Gabby held her menu up, obscuring her view of her mother, who sat across the table.
“The pork looks good,” Gabby remarked.
“I’m not very hungry, would you like to split a garden salad?” her mother replied.
Gabby pursed her lips and tried to think of a better way to decline than, ‘No, that would leave me starving and thank you for the subtle implication that I am fat.’
“How about a caesar salad?” Gabby said.
“No darling, I’m off bacon, it’s terribly fattening. Chicken salad?”
Gabby tried to hide her instant gag reflex at the mention of chicken. Why did a meal with her mother make her feel like a child? She didn’t have to share a salad with her mother chicken or not. Why couldn’t she just say that she didn’t like chicken? Surely her mother wouldn’t react the same way she did the last time.
After all Gabby had only been eight or nine that time at Nanna’s when she had asked what was for dinner.
“Chicken casserole,” Nanna replied.
“I don’t really like chicken,” Gabby had replied honestly.
Hearing the exchage Gabby’s mother sternly summoned her and whispered in her ear.
“You’re being very rude to your Nanna. She has worked all day to cook you a meal and you just told her you didn’t like it. Now you’re going to eat it all and when you’re done you will thank Nanna and ask for seconds.”
Gabby did as she was told; feeling over-full and sick she wanted to pass on dessert. But before she could say a word her mother served her a slice of apple pie and whispered, “eat it,” with a distinct implication of ‘or else.’ Gabby was rewarded for her compliance by a night of cleaning her vomit off the bathroom floor. She didn’t dare tell her mother she had thrown it up. Ever since then she never ate chicken or apple pie unless it was in front of her mother. To Gabby it always tasted like guilt.
“Actually I think I feel more like the turkey and cranberry.”
Her mother flagged the waitress down but didn’t order until after exchanging pleasantries. Gabby’s mother had this way of making everyone feel at ease, everyone but her.
“So we’ll split the turkey and cranberry salad and I’ll have a short black.”
The waitress turned to Gabby.
“I’ll have a ginger beer please.” Said Gabby before the waitress took the menu. “Wait. Could we have the salad without the camembert?”
When the waitress left a silence pulled tight between Gabby and her mother. Gabby tried an awkward smile, her lips tightly closed.
“Why do you smile like that dear? You have lovely teeth.”
Gabby’s smile dropped. A foggy memory comes to mind. It was her Aunt’s wedding, Gabby is stood in the foyer squirming in her blue taffeta dress, which hadn’t been made to allow for her rapid growth spurts. She stared through the arch way into the room where her two sisters were waiting. Her mother walked into the room.
“Oh Alexis, you look so elegant and beautiful,” she said to Gabby’s willowy thirteen year old sister. “And Evie, you’re as cute as a button,” she said and leant down to hug the just-turned-six year old.
Gabby, who at ten had just entered an awkward stage that would last for seven years smiled at her mother as she walked past, revealing the holes where her adult teeth were yet to grow. Her mother paused and looked down at her.
“Why did you have to lose those front teeth now? Smile with your mouth closed for pictures.”
Of course her mother didn’t know that Gabby had heard her praises of her sisters and her gappy smile was in no way photogenic. But no adult rationalisations could ever remove the sting. The memory faded but the hurt remained sharp as ever. Gabby never could smile since without feeling self conscious.
The waitress brought their drinks and placed them gently on the table. Gabby’s mother stared at the glass of ginger beer. A film of condensation slowly grew on it.
“Your father really liked ginger beer.”
“I know. It was one of our favourites, Dad always made sure we had a bottle,” Gabby said, instantly wishing she could swallow the words back down.
“You always had a lot in common with him,” her mother said with a sigh.
Gabby knew her mother was jealous about her relationship with Dad. She saw it in her mother’s eyes every Christmas or birthday as she excitedly told her mother about what Dad had bought her. She always tried to appear as excited about the ugly ornaments or the clothes that weren’t her style that her mother bought her. One year her mother archly remarked, “you know I don’t have as much money to spend on you as your father.”
But it wasn’t about the expense, it was about the fact that Dad knew her well enough to pick something she loved. Gabby never said though, it was kinder to let her mother believe it was about the cost. Gabby never told her mother what Dad got her after that, no matter how excited she was about it.
Gabby put the straw to her mouth and drank in large gulps.
“Save some for after lunch,” her mother said.
Gabby pushed her drink away and shrank into her seat, feeling smaller by the minute. She glanced around the room desperately trying to formulate a conversation that wouldn’t press on any of the bruises that she and her mother had given one another. This was why Gabby avoided spending time with her mother without Alexis or Evie, there was too much silence between them.
The unsaid hurt hung between them, each thoughtless word, every criticism said in passing. Perhaps the heaviest thing was when at the age of fourteen Gabby asked if she could live with her father.
“You know you’ll have to do your own washing there,” was the heated reply.
But laundry was a small price to pay for feeling comfortable in her home. It was so easy living with Dad. He never tried to guilt her into doing anything she didn’t want to do, they liked watching the same shows and doing crosswords together on the weekends. He never made negative comments about her appearance, in fact he told her she looked lovely whether it was her year ten formal or she was in her pyjamas. They shared most of their evenings in a comfortable silence as Gabby did homework and Dad did his work.
After she moved out Gabby visited Dad every weekend and saw less and less of her mother. Sometimes she felt like screaming at the top of her lungs, “Of course I liked Dad better, he loved me for who I was, not for who he wanted me to be.” But she never did, deep down she knew that presenting her mother with the list of wrongs wouldn’t mend the relationship the way Gabby wanted to. It would just create another gaping silence.
But Gabby had good memories of her mother too. They mostly predated her seventh birthday. She remembered, holding her mother’s hand as she smelt a rose, playing in the hedges, everyone was smiling. Love was everywhere, love was easy. Things were so much simpler as a child. A time where if someone had asked who her favourite parent was she wouldn’t have understood the question. There was no pretense between parent and child. Only honest love. How did it come to eating lunch in silence?
The memory of the deepest wound always came on Gabby at the worst times. The wound that caused the most calloused scar. If Gabby could pick one moment to erase forever it would be the moment that destroyed any comfort or ease she felt around her mother. Gabby was eleven, she was sitting on the dining room table doing her homework while her mother helped Evie with hers. Her mother explained a math problem to Evie and had made a mistake.
“No, it’s two, why don’t you use a calculator?”
Her mother snapped, “why would I need a calculator when I have the know-it-all sitting right there? You help your sister if you’re so smart.”
Her mother stormed out of the dining room.
Gabby moved into the chair next to Evie and tried to explain the problem while tears steamed down her face. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed when she finished.
Evie turned and hugged her sister telling her that it was okay, she was right, it was two. Neither sister understood what had just happened.
Later that night, just before Gabby went to bed her mother came into her room.
“Evie told me you were really upset by what I said.”
“Well I’m sorry you were upset but you really need to be more careful about the way you talk to me and people in general. No one likes a miss smarty-pants.”
Guilt kept Gabby’s eyes fixed on her My Little Pony bed sheets. It had happened a month before the separation, five months before the divorce. As an adult Gabby could recognise that the incident had more to do with the tension between her parents than it did with Gabby, but her mother got her wish. Gabby was so careful about what she said to her mother from then on that they spent most of their time in silence.
As Gabby finished her share of the salad her stomach grumbled in protest of the tiny meal. She looked up at her mother, she was sipping her coffee in the mannered way she did everything. Gabby had to believe she could forgive her mother, there had to be some redemption for mistakes parents made.
“Well, I have to admit I invited you to lunch for a reason,” Gabby said tentatively.
“I thought as much.”
“I’m pregnant,” Gabby blurted before bursting into tears.
“Gabby, that’s great news! Why are you crying?”
“Mum, I’m so scared.”
Gabby’s mother reached across the table and held her hand. “That’s okay sweetheart, so was I.”
Do you think it’s possible to rebuild a difficult relationship? Do you think that old wounds can fully heal?