Mother, Mother, Mother, Mother, Earth

by Donna Miscolta

A is for alone. Leave me alone, the girl demands. Don’t let me be alone, she demands louder. The mother thinks how much easier the first is. But these are not either/or propositions, not stand-alone options. They’re a package. Salt and vinegar.

The mother’s mouth contorts with a bittersweet memory. Her girl is a toddler, climbing on her lap, declaring “I like you best, Mama.” The mother smiles both at the truth and fickleness of this statement as the father sits nearby intent on the newspaper.

Just that afternoon, the mother had turned on a TV talk show while the girl napped. The guests were members of a support group whose teenage daughters had ceased speaking to them. The mother is sad for these women and, not daring to consider the question of who went wrong, wonders what went wrong.

Sometimes the mother thinks of the Chernobyl cloud that floated across the northern hemisphere when the girl was still in utero–a third-trimester fetus whose organs were still elaborating upon themselves, readying her for life outside the mother’s body. Just the thought of the menace was enough to unleash panic in the mother’s body, and thus the baby’s.




B is for better. Be a better mother! There is no definition of better mother in the dictionary, despite its common usage in the lexicon of enraged daughters. Still, the mother wants to shout that she already is a better mother. Better than her own mother. The mother remembers her girlhood, its limitations, its confidence-crushing indifference to her existence.

When the mother learned she was pregnant, she hoped for a girl to whom she could say, “You are capable, you are strong, you are brave.” When she birthed a girl, she was relieved. She, from a family of few males, had no clue how to raise a boy. But she had been a girl once and at least knew what that was like, and she knew what not to do, having been raised by a mother who did not believe in herself and so did not believe in her own daughter. And now the mother has raised a daughter who is not afraid to say things to her mother. Like be a better mother.

She speaks her mind and that is a good thing, the mother reasons, though never would the mother have said such a thing to her own mother. Times change. The world turns and warms. Animals go extinct. As do the good old days.




C is for cat, the only one who truly loves her, the girl says. Cats can’t talk, the mother wants to say, but doesn’t. As if the girl reads the mother’s mind, she says, “Scratches and bites are their love language.” Maybe they’re mine, too, the mother thinks. Figuratively speaking, of course. But there is the question of her daughter’s love language. What of the literal scratches and bites, the kicks and punches? The name-calling. Where is the love in that? Somewhere deep inside, the mother assures herself.

“Here, draw a picture,” the mother told the daughter when she was younger and her tantrums raged and raged. “Draw how you feel.” It’s what the parenting books said to do. The mother read many parenting books. The daughter threw the crayons across the room or stuffed them in her mouth, chewed them and spewed the pieces like a mad fountain. The father who read no parenting books said, “If we ignore her, she’ll stop.” The mother recognized this strategy as the same one men in power applied to climate change, their heads in the warming sand.




D is for doll. The mother says, “No, sorry, that is not an appropriate toy” when the girl asks for a Barbie. But the girl asks and asks, and so the mother thinks that denying her the Barbie will only make it more desirable. So she tells the girl she will buy the Barbie but first she wants to tell her some things about the doll. That it doesn’t represent what real girls and women look like and that such dolls encourage an emphasis on looks over intellect, creativity, and compassion. See? The girl nods. The mother trails the girl as she walks up and down the aisle filled with Barbies of every profession—Doctor Barbie, Chef Barbie, Forest Ranger Barbie—each sheathed in tight-fitting fashions and stilettoes. There’s no Save-The-World-From-Its-Own-Folly Barbie. The girl chooses the trashiest Barbie, which the mother silently calls Slut Barbie. “Are you sure that’s the one you want?” the mother asks. The girl narrows her eyes and juts her jaw.

When strangers used to stop the mother in the grocery store to say what a beautiful child she had, she wanted to cover the ears of the little girl. She is not a doll to be admired for her looks, she wanted to say, but never did. The mother learned from her mother that one receives compliments with grace, especially, she was told, when for some people they are rare as rainfall in the desert. And now rare in other parts of the world, the mother adds as she wonders about the value of looks in a world of scarcity.




E is for eat, which the mother takes care never to say, as in eat your vegetables or clean your plate. Food, not a foe, never a menace, is nothing to be forced. The mother tries to convey this by example. But the girl discovers the adolescent female’s secret weapon of mass destruction. She reduces her mass to the bare minimum, just enough to support herself on flamingo legs. A diet of carrots dulls her face with an orange cast. “This is not sustainable,” the mother says, borrowing a word from her job educating the public on the sensible use of resources to ward off their inevitable depletion and the end of the world.

The mother remembers her pride at how the baby girl had plumped up on breast milk in those early months. But at eleven and a half months old, on the anniversary of Earth Day, the baby girl refused the breast. Was the baby on to something? Was she rejecting the mother’s body burden of chemicals accumulated over her life? Ah, the mother understood this was not a rejection of herself per se. What an instinct for survival this baby girl had!




F is for foot or fracture or face. All the Fs. The girl wants fast food for dinner. It’s the only food she says she will eat. The mother says, “Fine, get in the car.” On the way back, the girl, burritos steaming inside their foil wrappers on her lap, tenses with something that is said or unsaid, done or yet to be done. She rests her foot upon the dashboard in protest. The mother does not reprimand her, choosing her fights, as the parenting experts recommend. Suddenly, the girl shoves her foot hard into the front window sending fracture lines to radiate like a misshapen star. Fear floods the girl’s face. Not fear of repercussions. Fear of herself.

The mother had always feared other things. When alone she slept with a light on, a chair against the door to block intruders, and public radio turned low. As a girl she feared the dark. She still did, sure that monsters, ghosts, criminals, flying cockroaches, or right-wingers with guns lurked unseen. The mother feared the unknown, which sometimes included her child.




G is for genetics. They learn that eating disorders can have a genetic component. Mothers are blamed for everything, thinks the mother, but on this she is clear: there are no eating disorders on her side of the family. Myopia, diabetes, heart murmurs, those yes. She holds open her hands as if to show she has nothing to hide. She turns to the father. Yes, alright, he says, an admission of biology only. But something has to trigger it. They look at each other until the girl interrupts the parents’ staring contest to scream, “I told you none of this is my fault.” The father, though there is shock in his eyes, says, “It’s not that bad. Other families go through this.”

The mother considered the things she inherited from her mother–wide shoulders and broad feet—and what she developed from her mother’s mothering of her–an indecisive mind, a wobbly self-image. The mother was astonished when the girl chastised her for a shrill voice when angry, an aloofness when not. The one with the shrill voice, the aloof one was the mother’s mother. So unfair, thought the mother. Such a poverty of understanding, she thought and then regretted the inapt use of “poverty, “as if it could invite misfortune and real-life privation in this gobble-down corporate economy.




H is for the hand that trembles from the medications, each with a purpose, each with its side effects, one to counteract the other. The girl is a stew of drugs. All aboil. She wears a petrified look on her face like makeup foundation. The mother wonders if she should take the girl’s hand in her own or if it’s better not call attention to its small shudders. Leave her alone? Don’t leave her alone? Will the girl pull her hand away? Or worse, strike something with it? It’s just the one hand. Not both. Don’t make a big deal out of it. And yet, the mother thinks to herself, Take a chance. Take her hand. Too late though, the girl balls her fists and tucks them inside her armpits. As she tries to think what to do next, the mother stares at her own hands, at the hieroglyphs made by her wrinkles.

Somewhere the mother still has the girl’s handprints from preschool. Green paint on blue construction paper. The hands pointing slightly toward each other, fingers spread, blank spots where the hands did not touch down on the paper. Those missing parts like little mysteries of the universe waiting to be solved.




I is for the invisible wall that separates them. Not a wall exactly. Not rigid, but capable of molding to their bodies. For instance when they hug, it’s there to keep them from the clumsiness of their closeness. Protective, like the amniotic sac in the womb. Maybe the girl still shelters in that cytoplasmic shield for fear of what the world might inflict. How it might fail her. How the mother might fail her.

The mother recalls the recurring nightmare she had as a girl and into adulthood. She is separated by a low wall from her mother. As she readies herself to climb over the wall to join her mother on the other side, the wall grows higher. Each time she tries to lift herself over, it grows more. Meanwhile her mother looks on passively. The wall grows until she can no longer see her mother. Sometimes her husband must shake her awake to silence her scream. She tells him the dream. It’s that mother-daughter thing, he says, as if glad to be neither. Though he clucks with sympathy.

Later, the mother and daughter will spend a weekend together on the other side of the border. At the beach in Tijuana, together on the same side of the fence, they peer through its slats and feel the agony of the dispossessed.




J is for June, the month the girl was born–a month, according to the symbolism charts, that means sunshine and laughter, a month positive for improving relationships. In the early years, the mother relives the memory of the pregnancy, the birth, and the infancy, nostalgic for the mystery and miracle of it all. The mother accustoms the girl to be celebrated. Clowns, fairies, magicians, and other indispensables in the kids’ entertainment pantheon appear at her birthday party over the years until the girl is too big for such things. But the expectation for magic remains and the day can never live up to the anticipation. Flaccid balloons, cheap party favors, a lopsided cake–all fodder for the filled-to-brimming landfill. Her birthday is all disappointment. Always the wrong presents. Is that all there is? Where is the love?

The mother has created a birthday monster, which she tries to appease with June pearls of wisdom. “Make your own happiness. Be your own happiness.” She is a talking Hallmark card that secretly hates birthdays. The mother learned from her mother that if you don’t expect too much, you won’t be disappointed much.




K is for kiss my ass. It’s not the first time the girl has said it. It’s not the first time the mother feels the helpless rage, her heart clanging and banging with inadequacy. Be the mother. Be the grownup. Model good behavior. She hangs up the call, which enrages the daughter. How rude, how unforgivable. The daughter calls back and back and back. The mother doesn’t answer. For weeks. The father shakes his head at this mother-daughter thing, this always simmering thing to which he is innocent bystander. You’re right, he assures the mother. I understand, he winks to the daughter.

When the girl was eleven, she asked the mother how old you have to be to kiss a boy. When you’re thirty, is the first thing that came out of the mother’s mouth. The quip exposed her as an amateur so she tried to pivot. “Older than you are now” was the best she could do. Quip upon quip. She blew it. There’ll be other opportunities to practice good mothering, she told herself. But this seemed like a door closing on her ass.




L is for the lost years. The mother visits the daughter in the residential facility on the other side of the country. A staff person opens the door of the yellow farmhouse and invites her into the living room. The residents are in session and will be released momentarily, the mother is told. The mother judges the living room to be cozy–home-like. Still, it seems like a trespass to take a seat on the couch or any of the chairs. Though she’s never been in one, she thinks this could be a sorority with its houseful of young women and shared spaces–a sort of sisterhood. Soon she hears a feral wail on top of rushing, stumbling feet and the thin specter of her daughter leaps out of the hallway–arms outstretched, hair flying, eyes wild. The daughter clings to the mother who pats her back and smooths her hair, closing her eyes to focus on the moment. When she opens them, she sees the gaunt look of her daughter multiplied in the other young women who have arranged themselves in a semi-circle, two deep—like a Greek chorus, except they’re silent. They’re weeping at the reunion, anticipating their own one day. Just when the mother has a moment of fright at the hunger in their eyes, the staff person comes in and ushers the sylphs back down the hallway.

When the girl was twelve, the mother, exhausted and defeated by the girl’s volatility, proposed to the father that the girl see a therapist, a professional trained in the fits and furies of preteens indulged since birth by parents who were never on the same page regarding consequences for misconduct. Absolutely not, said the father. “She’s in a phase. She’ll outgrow it.”

Ten years is not a phase, the mother thought. It’s a lifestyle. So the mother instead took herself to therapy for the next ten years, which became her lifestyle. Meanwhile, the glaciers lost two percent of their volume, calving chunk after chunk, a term that suggests a birthing but in reality is a breaking apart.




M is for make-believe we are fine. The mother is visiting the daughter in her new city. A new start, a place to call her own. They eat out in restaurants and the mother silently applauds the daughter’s appetite. When the daughter excuses herself to go to the restroom, the mother must trust. She sits and waits and peels the paper napkin on her plate into strips until she suddenly feels the press of all that wine and water she has drunk. She does not rush, but indeed her step is just quick enough to match her bladder’s urge. When she opens the door, the daughter is at the sink washing her hands. They look at each other as if one does not suspect the other, as if there is nothing to suspect. The mother avoids the stall that has been newly flushed.

When the girl was small the mother was willing to encourage her imagination. But the girl seldom engaged in pretend play, quickly becoming suspicious of the tooth fairy’s existence, and declaring Santa Claus to be nothing more than a cartoon. The only make-believe the girl engaged in was when the mother asked if she had crayoned the bad word on the wall, broken the hand-painted bowl, smashed the laptop with her foot. No, no, no, she did not. Prove it, the girl said. Make me believe, the mother said under her breath. A standoff as rigid as science vs. science denier. Nobody move and no one will get hurt is always a lie.




N is for needles. Let’s get matching tattoos, the daughter says. The mother has never considered a tattoo. Tattoos are forever. The daughter persists and after a year, the mother consents. They live in different cities but they arrange to be tattooed together separately–same design, same time, different tattoo parlors. The mother closes her eyes as the needles buzz a sweet pea into the underside of her wrist, and she recalls that scent of summer that filled the house when the girl was born. When the buzzing stops, the mother examines the line drawing—no fill, no color. A simple, indelible line. She takes a picture of it and emails it to the daughter. The daughter does the same. A kind of pinky swear. Tattoos are forever.

When the mother’s mother was old and her health was failing, the mother noticed the wrinkled skin on her mother’s arms. When did it begin? Gradually, like the peel of old paint? Or overnight like the ripening of an avocado left on the sill? Now the mother’s skin is aging with cracks and spots that texture her tattoo. Nothing is forever. Not even the eons-old Earth, its surface cracked from drought.




O is for objectives, a succession of them as the daughter must find her career after the lost years of illness. In her hurry to catch up, she tries on different dreamy dreams, walks out of the dressing room and into the world that is too big to notice her fashion designer forays or the fruits of her acting classes. She survives waiting tables. She is waiting to discover her calling, for doors of opportunity to open, for the object of her unnamed desire to tap her on the shoulder. There is a place for her at one of these tables. Where is the chair?

The mother knows this well, having shown up at the wrong table multiple times. The mother’s mother had no choice of tables. Now the choices are as hard to reach as the world’s water tables falling deeper into the earth from overdemand.




P is for the parachute that floats the daughter to earth. It’s a college escapade. Let’s jump out of a plane is someone’s brilliant idea. The mother does not know this until much later. She thinks of the daughter’s heart ricocheting in her chest, the sweat collecting in all the concave parts of her anatomy–the scoop of her clavicle, the armpits bristling with new hairs, the delicate depression of her belly button. She imagines her daughter’s scream of fear and freedom. In those seconds of falling, then the minutes of floating, does the girl think of the past or future, or does she only experience the sensation of being? When her feet touch the earth, does she remember her mother and her mother’s mother with pity that they have never been carried by the air?

When the girl was little, the mother would push her in the swing at the park. With each push forward, the girl’s hair would lift off her shoulders with the breeze and flatten on the backswing. Forward and back, lift and flatten. The movement enchanted the girl and when the mother’s arms tired and her mind went numb from the repetition, she removed the girl and carried her kicking and screaming to the car, her anger and indignation as raw and wild as if the world were coming to an end.




Q is for quota, as in how many times the daughter deems it necessary for the mother to call to prove her love. How many days per week? Every day. For how long? An hour. At least. The daughter waits for the mother to lead the conversation so the mother has learned to make notes beforehand to avoid running out of things to say. The daughter’s face is impassive on the screen, daring the mother to stop talking, ready to pass judgment on anything she says. Lose-lose. It’s a game in which only one person knows the rules.

When the girl was young and the mother was trying to teach responsibility with chores, she added incentives. Extra allowance could be earned by unsolicited acts of help. She posted a chart as a visual for the good deeds. The girl took it upon herself to place a checkmark with each self-reported good deed until the mother had to set a quota, at which point the girl lost interest. A misapplication of math and incentives, observed the father.

The mother does her own math. The mother called her mother once a week. The mother’s mother never called her. An easy calculation: the mother 100 percent; the mother’s mother zero. The daughter, for her part, is 1000 percent sure of her own calculations.




R is for race, as in life is not a race. Everyone on her own path on her own timeline, the mother tells the daughter who is behind her peers in career years. They are walking together on a city street but the daughter races ahead to walk far in front alone.

The mother herself was a late bloomer, returning to school again and again to try out a new discipline, a new potential field of work. Finally, she fell into a job she could manage to show up for day in and day out, year after year to ensure a stable income. The daughter does not want a life like the mother’s–of little excitement and barely any adventure. Suffering nothing more than boredom. If you don’t count the fifteen or so years of depression that no one noticed. At least she avoided the mother’s mother’s history of migraines. Everyone on her own path.




S is for said as in you said that, yes you did, don’t try to gaslight me. The daughter insists on her impeccable memory, which the mother knows to be less impeccable than her own. I have receipts, the daughter claims. The mother has those same receipts. She scrolls through the emails and Facebook messages and sees where a mind in search of fault will seize upon a word, a comma, a typo as proof.

When the girl was little, the mother more than once reverted to Because I said so to end an argument. It was simple authority. The parent made the rules. The parent was the boss of the kid. But rules are made to be broken and power structures can be upset, except in a corporate capitalist society that creates homelessness and poor wages and blames the victims for their plight and now the daughter blames her baby boomer mother for ruining the world as if it was the mother herself who invented the pretend theory of trickle-down economics.




T is for test. This is a test. This is a test. Is this a test, the daughter asks? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? It’s not a test, the mother says. You could never handle what I’m going through, the daughter says. Don’t be a drama queen, the mother thinks. It’s not a contest. Everyone faces challenges in life. But what if it really is a test? Not just of the daughter but of the mother as well. And if it is a test, who is administering it and who decides if they pass or fail? But what if, in the words of the Emergency Broadcast System, it is ONLY a test. It’s not the real thing. Just move on, the father says. Fine, the mother thinks, hold the baggage.

As a going-away-to-college present, the mother made a photo album, matching photos of the girl throughout the years with a quote by a famous woman. For instance, next to a picture of the girl chasing a soccer ball, the mother had glued the lines Resolve to take fate by the throat and shake a living out of her by Louisa May Alcott. The mother admired the boldly stated advice. The girl flipped through the pages of the album. What about the watch I wanted, she murmured like the wind that pushes forest fires across highways.




U is for the un- words the girl hoards in her vocabulary. Life is unfair. You can’t unsay it. That is so uncool. You just don’t understand. That was uncalled for. I won’t do it unless. Unless. Unless.

When the girl was little and learning the alphabet, she would say u is for unicorn and she would place her index finger to point outward from her bangs. The mythical and magical un-word. Wild woodland creature. Even then as the mother stroked the girl’s hair, she feared the saying rare as a unicorn signaled the extinction to come for other creatures. Rare as a doe. Rare as a crow. Rare as a garter snake. You can’t undo it. Unless. Unless.




V is for the view from then and now and tomorrow. The future is now and the girl is a woman, the anger less piercing, but the illness a faint footprint on every organ. Sometimes when the mother and daughter video chat, there is a stutter on the screen, a blink of pixels that fuzzes the daughter’s face, a moment akin to the audio bleep-out of an obscenity on TV. Similarly, in real life encounters, a shadow passes like a sped-up eclipse.

Once when the girl was younger, a preteen and still open to–even craving–alone time with the mother, it was the night of the Perseids. Wake me up to watch it, the girl said to the mother. The mother set her alarm and when it woke her from a dream, she tiptoed upstairs. She anticipated difficulty in shaking the girl awake, but the girl was sitting on her bed waiting, a sixth sense having stirred her at the appointed hour. On the deck the mother laid out sleeping bags, and they waited for the dark sky to erupt with shooting stars and remind them of their smallness on earth. We have the best view, the girl said.




W is for weathering the years, the wounds the mother and daughter have inflicted on each other, the words expelled like hard little BBs, some randomly, others deliberately aimed such as this one from the daughter that hits its target. “I’ll be a better mother than you.” The mother considers this declaration filled with scorn and hubris and promise. “Yes, probably,” she answers.

The mother’s mouth contorts with a bittersweet memory. Her girl is a toddler, climbing on her lap, declaring “I like you best, Mama.” The mother smiles both at the truth and fickleness of this statement as the father sits nearby busy with the newspaper.




X is for the Xerox copy the mother makes of the crayon portrait the girl draws of her. The features are a bit exaggerated. Even so, the observational powers of her second grader are startlingly sharp. The girl has captured the mother’s wide, big-lipped, stop-light-red smile, the round glasses, and unstylish bangs. Earrings dangle from the ears in mismatched colors. That is the daughter’s artistic touch, making the mother more interesting, more daring. Better.

Will the daughter, who will be a better mother than the mother, have a child better than the daughter? Is it the progress that will guarantee the species? At least the family tree? Which like all trees are vulnerable to flames.



Y is for the years that pass while they’re not looking or looking too long and hard for better days and happier times or when they’re just not paying attention. When the girl wished she had a different mother. When the mother wished the girl was already away at college even though the girl was only twelve. When the world wished forest fires didn’t always rage, glaciers didn’t melt like popsicles, lakes didn’t perform disappearing acts, guns didn’t proliferate like flies, viruses could be curbed with politics.

Now the mother is old enough to be a grandmother and the daughter prepares to be a better mother than the mother has been to her. And so they wait, fingers crossed.




Z is for the zillions of uncountable stars in the sky yet to be wished upon.

Donna Miscolta’s third book of fiction Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Multicultural Fiction and an International Latino Book Award Gold Medal, and it was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. She writes a monthly blog at