My parents and I are stood in a graveyard, looking up at a church in the perfect center of a quiant British countryside town. Everything around us is older than America; every brick and cobblestone path, every hedge and waist-high wall. And the lettering! (Each of the graves nearby are lettered by an expert hand.) And the food! (I’m happy because I’ve just eaten a much-needed full English breakfast.)
But I’m darting around the church grounds with my camera now, soaking up every ounce of Britishness that I can.
For the first time in years I’m feeling somewhat hopeful about my parents and my family. The day is, ya know, beautiful or whatever.
“Okay! So, I have a weird idea for a project: I want to jump on my motorcycle and drive all around the UK, stopping at every church and cathedral in the country. It would be for a book, of course, because every church must have a tale worthy of a book. There’s the breakup of the Protestants and the Catholics, the invasion of the French, the English Civil War! I’ve never thought much about churches, but they were at the center of everything in this country. Churches back then were the world wide web, the places that connected places together.”
I started rambling (which I have never done before in my life and you cannot prove otherwise): oh, the typography mom! oh, the bookbinding dad! I would make it a very quiet book; with a soft and creamy paper stock, a tiny flash of red and black on each page. Oh oh, this hypothetical book of mine would have the kind of paper where the ends are all torn up at the side, too.
A deckle edge!
I stopped ranting and turned on my heel to look back at my parents, all flush with excitement. They’d been quiet for too long, and there it was; that feeling of being excited, turning to them with a delicate little thing in my hands, and them looking back at me as if I hadn’t said anything at all. Complete, solid disinterest. Apathy at scale.
They both shuffled past me and the gravestones without saying anything.
A few awkward moments later and we’re sat outside a cafe nearby. The beautiful little church off to one side, looming over the moor. Snap. Click. I’m hopeful still, despite our conversation taking a strange turn. The last time I had a long chat on the phone with my mom was more than a year ago when I begged her to go to therapy. I told her this behavior was the opposite of normal, unhealthy. And in the last conversation I had with my dad on the phone I begged him to help her.
And then I called him a coward.
So this conversation was probably not gonna be great. Brexit had surely ruined our relationship, yes. That’s something I’ll never get over. But it was more than that. After having been away for so long, I noticed the undercurrents of violence in our family and I had become increasingly sensitive towards it now. The arguments, the bickering. The passive aggressive comments about absolutely nothing. Heck, I had moved halfway across the world and mostly cut my parents out of my life. Yet now it was at its worst.
This is where things get hazy though. A conversation with my family is like trying to gather shards of broken glass in your hands, and looking back on conversations with them I remember only fragments. Plus, talking about this stuff is depressing as all hell because you want to imagine your parents as being charming and dazzling, brilliant and funny. Everyone wants their parents to be heroic. But after years of verbal abuse you have to start protecting yourself. I want a healthy, loving relationship with you both, I said, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore. Your behavior is wild and unpredictable and also I love you.
At some point in the conversation, towards the end, my mom begs me to spend the day with her. Which, hey, seems pretty reasonable. I felt that familiar ricochet of guilt shooting around my body. No. My partner and I can’t spend the whole day with you. You’re violent. You’re abusive. And also I love you. Please go to therapy.
At one point in the conversation my mom grabs my arm, strongly, and talks to me like I’m a child. I’ll do as she says.
She can control this.
After all these years she still frightens me. Despite being a good bit smaller than me, my mom has this way of knowing precisely what will hurt, knowing precisely where you’re weakest. She can pick a simple word like "because" and sharpen it into a blade that fits perfectly between your ribs. Combine that with her ability to take up all the space in a room, and, well...
I struggle a lot with all this. I mean, she’s my mom! I should love her no matter what. And, in time, I do. My fear subsides, things between us figure themselves out somehow, I forget who she’s become. And so our relationship returns to somewhat-normal. But then, out of nowhere, something terrible happens. Like the time I overcooked my lunch and she said to me, a week after a breakup, that “this is why no one will ever love you.”
And she meant it.
Gathering the fragments together now, I remember a moment in the conversation where my mom swings from violent undertones and passive aggressive comments to pitying cries for attention. She tries guilt, shame, compliments, love. Anything that might work in her favor. My mom is manipulating me, trying to find a wedge, an emotional lock that she can break.
I un-grip her hand from my arm and I suddenly worry that this whole thing will turn violent, even though we’re sat in a public garden outside a cafe. I even worry about my partner inside that cafe, waiting for us all to return, and I remember that little spike of fear that plagued my teenage years. The feeling of being trapped, cornered, with no place to go.
God, I hadn’t felt that in years. Maybe a decade? Sometimes I fear that I’ve exaggerated those moments in my memory but no, here it is again. That feeling is...well...true.
Another fragment: I gently placed my camera on the table before we sit and, a few shards later, when the conversation spikes in anxiety and bananas-ness, I grab it, cradling it in my lap. I worried that in her anger my mom would hurl it across the garden or smash it on the table just to spite me. And honestly? I still feel guilty about moving the camera away from her, because the very thought that your mom would take something and smash it in front of you as a 31 year old dude is...uh...less than great huh.
Somewhere amongst the fragments of this conversation I half-remember my dad quietly suggesting that I’ve lost my mind. Have I? My mom begs me to get dinner with them that evening and I know that’s impossible. How on earth can we get dinner when you’re going to behave like this? How can I put my partner through that? I notice people look over at our table, others walk around us awkwardly to get to the cafe.
And it’s this moment that I feel genuine pity for them.
They don’t understand what’s happening or why. They can’t see why I’m making this boundary between us and it’s impossible to describe it to them no matter how. Heck, even my response to their behavior feels bananas.
At some point I get up to leave and I hug my mom who starts crying. I love you, mom. Maybe let’s grab a quick beer tonight instead huh? Just you and me. Things momentarily feel better although nothing is resolved. She slowly gets into her car and I feel terrible, shaking. I walk down the small lane away from the cafe and back to the church to calm down. I require graves and cobblestones and waist-high walls. But as I step across the lane this terrible thought slips into my head: what if my mom hits me with her car?
It’s all paranoia, maybe, hopefully, probably. I think. I hope.
The stoic little church lay just ahead though and so hey, if this church can survive the turmoil and chaos of half a millennium, then perhaps there’s hope for us all. And maybe there’s hope for this relationship with my parents, too.
I grip my camera tightly in my hands, shaking.