The Favorite Daughter
I wrote this story when I was in graduate school, studying under the wonderful, encouraging Mark Mirsky at the time. It was around 1995. When I was 16, I tried to kill myself. I took three times the lethal dose of drugs and was in a coma for a day. This story is an imagining of — what if I had died? At the time, I was living at home with a mother and two sisters who were indifferent to me at best. (My father loved me.) I also was constantly fucked up on something. It was the last time I spent more than two weeks at home. I was far from my mother’s favorite- I was the opposite. But as I tried to imagine myself dead, I also tried to imagine her scapegoating of me as some twisted love. That summer of my suicide attempt followed the first year I spent at boarding school, and during the first conversation I had with my mother while away in Connecticut, afraid and overwhelmed, she said to me, “We still blame you when something goes wrong”.
I am fortunate that we both speak German, Liezel, so I can speak to you now in my native language. And in case someone comes in, they will not understand our conversation — it will be ours alone. But no one will bother us for awhile. Your sisters and father know I want some time alone with you. Du bist meine liebschen, meine Liezela. You spent last summer so bravely in Austria with your grandmother, deine Oma, immersing yourself in the culture and learning German so well for your fifteen years. I was so proud of you and I know you did it to get away from me and to be in a country where there is no drinking age — but you also did it because of a love for me. What kind of love, I am not sure. So now I will speak to you in German as you lie quietly there. I want to speak to you in German, because it is my native tongue, and I can then speak my soul better. I want you to listen to my soul and I fear I have never expressed it before. I know I have never expressed it to you.
First, I must say that this is a beautiful room in which you lie. You would like it — the walls are oak paneled and the lighting is low. You loved rooms darkly lit. You loved somber, romantic rooms. Yes, this is a romantic room. The chairs lined up behind us have deep red, velvet cushions. I pulled one up here so I could sit next to you. The flowers are sweet smelling and all over the room; roses and gardenias and orchids. The scent is strong and heavy, like the perfumes you liked — perfumes that entered the room first, announcing your presence. Rich scents that make one dizzy at first and then soften, become part of the night. Classical music is being played lightly. Your father chose it. I am sure it is music you loved, but I don’t know. We never talked about those things, Music. Or art. But the room I know is your style, because I know your bedroom in our house and I know the restaurants you liked. Candles and shadows — an almost gothic feeling.
I think you liked those rooms because you could hide there. You could look like someone else easily, with darkness obscuring your youth. You looked as if you felt like someone else at times — you seemed like you were not our daughter. With the right eye make up you looked twenty or older, especially if you wore a beautiful dress and heels. You looked so sophisticated for fourteen or fifteen. This shocked me, as you know. But I want to talk about why I was shocked. You have only heard my complaints, my indignancy. I’d say it was cheap to dress like that at your age. I may have called you names. No, no, I know I did. I feared the impression you would make and I know you didn’t understand those things. But I think I cared about impressions because I am Austrian, not American, and I had to work hard to be accepted in this Midwestern town.
To be a foreigner in a small Midwestern town is no easy thing. Madison has this great University and there are other foreigners here, because of the University, but it still was so hard for me. I know you have heard these stories before. In Austria, there are no paper plates and plastic cups. No one would ever give their children Kool Aid to drink. These things seemed atrocious to me. Tupperware parties and watching sitcoms on TV. I didn’t understand the appeal. I always felt alone, because I wasn’t comfortable doing those things. I wanted to make dumplings and homemade soups and have dinner parties where good wine and political conversation turns into passionate, loud arguments. No one understood me. That is something we have in common, whether you like it or not. I know the loneliness you felt. I know you felt that no one understood you. And perhaps this is why you tried to always look different. To prove your alienation to the world.
But mostly, and please listen to this — because it is hard for me to say it and I need you to hear me: I think I feared that you dressed up and wore makeup because I had done something wrong. This may seem silly to you, but now I know that it is true; I did wrong you. What did I do to make a fourteen year old give up her childhood so easily? This is what I must ask myself now that you’re gone, now that it’s too late. What was my part in your growing up so quickly, the hardness in your eyes? I scorned you for your ways. I denied my fear that it was my fault, your jaded attitude, your aged quality. Well the fear is back with me, Liezal. Now there is no need to hide from it anymore.
Mother and daughter is a close relation and I wonder if you being raised here in America, in your father’s country, is one of the reasons we could never get along. My upbringing in Austria was so different, and I know you have heard this before, but be patient with me, because I need to think things out in front of you. Not only did I have trouble with Madison and the lifestyle here, but my own children were a part of that lifestyle that I didn’t understand. I had trouble understanding your life, the many toys you wanted, the TV you watched, the clothes and jewelry and trips to the mall. I just never had those things. After the war, Austria was so poor and my family never had what your father and I could give you. I am happy that we gave you things but I guess I wanted you to appreciate it somehow, understand your privilege. I now know that I asked too much from you. How could you appreciate that what came to you without sacrifice, that what came to you so easily? How could you understand my life if you did not live it, live then, know what it was like? And although I told you many stories about my life and you spent last summer in my homeland, you could never have known what I wanted you to know. What I wanted you to feel. Not because you aren’t smart and not because you are callous — but because some things are only truly known through experience.
Austria is so different now than when I was growing up. What you saw was a beautiful country — the mountains and forests, the architecture and history. After the war, everyone had fear in their eyes and the beauty of the country was obscured by a black cloud of desperation. People were hungry. People were ashamed. Ashamed of being hungry, humiliated at having lost the war. Ashamed of having supported Hitler. And my family, as you know, was not and still is not wealthy or educated. We struggled hard to keep food on the table and did not always succeed. Respect for oneself does not come easy when one is poor and hungry. I had three dresses to my name and one handmade doll. I wore my older brother’s underwear that were hand down to me. I suffered malnutrition and was sent to a farm where I could work in exchange for fresh eggs and milk. But you have heard these stories before, and I will not go on.
You always listened to your mother’s war stories. You were curious, your wide blue eyes shone large with curiosity. With fascination. But I wanted more than curiosity from you. I wanted you to feel my pain. I wanted to share my suffering with you. I was stupid. I was vain. I thought my suffering was so important. It is like those who cut their fingers, who draw blood and press their fingers together to unite themselves. Blood sisters. You and your best friends would do that to my horror. But I tried to do the same with my blood, with my suffering. I tried to share it with you out of a need for closeness, for intimacy. But I didn’t ask you to share your blood with me — I wanted all the attention — and so we are not blood sisters.
And now you are gone. It is terrible bad fortune for a mother to outlive her children. But I believe you hear me now and I am sorry. I am sorry for not being good to you. I suffer from regret. And I love you — I always have. I was jealous, so jealous I could not look at your needs, I was to wrapped up in my own. I wanted your childhood for myself. I wanted to run around in a backyard and laugh like you did, without worry, without hunger gnawing at my stomach. And so when you came in from the green grass of our yard, dirt on one of the many colorful dresses you had, and you ate only half the lunch I carefully prepared for you, it hurt. I hated you then. I hated what I thought was your insolence but now I know was really your innocence — your childhood. I punished you beyond what you deserved because of my own life, my own deprivation. I told you that you were ungrateful. That you didn’t know how lucky you were. I spanked you or yelled at you. A fierceness in my eyes and a sting to my words or hands revealed the deep resentment I felt for you. The hatred. Although I never said to you that I hated you — you knew. Children know these things, they are as sensitive as raw nerves, they pick up all true emotion. I hated you and you knew it. Because hatred looked back at me, even when you were young — your eyes mirrored back at me my own cruelty.
The pain I gave you is a sin and if I still believed in the Catholicism of my childhood I would confess. Well, I am confessing to you, but not to a priest. I hurt you. Schmerzen. It is so hard for me to know the pain I caused you. The love I didn’t give you. And I need you to forgive me so I can forgive myself. I just didn’t know how to handle my grief, and so I passed it to you. And now it has been handed back to me; it is my sorrow again. I know I am responsible for your misery. I dug the hole you will lie in tomorrow. I know drugs and violence became your life for a reason. People will tell me not to blame myself — but they don’t know. They will never know what I know and what I have shared with you tonight. I needed you to die.
Of all of my children, all three girls, we fought the most. From the beginning, too. You could never remember this, but even when you were a small child, we didn’t get along. You always had the ability to run around with a sense of freedom I found unnerving. I would have to try and keep up with you. I chased you around and you’d slip through my fingers and I’d stumble or fall. I thought you tried to make me look stupid, tried to make me fall awkwardly. I always had to worry about what you were getting into because you were always getting into something. You were wild, reckless, even then. And so we didn’t get along. It is a mother’s duty to look after her child and you wanted freedom. Even when you were a small, really. You did not cling to me like your sisters. You ran ahead of me, shaking with excitement. You talked freely to strangers. We thought you were hyperactive or that you had some disease. (But it was just one of the marks. You see, everything is clear to me now. You were marked in many ways to be the one.) You were never shy — you were a bold, assertive child. You took what life offered you without question, and left that what you did not want. I never had that freedom and because you relished it more than any of my other children, I envied you the most.
A mother is not supposed to envy her child. But as I said, I am confessing my soul to you. The soul, the Austrian soul, is a twisted, guilt ridden thing — full of envy, fear and hatred. So I will not try to defend myself. It is because I was so ashamed of my envy, my feelings, that they ruled me so. I envied your life and so I tried to take it from you. I tried to show you that life was not good for everyone — I did this by making you suffer, although I did not realize it at the time. Your expressions became clouded over with rage. You broke things. You threw chairs at me, you cursed me. You didn’t come home at night. I thought you were a spiteful, cruel child. But how could you have been any different? Your rage was not yours alone — I gave it to you.
It appears that we didn’t love each other. But now you know, I love you. And now I know any love you had for me was as deformed as the love I felt for you — a child cannot love a parent without the parent loving the child first. And I mean love as something we do, love as an activity — not a thought in the mind. My love never expressed itself in life, it festered in a lost part of me. And the love a child has for its mother, your love for me — I am sure it was there, hidden, stifled by my power over you.
You grew angrier and more destructive, I lashed out more at you. As it became clear that you were using drugs, I became angrier. I thought — how can this child who has everything behave this way? I thought of you as even less grateful. And what should you have been grateful for? A mother who never let you enjoy anything? A mother who shook her finger at you constantly, telling you to be grateful? A mother who slapped you when you were energetic, when happiness came out of you like it comes out of children — wild and out of control. I laugh now as the tears pour out. I laugh at my stupidity. You are so lovely here in front of me. I want to lay down next to you. I want you to take my pain away. But that is the problem — that was always the problem. It was not your job to relieve my pain. It was not in your power. Except for now.
I think of what your life turned into. The drugs. You bleary eyed. Coming home from time to time, so out of it that I wondered how you found the house. You seemed not to even recognize me. Or if you did, it did not show. Men who beat you. Filthy needle marks in your arms that I would glimpse in horror, you were so good at hiding them. And I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to face what had become of you. Bruises and marks on your body, your sixteen year old body that lays in front of me now, still and cold, with thick makeup and a long sleeved blouse to hide the black and blue, the holes in your skin. They have made you into a beautiful corpse, but I know the marks are there.
I was the one who found you, asleep in your room. All day you slept, your back facing the door, and I would peak in and see your hair, dry and unhealthy, fallen on the pillow. I cooked dinner and decided to rouse you then. I thought, what a lazy, disgusting child! Sleeping all day. And as I walked up the stairs to your room, the image of you all day, the back of your head never moving, struck me as odd. I climbed each stair slowly, thinking, you always slept restlessly. You would sleep all day, but you moved around, never fully rested. I opened the door and before I touched you, before I rolled you over to look at your cold, blue skin, I knew you were dead.
Oh Liezela! You are so still! I have quieted you and so I have shushed my own demons! I love you so much Liezal. I feel relief, I must admit. Liezal, here comes your father and sisters. They will want me to leave now. Oh, I must go. You had my eyes from the very beginning — deep set in the head and dark. Unkind eyes. You had them the day you were born and I knew that very day the doctors laid you on my stomach who you were. You were special from the first moment. You were the easiest birth, too. That I know now was a sign. That you were the special one. You were meant to save me. I must go now. Good bye. Du bist meine liebste tochter. I liebe dich.