She’s in the Ether Now: On Moms and Mother’s Day

A photograph of the writer.

SCAACHI KOUL was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, BuzzFeed NewsThe HairpinThe Globe and Mail and J...

Jordan Ginsberg: Hi Scaachi. What did you get your mom for Mother’s Day? Also, does your family observe Mother’s Day? I probably should have asked that first.

Scaachi Koul: Hi Jordan. First of all, super racist of you! Thanks for being so racist, right out of the gate. Yes, of course I celebrate Mother’s Day, because I have a brown mother and their primary source of nutrients is guilt. This year I sent her what I send her every year, which is acknowledgement: flowers and a card that says something sarcastic that she will hate. This year, it said, “Happy Mother’s Day to the lady from whence I slipped.” She will find it very gross and I will get a phone call, but I did my job at least.

JG: Look, if it’s racist to give my friends the benefit of the doubt and not immediately assume they bend to every whim of Big Flora, then I guess I’m just a huge racist. Does she care what kind of flowers? I dated a girl whose mom was a florist, and mom and daughter both were extremely knowledgeable and particular about them. At least now I understand that if I want to let someone know I don’t love them anymore, Alstroemeria is the way to go.

SK: All I’m really concerned about is the flowers get there the absolute first thing in the morning. It was her birthday a few weeks ago and I texted her in the morning, assuming she would be doing stuff with my dad and my brother. She called me at 3 p.m. near tears because I didn’t call her at 8 a.m. I felt guilty for the rest of the week. I think I still feel guilty, probably.

JG: Was that a genuine reaction on her part, or was she trying to make you feel guilty? Or both?

SK: I think she thinks it’s a genuine reaction. And on some level, it probably is. But I also know my mother to lay it on real thick. This is a woman who has been able to make herself ill when something (or, rather, someone) upsets her.

I would ask what you got your mother for Mother’s Day. But I actually did ask you that last year and then immediately realized I am a huge asshole.

JG: Oh, because my mom’s dead, you mean?

SK: Yes, Jordan. I asked you in the elevator on my first day at Hazlitt and then was like, “Oh my god, Scaachi, look at your choices.”

JG: My favorite time, a friend showed up late and drunk to my birthday several years ago, and when I asked him where he’d been, he did the dumb guy thing and said he’d been with my mom. So I told him my mom was dead, and he almost burst into tears in front of the whole party. Which was a pretty good present, all things considered.

SK: Jesus Christ, that’s vicious. But also, how can anyone be mad at you for that?

JG: Oh, they can’t, but I don’t enjoy doing it either. I feel like, when a parent or someone close to you dies young, you end up signing a social contract to guide other people through your pain whenever they accidentally step into it. It’s not their fault things are going well for them!

SK: But I would think you might get irritated when people complain about their mothers? I remember a few years ago my mom was sick and getting surgeries and I wasn’t living at home and was worried all the time. I would get so mad at these dummies who were whining about their parents asking them to call all the time. Just call your mom!

JG: Oh, I took it very personally at first—people could have been complaining about literally anything and I would snap at them. It’s trite and easy to say that that sort of traumatic experience puts things in perspective, though; the grief crowds everything else out. Almost 10 years later, of course, I tweet angry sarcastic messages at the friendly man who runs the @TTChelps Twitter feed when I have to wait five minutes for a subway to show up. As the saying goes, “Time heals all wounds, sometimes too well.”

SK: I don’t think you would be wrong to snap at people who complained, particularly about their moms. People complain about moms a lot. They get a lot of grief. Sometimes deserved, but certainly not all the time.

That said my mom is fucking insane, please handle her for me.

JG: This is what I really wanted to get into. First things first, do you like your mom?

SK: In what way? Like, as my mother or as a lady?

JG: Both, I guess.

SK: I think my mom is a nice lady. When I was younger, people would always come over to my house and rave about my great mom, who is this very charming and funny, who is so sweet and makes amazing food and has the most fantastic skin and looks 10 years younger than she is. But I had a hard time seeing that because my mom is also the lady who has threatened to disown me, like, 15 times in my lifetime. I am only 23. That is a lot of times.

I have loved my mom my whole life, almost to a fault, but I think since I moved out we’ve learned to like each other more and more. Now I feel guilty that I didn’t immediately just say, “Yes of course I like my mom, what am I, a monster?”

JG: I think that’s pretty common—the parent/child relationship becoming richer and more complex as time goes on. But the second part of that question: do you think your mom likes you?

SK: No. I mean, I hope she does, but I don’t have a lot of faith that she actually does. I don’t blame her for that, we just have all the wrong things in common and all the wrong things in... not-common. What’s the word for that?

JG: Right, it’s like magnets with the same polarity—from a distance, it looks like you have all the reason in the world to get along, but the closer you get...

(I paid $700 for that analogy.)

SK: Sounds like you and I have the same therapist.

I also think my mom has a fraught relationship with me because I was both the golden child and also not supposed to exist. She had been trying to have a girl for over a decade and after my brother, had a miscarriage, couldn’t conceive, and then had to get one of her tubes taken out. Then she was supposed to get a hysterectomy but before the surgery found out she was pregnant. Apparently it was a horrible, horrible pregnancy. She had me at 40, which was considered risky, and I’m the only one in my family born in Canada. Then she poops me out and I’m this defiant, bossy, manic jerk, and she’s thinking, “WHY DID I PUT SO MUCH WORK INTO YOU IF YOU WERE GOING TO BE SO PUNCHY.”

JG: My mom was, I think, five months pregnant with me when she and my dad got married, so I was also a surprise. But my mom was adopted, and never knew her birth parents, so I was also her first blood relative. I get the golden-child/thing-that-should-not-be relationship, is what I’m saying.

Do you see much of your mom in yourself, though? Do you think she sees much of herself in you?

SK: Yes on both, which is probably why we fight so fucking much. But I think that’s true for every parent-child relationship.

JG: Probably. What do you fight about, usually?

SK: When I was younger they were massive fights about nothing. I had a lot of resentment about how she disciplined me when I was young—a lot of hitting, which is just how Indian people handle their kids. It took her a long time to grasp why that wasn’t okay with me. There was always an undercurrent in our relationship where we couldn’t trust each other either. Like, I couldn’t trust her to keep my secrets or not tell my dad things (and even now, she will tell him anything), and she didn’t trust that I was being honest with her. But it was this cycle: I’m not going to tell you the truth because you’ll just get mad or tell Papa, and you’re angry that I’m not telling you anything.

That dishonesty thing is probably still a factor, but there isn’t anything I’m not telling her at this point. Did you and your mom fight a lot? Is that a bad question to ask? Am I doing that thing where I step in your grief?

JG: Oh, my grief dried up a long time ago. (That’s from the Rocky sequel I’m writing.) But no, we didn’t fight all that much, even if I probably deserved it. She was always candid about problems in her past—bad acid trips, bad dudes she’d dated—and while that was all fascinating, I also felt like it gave me a free pass to be a prick once I became a dumb teen. A very cool move is being 14 and trying to smoke a cigarette in front of your mom just because she’s smoking a cigarette, and then getting indignant because she is mad about this for some reason.

SK: I have always always, always been fascinated by those kinds of homes.

JG: Typically, though, she was way more worried about sex than drugs (and my dad vice versa).

SK: Reasonable. It’s your mom!

JG: Eventually, my friends could come over and we’d smoke pot in the backyard and she would be inside, painting and drinking wine, not really caring as long as I didn’t ask to sleep at my girlfriend’s place. Then I’d be in my room, sitting at the computer, very, very stoned, and she would come in, pretty drunk, sit on my floor, and make me play the Pearl Jam songs she liked.

SK: Is that a nice memory for you? It sounds nice to me.

JG: At the time I was—what’s the word for a potent mix of cautious optimism and embarrassment and utter dread? Acknowledging that this is a lovely moment, but that we are perilously close to having feelings in front of each other, and not really wanting to deal with whatever dynamic shifts accompany that sort of breach. But now, yes, my mom cross-legged on my floor and loopy on wine singing “Yellow Ledbetter” is an undeniably nice memory.

SK: Is this why you like Pearl Jam so much? (This is pretty much the only reason I will accept.)

JG: Let’s just say yes, if only because it’ll make it harder for you to shit on them in my presence. After all, my mom is dead. (Sorry.)

SK: Oh god, who put all these onions on my desk?????

JG: Oh! As cool as she ended up being with drugs, though, one time, when people were very concerned about raves and ecstasy (and I was mildly interested in both of those things), she found a pill of Excedrin in my pants pocket while doing laundry, and, because it had a big “E” printed on it, got so freaked out that she took it to a pharmacy and asked them to test it for her. That was a sheepish admission at the dinner table.

SK: My mom once watched one of those daytime talk shows about how “friends with benefits” was becoming a thing in high schools, and she asked me what that was, because she had only seen the preview and not the actual show. I told her it was a banking system where friends would share interest rates. I do not know if she believed me and I do not care.

JG: Let’s get back on track: what’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to your mom in a fight?

SK: Either the time I called her a bad mother, or the time that I told her she hated it when I was happy. Both are insane things, but hoo boy, I felt them.

JG: Those seem like pretty standard angsty teen things. I’m beginning to think I should be grading on a curve here.

SK: Is that normal? I don’t know. I punched my mom once.

JG: In the face?

SK: Maybe? I don’t know. We were ... fighting. Limbs were flying. It was the only time my dad ever intervened in an argument between the two of us. I was 16.

JG: Hold on, you’ve literally fought your mom, punched her, I’m going to assume right in the brain, but the worst thing you’ve said to her is that she’s a bad mother?

SK: I can absolutely guarantee that me calling her a bad mother was a worse transgression than anything physical I could have ever done. Again, this is a woman who struggled greatly to have a daughter, and a decade and a half later, I turn out ungrateful and, worse, maybe—mean.

(Also, should be mentioned that it sounds like you and I had very different upbringings. Your mom was pretty honest, it seems, and trusting, whereas I was not allowed to leave the house without a friend until I was 14.)

My mom and I have a dynamic where we love each other so much that we want to murder each other. It’s exhausting.

What was the worst thing you ever said to your mom?

JG: I honestly can’t remember being in a position where I was mad enough that I wanted to hurt her feelings, though I lied constantly about why I was late coming home or stank of weed (“I forgot my wallet at Shannon’s and had to go back,” “Everyone in the car was smoking, it was really rude,” “I was walking through the park and an old man was just lying on the sidewalk and I had to nurse him back to health”). Which, in hindsight, was probably pretty insulting.

One time when my youngest brother was three years old, she had him with her when she was shopping, and he wanted a toy or some candy or something. She was stressed about the fact that she was a 27-year-old single mom with three kids under the age of seven (I’m assuming) and told him to knock it off, and in the middle of Winners, he yelled at the top of his lungs, “FUCK YOU, MOMMY!”

People really treat you like parent of the year when that happens.

SK: But that’s just funny!

JG: Probably not to her!

SK: But maybe in retrospect?

JG: I would hope so—we ended up being a pretty swear-y house. Does your mom have any terms or sayings that you’re quite sure nobody else on Earth says? If we ever got haircuts (related: aside from maybe five or six occasions, she cut my hair until the day she died) or had to wear suits for any reason, it would result in a very enthusiastic “Snaz-a-roony-doony!” from her, because hippies are a scourge.

SK: She did not say that. No she didn’t.

JG: It was a very self-aware snaz-a-roony-doony, but a snaz-a-roony-doony nonetheless.

SK: That’s pretty cute. English isn’t my mom’s first (or second) language, so most of her expressions were mangled English. My favorite was when me and my parents were taking a road trip through Alberta, and we were trying to teach her how to say “Nanton.” She couldn’t say it without a hard “t” sound. We spent the whole trip, trying to explain it to her.

She also does this thing where she makes this weird sound, like a bored “uhhhhhh,” as a way to acknowledge something. It’s an Indian thing, and it drives me goddamn insane. Does that make any sense? It’s so vivid when I imagine it. It sounds like a bored cow.

JG: When my brothers and I were much younger, we also had a long list of “mommy funnies,” which were just embarrassing things that happened to her that we would recite in her presence, like when she pronounced “traffic” in a weird way once, or made a peculiar-sounding fart, or when one of the legs of the chair she was sitting in collapsed. Kids are real shitty.

SK: I don’t know why anyone has children.

Does Mother’s Day actually make you reflect on your mom and appreciate her more than usual?

JG: Not really, which certain friends and brothers will probably tell you is because I grieve like a dickhead (like Colson Whitehead, I have a good poker face because I am not impeded by “human emotions” and whatnot). It’s never been that way for me, though—I’m not susceptible to nostalgia-induced recall like that. She’s just in the ether now, a low-level hum that’s always there if I listen for it: I’m grocery shopping, and I check to see how moldy the raspberries are in this carton, and I had a mom and she died; I’m watching TV with my girlfriend or out at a bar, and I get up to go to the bathroom, and I had a mom and she died. It happens all at once, which I think I prefer. I don’t need to be reminded of her, because how could I forget?

SK: I really wish you would emote about this because that whole passage is making me sob at my desk.

JG: You’re giving me too much power! Okay, let’s bring it on home: what is your Mother’s Day wish for your mom?

SK: Oh, I just hope she knows she did an alright job with the materials she had and her kids are fine. And that even when I was a cunty 14-year-old, I still appreciated what she was doing. And I hope she gets the fucking remote from my father who refuses to let her watch her stories.

Oh, and I hope she doesn’t read this.

Scaachi Koul and Jordan Ginsberg are editors at Hazlitt.

A photograph of the writer.

SCAACHI KOUL was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, BuzzFeed NewsThe HairpinThe Globe and Mail and Jezebel. She is the author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.