On New Year's night, the final evening of our holiday visit, my mother and I are the last ones standing in the kitchen. D is in our room down the hall getting ready for bed, and my father, after a weekend of being on call, is sound asleep. We keep our voices low so as not to disturb them, but my mother, finally alone with me, makes her whisper more purposeful.
"You know, now that you've changed your last name, ours will be lost forever in your family."
Before this visit, D and I agreed, should anyone start to ask me about my health -- a challenging subject, given all the questions we still have and the skepticism we often hear from my family about the kinds of testing and treatment we've pursued -- that I would go find him, bring him into the conversation, so that I would not have to defend our choices alone. I don't expect an attack from the angle my mother takes, though, as she scrubs at her wok with her hard little hands. Leaning on the granite by the sink, I am suddenly vulnerable. I can tell she's been waiting to talk to me on my own.
Where is this coming from? I wonder. And why now, five years after my name change became official? Maybe my mother is thinking of the family we've wanted to start for so long but have held off on because of my health, how our children will bear only D's name instead of his and my father's. Or it's my writing, the essay I had published in the fall but never mentioned until this visit. I used a pseudonym as it was, unwilling to place my name, maiden or married, on the work -- because the subject was so difficult for me to write about, much less discuss, I didn't want anyone to find me just yet for further questions.
I wouldn't have brought up the essay had my mother not pressed me so hard to find out what I was really going to do with my life instead of tutoring as I have been. What are your goals? she'd asked.
"Putting something together that I actually believe in publishing," I said, which, without a detailed plan attached, was an only somewhat satisfying response. Whatever my mother's reasons now for raising this other concern about lost legacies, I feel her disapproval like a blast of west Texas wind carrying the smell of cattle ranches from the next town down the highway.
I know I shouldn't respond -- there can be no good outcome from midnight conversations about family differences -- but so much of my writing is tied to this very issue, the knots in our relationship I am forever trying to untangle by examining them, sentence by sentence. I've chosen to be published under a pseudonym not just to give myself privacy but also to protect that process of personal and relational inquiry, taking on a persona whose name won't be recognized by anyone who knows my family. This way, I can write without fearing their real-life loss of face. Not that I expect my parents' friends to read the kinds of literary journals I'd submit my work to, but in this electronic age, I am searchable, linkable, forwardable, potentially viral.
My writing persona, regardless of her name, needs protecting too. To use either of my surnames is to be who they imply I am: wife, sister, daughter, with everything those identities carry with them. Not that I wish to deny those aspects of my life experience, but I am more than all that. I am other thoughts and questions and indeterminacies that do not yet know how to bear up under the labels automatically bequeathed or contracted to me. For now, then, it is easier to shed these names temporarily and just be me, with a pseudonym as a neutral placeholder where it would be inconvenient for someone to address me simply as "she" or "you."
But that's not the answer to the question my mother is really asking on this night.
Why couldn't you have kept our name? It's a loaded question because it immediately implies that I did not choose as I should have (consider why did you change your name for comparison). The differences are minute, but words and meanings are my territory; I can't help being attuned to the subtexts in my mother's query even if she doesn't realize they are there. Why the clannishness tonight? I'd like to ask in return. I glance inadvertently toward the guest bedroom, confused by my mother's sudden coolness toward my husband. I'm hurt on his behalf.
And then it all comes out. Suddenly she's on to our financial arrangements (joint), our career decisions (too much in favor of D's advancement and not mine), even our past marital problems (the particulars of which she can only guess at since I don't share them -- and she is, of course, largely off base). It is all I can do to parry with fragmented sentences in the face of this onslaught. "You give him too much control," she says at last, still at a whisper but eyes blazing, angry for reasons I can't fathom. Do I just run?
I wish I had.
Cornered by so many accusations, I lash back. "My marriage isn't like yours," I spit. "The choices we've made have always been ours -- not just D's or mine."
The argument deteriorates from that moment. I've found the bruised places in her heart, and everything she throws at me from then on is more of the irrational -- which I don't recognize until long after I've met her barb for barb. I am terrible at refusing to engage.
That is what I need to learn, though, because the boundary that marriage establishes between me and my parents is a necessary one. Like my decision to use a pseudonym to separate my writing persona's role from the roles I have to take on in real life, my decision to limit the information I provide about my married life when my mother asks is protective -- young marriages, like young writers' identities, have weak places, foundations that need work. The protection that such a boundary affords as D and I contemplate starting a family of our own has never been more important.
But the price of maintaining that boundary is clearly something I didn't completely anticipate. If anything after this ambush, I've learned that much of what my mother thinks of my marriage is what she assumes about it, perhaps based on her dissatisfaction with her own, because I've left her with little real information to take its place.
Still, some of her last words to me on New Year's night tell me that the alternative -- sharing it all to prevent so much misunderstanding -- will be more costly. "We'll never be able to have a heart-to-heart," my mother says, "because you won't let me be honest with you."
As long as her idea of a heart-to-heart is for me to accept unconditionally her opinion on anything I share, I'd rather keep the details to myself.
Atlantic Center For the Arts
2 hours ago