I have the enormous fortune to review Fox’s New Girl for TV.com and this week, Nick’s dad came to visit the loft and Nick wasn’t terribly happy about it because REASONS. I braced myself for your standard problematic-parent/child-relationship-is-repaired-and-all-is-as-it-should-be or the equally rampant problematic-parent/child-relationship-continues-to-be-problematic-and-that’s-the-WORST-THING-EVER.
But instead, I was elated that a freaking sitcom of all things managed to capture the kind of nuance inherent to a relationship as flawed as Nick and Walt Miller’s without necessarily taking sides. I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised because it is New Girl, but I think, particularly in sitcoms, that we’re so conditioned to expect clear cut happy or sad endings that the ones that fall between the poles tend to be more jarring. At the end of the episode, Papa Miller was still a shitty dad, but Nick was okay. Nick’s been okay. Damaged, sure, but you can be damaged and still be okay.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly talked to my mother in the past two years. Before that, there was a restraining order so there was zero talking, and before that there was a lot of yelling punctuated by long silences and the occasional all-nighter at the Denny’s coffee counter because I’d been kicked out of the house again. My crimes ranged from asking what was for dinner to dumping that boyfriend she really liked– I pointed out that he punched me in the face on more than one occasion and she pointed out that he bought her a car. Priorities, you know?
Now, I love my mother. I do. When I was a kid, I fantasized about being a big famous writer so I could buy her the things that made her happy. She was rarely happy. There were the little things that upset her: Batman comics and friends with blue hair and rehearsals for marching band and spring musical that required her to pick me up from school when I couldn’t hitch a ride with someone else. There were also the things I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Some kids get the impression that they’ve disappointed their parents somehow, but I always sensed that I’d interrupted her from something great, like her waitress career or something.
When I was in college, I hated my mother because I realized other students got excited about going home for the weekend while I started hyperventilating around Wednesday. I got phone calls in the middle of class accusing me of ignoring her. I spent hours in the evenings assuring her that I wasn’t. I said I had to go do homework and she ranted that I thought school was more important than she was. I found out she took a bunch of credit cards out under my name, maxed them out, didn’t pay them, and didn’t tell me about them. I only found out about them four years after the fact, right before graduation, when I tried to get financed to buy a car. It took another four years in and out of court (there’s where that restraining order comes in) to clean it all up and I still occasionally get angry letters from people she fucked over using my name.
For awhile, she hated me right back. There were nasty voicemails (“I got rid of your cat. I hope it’s dead.” “You know what happens to little girls like you? Nothing good, I can promise you that.”) that prompted the district attorney to get me a restraining order. There was that time we ran into each other at the gas station and before I could make a quick escape, she caught me by the Slim Jim rack and announced to the clientele within hearing range that I was “a spoiled little slut, still hung up on the fact that her daddy died. Boo fucking hoo,” and finishing up with, “so who are you conning into feeding you these days?”
I made a beeline for my car, saw her get into hers. I figured she would follow me at least part of the way back to the house I was staying, but when I was almost back and she was still riding my bumper like an angry caboose on the little engine that can’t take a hint, I detoured a few blocks and pulled into the Shop N’ Save lot. I got out of my car. She parked a ways up the row and got out of hers. I held my cellphone up and shouted, “Do you really want to play this game? I’ve got Officer Swift on speed dial.”
She got back in the car. I made a point of scanning parking lots for her car before I went anywhere from then on.
She got married. She violated her probation. Her probation officer called me every time she accomplished some new and impressive act of what-the-fuck-are-you-thinking until I finally asked him very nicely to stop, “I don’t know where she is. I don’t particularly care where she is. She’s not a part of my life anymore. At all.”
Except she was.
And then she was.
If this was a TV show, we would have gone to lunch and the heavens would have opened up and showered us with sunshine and good vibes. She’d suddenly be the mom she was never capable of being and I’d be the daughter she wanted instead of the one she was stuck with. Maybe her criminal record would even be television-magicked away.
One of my favorite, favorite writers, Janice Erlbaum, has written extensively about her complicated relationship with her own mother in her memoir Girlbomb and on her blog of the same name. Her second book, Have You Found Her, takes a step back from immediate experience with her mom and concentrates more on the woman Janice is in her own right, but on page 50, she makes an observation that I regularly come back to:
I loved my mom, but dealing with me made her anxious, and dealing with her made me sad. I sent her cards twice yearly, for the holidays and for her birthday; maybe every other year she sent a reply.
We did go to lunch, Mom and I. She looked good. She smiled. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw her smile even before my brother and I left. She talked about her honeymoon at Niagara Falls and the car Creepy Stepdad bought her. She showed me her new jewelry. She talked about the dining room set he bought her, the new china, a kitten, and a lovely new apartment with a sundeck and laundry service. They were going to Florida in the spring and Maine in the fall.
“But to tell you the truth, I can barely stand him!” She giggled and placed her hand over mine, “Why don’t we do this anymore, sweetie? I’ve missed you. Why aren’t we close anymore?”
When my mom and I first tangoed in court, the judge asked me what I thought her punishment should be. I said she needed to be responsible for the bills she racked up, certainly, but outside of that, I didn’t want her to go to jail or anything, “She’s not like, a criminal. I don’t know why she does the things she does but honestly I don’t think she knows either.” I asked if he watched The Sopranos: ”My mother is Livia Soprano with a side order of Hoarders.” I said she needed therapy.
We lived in a state that had laws against sticking people in mental health programs without their consent. There are valid reasons for those laws, but like many well-meaning laws, there was room for this one to backfire. Like when she refused to give consent. When we met again, the judge asked if she was on drugs because “We can do something if she’s on drugs.”
She wasn’t on drugs. She didn’t even drink. I had several good friends whose parents struggled with drug and alcohol problems. Don’t think I wasn’t jealous.
So it wasn’t surprising when we met for lunch after years of radio silence and she sincerely failed to acknowledge why we had instituted that policy to begin with. It was like brand new wedding bands she claimed my dad gave her the night he died except I was with her when she bought them herself two days later. It was like the divorce papers she had drawn up when I was five and conveniently forgot existed after badgering my father into signing them and the time I caught her red-handed, emptying my piggy bank when I was ten– she was doing no such thing, in fact, she didn’t even know I had a piggy bank. A lie is only a lie if you don’t believe it yourself.
My mother sincerely believes that she was abandoned by ungrateful children who eagerly shucked the responsibility of taking care of her. Maybe somewhere in the back of her head, she remembers how we got to where we are today, but I don’t really think so. Nor has she learned from her mistakes. When I finally moved out of my best friend’s guest room and into an apartment of my own, I begrudgingly gave my mother my address after she pleaded with me that she wanted to send Christmas and birthday cards. I never received a holiday card, but I got her cell phone bill, her court summons for violating probation (again), and a change-of-address confirmation card in her name.
Sometimes people don’t get along with their parents and it’s a real shame because if they could just get to know one another better, they would have such an amazing, wonderful relationship. Sometimes people don’t get along with their parents and it’s a real shame because they know each other too well, and they either can’t or won’t change, and so their every interaction is just some variation of whatever original sin damned them in the first place. That’s sad, but something can be sad and yet perfectly survivable. Something can also be sad, but also entirely essential.
I have an amazing uncle who humors my every whim with either quiet support or amused disapproval. There are a lot of family politics that go into that relationship, but the abridged version is that basically, being his dead BFF’s kid means I can get away with murder. But the one thing, the one thing I can’t escape judgement on is the state of my mother-daughter relationship. I’ll regret it later, he warned, when I said she wasn’t on my wedding guest list. My fiance’s mom floated the same concern, even having witnessed a good chunk of the future-Lifetime-movie-script-of-my-life herself, “We’ll all understand if you want her there,” she said, “I just don’t want you to regret it later.”
Everyone understands that a reunion is a happy ending. What is less understood is that a separation can be a happy ending too.