My yearbooks as far as first grade are filled with notes from teachers saying they can’t wait to see me on TV when I get older, singing and accepting Grammys. My childhood videos show me lining stuffed animals up as an audience and singing passionately into a karaoke machine for my guests. I’ve always loved to sing, and honestly, don’t remember a time I didn’t. I come from a line of singers. My grandmother is a singer. She’s the deep, rich baritone with a voice that can literally shake a room. My mother is a singer. She’s the crystal clear, high soprano with a voice that sounds like clear blue skies. Then there’s me. I’m the soulful, middle alto with a voice somewhere in-between the two of them. But as I grew older, I realized singing wasn’t the only thing we had in common.t
The tale of my great-grandma Emma (my Grandmother’s mom) was told to me at a very young age. She was said to be a very mean and evil woman, and people around town suspected her of being bipolar. Those were the only two things I ever heard about her—that she was mean and batshit crazy. And I believed it every time I heard it because the only picture I had ever seen of her was a black and white photo with lifeless, yet piercing eyes, scrunched eyebrows and the corners of her mouth turned into a frown. I never saw any pictures of her with my grandmother or her other kids throughout the years. Just that one mean-looking photo. When I got older, the only other piece of information I got about her just expounded upon the first. It wasn’t that she was only mean and evil generally, she was specifically mean to my grandmother (her daughter). Their relationship was said to be pretty much nonexistent. And now that I think about it in my adult life, I never heard my grandmother mention her mother. Not a single word. Nor do I know how Great-Grandma Emma died.
When I reflect on watching my grandmother with my own mother, it was always strange. My mother would get very worked up before we all went to her house—largely because my grandmother is a raging alcoholic that drinks like clockwork. We literally had to make an appearance at her house and out before 5 p.m. because that’s when she got belligerent, mean and honestly just downright scary. The only time in my life I’ve ever stayed the night with my grandmother was a complete disaster. Because of that rule of having to be out of there before nightfall, I was terrified of the light leaving and still being “stuck at Grandmother’s house.” I didn’t particularly like going over there, regardless of the drinking, because there were no children there. All my other cousins were at my paternal grandma’s house, and I was missing out on fun, food and, to be frank, the sober, sweet, loving and wonderful grandma (“Grams”) that I actually wanted to be around. This night, she had gotten into her usual drunken and crazy rage. She had run my bath water and started yelling, calling me fat names, saying how hard it was going to be to bathe me because I was so fat and laughing at me in my face. There was spit coming out of her mouth because she was so drunk. Her eyes were popping out of her head. Her hair standing in ten different directions. And to top it off, there was this loud gospel music playing in the background because, of course, Jesus was her soundtrack of choice to her drunken affairs. And as always, she was singing along in her deep voice so loudly that my ears rang. I started crying and told her to please get away from me and hid under the covers in a tight ball, crying my eyes out to her loud, deep and drunken songs. I called my parents and told them I wasn’t going to sleep there, and that I was calling Grams to come get me. I was out of there within the hour and never stayed the night again.
But the same fear I had of spending the night there appeared to be the same fear my mother had about being around her mother in general. She was jumpy. Erratic. On edge. My mom would go out of her way to do or say things that she hoped would impress my grandmother, who would respond with little to no interest or with harsh and snarky comments. She would openly criticize small things my mom did. The more visibly irritated my mom got, the drunker my grandmother would get, and the louder and deeper she sang. I’ve actually never seen my mom in that type of rattled frenzy other than when we visited my grandmother. I remember my mom breaking down completely, leaving her house one day and yelling and screaming, “Nothing I ever do is good enough for her!” She cried for half the car ride while my father told her to try and keep it together in front of us. Their hugs were unnatural. Their conversations short. Their interactions minimal. Their “I love yous” seemingly forced and obviously layered with other things that needed to be said. I can imagine this being painful for some to watch or conceive. But this was normal for me—mild even, comparatively.
I never felt bad for my mom when it came to the way my grandmother treated her. I just knew that if she felt that bad about the small things my grandmother did to her, then she definitely couldn’t survive one day being her own daughter. She would die if she were me.
From as young as I can remember, I envied my friend’s relationships with their moms. I daydreamed about having a good mom to do good mom things. It was so bad that my daydreams were never picturing my mom as the mom I wished for. I would make up an entirely different person in my head because there was no way for me to conceive of my mother ever being as nice to me as the lady in my dreams. My mother was cold, disengaged, mean, verbally abusive, physically abusive, uninterested and scary. As a child, I felt like I was constantly waving my hands in the air for her to see me, and then constantly getting swatted away like a bug and then stepped on. I was an extremely smart child, and I loved learning. I constantly tried to top myself from the previous school day. I loved being the first in my class. I shuddered at less than 100s on my tests. But when I would bring my homework home to get help with things I didn’t understand, I was torn down. She would yell and scream at me. She would call me dumb and hit me if she didn’t like something. She would ask me why I couldn’t be smart like other girls in my class. She beat me down so bad at home that I went to school and didn’t feel smart anymore. Over time, my confidence decreased and my love for school left. I went from believing I was the smartest person in my classes to feeling like the smallest, and then struggling with every concept I touched. My friends would have really cute clothes for school, and I would ask for them. She would tell me I was too big for regular clothes and there was nothing in the stores for me—that her wedding dress wouldn’t fit me, so she would give it to my sister instead. I felt ugly and invisible. She didn’t hold me. There were no hugs. There were no showers of kisses. Certainly no mommy-daughter dates. No spending time with me. Nothing.
As I got older, the relationship turned even more toxic and volatile. Just the sight of me angered her. I remember seeing the movie Precious in high school, and my peers found it to be funny. They were literally amused by the storyline. But I so very much identified with the story of Precious. I cried like a baby in the theatre. Before I was even fifteen years old, I had been called every name you can think of: “bitch,” “hoe,” “slut,” “fucker” and “motherfucker.” She called me “hoe and slut” when I had never even had sex before, and it made me feel so dirty. She would yell that she wished she never had me. She screamed at me in these demonic high-pitched voices filled with rage. She would try to entice me to fight her and yell for me to “take my ass to the garage.” She would punch me. She would pick up whatever was near and throw it at me or on me. One day, she picked up a spray bottle closest to her and sprayed it in my face. It was Clorox. I’ve had bruises on my back and arms. As I cared for my sisters, she would say things like “they came out of my pussy, not yours.” She would pick my body a part and tell me that I was too big, that my lips were too big, my breasts too big. In college, when I found the love of my life, and we made the announcement that I was in a relationship, her response was: “what could he possibly want with you?” The list is exhausting and goes on and on. Part of me feels that maybe she continued being abusive because I just took it. I never hit her back. Not once. I never called her names. Not once. I just took it. I would cry in my room, write and sing. That pattern of abuse and neglect from her continued my entire life. Heightened. Became unbearable to the point where I entertained the idea of just not living anymore multiple times.
When people would talk about the things their moms did for them, I would just sit there. I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, and sometimes was even confused about how moms managed to do all these things people were alleging. It seemed unrealistic to me. There’s only one thing in my entire life that I vividly remember and enjoyed my mother doing for me. When I was younger, I asked for microphones and karaoke machines for Christmas and my birthday. After I would sing, I would tell her it’s her turn. And I always asked her to sing what I thought she sounded the most beautiful singing—anything Whitney Houston. One of her favorites was, “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” And so she was off… “Whaaatevvverrrr you waaaannntt from me, I’m giving you everythiiing. I’m your baby tonight.” I would sit there in awe watching all of her teeth show. When she would give me a bath, sometimes I would ask her to sing. And there was that beautiful voice again as she rinsed my back.
She would beam with a genuine happiness that I never saw on her otherwise. I remember asking, “Mom. Why didn’t you become a singer?” She said she wasn’t that good and could never have been a singer. I told her I thought she was just as great as Whitney Houston. She laughed, but I was serious. My mom’s voice was pure and untainted; angelic and soothing; warm and inviting. For the few minutes Whitney Houston played, I really felt like she loved me. I saw a mom. I felt connected. It was pretty much the only thing that assured me I did, indeed, come from her.
No one in my life has ever treated me as poorly as my own mother has. The things she’s done and said to me are things no child should hear or see from anyone. I will tell anyone matter-of-factly that my mother was evil to me. That she was outright and unapologetically ugly. That she was not a nice person. But as ugly as she was, she was still the prettiest in her Whitney. And something tells me that’s all she knew how to be.
From my grandmother to my mom, and to me—we all shared that gift of song. And it began to hit me. What if my grandmother sang to my mom? Maybe that explained her joy while singing. What if my great-grandma Emma sang to my grandmother? Maybe that’s why she sang so loudly while drunk. What if the only way love had been shown for generations was through song? Maybe that one piece of common ground, rooted solely on genetic chance, was the only place Great-Grandma Emma, my grandmother, and my mother could stand on—leaving essentially motherless songbirds who may not have had love in their hearts, but at least they had a song.
Author: Ariana Jones
Author Bio: Ariana is a lover of all things creative. She began writing as a form of therapy as a child and enjoys telling stories in person and on paper. She plans to continue telling her stories in order to hopefully bring about healing to others, particularly children. She hopes to see every child find and keep their voice. Aside from writing, she loves spending time with loved ones, cooking, photography, all things television and film, and most importantly, laughing!
Link to social media: Instagram @adeneen