How to Make a Degenerate: A Mother's Day Graduation

05/26/2015 02:12 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

"What are you doing for Mother's Day?" a coworker asks, while absentmindedly I move and move again objects in front of me on the counter. I feel lava run through my ear cartilage and consider carefully each potential response. I resolve to answer in a way that doesn't involve sarcasm, "Well, I'm graduating. That will fill up a majority of my day." I smile warily, avoiding the real question as I tap out questionable dander from the shared computer keyboard. "That's exciting," she shuffles some paper, "Are you going to do something with your mother after?" I ready myself and explain that I don't have a mother.

This usually leads people to the assumption that I'm adopted or something, which brings about great pity and hushed tones. I then clarify with a jazzy shoulder shrug, "Nah, not like Annie. I do have the curls, though." No, I am not adopted. My mother just resented my existence and so I've lived without her since I was 15. This brings up a different kind of pity, as I'm no longer the child tragically left behind by a dead mother who almost certainly adored me. With feigned nonchalance, I explain I have been on my own and I am fine, everything is fine, I've done just fine for myself. The coworker blinks, eyes scanning the room just incase nearby is someone to save her from this conversation. "Graduation," she says, "Good for you, Cindy."

The next day I consult my therapist about degeneration. Degeneration theory explains, in so many words, if your blood is tainted with degenerate family members--perhaps they are alcoholics or repugnant or obtuse, or all three!--then, inevitably, you will be just like them. Degeneration isn't something anyone, certainly not doctors, actually believes in anymore. Regardless, I think this is what has happened to me. My therapist asks why that is.

Well, I say with arms and hands manically moving here and there, my mother didn't amount to anything, she said I wouldn't either, and it is kind of amazing I've made it this far. The other shoe is going to drop any minute! "I'm a fuck up," I say, looking over at the tiny sandbox where people can rake away complications, "I am preparing for graduate school, but I have writer's block and I'm divorced." She asks if the two are mutually exclusive. "I don't think so," I sigh, "I'm going to be 26 this year. Did you know Fitzgerald wrote This Side of Paradise when he was 24?" I assume this is an existential crisis or, even better, a quarter-life crisis. You know, the bullshit they say my Generation Y is prone to experiencing.

I leave therapy with the understanding that I am not my mother. I am supposed to remind myself that I have many accomplishments to be proud of, even if my mother hasn't been around to acknowledge any of them. I do not have to fail, even though she often told me I would. No, I am nothing like my mother. I repeat the last sentence a few times while I jingle my keys. I drive down a short alley and pause for too long at a stop sign. I am mulling over what it means to be a mother.

A mother, I think, is more than just an incubator. Certainly, it is important to recognize the extraordinary sacrifice a woman makes--mind and body--to create a tiny human, but isn't there something more to be said for the person who actually raises the child from start to finish? Or maybe the person asking you about your homework and waving as you get your diploma? These thoughts make me feel like a bitch. Maybe I'm not being compassionate enough. Maybe I am a terrible feminist. A horn. Maybe I should look left, right, left, and go to work.

My mother didn't raise me for very long and she certainly never asked me about my homework. She also rarely slapped me. My mother preferred to deal out her blows with a closed fist. Sometimes her knuckles would greet my face directly, my nose taking the most impact. Other times it would be the side of my face, my cheekbone or temple throbbing immediately. Once when I was eleven, her gold-ringed fingers formed a fist that made uninterrupted contact with my nose. All too suddenly there was heat, like the bluest part of a flame, forcing my eyes to water as the pain seeped from the bridge of my nose and danced over to each eye socket.

I tried to sit up straighter in the wooden kitchen chair as I brought quickly the sleeve of my shirt to my face. I winced as the fabric rubbed against my nose. The blood continued to run down my face. I felt its warmth sliding over my lips and down my chin. My shirt would be ruined. She would make me wash it by hand. That wouldn't matter because it was already turning a russet color. My mother grabbed my hair and forced my head back so my eyes could make out bits of the popcorn ceiling. "Stop crying, Cindy," she said my name through gritted teeth, "You did this to yourself."
I sat very still, my nose tingling each time I blinked my eyes. I noticed my tears were starting to run into both ears, and it together tickled and felt uncomfortable.

A moment later I began to cough. My mother still had her hand clawed around my limp curls and the angle of my head was forcing the blood from my nose to run down my throat. I gagged a few times, trying to shake my head away from her. She hesitated momentarily before tugging me by the hair again, forcing my back against the chair and clasping her other hand over my mouth. My eyes were filled with water, as were my ears, and my nose and mouth continued to collect blood. I heard myself make a gurgling sound. This time she slapped me. Her hand met the back of my head with enough force to make me inhale and exhale all at once. I coughed out blood and saw it spray over the kitchen counter. My mother made no attempt to soothe or comfort me. There was no gentle hand, soft from lotion by the sink, to rub my back.

More than ten years later, I am graduating from college on Mother's Day--sans mother. Many families congratulating each other will surround me; warmth meeting warmth as hugs are frozen on glass screens. I assume someone will innocently inquire about my family, or lack thereof. It isn't their fault. I guess it isn't my fault either. I will remember to be proud of myself while I nod and answer their questions. I deserve this happiness and I am excited to have made it through college successfully. It will technically be Mother's Day, but it will be my day too.