I am the same age my mother was when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I am the same age my mother was the first time she tried to kill me. I am the same age my mother was the last time my father raped her. I am the same age my mother was when my father left us. I am the same age my mother was when she read The Bell Jar to me, all the way through, in one sitting.
That is my first less sad memory. And it is less sad, I think, because a four-year-old will enjoy her mother reading to her no matter what. It is also the first time I realized my mother was sad, too. She sent my brother to school, but she kept me home. My brother tried to pull me out the door with him, because I’m sure he thought our mother would hold me down in the bath, again, if he left me.
I told my brother I wanted to stay home, because I looked at my mother standing in the middle of the room, in the very middle of the house, with her arms slumped down, a little forward, anxiously pulling on her fingers, twisting and bending them, staring at me. And direct eye contact was so rare in that house, but she stared straight at me waiting for me to leave or stay, because I knew she wouldn’t chase me and she couldn’t plead with me or tell me why she wanted me to stay. So I told my brother that I wanted to stay and that it would be okay. And I watched him from the window and waved every time he turned around to check on me.
My mother didn’t hold me down under water again until I was eight.
My mother’s favorite book was The Colossus but she thought I would like The Bell Jar better. She said I seemed like I would like long stories.
My mother was an English major, before she got pregnant.
My mother wrote poems, before she got sick. I have never read anything my mother wrote, before she got sick. I used to sit in her lap while she typed and I would try to slip out of her arms and under the desk, but she would grab me and hold me there, not hard, just like she didn’t want to drop me.
Once my mother got sick, she started handwriting everything. There were six months where I could read and she could still hand-write notes. But, I don’t know if my reading was bad or her handwriting was bad, to me her letters never had any spaces between words, or lines to stand on, or an order to follow. Some were capitalised, but that didn’t mean it was the beginning of a sentence or the beginning of a word; it just seemed like a letter she thought was important.
My mother could read longer than she could write. But she only read me Sylvia Plath. She never finished her thesis on Sylvia Plath. I wrote my undergrad thesis on Virginia Woolf, because she was not Sylvia Plath, and I was a Women’s Studies major, because it was not an English major.
My mother read me The Bell Jar in my pink bedroom, tucked in under my pink bedspread, with a mug of hot water. I think the only way to read The Bell Jar is to have an unmedicated schizophrenic woman read it to you, but lovingly, because as she explained, it is the only way I, or you, will ever be able to love her. I remove my mother from that sentence, because my mother so often removed herself.
My mother read The Bell Jar to me from cover to cover all day. My mother told me I reminded her of Esther Greenwood.
My mother was right, I do like long stories. My mother was wrong, because my favorite color was never pink. I think my favorite color has always been purple, solely because it is not pink. My mother’s favorite color was blue.
My mother was very good at taking care of sheep, until I was twelve. Then I had to be very good at taking care of sheep, and I was not.
My mother never knew how to cook anything besides squash soup and cookies. I don’t know how to make squash soup, but I can make cookies.
My mother used to draw pictures of monsters and shadows. I like to draw birds and flowers, but sometimes there are shadows. My mother used to draw pictures to show me what she saw and ask me if it was real. I always said yes. A picture that my mother used to draw over and over again — maybe it was only once — was a tall shadow-man with spiked ears and red eyes. He was much scarier to my mother than me. When I was six I thought my mother was more afraid of monsters than I, because the monsters were new for her.
I was bad at taking care of sheep, because I loved them, and because the mother’s screamed when we had to sell their lambs. I think my mother was good at taking care of sheep, because she loved them.
My mother never left the house. The last time I remember my mother outside was the day after my father left. She walked my brother and I to town and went from store to store trying to find a job. A man spat on her and told her no one would hire a bat shit lady. My mother took us outside and fed us raw chunks of squash while we sat on the curb. My mother cried then rocked back and forth, so I drew her a butterfly in the dirt with the best stick I could find.
My mother read me The Bell Jar and asked me what I thought. I said I hoped Esther gets to leave the jar. And she said she hoped so, too.
Taylor Croteau is a writer and painter currently based in Chicago. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018. She is a Tin House Winter Workshop Alum. Her fiction has appeared in HCE Review.