My mother grew up moving. The only place she has told me about is Dayton, Ohio. She grew up moving, orbiting Wright-Patterson Air Force base where her father, the colonel, was stationed off and on. She grew up orbiting, but people aren’t satellites, and she doesn’t bring up her past much. The only thing she has told me about her childhood was that she moved around, and one time when she was angry she tied her brother to a tree. I try to imagine this. My mother, who goes to church twice a week, who told me once to think every thought as a prayer, who home-schooled my siblings and I because public school doesn’t have a moral compass. She said that her mother always made moving seem like an adventure. She said that her parents found Jesus just in time, before their marriage collapsed. She said me that the moves were never that bad for her. There are times when I sob for days on end, heaving, animal screams leaving me like some long
dormant, recently awoken horror. I’m afraid of being alone, is what I tell myself when the eldritch monster rises from my body. I feel alone as I go to class, as I meet with friends, as I have deep and meaningful conversations. Some innocuous word a friend says will send me deep into this primal shuddering.
Before she met my father, my mother hadn’t dated anyone else, aside from a few dates to dances that didn’t turn into anything more. She told me once that my first kiss should be on my wedding day. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I like to imagine she told me this while we were driving, a few miles away from our exit, her face turned towards the road. In my mind, most of the conversations I remember having with her take place in the car, just before the exit. I never asked about her first kiss.
When I transitioned, what little faith I had left in the church evaporated. There was no reason anymore for me to try, to have one-sided conversations with pastors over coffee about social issues, to try and fit my queer desire and radical politics into a space which pretended to be open. I now knew my body as well as my desires would not be welcome. There was nothing left for me there.
My mother met my father when she was still in college, and he had graduated and was a
lieutenant at the air force, working under her father, the colonel. I want you to meet my
daughter, the colonel had told my father, and he said that when the colonel gives an order, you do it. He met her at a Christmas party, and asked her how the sports teams at Miami of Ohio were doing. She was embarrassed because she didn’t know. After the colonel retired and was moving to Florida and my father wouldn’t have to visit Ohio if they got married, he decided to call her. They married when she was twenty-two, my age as I write this. He was twenty seven, and when he tells the story at dinner parties he says that when they married he wasn’t done raising her.
Loneliness isn’t considered a trauma, at least not in the way we usually understand trauma. Trauma is something that happens, trauma is an event, a presence. Loneliness, by definition, is something that doesn’t happen. How do you hold onto absence?
For years I try to write about loneliness. I try to write about loneliness, and I can only write about my mother.
I tell Frankie about my loneliness, about my struggle to find community in Bellingham. She has lived here all her life and has deep roots in community, but she says she feels the same way. People tend to isolate here, she tells me. If you don’t live with friends it can be hard to feel like you belong. For some reason this doesn’t make me feel better. What good is solidarity among the lonely if no one leaves feeling less alone.
Growing up, I had spent four days a week and about fourteen hours in a church: Sunday service and bible study afterwards, rehearsals for a christian youth theater group on Fridays and Saturdays, youth service on Wednesdays. I was talking to a friend who had lost faith in the church. He told me that his therapist differentiated between attunement and authenticity, both of which are necessary, but getting them requires much different processes. We both had reached some level of authenticity, but we were struggling to feel like we belonged here. We’re not looking for friends, we’re looking for church, I said. We are all looking for church.
My mother was living in Germany while she was pregnant with me and my brother. She had moved for my Dad to get his MBA there, and they had lived there for about ten years. When they moved to Germany she had planned on going to the University, hoping to study but also hoping to make some connections. She told me that most people there were not interested in school, they were only interested in partying. My mother lived in Germany until she gave birth, and then we moved to Japan nine months later, because my Dad had found work. I had to trust that God had a plan, no matter how I felt about it, she told me.
I had never thought about loneliness as a trauma, until after playing in the snow with a friend, when I went home and sobbed for days afterwards, pulling up depths of grief I had only guessed at. I hadn’t thought of it as trauma until I tried to write about it and all I wrote was a poem about my mother.
My mother spent her days in an apartment in Tokyo taking care of my brother and I. She tells me that those first few years were hard. She says it like the way she would talk about a sore throat or a headache, like something mildly irritating that she could ignore until it gets better over time. I don’t know what happened in those years, only what she has told me, and that when I think of my loneliness I think of her alone in an apartment in Tokyo.
What does it mean to live a life never really seen, shrinking to fit the only mold given to you, the only mold in which you think you can be safe. I have only recently realized how much I am my mother’s daughter. Somewhere in me lives her trauma, the days she spent alone in a foreign and hostile place, the years she spent moving around, the decades she spent trying to be small. Her trauma rises up in my body, its full, unmitigated force moving through me in a way it never could in her. I am the vessel, the container for a pain too great to be endured by one person. But I am my mother’s daughter. Somewhere in me lives the prayers she whispered when she thought God wasn’t listening. Somewhere in me lives her unholy dreams, her will to endure passed on.
Somewhere, I am her, and I am me.
Rowan Aubrey Sloane is a queer and trans poet, essayist, tarot reader and witch based in Bellingham, WA. Her work has previously appeared in Out/Cast and Sweet Tree Review. You can find her @gaynxiousmess on instagram and twitter.