A few weeks ago, I promised to post a story here. I’m doing that now. What follows is a very short story that’s part of the story cycle I’m writing. Though shorter than what I normally write, I think it’s reflective of my voice and style. I hope you enjoy it.
Anna was the perfect child. She was so good and sweet that she made me wonder if we had done something wrong with her brother, who was always difficult. But not my Anna. When she was just starting to walk and talk she would mimic me. She used to sit on the floor in my office while I graded undergraduate papers. I would give her little sheets of scrap paper and a dry pen and she would watch me and pretend to mark on the papers like I did. When she got a little older she colored. When she got older still, she moved from the floor to the reading chair I kept in the room and started to read and write. That was when I loved her the most.
Parental love is supposed to be constant. This is the lie we tell our children, but it’s impossible not to love a child a little more when she yells “mama!” the moment you come in the door and sticks sweetly to you for the rest of the evening. I can’t imagine loving Anna more than those times when she sat in that chair crafting her stories. She relied on me. She asked me what I thought of her stories and what she should read. I’ve never felt as important as I did then. It didn’t last.
She was thirteen when she asked me why I only wrote literary criticism. “Only” was a powerful word. She no longer respected what I did. “Why don’t you write, you know, some actual literature, mom?” I told her I had tried. When I was her age I wrote constantly, just like her. I kept it up all the way through college, but I didn’t have it. My best stories were only okay. I never had a single line of fiction published, but not for lack of trying.
“Do you think that will happen to me?” she asked.
“No, I don’t. You are going to be better than me. I can tell already. You aren’t very good yet, but you will be unless you stop.”
This was the wrong thing to say, though I didn’t know it at the time. At first, I thought it was wonderful. She started writing even more, which I would have thought was impossible, and she told me to be brutal. “Treat me like I’m a real writer,” she said. And so I did. It was rough at first – she didn’t like getting her stories back covered in red ink – but she got better quickly. When she was seventeen, she handed me a story; I read it and handed it back to her.
“I can’t do anything with this.”
“What do you mean? Why not?”
“It’s good sweetie. I don’t have any suggestions.” I should have told her that I would kill to have graduate students who handed in writing like this. That I would kill if I could do that, just once.
She looked at me for a moment and a smile crept across her face. “I guess I’m good now, huh?”
“Yes, I think this is very good.”
She took that story and sent it out to Harper’s and a few months later, there it was. She never asked me for help again. She told me when she had something published so I could read it, but I never saw a draft again. I assume that she decided I had nothing left to teach her. And then she gave that interview.
“I don’t think people should go to college to study literature.” This was the first thing she said when asked about her education. She went to college and studied literature, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter. Then there was the follow-up question about how her mother taught literature at a college.
“Oh yeah, she’s an important theorist, I guess. I think that’s all garbage though. Just read. Don’t worry about what college professors think. They’re so disconnected from the world.”
I couldn’t believe it. Why would she say this? What could she possibly have to gain? She was about to be thirty and already successful. She didn’t want for money. She had all the fame a writer could hope for, which, admittedly, wasn’t much, but people cared about her as much as they cared about any writer.
That interview was the moment I knew I loved her less. I’d held after she stopped showing me her writing and asking what I thought. I had accepted no longer being her advisor, but thought I loved her just the same. She was my daughter and I was so proud of her. I had helped to get her where she was and look what she had become. I knew that she did not think of me as she once had. I knew she looked down on me a little, but this was too cruel.
“I saw the interview you gave last week,” I said the next time she called.
“Did you?” Her tone was so casual. There was something about it that not only said that she did not care if I was offended, but that she had not even considered whether or not I would be.
“How could you say those things about what I do… about me?”
“I don’t know mom, it just all seems so silly and pointless. I write the kinds of books you write about. I know what goes into them and I know half the stuff people like you say is completely off-base.”
I could feel my love her drop again. It was like watching the needle of a gas gauge slide slowly down.
“It hurt me though, Anna. You’re my daughter. You’ve never even mentioned this to me. And then, to say it in an interview—“
“God, mom, I give interviews all the time. Sometimes, I just want to say what I think instead of what I’m supposed to say. Tomorrow, no one will remember. Who reads interviews with writers anyway?”
“You’re just about the only one.”
Down below half a tank now.
“Anyway mom, I have to run. Things to do.”
It’s been two weeks and I haven’t called back. I don’t know how it happened, but a few years ago we fell into the habit of alternating calls. It was a routine that kept our damaged relationship alive.
Before, I always had to hold myself back to keep from calling her the next day – like I was some teenage girl trying not to come on too strong to a boy. I was afraid to call my own child lest she reject me. How awful.
I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m not eager to talk to her. She is still my daughter and I still love her, and that is why I don’t call. If there are more conversations like the last one, my tank will run dry. I already wonder if my child loves me. I do not want to wonder if I love her.