The Ten Commandments According to My Mother
My mother doesn’t know where I live. And no, I’m not a member of the Witness protection program, though, if you knew my mother personally, you’d wonder why I wasn’t. I have successfully withheld this little tidbit, a collection of digits and street names, from my mother for ten years.
St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital sends me address labels whether or not I give them a donation. An animal shelter in Long Island floods my mailbox with the same. And somewhere, my mother doesn’t know where her child lives or that even so, I have not been able to completely escape her.
I became an honor student in kindergarten and at thirteen years later, I was ranked number twenty-one out of the three hundred and sixty students in my high school’s graduating class. At seventeen, I also became a teen runaway.
On the last day of my senior year of high school, I woke up my two sisters for school as I did every weekday. I pried my baby sister off my bed as I did every day when the alarm in my room interrupted her slumber next door in my mother’s room and she toddled her way into my bed with me.
Early sunlight poured over the dark mahogany day bed that was our unofficial living room couch thanks to the tube television on my dresser. As I stood in the doorway of my room, I took one last look at the pastel flowers on the wallpaper which seemed to strain towards the two windows in my room. I had spent most of my teens in this room. “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” Finally, my younger sister, B., fourteen at the time, pulled me away.
“It’s time to go,” she said stoically grabbing one of the garbage bags full of my books, clothes, mementos from friends and photographs of my sisters. Later I would find that I had forgotten to pack any socks.
Behind B., my ten-year-old sister, A. sobbed. My mother never woke up. She didn’t realize I was gone until I failed to make my 4pm curfew. I think that most runaways leave a note. But I didn’t. I wanted to be untraceable.
My favorite movie growing up, next to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was The Ten Commandments. Before I began Sunday school, what I knew of religion stemmed mostly from The Ten Commandments according to Charlton Heston. Around Christmas, movies about Jesus Christ abounded on the English and the Spanish-language network television channels but it was Easter that I looked forward to because it was then that my family watched The Ten Commandments religiously.
I could never put two and two together to understand what, if anything, The Commandments had to do with Easter. I was too busy perplexed about honoring my parents when I didn’t really like them all that much to know about Passover. If my mother had known then that she was giving me a taste of Judaism that would lead to a conversion to Judaism later, she wouldn’t have just shut off the TV, she would have thrown it out the window.
I was the quintessential good little girl. My imaginary friend with whom I shared my joys and sorrows was G-d. I spoke to G-d when I needed something. Nintendo! My father! I spoke to G-d late at night from under the dining room table where I hid. I would lie down under the table when my mother was so enraged I was afraid I’d die. I prayed when I had lost the will to live. Please, please G-d, take me away from this, and take me away from here. I called to G-d who had put me on the Earth, the Lord who had given me the mixed blessing of little ever precocious sisters and sometimes, the merciless asshole up there in heaven toying with a cute kid like me.
My nickname, according to my cousins, when it wasn’t “Miss Goody-Two-Shoes” was Mother Teresa. My sisters and cousins alike would confess their sins to me. They would apologize if a stray curse word was spoken in my presence. I winced as my mother built altars with offerings for the various saints she hoped would grant her luck. I ignored the talk of casting wicked spells against my deadbeat dad. This all didn’t seem as bad as the sin of the golden calf but I was pretty sure that Santeria, a form of Spanish voodoo my mother practiced, wasn’t completely kosher.
All I wanted to do was be good for goodness’ sake. I didn’t need to be good for a mother or a father that treated me as if I was bad anyway. Deep down, I hoped that perhaps, if I was good, I would be spared what seemed like an endlessly painful earthly existence even as early as age seven.
But even if I wouldn’t be spared, I wanted to be good and needed to be good because I believed that G-d had a bigger plan in store for me, larger than my tiny pre-adolescent mind could fathom. When that failed, I told myself that if I committed suicide, my sisters would follow and their suicides would be on my soul.
Though I prayed every day, my sisters and I continued to live under my mother’s fascist regime throughout our childhood years. We were all enemies of the state. My mother dubbed me the good girl but didn’t spare me. B., beautiful and so aptly named, was the bad one and the victim of my mother’s mania most often. A. did not exist except when another victim was not available. And K., sparkling with kinetic energy, was the baby we cared for as her pseudo-parents.
There were rules, my mother’s Ten Commandments, and even strict could result in swift and unjust punishments.
1. I am the Lord your mother, who brought you out of my uterus and into slavery. Obey.
I was seven years old. My mother was late in picking me up from Sunday school classes at St. Elizabeth School. I was painfully shy and as the crowd of moms and dads picking up their sons and daughters had petered out, instead of asking for help, I had curled into myself by the front entrance and cried. In my bones, I was experiencing the greatest fear a child could have; I was worried that my mother had abandoned me, leaving me like my father had done.
If there had been anyone around to see! Making sounds not too dissimilar from that of a caterwauling kitten, I wandered aimlessly back and forth until hours seemed to pass and I was finally rooted to one spot from shock. Anyone who peered my way would have seen a little girl with voluminous, puffy black pigtails who looked much, much younger than seven. They would have known right away that I was crying for my mother.
By the time my mother arrived, I was hysterical. I clawed at her trying to wrap my arms around her. My tears were tears of the most exquisite kind of euphoria. For it was then, more than at any other time in my life that I was sure that my mother loved me because she had not forsaken me.
“Stop crying! Stop it. Stop it,” she thundered down at me.
I stopped pawing her, looking up into her eyes as she threw her head back to laugh. I told her how scared I had been and she laughed. As I retold my story of woe, I began to whimper myself into delirium again.
“You are pathetic.”
It was then that she shoved me away before finally slapping me across the face.
2. You shall not have any other gods before Me.
At 14, my bed was littered with books of all sizes, all borrowed from the Religion section of our local library.
My mother, who had forced us to yet another Sunday mass at church, had finally given up on our souls.
“You can do whatever you want. Just do your confirmation and then do whatever you want. Be whatever you want.”
I skimmed Buddhist books and read about my aunt’s religion. Steeling myself, I read about Protestant Christianity before discarding the book. I was already Catholic. Hours and hours poured over the books until I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life.
“Mom, look, I’ve been reading all these books and I’ve decided what I want to be,” I uttered with unusual confidence.
My mother pursed her lips in amusement.
“I want to be Jewish.”
Her face twisted in disgust. She reeled her arm back like a baseball pitcher and then struck me in the face.
When my younger sisters later decided to practice Wiccan my mother sequestered them to a Pentecostal church for an exorcism. I suppose, one could say, I had gotten the better deal.
3. You shall make no wrongful use of my name.
I committed a deadly sin at fifteen. I began to tell any friend who would listen that my mother was a monster. Each time I did so, I did it grudgingly for I really believed my mother could find out. She told us the spirits and her Tarot cards saw everything we did and told her about it.
“I don’t want you talking to that girl, Marisol,” my mother started. We were in the kitchen preparing dinner together, a rarity. My mother chopped away at vegetables on the counter while I worked on the table to find pebbles in the white rice.
Without thinking, I answered: “But why? Marisol’s really, really nice. She’s so quiet. She never does anything bad.”
Marisol was a Hispanic classmate blessed with a creamy ivory complexion, something my mother would have loved if she had ever met her. My mother hated that we had “colored” friends. When a black friend had called B. on the phone, my mother had asked what color the friend was. Without hesitation, B. responded, “purple.”
“Marisol is a wicked girl. She is bad. I don’t want you talking to her. Tell her not to call her again. And don’t think that I won’t know if you talked to her at school.”
“But Mom, what am I supposed to tell….” I was stopped short when my mother held up the knife in her hand to silence me. The last time my mother had actually thrown the knife at me.
I slipped upstairs to look through the letters that Marisol and I wrote to each other because we didn’t share any classes.
The only letter missing was Marisol’s last. The letter where she warned that if I didn’t, she would tell someone that my mother was abusing us.
4. Remember the Sabbath day? You don’t get one.
Everyone has a mother, I guess, whether they want her or not. My mother was difficult to love. People who have only ever known love for their mothers cannot imagine the unbridled loathing my mother had for her children. It was never too far from her lips.
“I wish I’d never had you! I could have done so much with my life if I hadn’t had you. I could have finished school, gotten my degree in psychology.”
“Then why did you have us!” we would yell from a safe distance.
“Psychology?” we would later scoff behind her back.
Whatever my mother learned in college, until dropping out junior year when she became pregnant out of wedlock with me and had to be rushed through a speedy wedding, she did rather well at mind manipulation.
When I was ten, my mother announced the reason, she swore, she had in fact birthed any us.
“I didn’t have three daughters so that I would have to cook, clean and do everything my damn self.” Spanish expletives flowed and I soon learned to cook rice and beans under armed guard.
5. Honor your father and your mother. Not in the order.
My father disappeared when I was four. Having two kids and an unstable wife interfered with his role as leading Latin lover in the neighborhood. Which is why my father divorced my mother and only then came back to impregnate her long after the divorce was finalized.
In the earliest memory I have of my father, the hero, I am being thrown into the air. Filled with elation, giggling, every time I fell back into the safety of his arms after being tossed closer and closer to the ceiling.
“Higher, Daddy, higher!”
Most of my mother’s memories of my father, the tales and lies she spun, are too colorful for consumption. She delighted in reminding me of incidents that I had wiped from memory long ago.
She told me that at three years old, she beat me with her bare hands.
She hadn’t discovered the chancleta, yet, the token slipper Latino parents the world over use to keep their children in check. She hadn’t needed to resort yet to the black belt that she later hung up on the wall for easy retrieval.
I had taken to the habit of pulling everything out of all the drawers in the house. And then I would wriggle in all things I’d found in each drawer. You know, I was oh-so-terrible, trying to assert my self as a three year old. My mother had battered me so thoroughly, that my father found me catatonic, bruised and wet from recent weeping.
At least, that’s the way my mother always told it. She repeated the story to me whenever she could, laughter overcoming her during the telling. My father told her that she was never to hit me again. So, she didn’t. When he was looking.
6. You shall obey or be murdered.
My mother was a star pupil of Machiavelli who believed it was more important to be feared than loved. Growing up, I thought my mother was the source of all evil but by the time I was an adult, I knew she really was. When my mom entered a room, the room trembled. My sisters and I would huddle, readying ourselves, for we knew her plan of attack was always: divide and conquer.
My mother was a weapons expert. She could wield knives, telephone cords, telephones, brooms, poles, belts, wet towels, heels, sneakers and chancletas with unfathomable dexterity. When nothing was available, she used her hands. When that wasn’t enough, she used words and pet names.
My pet name was “Hija de la gran puta,” translation: daughter of the grand slut. Most of the Spanish I heard growing up was equally as florid. When I told my mother that according to my pet name, she was a slut, a terrible look washed over her face. What happened afterwards, I’ll never know, I ran out of the room and didn’t stop running.
My sister, B., was pet named “Hija del Diablo” and my mother said the proof of this was that there were at least two sixes on the back of my sister’s skull, signs of the anti-Christ. When my sister A. and I later tried to look for them, we could never find them.
A., the last of the child my parents had together, was spared a nickname because my mother preferred to throw A. against the wall like a rag doll when A. made the mistake of getting in her way.
“¡Coño! ¡Hija de la gran puta! Coño, maldito seas,” flew from the inside of my mother’s room shaking the walls of our little two-family house.
A. and I, who were in the hallway that connected all our rooms, scurried into our separate bedrooms and locked the doors.
From my bedroom, which shared a wall with my mother’s, I could hear her door opening. And soft, unsuspecting footsteps padded up from the first floor.
“B.!” my mother hollered. “Is that you, B.? Are you wearing lipstick? YOU ARE! Where did that lipstick come from? And that is not your shirt. Showing your bellybutton showing….”
I could hear B.’s body being dragged through the hallway.
Against my better judgment, I chose then to open my door. And soon, I, too, was ordered into the bedroom A. and B. shared. I pressed my body against the entryway and I could see A. in the farthest corner of her bed attempting to hide under the bed covers.
“WHERE DID YOU GET THESE THINGS? WHERE?”
B. shook her head and tried to free herself from my mother’s grasp. Her mistake was turning her back on my mother.
With her other hand, my mother had grabbed at one of B.’s rollerblades. In horror, A. and I watched as my mother brought it down swiftly onto the back of B.’s head.
7. You shall not be unfaithful. Love no one but me. Loathe no one but me.
My mother had three answers for everything: Yes, no, maybe. Yes meant no. No meant no. And maybe, generally, meant no. This, of course, took us a while to deduce.
I was radiant and running home at sweet sixteen to get ready for my first dance. I had pleaded with my mother for over a month. I had even engineered the blessing of my aunt, a police detective, after agreeing to hear all about how boys could slip roofies in your drink and how.
My aunt lived in the basement and since by that age, we were close in size, she had also agreed to lend me one of her dresses. I was drunk with pleasure as I pulled on slinky dress after another over my head. When I finally found the perfect one, I ran upstairs to show my mother.
I think my mother knew then that I was in love. She just couldn’t figure out who was the culprit that was making me starry-eyed. I could sometimes hear her pick up the other line boys called me. But my secret was safe. It also helped that the love of my life, now a gay Science middle school teacher was then a squeaky-voiced boy with an effeminate lilt to his speech. He was also hiding our tryst from his mother. We were experts at talking in code.
“Why are you wearing that?” she threw at me, from her bed where she spent most of her days, as I stood at the door and preened.
“Remember? The Valentine’s Day dance? It’s tonight, Mom, remember, I told you. You said I could go,” I answered warily.
“Well you can’t. Take off that damn dress.”
And so with tears welled up in my eyes, without questions, I did.
8. You shall steal if I tell you to.
9. You shall bear false witness when I make you.
I took lying very seriously. And stealing only a little less. When I started shoplifting under the guidance of my best friend, Alex, at nine years old, I told my mother immediately. I wanted her to punish me, even beat me, for committing such a disgraceful act.
It had been a crime of passion, though I hid that from her, as the first thing I had stolen was a keychain with the name “Anthony” scrawled across the front. Anthony was an Elvis-lookalike, pouty lip and all, who worked as the stage manager on our production of “Hansel & Gretel.” Each time he helped me out of my gingerbread costume, as he did with all the gingerbread cast, I shivered.
My mother surprised me by not striking me. She responded like any normal mother, telling me that what I had done was wrong, explaining how stealing hurt the person who owned the business.
I heard bits and pieces through the tears that flowed, waiting for the slap. My mother glowed, instead, thrilled by my confession. Each and every time I stole and told her, she was sure of the immense power she had over me.
And so she came clean with me.
“When we go to the doctor, you need to make him believe that you’re sick.”
“How? Why” I asked cautiously looking down at my orthopedic shoes.
“Do you think your school supplies pay for themselves?”
“I take your prescriptions to the pharmacy and my friend takes them and gives me back your book-bags, your pens, all your stupid notebooks,” she laughed triumphantly.
I was horrified. She was stealing, too.
Later, my mother tried to make the most of my constant sickliness. Now I was her trusted confidante. She trusted me to sniffle and sneeze my way into prescriptions for expensive allergy medications.
All I had to do was lie to our family doctor.
“Tell the doctor that you have a cold. Tell him that your throat has been hurting you. Tell him you can’t stop coughing. When he comes back into the room, you better act like you’re sick,” was my mother’s refrain whenever we found ourselves in his office.
When the doctor walked back into their room, he asked me gently, “So, what are you here for today?”
“I don’t know,” I whispered wide-eyed suddenly jittery. When he looked back at me and then my mother, I trembled.
“Aren’t you sick?”
“Then. Why… are you…here?” the doctor repeated, his voice halting with confusion as he peered down at me before returning to my mother’s furious gaze.
“I don’t know,” I whispered again more insistently.
He left the room moments later absentmindedly shuffling papers in the files in his hands. He had left me alone for the taking.
“Mom, I couldn’t lie. I just couldn’t.” A tremor of fear shook my body. Looking back at the door, I prayed the doctor would return soon.
My mother sneered at me in disgust. She walked over to the cheap, upholstered seat that enveloped my small frame. She slapped me over and over again until she could hear the doctor’s footsteps returning to the room.
10. You shall not covet anything you want or need.
More than new clothes to replace the tattered hand-me-downs we wore to school on the worst days, we wanted our freedom.
The day I ran away, A. tried to hang herself off her bunk bed. B. began to cut herself and carved HELP ME all over the inside of her closet. And K. began to collect my things for the shrine she built to the fuzzy memory of her eldest sister. She would point to people with glasses for years as she struggled to remember my face. In the midst of this frenzy, my mother ordered them to pack. She was going to throw them all out.
My senior year of college, I received a tear-stained letter arrived in my P.O. Box from eighteen-year-old B..
“Save me. Oh, my G-d, save me! She’s going to kill me. I know it. We went to the guidance counselor and they told her I was cutting school. She slapped me in front of my friends in the parking lot. She’s going to kill me. Please save me. Please.”
The letters I had received before never spoke of my mother. They knew that she rifled through their belongings while they slept, looking to uncover secrets we kept from her. She read their mail before it was sent out. B. had written this letter at school and dropped it into the mailbox on her way home.
In response to the letter, my sisters and I staged a walkout.
B. ran away first and then together, B. and I, with the help of friends, kidnapped A. a week later. It was easier for my mother to get over the loss of B.. B. was quickly becoming a rebel with a cause. But A., she depended on A. to care for K.. K., who wondered aloud, the last day I ever spoke to her again, “But why aren’t you taking me? She hits me, too.” It was A. who made sure K. was fed, clothed and at school every day. So when A. ran away, my mother came after her.
“She’s here,” I heard crackle across the telephone line. A.?
“What? What?” I shouted back into my cell phone.
There was silence and then sobbing.
“She’s here! She’s trying to get me to come home with her. You have to come here. I told them everything.”
“Every…thing?” My tears joined hers.
And then her high school principal took the phone from her.
My twenties were a blur. At graduation, while others fantasized dream jobs, I was trying to figure out how to support A. on six hundred dollar a month. Our family tragedy had devolved into an epic court battle that would detail our history of violence to the public.
People told me that I had a choice. Don’t be a hero, they said, you don’t have to keep fighting. But if I refused to fight for custody of A., she would be returned to my mother. I waited for family members to rescue us. They never came. But then they hadn’t in all my twenty-one years.
For three years, we battled.
I never once stopped believing in G-d, who I only spoke to then with animosity, but I stopped believing in my mother. She would arrive at court in a garish blue dress, my grandmother, her accomplice, in tow. She would open a bible and then whisper under her breath as she stared at me unflinchingly in the waiting room we were forced to share.
And then finally, one day as the dark-haired, steely judge tried to bark her decision, my mother interrupted her to scream: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I swear I never hit my children. I never hit them!” My mother never looked at me again.
People they tell me they feel sorry for me. Perhaps, I would feel sorry, too, if I truly knew what I had missed. And others have dared to insist that “your mother is always your mother, no matter what” and that “someday, you and your mother will speak again.”
When I ask them about their mothers, they grin, they talk about having a best friend, a hero, a role model, not a woman who wet a belt before striking and telling her children that it was for own good. As the glazed look of happiness falls over their faces, I tell them about the Ten Commandments according to my mother.
I don’t know what you all feel like. How you love your mothers. How you wouldn’t be here today, who you are now, without her love and support. I am who I am because of my mother’s utter negligence, the manner of her torture and the mental illness that warped her mind and wreaked havoc on my childhood.
Because of all the lies my mother forced me to tell, she will never know. She will never know the little details that parents take for granted. Like knowing where their adult children live. She won’t know that I married a rabbi. That every other night, I make him a pot of rice and beans for dinner. She won’t even know my name because I changed that and didn’t tell her that either.
She won’t know that on the day we finally beat her in court, our Baskin Robbins celebratory ice cream cake at the after-party read: “MOM SUCKS.”