I was only 5 years old, but I remember everything about the incident with startling clarity. I was a child who never did anything wrong — not intentionally, anyway — but I was about to do something destructive. And I never could explain why I did it.
We lived on Holly Hill Drive in Atlanta. My mother had some friends over to the house one morning. They were in another part of the house, having coffee and the sort of conversation which bores little boys. I was alone in the living room. It was fairly dark.
I felt deeply unhappy and alone.
Without any conscious thought, I picked up something sharp. I went to an expensive piece of furniture — a dark mahogany console into which our stereo was built — and I carefully marked a large “X” onto the polished wooden lid.
That ugly damage was a part of my childhood from then on. It couldn’t be repaired and I saw it every time we played music. But I was always baffled about why I did it.
In the last 10 years or so, I‘ve finally figure out what happened. It wasn’t rational. I wasn’t really trying to cause trouble. I just wanted my mother to look at me. My unhappy little heart was crying out for her attention.
I wasn’t consciously aware of how desperately I needed my mother’s attention. How could I have understood? To me, what I experienced was the only reality I knew. And I had no way of interpreting the emotions that my experience caused me to feel.
My parents agreed on few things about their relationship, but they both said that my mother was a different person before they had children. She had been a happy and popular woman before they got married. And they had been happy for the five years of their marriage before I was born.
My father claimed that my mother changed. He blamed everything on the depression that set in for her during the first five years of my life. She never tried to explain what changed, at least not to me. But I’ve come to believe he was largely to blame.
She had always been smart and beautiful and popular and confident. Until I was born, she taught school full-time and was popular with her students and co-workers. Then she started staying home with me full-time — and then had my two sisters — and my father had expectations of her that she couldn’t meet.
My parents were very different in some key personality respects. He was obsessively neat and clean, in an uncompromising sort of way. He allowed nothing about the house to be anything other than what he dictated.
Mother was sloppy and haphazard about the way she kept things. She just didn’t see the point in what he wanted. With her home all the time after my birth, he expected her to keep the house in pristine condition, even with three small children. I’ve always said that growing up with him was a cross between living in a museum and being in Army boot camp. If anything was different from what he wanted — absolutely anything — he screamed and raged like a madman.
In the first five years of my life, the arguments and the screaming got progressively louder. There was constant anger and tension. I never understood why. Many of my earliest memories are of the two of them screaming at one another — sometimes at home, sometimes in a car — and me simply wanting them to stop.
He always “won” every fight. Always. He bullied her.
Mother became depressed. She often didn’t get out of bed in the mornings. There were times when my sister and I would rummage through the kitchen trying to prepare something for us to eat, because Mother couldn’t get out of bed.
To me, that just seemed normal.
Then Mother left my father. She took the three of us with her — and she wasn’t coming back. He convinced her to return. After nothing about his behavior changed, she left him again, this time getting a new house in Birmingham near where her brother lived. She wouldn’t tell him where we were.
As I grew up, my father used to brag from time to time that he bribed an employee at the water utility to tell him the address where she had set up service. He showed up at the house and forced her to come back to Atlanta with him. My mother later told me that she realized at that point that he would never allow her to leave with her children — and she knew that if she stayed, one of them would end up dead.
When my mother left the next time — without my sisters and me — she never returned full-time. She was in and out of our lives until they divorced about four years later. I had little contact with her after that. I never lived with her full-time after the period when I was about 5 years old.
I quickly became numb to any feelings about my mother. I didn’t think I really missed her. For many years, I became a very unemotional person who carefully hid his feelings. But I not only hid them from other people. I even hid my feelings from myself.
There were times during my adult years when I tried to have a relationship with her, but there was nothing satisfying about it for me. My perception is that she had changed too much, but maybe the truth is that my father had programmed me to be something completely different from what she was. I’ll never know for sure.
Mother eventually moved to Nashville to be closer to my sisters. I never heard from her again and I never tried to talk with her. When she died in 2016, the people who knew about her death intentionally decided not to tell me. I will never understand that. It wasn’t until close to two years later that I happened to find her obituary online.
When I see social media posts from others on Mother’s Day each year, I always have mixed feelings. It confuses me that some people who I know have terrible relationships with their mothers post saccharine sweetness about how wonderful their mothers are.
But there are others who post loving tributes which I know are genuine. I didn’t understand for a long time why those posts bothered me in some vague way, but I finally get it now.
I’m jealous of them. I’m envious that they have something which I didn’t have. It’s not that I regret they have something good with their mothers, but simply that I know something is missing for me — something which I can never change.
When I look back at what I did by slashing that large “X” into the furniture when I was 5, I realize that I was acting out some emotions I felt which I didn’t know know how to deal with. I wasn’t getting what I needed then — and I never did figure out how to get what I needed from her. So I remained numb for decades.
When I see people who have emotionally healthy and loving relationships with their mothers, I really am envious. Because a part of me is still that hurt 5-year-old boy who’s hurting for his mother’s attention — and that’s something I will never be able to change.
Note: The photo of my mother above is from her senior yearbook at Jacksonville State University. This picture was from the section for those who had been selected as campus beauties. I wrote previously about all the things I discovered about my parents by combing through their college yearbooks online. I knew when I was a child that other people considered her beautiful, but she was just my mother to me.