible, in her bookbag her homework all in order, concatenations of 5 apples 7 oranges 8 pears on trains approaching in opposite directions at different speeds cleverly and neatly completed, the pages numbered and named, while I was still wildly searching for shoes, books, glasses, late, late, late, so that my mother, with no more protest than a sigh, had to take me to school, and all along the way perhaps thinking of the true daughter, already in homeroom at her desk, reviewing her books, such excellent posture, knees and ankles together, a pretty girl but not too pretty, not in the way that made men turn in the street; no, it was wholesomeness that made her attractive, and her sterling character, and she did not inspire in my father extraordinary love and rage; furthermore, she was an honor student, a girl scout, a home ec standout, and later a scholarship winner who wrote home from college every week and always remembered her mother's birthday, wasn't vain, didn't charge clothes for herself without permission, was shorter than I, brownhaired, browneyed like her mother, smaller breasts than mine, a reasonable figure, nothing to get worked up over, no salivation from men wielding jackhammers, boys cutting meat in delicatessens, a sensible girl, feet on the ground, no cause for alarm about pregnancies, alcohol, drugs, commitments to the psychiatric ward, no sit-ins or protest marches; but not dull either, mind you, a keen interest in birds, history, gardening, needlepoint, and the cathedrals of Paris, which she and her lawyer husband recently went to view on their 25th wedding anniversary and sent cards home to Mother and to their children who are such fine grandchildren, well raised, unspoiled, love their Granny, and when Mother is a little older, they've told her, this daughter and her lawyer husband, she is welcome at their grand house in Atlanta (near the Piedmont Driving Club; he's old money) where there is a separate apartment waiting just for her, tastefully furnished and spacious, bookcases, even a fireplace, and a sunny window for her violets.
The apartment is just in case Dad—the fantasy Dad—dies first. But he's still going strong, takes care of himself, you see, physically fit, never drinks, he's a handsome man, not as handsome perhaps as my real father but handsome is as handsome does and this man is no philanderer, he cherishes Mother, has ever been kind, gentle, never made her cry; a domestic sort, he calls himself, a homebody, modest, conservative in dress, no bow ties or odd shoes, only four-in-hands and wingtips; mad about his wife, really, but in a private way, only in the sanctity of their bedroom where all is gentility, no unusual demands, no garter belts or hint of the cathouse ever. He's churchgoing, maybe a little more religion than she'd like but she keeps this to herself, it makes him steady, a sober, astute man who never spoiled the daughter nor could he be taken in by her, and who had man-to-man talks with the son, on whom he's never used the belt, but has always taught by his good example.
The imagined son is taller than the daughter, brawny, resolute; his chin is cleft. He's no sissy, in spite of hours closeted with the violin; no pansy as the psychologists predicted, and he was not ever locked in his room drawing pictures of a man being hanged, a man who closely resembled our real father. This son was an athlete early on, lifting weights, jumping rope like a little boxer, so that he was never the bullies' target and he could always stand up to his sister, who no longer had any cause to gloat for he had friends galore, always with a gang, the in crowd, and by high school—where he lettered in football, basketball, and tennis—he was voted Most Popular and Most Likely to Succeed. He was smarter than the daughter, too, by a long shot: IQ off the charts, straight A's, honor roll; in college, dean's list, valedictorian, even a Rhodes Scholarship, if he'd chosen. But he's no pantywaist intellectual, no mealymouthed college professor, and though there was a time of indecision—so many talents, which route to take?—he did not need years of prolonged counseling, but confided in his mother, who tactfully ventured few opinions, but was glad, secretly, she knew it was the right thing because he was always drawn to helping others, when he decided on med school and now he's a respected neurologist who travels all over creation giving papers and of course he insists on his mother having the finest medical care, Duke, Mayo, wherever she needs to be, he knows all the right men.
When Mother died, eleven years after the divorce, my brother was in a rehab drying out. She and I were alone in the hospital room. Her eyes were closed; an IV dripped morphine into a bruised and withered arm. I sat beside her, watching her small, pinched face against the pillow, a woman I never knew, who never knew me. Finally I bent down and whispered the question I'd hoarded all these years: "Was there nothing in me that you loved?" Her eyes moved behind closed lids but she did not speak, she could not, already she was moving down the dark river, in the process of becoming a shade, and I thought, as the light seeped from the room and our forms grew indistinct, that worse than any answer is never to ask the question, for after our long silence we were nothing to each other, only two solitary figures in an unfamiliar room.