I was convinced that if I could just find lilacs for my mother—a big bundle on woody stems, wrapped in white paper the way the French do it—that she would know how much I loved her. That all the subterranean tension I felt, all the little barbs, would disappear, and once again we would find that old and easy way we used to have with one another.
April in Paris meant lilacs should be abundant. On previous trips, they’d been in every market and florist. But as the six of us wound our way through narrow streets and I scanned the buckets filled with peonies, roses, freesia, tulips, delphinium, sunflowers, and lilies, I found no lilacs.
My mother had planned this trip for over a year. She’d invited two of her best friends along with my daughter, my sister-in-law, and me. She’d rented a large Airbnb a block from the Musee de Cluny—the perfect spot in one of Paris’s quintessential neighborhoods. We’d come to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday. She’d already booked her birthday dinner at La Closerie des Lilas, Hemingway’s favorite.
Giving my mother her favorite flower, a flower that means Paris to her, on her birthday would absolve me. This single gesture would hold a multitude of memories and conversations, understanding and connection, and I would be restored as the daughter she wanted me to be.
Rather than the one who had picked a fight with her hours earlier.
We’d been standing on the train platform in Fontainebleau. Instead of responding to my sharp words and revealing her own resentments and grievances, she did the opposite. I watched her shrink from me, chin pulled down, lips pressed into a straight line, head turned away as she listened. I only remembered that it was the actual day of her birthday after I’d launched in.
I knew that it would take days to coax her back to me. As if to a cat hiding deep under the bed, I would kneel and peer into the dark, saying kitty, kitty in my kindest voice, doling treats in the form of apologies, but the trust was broken.
That night, a shell of my mother showed up for her special dinner, elegantly dressed, ordering champagne and making sure her guests enjoyed themselves. She’d accepted the pink peonies I’d settled for, arranging them in a crystal vase before gathering us together in the Airbnb’s living room to announce that if she had behaved badly in some way, she was sorry. The others knew my mother and I had some sort of argument but everyone had politely steered clear of us on the train platform. Her apology left them uncomfortable and confused.
Through the remaining days of the trip, my mother and I soldiered on, saying nothing more about it. We have photographs of us leaning in, shoulders touching at her birthday dinner, but those photographs are as beautiful and wrong as the lush peonies. No matter how much I wanted to undo what I’d done, I couldn’t.
At first, I thought it was simply another one of my flair-ups with my mother. I wanted to rewind those moments on the train platform and stuff down what I’d been feeling. But my sister-in-law caught me off guard when she took me aside after my mother’s apology and said, “There was bound to be some fallout from the memoir. Don’t you think?”
She was married to my half-brother—my father’s child who my mother had helped to raise. My sister-in-law knew the story of our family from my brother’s perspective. They had read my book. They’d been to my readings when it came out. They’d been at the dining table when my mother had said, “Careful what you say around a writer.”
My mother used to tell me that the day she first felt me move inside her was the day she began making plans to leave my father. She’d summoned the courage to leave him for my sake. When she ran away from him, I was a year old and she was twenty.
We had trusted in our relationship not only because it had always been just the two of us but also because we’d never suffered the stereotypical difficulties that other mothers and daughters complained about. I’d never rebelled in my teens. She’d never criticized my life choices—friends, styles, career, husband. We believed we were different than other mothers and daughters. We believed that our relationship was a forever, protected thing.
In recent years, I clenched my teeth on my frequent trips to visit her. Before taking the train from DC to New York City, unsure that our conversation would be enough, I carefully constructed a safety net for a good visit. We would go to our favorite diner for grilled cheese and a shared plate of thick fries, then back to her apartment to watch Grantchester or Father Brown, savoring Ghirardelli chocolate squares. Or we’d treat ourselves to a high-profile play on Broadway—Hamilton or To Kill a Mockingbird—having a nice sole meuniere and splitting a slice of cheesecake beforehand.
I would brace myself for her playful remarks that didn’t feel playful to me. Sometimes, in ways that felt beyond my control, I lashed out in return. Stung, she pulled away then. For the rest of the visit, we tiptoed carefully, overly polite as we squeezed past one another in her long booklined hallway, our high-heeled footsteps retreating in opposite directions on the hardwood floor, our perfumes still mingling.
When had we accepted this as our new norm?
Certainly, long before I wrote the story of us in my memoir—the story of our escape from my father and our life together “just us two,” as my mother often said. At first, she hadn’t planned to read it. But she knew her friends and family were reading it. She didn’t want to be blindsided. “Oh, just have a scotch and read it,” a friend told her.
She called me the night before she was going to sit down with the book. My husband and I were at the movies; when I saw her name on my caller ID I stepped into the lobby.
“I am afraid it will change our relationship,” she said to me.
“That could never happen,” I said.
I knew some memoirists gave their families the chance to read their books prior to publication. I hadn’t done that. I was afraid she’d want to round off its edges. Sometimes, when we sat across from each other in the diner, I would check facts with her. She helped me with timelines and details. It’s not like she doesn’t know what’s in it, I told myself.
She’d been upset by earlier essays. She felt they picked the scabs off the tenderest parts of our life together. She felt they chronicled the flaws of beloved family members. I felt that she couldn’t see that these stories made me love my family even more. I understood my own problems better because of theirs. My mother hadn’t asked to see my book’s manuscript and I didn’t offer. I told myself I was protecting her. But I also didn’t want to face how much it might hurt her. I didn’t want to have to choose between respecting her wishes and doing what I’d always dreamed of doing—writing a book I was proud of.
In her essay, “Outlaw Heart,” Jayne Anne Phillips writes that often writers are “precocious, overly responsible children—not in what we accomplished, necessarily, but in what we remembered, in the emotional burdens we took on. Many of us were our mother’s confidantes, the special children with whom hopes and betrayals were discussed.”
When I was growing up my mother confided to me about her marriage to a man—my father—who had terrorized her, isolating her from friends and family, wanting to control her with violent jealousy. She could not have known that I would one day become the “outlaw” writer Phillips describes.
In the theater lobby, on the phone with her, I went over the scenes in the book that I thought she’d be most troubled by. I tried to inoculate her by summarizing their content, balancing them with early reviews about how the book was a love letter to her. But later that night, lying in the dark beside my husband, when I thought about her reading those scenes, I squeezed my eyes against tears, thinking What have I done?
The next morning, we spoke after she had read the book in one sitting. She generously praised the writing and then said, “I’d forgotten I told you so much.”
I may not have rebelled in my teens, but entering twelve-step recovery in my twenties was the rebellion that would lead to my memoir. In recovery, I began to reckon with the shame and perfectionism that had fueled my nearly lifelong eating disorder. In recovery, I stopped binging and purging. This early recovery paved the way for more twelve-step meetings focused on living with the effects of alcoholism.
In recovery, I came out of hiding. I started to grow up for real, and this was bound to implicate my parents. By my thirties, I was questioning my mother’s choices rather than only blaming my father for her misfortunes. Readers saw my mother as my book’s hero, but she didn’t see it that way. They saw her as a resilient girl-woman who had triumphed. She saw all her secrets strewn across the lawn and trailing up the sidewalk. Or, as she said, “It’s as if I just ran through the room naked.” It didn’t matter that the book demonstrated that she was the one who taught me how to love and that she was the one who gave me my own resilience. That did not change the fact that I laid bare what I felt were her mistakes—marrying my alcoholic father not once, but twice.
I called my book I’m the One Who Got Away because, while it starts with my mother’s getaway from my father and shows how she made a good life for us, I felt I’d broken the cycle of addiction, abuse, and dysfunctional relationships. In recovery, I began to think I knew better than my mother. Without being wholly conscious of it, I drew a circle around my new family—my husband, our two children, and me. My mother was a cherished guest admitted to that circle, but she was not part of it.
This was why, some time when the kids were still small, she stopped simply picking up the phone to call me whenever she wanted. She always waited for me to call her. If ever we spoke of the change in our relationship, we attributed it to the natural individuation of daughters from their mothers. Rather than the intimacy of our early life together, I positioned myself as the enlightened good daughter visiting and calling regularly, sending the right gifts, presenting her with her favorite flowers on her birthday to prove my love.
Only now do I see why I almost always came away from our encounters feeling judged and often angry by what I felt was my inability to please her. Only now do I see that it was my own behavior, not hers, that troubled me.
Our fight on her birthday really began just after the six of us had toured Napoleon’s Fontainebleau. We were standing across the street in front of a restaurant, trying to decide whether to eat lunch there or find another spot. My mother stood to the side, taking in the view of the palace. The rest of us went round and round with our opinions and then I said, “I saw some cute cafés on the main street.”
From behind her Dior shades, my mother spoke for the first time. She looked at me and said, “This one’s not cute enough for you?”
A tiny, trivial comment, yet I seethed.
Stony through lunch, I tried to divine if she even knew how angry I was. What was wrong with my suggestion of going back to the main street?
“Not cute enough for you?” Not good enough for you is what I heard her say along with an accusation—Why is it always about what you want?
Growing up, I understood that our imperative was for me to succeed: to go to college, to marry someone who loved me, to pursue a creative life—the life my mother was capable of but didn’t get.
“This is what I always dreamed of for you,” she often said as my happy personal and professional life unfolded.
For years, my success was our shared victory, but my book emphasized how much she had sacrificed and I had gained. Worse, it put in high relief how much better I thought my life choices were than hers.
“Not cute enough for you?” What more do you want? Is what I thought she was accusing me of. My entitlement, summed up.
I don’t remember exactly what I said first on that train platform. What I recall her saying back is, “I thought we were friends. I thought you would know I was teasing you.”
It hadn’t felt like teasing. It felt the way it always did these days—that I had disappointed her.
Then I did something I shouldn’t have done. I wanted to prove that this elusive way she had of criticizing me wasn’t all in my head. So, I said I wasn’t the only one who felt judged. I mentioned little remarks that she’d made to my daughter and sister-in-law. Remarks they’d told me about but laughed off. I knew whatever they felt had nothing to do with my mother and me. Still, I used it to my advantage. This was when she shut down. This was what prompted her apology to everyone. This is why she would tell me, months later, that she could barely get through her birthday dinner.
In the days after we returned home—away from the eyes and ears of others—we exchanged long emails and phone conversations about our discord, yet we resolved nothing. It wasn’t just the argument. My mother surprised me when she said I had embarrassed her more than once by correcting something she said in front of her friends. I kept thinking about what my sister-in-law had said. I knew the tensions between my mother and me had been there years before my book. But I also knew the book had made them worse.
If recovery had taught me one thing, it was to come clean, to make amends. One obvious way would be to apologize for my book. That might have gone a long way. Soul sick, I started a letter to my mother in my journal, but I knew before my pen left the paper that I’d never send it. I knew it was a lie because given the chance, I would do it all again. True atonement meant not only remorse but a commitment to new behavior. I couldn’t even promise my mother that I would never write about us again.
Still, we kept talking.
“Why don’t you ever argue back?” I asked her.
She startled me when she said, “Don’t you think I used to?”
With the phone to my cheek, hearing her breath as I took that in, I got very quiet. I thought about who she must have been before she married my abusive father, before he taught her not to talk back. I thought about how young she was at the time, still forming. I thought about the way she shut down when I was angry with her.
How had I not seen this before?
How could I write a book about escaping abuse—even about carrying my own memories of my father’s rage—yet be blind to why my mother withdrew when I snapped at her? I was baffled by how oblivious I’d been to the power I had to hurt her, and even more stymied by how I could be this way in recovery. In my book I had told the story of a heroic mother who made endless sacrifices for her daughter. I’d been proud of myself, thinking I’d turned out so well. But was I even worthy of her sacrifices?
I was fifty-six and my mother was seventy-five. It was entirely possible that she would live another quarter century or more, but there was no question that we didn’t have as much time as we once did. Our relationship had become something neither of us could have expected when we were “just us two,” cocooned in each other’s love.
Now, my big fear began to reveal itself: that the closeness we’d shared—a bond that defined us and had made us who we were—would end up a celebrated memory rather than a reality. So late in life for both of us, I began to see the real possibility that our truth could end up a lie.
I either had to accept that I was okay with that, or I could try to change the one thing I had power over—myself.
Fontainebleau wasn’t the first time I’d ruined an important occasion in my mother’s life. It had happened the year before at my daughter’s college graduation.
Standing on a street corner in Tacoma, Washington, my husband had just taken a photograph of my mother and me side by side in a moment of pure joy. Her silver-coifed head tilted back, gray blue eyes sparkling, long strands of pearls shone against her black dress. In my eyelet dress and leather jacket I leaned towards the camera, eyes squeezed shut, mouth open with laughter.
It became a favorite photo, tinged with regret.
There were nine of us that night on the corner in front of the Argentinian restaurant waiting for our reservation. There’d been a mix-up with timing. I kept mentally going over my call to the restaurant. Had I gotten the time wrong? I eyed my stoic in-laws and my pacing father, my son and my daughter and her boyfriend—all of us trying to keep warm on an uncomfortably cold evening in May.
As we passed thirty minutes of waiting, my mother came up beside me to ask what was happening. I know, I know, okay! I snapped at her in a tone I would not have used with anyone else. Not my husband. Not my kids. I never “lost it” with them. I always set out to treat my mother with the same courtesy, so why did she so often bear the brunt of my temper?
For the same reason I didn’t write about my kids. The same reason my husband read what I wrote about him before I published it. With them, I took greater care never to wound. With them, I had to be sure I wouldn’t lose them.
Without ever thinking about it, I knew that no matter what, my mother would always forgive me. My dirty secret, a secret I had yet to admit to myself, was that I took for granted my mother’s love. This was why whatever I did—calls, visits, theater tickets, lilacs or peonies—was never enough. It wasn’t that she found me wanting. These gestures would never be enough because I knew she deserved better.
Once I’d seen this truth, I couldn’t unsee it.
My great-grandparents were Freewill Baptists. They believed dancing, drinking, and smoking were sins. My grandparents went to church but committed these “sins.” My mother taught me to believe in God, but sin was not a word we ever used. Sin was old-fashioned and uneducated—not a word for the modern world. We focused on honesty, kindness, and being a “good person.” When we fell short of these, we did not think of ourselves as sinners.
Yet, I also knew that some version of pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony, wrath, or sloth drove much of the troubles people talked about in recovery. Hadn’t the Twelve Steps taught me that I wasn’t running the show? Hadn’t I learned that someone else’s good fortune didn’t take away from mine? Didn’t being of service fill me with gratitude? Didn’t I feel more at ease when I was prudent with food and money and persistently worked toward my goals?
After twenty-five years in recovery, I had indeed learned to be a better person, but as they say in twelve-step meetings, keep coming back. If I hadn’t felt, since Paris, that for the first time my relationship with my mother was somehow in danger, I might have settled for who I was. If not for our argument in Fontainebleau, I might never have seen that our problem was me.
I wanted to change, but how? I couldn’t keep apologizing for the same behaviors, skimming the surface of something deeper between us. If I was ever going to find a way to make amends, I had to understand my part in the tensions straining between us long before my book. I can’t say why, on a hot August day, three and a half months after our Paris trip, sitting at my desk, looking out my window into my backyard, I turned to the seven deadly sins to save me. But in my journal, just below where my attempted apology letter trails off, I wrote out the seven sins, turning each one over in my head.
I knew right away that I didn’t want a passive list of what not to do. If the problem was me, what could I do differently? Which is when I realized that each sin had an opposite virtue. After looking them up and writing them down, I felt I was onto something. I wrote out the pairs of sin and virtue again and again, fine-tuning the list of positives so it resonated with me—choosing generosity over charity, diligence over industry, love over chastity. I thought about envy as a hostile form of self-pity that could be countered through patience and a belief in abundance rather than scarcity.
Day after day, I wrote my new guidelines in loopy black ink. Day after day, I tried to practice each one in some small way—listen to client feedback without thinking I knew best, continue revising a story even when I was sick of it. These actions weren’t so different than how I’d tried to behave before but consciously attaching them to the virtues began to have an effect.
Daily, I wrote to my higher power, asking to be curious, teachable, generous, kind, and loving instead of thinking I already was all of those things. I knew how far I’d missed the mark with my mother. I saw how hard diligence and patience were for me, but by keeping them top of mind they became antidotes to daily resentments and frustrations. Before every call or meeting, I said a prayer to set aside everything I thought I knew so I could have an open mind and a new experience.
By Christmas, when my mother came to stay with us, my prayers were full of asking to replace a focus on myself with a focus on my fellows—one of whom was my mother. As we sat in the living room, sipping our coffee, the familiar churning I had so often felt as I sought to please her settled like a cat by my side.
In March, almost a year after Paris, my mother retired from her job as the administrative head of an international law firm in New York City. At seventy-six, she had worked for sixty-two years, starting with her first job in a photographer’s shop. The valedictorian of her class, my mother had wanted to be a commercial artist. She had two university scholarships lined up and would have been the first in her family to go to college if she had not married my father at sixteen.
She wasn’t pregnant. She didn’t have to marry him, but she did.
I’d always seen that choice as the first domino. As a child, I was forever turning back the clock, trying to undo her decision, wishing I’d never been born so she could have started again after she left him. To me, my mother’s life was a lemonade-out-of-lemons story in which she used her intelligence, drive, and good looks to rise to the top of her field without a college degree. But it didn’t change the fact that her life wasn’t the life she had dreamed of. As she said to me, after reading my book, “I always thought I’d have a life like yours—creative career, husband, and two kids.”
The fact that she worked as hard as she did to make sure I had that life even if she didn’t squeezed my guilty heart. To me, my mother was a real-life George Bailey, the hero of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Always making tradeoffs between her own ambitions and her duty to others—me, the husbands she supported, the relatives who lived with us until they got on their feet, and definitely the hundreds of secretaries, paralegals, mailroom and IT staff, and lawyers she served for decades in Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, DC, and London.
During a surprise snowstorm, I took the train from DC to New York to celebrate her retirement. My daughter and sister-in-law were also there, along with my mother’s friends. There had already been parties for her in New York, DC, and Los Angeles. We were there for her last day when there would be another farewell breakfast, then we’d go to dinner, and have a special tea the next afternoon.
Emails and notes had been flooding my mother’s inbox for days. Gratitude for how she’d helped one lawyer fly back to his wife who was dying of cancer. Another who had fled an authoritarian country and credited my mother with enabling the rest of his family to join him. There were the dozens of staff who remembered how she’d kept her head on 9/11 and been the one they turned to that day and long after. Divorces, addictions, and deaths as well as the joys, too—weddings, births, and graduations. She’d encouraged them through all of it. And then there were the many who thanked her for mentoring them and advancing their careers.
I’d always been enormously proud of my mother’s accomplishments, but that weekend, standing beside her as lawyers and secretaries held her hands and hugged her with tears in their eyes, I understood my mother’s life’s work in a different way. That creative life she’d wanted—I saw it as so much smaller than what she’d actually accomplished. And in comparison, I saw my own work as a puny contribution. This didn’t make me feel less than; it showed me what it looked like to think more of one’s fellows than of oneself. It helped me let go of my guilt. It made me want to be more like her.
For her first post-retirement trip, my mother asked me to join her for nearly three weeks in Scandinavia. We hadn’t traveled together since Paris. My guess is that she invited me with some trepidation. How could she trust me not to ruin it? Sharing a hotel room and sitting side by side on a tour bus for hours could test any relationship. Of course, I wanted to make a success of it, but could I trust myself?
As we drove from Copenhagen to Stockholm to Oslo and Bergen, as we strolled through museums, rode funiculars and ferries, and hiked glaciers, I knew that in the past, I would have felt a tripwire taut within me, ready to be triggered. My mind would have raced with what I hoped to see and do as I kept a sideways eye on my mother for her approval. But now, navigating centuries-old cobbled paths, eating steamed mussels and delicate pastries, and standing on a ferry deck gliding past rushing waterfalls, I turned to her, eager to know what she wanted to do.
Two months later, I had another chance to test myself. My husband, daughter, and I received a surprise invitation to join my mother at a friend’s house in France. As the four of us squeezed into our rental car and drove curlicue, mountainous roads visiting medieval towns throughout the Lot River Valley, I searched for resentments or feelings of judgment. I found that my old tripwire had been cut altogether.
It had been nearly two years since Paris. My mother was living her new life in retirement, traveling and volunteering. She had a trip planned to Antarctica with a friend and another to Peru with my son. Then, the world stopped.
After the COVID outbreak, we called or FaceTimed every day. Instead of adventuring around the world, my mother cleaned out closets, bookshelves, desk drawers, and boxes of papers she’d been saving for decades. One day, she sent me a photo of a card she’d found—Dear Mommy, I promise to make you a macrame belt. Happy Birthday.
Neither of us had any recollection of the note or a belt. I didn’t even know how to macrame. I was probably eight or nine at the time, innocent enough, but my IOU felt akin to the way I had treated my mother years later. A pretty gesture—nice card and promise —rather than taking the time to actually make the belt. Giving her lilacs instead of showing up emotionally for her on her birthday.
Amazon and Etsy supplied me with cord and belt patterns. After making a few practice belts, I knotted a white version and a black one. She’d never wear them, but as I wrapped them in tissue paper with pink ribbon and sent them off, I’d finally kept my promise.
We’d been looking forward to seeing each other at last for Thanksgiving, but when COVID cases surged, we worried about exposing her during a long visit. As a consolation, ten months after quarantine began, Brad and I set off for New York City, seizing on an unseasonably warm November Saturday for a one-day turn around. I was giddy the closer we got, excited in the way I used to be when I was right out of college and would go home to visit her. Back when I was the one who lived in New York, and she was in Los Angeles.
When she greeted us at her door, she joked about still being able to recognize one another after so long. She walked us through her apartment and into the back garden where she had prepared big garbage bags with holes for our arms and necks. I couldn’t get mine on fast enough. The moment I felt her in my arms I began to sob.
After lunch at the diner we’d always gone to, we walked through Riverside Park. The city was jubilant with election news, spontaneous cheering, dancing, honking, and singing. We reveled in it all and in each other’s company. Then it was time to go. Double parked and standing in the street, I put my Hefty bag on one more time for a last hug. On the drive home I felt buoyant, carried along a water’s glittering surface as we barreled down the highway, sun setting, moon rising.
The next day, I sat down at my desk to write. I’d been working on an essay about searching for lilacs in Paris. As my fingers hit the keys, it was as if a gust blew through an opened door to feed a fire. The lightness I’d felt the day before exploded within me. I broke down weeping and knew that I was finally ready to make amends to my mother.
The irony is that if I’d never written my memoir, I don’t think I could have reached the point of feeling that no essay or book mattered to me as much as she did. Sitting at my desk, I knew that whatever I wrote in the future, I was finally brave enough and honest enough to share it with her first. If she wanted me to change it, if she wanted me not to publish it at all, so be it. What I knew for sure was that however many days or months or years we had left together, I wanted them to be joyfully un-fraught. In my email to her, I said as much.
After hitting send, I waited, eyeing my inbox.
“Darling daughter, precious daughter” she replied. “You must write as you write. It’s not for me to censor you.” Absolution in perpetuity. In the past, I might have seized on this blanket permission as the most important part of her note. But what I cared about now was what we would talk about on our next call. What I cared about most was when we would see each other again.
All of my life I had felt a hunger to achieve and to prove myself—a great maw of wanting that drove me forward. But now, that great wanting had lifted, and a new happiness filled me. For the first time in more years than I could remember, I was free.
For years and years, I’d been an explorer sailing to other lands with only a facsimile of my mother to carry with me. A facsimile of my own making as I distanced myself from her. I’d needed to break away. I’d needed my recovery and my marriage and my work and my children and my writing. But now, I could return. With my ship coming into harbor, my real, true mother came into view. She waved me home. Only then did I understand how much I had missed her.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Marie Forde.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.