The first time I hear the song, I smile mournfully.
I’ve fallen head over heels in love with a Portuguese band whose work pays tribute to everyday magic. With irresistibly joyful music rooted in tradition, their lyrics celebrate what it means to be a regular human in the world. They sing about getting stuck in Lisbon traffic on the way to work, being a good guy, and seeing your partner again after being apart.
And about how a mother is always right when she tells you to finish your carrots at dinner because they’ll turn your eyes into shining stars.
To have a mother who inspires such tenderness, gratitude, and adoration that you should decide to honor her with a song makes me wistful. And to then see this song become a nationwide success says a lot about Portuguese moms and how devoted their offspring are to them.
That’s the problem with Portuguese; the language I fell into ten years ago while living in the Azores unlocked places within I never even knew were there.
Since coming back to Europe, my inner monologue has been defaulting to Portuguese several times a day. This is the only way I can access the deepest recesses of my heart and mind; music, meanwhile, is the shovel that helps me dig and excavate all that I sought to forget.
Including the relationship I have with my abuser, my mother.
Ileft the US to come and help my parents navigate the reality of Stage IV cancer.
By parents I mean my father and his wife, who is the mother I always wished for; we’re so close we don’t always need words to understand each other. My beloved stepmom reads me like a book and by the time I’ve plucked up the courage to confide in her, she already knows what I’m about to say. It helps that she and I have much heartache, hardship, and abuse in common and never shy away from acknowledging our humanity in all its facets.
And we’re blunt; our loved ones never have to wonder where they stand, they always know.
Not so with my birth mother, with whom communication is difficult and fraught with pitfalls. On the rare occasions I open up, there’s always the risk what I say will then be weaponized and used against me during an argument.
During my childhood and adolescence, yelling was my mother’s preferred way of expressing herself. Even though I was a shy, retiring kid obsessed with school and academically proficient, nothing I did was ever good enough.
It’s not even that my mother pushed me, it’s that, in her eyes, I was and would forever remain inadequate; whatever I did or achieved never pleased her. So I learned to follow my gut and do my own thing early on, focusing on what made my heart beat faster and never deviating, regardless of what she thought or said. School was a refuge and a steady source of solace so the more time I spent there, the better for everyone. At home, I always had my nose in a book and would also get lost in music older than my years for hours; I was a bona fide Beatlemaniac and adored Leonard Cohen.
My mother and father are some of the most incompatible individuals I’ve ever met, and they thankfully divorced when I was 9. No one asked me who I wanted to live with so the judge awarded my mother custody, we promptly moved to the other end of the country, and that was that.
Cue years of hell when I dreamed about running away back to Paris, where my father had remained. I could never work up the courage to do so because I didn’t want to cause my mother yet more distress even though she was beating me up regularly. And that wasn’t all. I wasn’t allowed to use the landline to call my father and there were no cellphones back then. Instead, she’d give me a handful of coins to go ring Dad from the phone box down the road; that was her way to make sure she didn’t end up with a big bill. Dad wasn’t allowed to cross the threshold of our home for years either. That’s not even the half of it but my brain’s prodigious janitorial capacities kept me going, systematically wiping away pain.
As a result, I have innumerable blanks where memories should be. I’ve lost entire school years I can’t recollect at all, try as I might. The only things are remember are moments of pure joy and moments of pure agony, like seeing my father holding back tears on the platform in Paris. He’d just put me on the train back to the Alps, where my mother and I lived.
Unsurprisingly, I left home at 17. And not only home, but France altogether.
And yet, when I look at the 74-year old woman my mother now is, all I see is a fellow human in pain who lives alone and has lost all hope of companionship.
But I never have to ask myself what I owe my mother because that much is self-evident; she raised me as a single mom and did the best she could.
Although she was abusive and we had little money, she made sure I never wanted for anything and was always healthy. Because I was a sickly kid, this represented a considerable amount of time she had to take off work, something French labor laws thankfully allow for.
She had to carry the burden of all those medical worries alone, without the support of a partner. My father did care but was too far away to do anything practical beside writing us a check every month and send me whatever books I needed. Mom bought me many too, but buying them all would have tanked her budget. Language reference books aren’t cheap and, at the time, there was no internet to order foreign language books either.
My mother did have a partner at some point, but he was an abusive drunk so we had to move away for safety reasons: he was threatening, unhinged, and armed. Nothing strange about the latter: He was a hunter so he had a permit and a couple of rifles at home.
When that relationship collapsed, she never found anyone else to love despite being a very loving person. For all her misguided and reluctant parenting, my mother is always the first one to help people in need, whoever they might be. She volunteers for several charities and has done so for many years; she also brings library books to elderly people who are housebound. And she helps raise money for several causes and donates regularly to many more others, despite not being wealthy.
And yes, this means she helps me, too. While I can never bring myself to ask my parents for anything and don’t tend to go on about what I don’t have or still lack, she remains keenly sensitive to my needs.
Because she’s my mother.
Alas, I happen to be the cause of my mother’s unhappiness.
More specifically, she suffered from postpartum depression when I was born and it was never properly addressed or treated. That she also happens to be a chronic depressive and someone who has never been comfortable in her own skin only made matters worse, much worse.
It’s fair to say that becoming a mother has blighted her life. She and Dad were married for five years before they had me, and I suspect my arrival into the world had a lot to do with societal pressure rather than the all-consuming desire to grow a family that’d be love made manifest.
My mother comes from a background of abuse at the hands of her mother, who was evil until the day she died. So evil my mom found out her genitor had died when reading obituaries in the local paper. My grandmother had banished my mother from the nursing home and told her never to come back. When I heard Marguerite had passed, I felt nothing, unlike when Mamie, my paternal gran, died; I’ve always refused to go to Marguerite’s grave. But my mother still goes, out of duty; it hurts her every time and I refuse to participate in this. However, I go with her to her father’s grave even though I never knew my maternal grandfather, who died when my mom was a year old.
Now that my mother is in her twilight years and I’m moving back to Europe to be by my father and stepmom’s side indefinitely, time has come to let go of the past. Our relationship is still very strained and every visit over the last eight months has been traumatic. Nevertheless, I trust compassion can show us the way forward and help us build a relationship based on gentleness and mutual appreciation.
During the five years I lost to depression between 2013 and 2018, I had to develop coping strategies to deflect suicidal ideation. Chief among them is the ability to detach from everything and focus on the present moment, and this is what I use when I’m with my mother.
Her health is declining slowly but irreversibly, and loneliness means being alive can be torture. This is something I understand only too well so if I can somehow help alleviate this then I owe it to her — and to myself — to try even if I don’t succeed. It will be an ongoing process.
And I have my stepmom and a Portuguese song to thank for my determination to keep pushing forward until my mother and I find some kind of peace. My stepmom always encourages me to go visit, and the song reminded me that mothers can be quite magical.
The absence of compassion breeds more monsters.
I won’t be another one.
Every time I hear the song now, I smile hopefully; with luck and love, one day I intend to live up to it as well.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.