My fifth-grade teacher was a woman named Ms. Reed. She had enormous breasts, swaddled in wool sweaters and adorned with gold and silver broaches of cats, Santas, snowflakes. It was rumored that she had once shoved a student into a wall. She would often stare at me while I sat at my desk, her shorn hair a chemical strawberry blonde. “I want your color of hair,” she would say, as if she could command the color out of it. “I want that color of red. Your color.”
One day she called me up to her desk and pulled my ear to her mouth. “You need to get yourself a bra,” she whispered, her breath hot in my ear. “You are flapping around. You get what I mean?”
I got what she meant because I spent every waking moment trying to avoid it — I had breasts, boobs, a curviness to my body that was more about being overweight than the rush of hormones. At home, I wore Mom’s robe over my clothes while I sat on the couch with a pile of books and a bag of Doritos. I was eleven years old and too aware of the facts of my body, my awkwardness, and my sadness. I nodded my head and returned to my seat.
Our classes would gather in the school’s main hallway each morning, lining ourselves against glass windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. The teachers stood in their jackets and drank coffee, bracing themselves against the cold breeze that flowed through the ever-opening doors. We shrank back from the cold ourselves, tucking our arms and legs and chins inside our coats. One morning, Ms. Reed marched along our line and stood in front of me. “Stand up, Backous,” she said, her loud voice booming over my head. “Unzip your coat.”
I felt my face twist up as I pulled down the zipper. Ms. Reed sipped her coffee. “You are not appropriately dressed. You cannot wear T-shirts with what we talked about. Go call your mother.”
I do not remember what I said to my mother over the phone, or what Ms. Reed said when I came back to class. What I remember is staring at my desk, the florescent light blurring into a seamless expanse over me, a pencil shaking in my hand. What I remember is the way my mother walked into the office, wordless, a pink sweatshirt bunched between her hands. My mother’s lips were bare and pale, and the sweatshirt hung past my knees.
In the mid-1960s, when my mother was my age, she had to go bra shopping with my grandfather. He let the clerk measure my mother in the middle of the store, her arms raised above her head and her ribcage wrapped in red measuring tape. People stared, and my grandfather did not say a word. Mom told me this after school that day before we left to go buy a bra, my first. She took me into her bedroom and measured me, the door closed as she uncoiled a round of measuring tape, red, and wrapped it around my own ribs. Her face was soft in the yellow light of her bedroom, and her touch was gentle, precise, surprising.
“And I had a teacher I hated too,” she told me. “Mrs. Hyde. The woman had a wig that slipped off her head, and she spat in your face when she talked to you. She was horrible.”
My grandparents had divorced when my mother was in fifth grade, and her father was a Depression-era Scotsman who had no patience and no ideas on how to bring up daughters. “I hid my period for months,” she said. “I bought my menstrual napkins — my pads — all by myself in the store. Can you imagine the cashier just staring at you, buying menstrual napkins without your mother?”
My grandmother’s absence in my mother’s life was always a strangely unexplained reality for me. I knew that my grandmother did not get custody of my mother. I knew that she was a drunk. My mother did not have stories about her, but my grandmother’s absence intruded upon us, my mother’s grief and confusion a veil that separated me from her. My mother did what she was supposed to do — laundry, meals, goodnight kisses — but she was a distant shore, and when I was a girl, her heart seemed to be just at the edge of my horizon, unreachable but visible.
So it felt good to know that my mother and I had been humiliated in the same way, that she and I shared a similar exposure. That something brought us together. “The bra will itch,” she told me in the department store, tossing a white sports bra into the cart. “But you will get used to it. I got used to it.”
I tried to get used to it, but it was itchy and tight, and every day I ripped it off as soon as I got home from school.
On a school in-service day, I am home and reading on the couch when my mother storms through the front door, plastic grocery bags bunched around her hands. It is her lunch hour, but I am not expecting her to come home; my bra is sitting in my underwear drawer. I put my book on the end table, my grandmother’s cherry wood end table, sticky from layers of spilled soda and dust. Mom slams the plastic bags onto the kitchen counter. I stand up, inch my way into the kitchen.
“I’m going to put my bra on,” I say. Mom turns to me, her mouth hanging open, her hands still locked around the bags.
“What? What did you say?”
I lean forward, my feet still in the living room, the light of the ceiling fan blaring over the white bags, the grimy fridge, the dishes piled in the sink. I shouldn’t say anything, but I repeat myself, automatically, unwillingly, “I’m going to put my bra on.” My words hang in front of my mouth as Mom’s face appears before mine, her teeth tight beneath her bare lips. “Speak up,” she says. She slaps my cheek twice. “Speak up to me, right now. Speak up.”
Stunned, I obey, speaking more loudly, more slowly, “I’m going to go put my bra on.” Mom turns her back to me and rips the groceries from their bags. “What do I care, Allison?” She faces me again, her fists hanging, her mouth open in a full shriek. “What do I care that you don’t have your bra on?”
Her voice rides the ahh sound of “bra,” a taunt, a tease, and I run into my room, rip off my shirt and shove my arms through the straps. I do not cry. I’m almost laughing, I think, and I hear myself saying “She’s crazy, she’s gone crazy.” I stay in the room until I hear the door slam. I return to the couch and stare at my book. I keep the bra on all afternoon.
When Mom comes home, she walks into the kitchen, the light of the afternoon slanting through the door. She does not look at me.
Later, I will ask my mother about her slapping me, and about Ms. Reed, and why she did so little to protect me in those fragile days. “Is that what you remember of me?” she winces, her voice both wounded and annoyed. “I just went along with your teacher because I didn’t want to make things worse for you. I don’t remember the slapping.”
It is not the only story I share with her. She is always sorry, but she is also unsure, unable to bear the facts. But I am also unable to bear them. At night, the past races through my brain, my throat tight with anger. I can’t help it. The bra incident was only one of many exposures, my mother’s grief pushing her to a more distant shore, one where her lovers were welcome, but not me or my siblings. We tried to live without her. We made frozen pizzas and forged signatures on school papers and kept headphones in our ears at night to block out the sound of her drunken arguments, her lovers’ fists pounding on the walls. But we could still hear her over our music, her voice yanking us out of bed to call the cops. And in the morning, after the cops had left and the house was still, we would watch her sleep on the couch, hoping that it was over. That she would return to us in the way we needed, tender and loving and true.
I think of Patricia Hampl, who says that, given the weight of our experience, we are drawn to “do something — make something — with it.” We remember and relive and retell because what we have witnessed demands a rendering, an arrangement of memory and detail that houses whatever deep need remains unmet within us.
And what remains for me is doubt that my mother ever loved me at all. I find proof that she needed me, but I look for something else, the shore still distant, my own heart frayed and unsure.
A month after my son is born, my mother comes out to meet him. I am terrified to have my mother come, and she is terrified, too, almost missing the shuttle from the airport that is over two hours away from our home. When she arrives, my son immediately picks up on my anxiety and begins crying. My mother covers her face with her hands.
“I can’t stand it when babies cry!” she whimpers.
I think that she has gotten worse — maybe it is the travel, or the expense of the trip, but there is something newly desperate in her movements, something wild, dangerous. I wonder if she is thinking about her mother, who never came to meet me. I wonder if I can get through this visit. If my son will stop crying.
In our living room, under the blare of the ceiling fan light, I know that I need to nurse him. I stare at my mother. “I am just going to nurse him and you are going to see me do it and I don’t even care.”
She lights up. “Honey, it is the most natural thing in the world! You are taking care of your baby!”
I peel back my shirt, and something lifts; my son calms down, his mouth at my breast and his eyes closed in sleep. I look up and my mother is smiling at me, her eyes glistening.
“I am so proud of you,” she says. And there it is: the shore, my mother’s loving heart. It is just a moment, but it is there. And I will replay the moment alongside all the other moments, the remembering an act of putting together what was lost and might still be found.
Allison Backous Troy is a writer living in Boston, MA, with her family. She has been published in Image, the Saint Katherine Review, and the Crab Orchard Review.