Volume 69, Number 1 · Fall 2019

What You Get is What You Give

My daughter, at age two, seems allergic to her species. Consider this sample of interactions: A friend, who has known Bernice since her birth, brushes a thumb across my daughter’s cheek, wiping clean a raspberry smear. My mother, visiting us in Alaska where we live, removes Bernice from her car seat. A stranger walking through a diaper aisle clucks and says, “Oh, what eyes.” At the airport, we pick up a neighbor and he, knowing my daughter, ignores her, shuts the car door softly, and whispers hello to me.

Without exception, these common exchanges undo my daughter. When someone speaks to her, touches her, nears her, she roars. She stuffs her hands in her mouth and cries so hard there is no sound.

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“I like cats,” she tells me. “All the animals, actually. They are nicer than people.” No matter that each night I hold her and recount the kindnesses we saw that day—the grocer who offered a balloon, the man who held the door, the girl who shared her chalk. She is quiet through this litany of goodwill, incapable of articulating the fear she feels at every brush with a person.

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When my grandmother Mary was three years old, she witnessed a murder. In 1923, Mrs. Petrovic, who lived in the same poor corner of Duluth, Minnesota, killed a man. My great-grandmother was pregnant, and I imagine her lumbering in the way of a mother about to give birth, weighted with fatigue and expectation. She pulled Mary in a wagon, and ahead of them a man who Mary remembered as kind and whom she called Mr. Pete cut across Mrs. Petrovic’s yard. Mrs. Petrovic leapt from her porch and struck his head with a shovel. He fell. My great-grandmother froze. Mary shrunk in the wagon. Mrs. Petrovic walked to the mother and child and pressed a knife to my great-grandmother’s stomach. She said if anyone said a word, she’d slice that baby right out.

When my mother talks about motherhood—about her mother and her grandmother and their babies—she talks about death. First, there was Mr. Pete’s horrifying murder, and then there was her uncle, Mary’s brother, who died at his baptism. Family gathered and drank and someone danced while the baby bounced in his arms. “Probably shaken to death,” my mother said. There are a few other stories—about her grandmother’s jelly rolls and Mary’s beautiful singing voice—but the stories I heard most were stories of loss.

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I read in the Guardian that mothers who struggle to conceive have children with a 30 percent higher risk of emotional and mental struggle. It has more to do, the article says, with genetics than fertility treatment. My daughter was born on the heels of recurrent miscarriages, so the statistic lodges in my head. I am fascinated by this possible link between a stubborn body and a nervous child—as if Bernice in utero could know the losses that preceded her. As if she’d be shaped, forever, by the first wild terrain that was my body.

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In her memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance, Louise Erdrich writes about raising her children in the New Hampshire woods, her motherhood made of gentle cats and birds’ nests spun from her daughters’ hair. But there are undercurrents of stress. She mentions a baby who hollers with the best of them. Eventually, she writes the word depression. She tells us that British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott believes that the mother’s face is the child’s first mirror. Our expressions communicate our children’s first concept of self. Erdrich stares so long at her daughter that she experiences body confusion, unable to discern where she ends and her daughter begins. This resonates. I have Bernice’s face memorized. I know each fleck of her irises and their slide from deep blue to gray. We love. We gaze. But this means that when a mother’s brow furrows when her nipple is denied, as her head tips in exhaustion as they rock, these moments become the amino acids of her child’s identity.

Maybe this mirroring extends beyond the face. I think of our early nights together. Bernice came out roaring and never stopped. In the beginning, her scream was a land I occupied—inhospitable and borderless. Each night, I’d pace with her, our chests beating fast and in time. Or back farther, to the pregnancy that lasted despite my bated breath. Maybe my worry was a seed that planted in her belly. As she grew, it grew. It grows still in her, in me.

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At each of Bernice’s pediatrician appointments, my husband and I relayed her extreme temperament. “Is this normal?” But the doctor wasn’t worried. He’d seen parents like us—older, educated folks who read too much. “Paralysis by analysis,” he said. But at her two-year checkup, when he walks into the room and Bernice clambers up my body and screams, he asks if this is common.

“Every single day,” I say.

He asks if I’m worried.

“Of course,” I tell him.

“May be time for occupational therapy,” and he writes down a name.

Three months later, when an opening becomes available, the therapist gives off a warm, maternal vibe I find weakening. In the company of the sympathetic, I am a half-beat from tears. After trying to engage my daughter (Can Bernice brush the therapist’s hair? Can she roll a ball to her?), she tells me Bernice doesn’t resemble the types of kids she works with—most of whom are on the autism spectrum. Bernice, by contrast, mostly just seems anxious. “Might have better luck with a play therapist,” she says.

The play therapist is a soft-spoken Southern woman whose drawl is a lullaby, each sentence a song and comfort, until this: “I’m not sure where her nerves come from. You should see a neuropsych.”

During our first meeting with the neuropsychiatrist, she says, “It’s the youngest case of social anxiety I’ve ever seen.”

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My mother comes to Alaska and I am relieved to have company, especially my mother’s. There is less pressure to get my child to engage, less anxiety over explaining her unease. When my mother picks her up, she wails. When my mother sings, she lets out the all-systems-go cry of a scared kid. When my mother unwraps a mooing stuffed cow, she melts down. But my mother is determined. She restrategizes. She sits in a corner, ignoring Bernice, and reads books aloud. Bernice wanders wide circles around her. A few days later, she puts a hand on my mother’s knee, leaning to see the cottontail stuck in a fence, the child hoisted by balloons.

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I didn’t spend much time with my grandmother Mary and I don’t know much about her. She lived in Florida. She liked fish and chips. She smoked. We only visited once. Her apartment was small and dim but immaculate. Mary slouched in a pearl-colored armchair, wearing a mostly unzipped housedress, and mumbled correct Jeopardy answers into her cigarettes. When neighbors passed her window, she yelled, “Damn bastards!” Halfway through the trip, my father took us to a hotel and we ate chicken from buckets and packed early for our flight home.

She was difficult, had a temper, kept no friends, divorced my grandfather and spat at the mention of his name. Once, she mailed us a tape of her cataract surgery—two prongs pried the eyelids open and a scalpel sliced the surface, as if it were peeling a grape. When I showed my mother, she rolled her eyes and said the surgery happened years ago.

When my mother did mention Mary, she talked mostly about what a beautiful woman she was—five foot ten, long legs, high cheekbones, olive skin, blue eyes. And such expensive taste! She insisted on one-hundred-dollar dresses and velvet sofas. She was the fanciest woman on the blue-collar block of a steel mill town.

When I was a kid, I dusted the living room as part of my chores. On the corner of the piano sat a framed photo of her—the only one of a grandparent anywhere in our home—and I would spray it with Windex and wipe clean that woman with the thick lapels and pearl brooch, the pinned blond hair and deep-set eyes.

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On preschool days, I wake her. I lie beside her and pet her hair and she burrows into me. I peel down the blanket, rub her back. Here, in her half-sleep, she tells me things. The final scenes of a dream, I think. “The puppy is happy” or “The baby eats applesauce” or “People scare me.”

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My mother doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t know about the murder Mary witnessed. “She talked about it her whole life,” my mother said. But I wonder why my mother told me this brutal thing. Maybe she said it to explain why my grandmother had lived an unhappy life or why we hardly saw her. This is a stretch, of course: that one awful moment would wreck Mary forever. But I think my mother was trying to explain Mary more to herself than to me. In the murder I see not a reliable explanation for my grandmother, but a testament to my mother’s need to understand her. She wanted to find an answer for Mary’s hardness—one that predated her, that had nothing to do with her at all.

I was maybe six when my mother told me this story, and it didn’t make me see Mary differently. Instead, I imagined my mother as a small girl, shocked and afraid of what her mother had told her. And I imagined three-year-old Mary the most afraid of us all.

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They all ask about trauma. First, the occupational therapist slides a paper to me. “Just standard. Sign the bottom to verify no abuse.” Bernice sits between my feet and stacks blocks. I stroke her hair. I sign the form. At the next appointment, I explain that she collapsed twice that day, once when a woman at Dairy Queen refilled our napkin dispenser, and again when a man on an elevator held the door for us. Both times, my daughter, who is fair-skinned and dark-haired like her father, who smells like coconuts and jelly, who wants nothing but to be held by me, saw these small gestures from strangers and fell to the ground, crying. When I picked her up, she shook in my arms. The therapist asks again, “No abuse, you’re sure?”

At the intake interview for play therapy, I describe my daughter’s fear of people. Grandparents, cousins, neighbors, people she has known her whole life. If they are not her parents, she screams. If a neighbor brings us warm bread, later, as I tuck her into bed, she will tell me it was scary. She will try not to dream of them at our stoop. The play therapist flips through the paperwork. “But no trauma? Nothing you can think of?” Bernice has spent each day of her life by my side. Her father brushes her hair at night and paints her toenails whenever she asks. We read an article in the Atlantic and now phrase discipline through positive language (instead of “Don’t pour your water,” we say, “Please keep your water in your cup.”). We oppose spanking. I fall asleep scrolling through photos of her on my phone.

“She’s a very loved girl.” At having to prove this, a weight presses into my chest.

The public school system evaluates children for free. The pediatrician, the play therapist, the occupational therapist, they all tell me it is simple and fast and we can stay in the room with her. We go. Two psychologists offer plastic fruit and baby dolls to Bernice. She sidesteps, accepts a toy, and runs to the far side of the room. After twenty minutes, she asks if we can leave please, and then collapses in her typical fashion. One of the psychologists asks if I can think of any trauma. I say, more coldly than I intend, “There’s nothing.”

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Memories pass between generations. Researchers at Emory University hooked mice up to shock pads, and each time the mice smelled a cherry blossom, they were zapped. The mice’s sperm adapted. The brain structure changed. The odor gene carried a new marker. Mice born three generations down the line smelled the fresh cherry sprig and bolted. The experiences of the grandparent mice, even before they conceived, affected the shape and function of the younger mice’s nervous systems. These findings are most relevant, said Marcus Pembrey from University College London, “to phobias, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders.”

I read this on the BBC’s website. At the top of the page is an image of women nested in profile. First the grandmother, then the mother, the daughter, the infant great-granddaughter. The article only discusses adaptations in sperm, but visually we are fixed on mothers as the source of the hard things we inherit—the panic, the worry, the marked genes that tell us to flee the bright smell of spring.

Another article linked to this one: “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes.” Again, the attention to matriarchy. The image beneath the headline is of two women—an ancestor in her youth with a high Victorian collar abuts a modern woman with tweezed eyebrows and sharp eyeliner. A twine of DNA joins them. The article, published in Discover Magazine, is about behavioral epigenetics—the study of how experience changes our cell’s ability to read genes (our environment doesn’t necessarily change the gene itself, but it does alter how the gene is expressed). Our ancestors’ experiences shape us—child neglect, drug abuse, other severe stresses—they all change our children’s brains. “The experiences…of our forebears are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited.”

A subset of this field is devoted purely to maternity. Researchers selected attentive and inattentive mother rats. The babies of the inattentive rats grew up to be, in scientific terms, “nervous wrecks,” and this nervousness was passed down to generations who had not experienced the same neglect. The mother’s behavior had actually inspired an epigenetic change in the DNA that would affect generations to come.

Inherited memory is all over the animal kingdom. The monarch butterfly migrates thirty four hundred miles from Canada to a ten-acre patch of pine forest west of Mexico City. Every year, the butterfly intuits its hard-wired journey. Flycatchers, unlike most songbirds, do not learn their melody from other birds. If a flycatcher is raised in full sound isolation, it will still sing the complex aria of its species. Its song is an inherited genetic instruction. Pregnant crickets exposed to wolf spiders will bear infant crickets savvier to the threat of those predators. In animals, we call this instinct. Stands to reason that it would evidence in our own species.

Memory, then, exists outside of and before us. It’s a guide and protector and debilitator. It’s our first inheritance.

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There’s a lot about Mr. Pete’s murder that sticks with me—the injustice, the sorrow. And there are the logistics, too. Wouldn’t police have come? Wouldn’t they have asked witnesses questions? It was 1923, my mother explained. He was a black man. Mrs. Petrovic was a white woman. Just three years earlier, three black men had been lynched in Duluth and the killers were charged—infuriatingly—with rioting. A white woman could kill a black trespasser and elicit little more than a blink. Then why the murderer’s concern over her witnesses? Why threaten my great-grandmother?

But mostly it’s the knife pressed to the pregnant belly I can’t shake. Not because it’s particularly gruesome (though it is), but because it doesn’t make sense. Why a shovel and a knife? On what occasion do you carry both? And what are the logistics? How do you fell a grown man with a shovel while also keeping a knife at the ready? Barring Rambo-like thigh-straps, I find this Minnesota housewife’s ready-to-rumbleness unlikely. I ask my mother if Mary was a liar. “She certainly led a rich fantasy life, but lies, don’t think so.” Still, I wonder. If what Mary told my mother hadn’t been an outright lie (Told why? To malign? To scare? Who knows.), then maybe it was the typical creation of a fallible memory. Maybe the knife was an innocent concoction Mary’s mind engineered to reinforce the emotional authenticity of the experience. Maybe the murderer snarled an empty-handed threat, but to three-year-old Mary, there might as well have been a knife. So scary, in fact, she swears there was.

But what of this insistence on accuracy? Why this need to verify? I recall those infant mice scurrying from the cherry blossom, shaped by a thing they’d never known. I hear myself snapping at the child psychologist, “No, there’s nothing.”

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I ask my mother about Mary. Do you miss her, think of her? Were you sad when she died? “No, no, no, just relieved and exhausted.” Did you worry you’d mother like her or have a kid like her? “No, no.” I ask if they had warm memories. Did she sing to you? Did she splash you in the bathtub? Was there one good day—a picnic, an ice cream sundae, a manicure for your prom? She thinks and then tells me a story about a dress fitting. She was a flower girl, and she loved standing on the pedestal, turning in the mirror, watching the gossamer drape and pin. I wait for Mary to emerge in this story. She never does.

Mary delighted in mocking her. When my mother was a schoolgirl, she kept a journal. Once, in a doctor’s waiting room, a scrap of her writing slipped from her book. Mary snatched it and read it aloud, side-split in laughter. My mother was mortified. “She just berated me, and I sobbed. But I didn’t blame her. I just thought I was stupid.” My mother got into Columbia University at age sixteen. She earned a master’s degree in journalism at age twenty-two. She made a living from her writing. “She was just weird,” she went on. “She was either screaming at me or refusing to speak to me. I hid in the basement a lot.”

I ask if adults intervened. She said once in high school a girlfriend and her mother invited them for a picnic. Sitting on the blanket in the park, Mary said to the other mother, “Watch how easily I can scare Colleen,” and she scowled hard, and my mother panicked—“What’s wrong? What did I do?” The girl’s mother thought this was bizarre and invited her to sleep over. She asked if my grandmother ever hurt her, if she was ever scared. “But like most abused people, your first impulse is to protect,” my mother told me. This is the only time my mother ever used the word abused self-referentially.

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When my mother’s discussion of her childhood veers to the dark, she circles to her father. “But I always had my dad,” she says. My grandfather was a soft-palmed man who smelled of Carmex and Jack Daniels and wept in the company of brides and babies and good-byes. “My dad is the one who tucked me in, who bathed me, who took me on walks.” After delivering my mother, Mary was admitted to the psych ward. My mother told me this after Mary died. “She probably threatened to kill herself or the baby,” she said. So her father fed her bottles and changed her diapers and clipped her nails. He rocked her cradle with his foot, synchronizing their sleep. When she was a schoolgirl, he worked nights, and she didn’t see him as much. “Before he’d leave for work, I’d hold his shirt hem and think, ‘You can’t leave me, you can’t leave me.’”

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I have been driving through my neighborhood for twenty minutes. Bernice is conked out in the backseat. I spent the night before as I did most of our nights: humming and rocking and trying to trade crying for sleep. It mostly hadn’t worked, so my mother told me to brush my teeth and put on clothes and we would get out. We whisper through a drive-through, order a few lattes, and circle cul-de-sacs; I don’t dare kill the engine.

My stereo shuffles to Neko Case, “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.”

“This is the saddest song I’ve ever heard,” I say. It’s beautiful, but it is so sad I seldom listen to it. In it, Neko is waiting for an airport shuttle in the middle of the night. The beach with its moony tide and rustling palms is a long ways off. Instead it is just a muggy wind and a clouded sky and the hum of a highway overpass. Travelers lean on suitcases and pick their nails till the bus arrives. A mother and child wait beside Neko, and twenty-five seconds into the song, Neko sings the mother’s words: “Get the fuck away from me. Why don’t you ever shut up?” It is a hard crescendo, Neko harmonizing with herself, and that layered voice reverbs like the sadness we feel for this kid.

My mother slams her hands to her ears. “Turn it off.” I punch the power nob. “Turn it off now,” she says again. Her knees press against her chest. She is tiny in the passenger seat. She keeps telling me to turn it off until I tell her I already have.

“You don’t know what it is to hear that when you’re a kid.”

I switch to a Beatles song she used to dance to as a young woman. “Up on bar tops when ‘Rocky Raccoon’ came on,” she’d said. I imagine her like that—hair slipped up and curling against the Florida heat. Her tanned shoulders moving in a tank top. She flushes from too much booze and all the dancing. She jumps down and the whole place claps for her.

By the time the song ends, she is back to sipping her latte. Her hand taps to a beat that’s already ended, and that child tugging her father’s hem is somewhere behind us now, in the quiet.

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This collapse is a rarity. Mostly, my mother seems remarkably untouched by her childhood. When I was young, she seldom raised her voice, and she sang me to sleep every night, her hand keeping time across my forehead—the metronome of tender mothering. When Mary’s health deteriorated, my mother moved her from Florida to an apartment five minutes from her house. She brought dinner each night and took her to doctor’s appointments and to the nail salon. As Mary lay dying, my mother rubbed lotion on her legs and sang her the Judy Garland songs she loved best. Children are so resilient, so forgiving, I think.

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Mary died of lung cancer. But somewhere in all those doctor’s appointments, blood work revealed an abnormality in her parathyroid. Was she prone to kidney stones, frequent complaints of illness without cause, depression? “Yes,” my mother told the doctor, “yes and yes.” This was the answer my mother had always wanted, I think. To hear that it wasn’t some tragic crime scene that ruined her mother; it wasn’t that she had been an unlovable child; it was just a little gland the size of rice grain that didn’t work quite right. So small a thing, is all.

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Each medical professional conjectures a different possible explanation. This is mostly because figuring out still-developing children is tricky business. So we wait for her to grow, for the dust to settle, or not. I’d been desperate for an explanation so I could understand and help her, but now, the language—in its variance—fails. So I push outside the developmental science lexicon. I think, instead, of the things I have inherited and passed to her. Mary watching a man bleed out, Mary following a knife’s tip. My mother gripping her father’s shirt, hiding in a basement, hoping her mother won’t find her. I think of what I carry independently: The worry that laced my pregnancy. The postpartum nerves. The anxiety that blossoms when she is undone.

Invariably, I am left wondering what I am to do about it all now.

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Imagine the monarchs winging south to the same tiny forest plot. The crickets born savvy to their hunter. The mice wary of the sweet blossom. Maybe what I see here is less a resurrection of an inherited experience and more an evolution. These examples speak to preservation, progress. Here I see my mother, her gentleness and kindness. I think of how the articles cited drug abuse, neglect, violence, but never mentioned generosity, compassion, affection. I think of my grandfather singing to my mother at night, pinning her hair, rocking her to sleep. Maybe when I think of Mary I should pivot to his nurturing, to my mother’s improbable gentleness, to her persistent movement toward goodness.

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Bernice is two, and as is the case for every kid, I know that who she is now is not who she will always be. But what I cannot know (but will in the years to come) is that so much of her anxiety will be left on the shores of development, and we will never know its cause. I cannot know that the bell curve’s dot that signifies her emotional growth will move from the far, slim reaches toward the full-bellied center. That it will be almost as if Bernice in those early years were a separate child, a baby I held and loved as she grew into someone else, the steadiest constant the affection we shared and the joy she brought. I cannot know that soon enough the therapy will end or that one day we will invite new friends for dinner and they will find nothing remarkable in our home: a pile of shoes and a coat parents have pestered their daughter to pick up. How she will recoil at roasted vegetables and plead to be excused. How she will gallop down the stairs on a stick horse, but the stick horse is not a stick horse, it is a submarine and our guests are octopi and must be inspected. How she will sling knock-knock jokes until her giggling reaches a fever pitch because it is late and she is tired. How she will wave goodnight and I will sing her into a quick and deep sleep.

But I cannot know that now.

So instead, after my mother flies to Idaho, I set “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” on repeat. Bernice has a fever, and while I rock her I envision my mother as a girl, carrying sadness like a backpack full of stones. I see my daughter collapsed, the elevator trying to close, the man apologizing and bending to help. How immediately I blocked his arm, scooped her up, felt her chest boom into mine. The song is a letter to the little kid. Neko says, “I just want you to know that it happened…and I’m sorry.” She bears witness to the kid’s suffering. She offers testimony and validation and kindness. When I listen, I feel no connection to the angry or unwell mother. I do not relate to the wounded kid. I do not wonder if the child will pass that damage on. I feel only a desire to gather her up and say, in a panoply of voices countless times over, I’m sorry and I love you.

Bernice is asleep now, but I do not lay her down. I run my thumb across her temple. I pull the blanket tighter. I hold her as gently as I know how.

Bethany Maile is the author of Anything Will Be Easy After This: A Western Identity Crisis, which is forthcoming in fall 2020. Her essays have been notable selections three times in The Best American series, and her work appears or is forthcoming in the Rumpus, the Normal School, Prairie Schooner, and River Teeth, among others. Her essays are anthologized in Essay Daily: A Reader and What Happened on June 21st, 2018. She is writing a memoir about Alaska and motherhood, and she lives in Idaho with her husband and two daughters.