Sylvia Plath’s Daughter
This is a story about my parents, as is, in one way or another, every story I have written or will eventually write. It’s a story about fascination, about a feeling so strong it runs through my blood faster than oxygen. It’s a story about submerging myself in the pool that is my folks and about how unreasonable I tend to be when certain things are at stake. It’s also a story about hair wax, candles and rice and beans. It starts with me reading an article on Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, and being very unpleased with it.
The article disclosed that Frieda Hughes had never opened one of her mother’s books up until she was a teenager. She had not read any poems, wasn’t even aware that her mother had committed suicide until many years later, when someone at some writing class broke the news. I was so shocked learning these things, I had to put my iPad down for a moment to gather my thoughts. Sylvia Plath is one of the most influent poets of the XX century and my all time favorite writer, yet her daughter never took interest in her work until she was a young woman. I can’t imagine how that was possible. It’s hard for me to sympathize with Frieda and even harder to accept that her relationship with her late mother was, in a lot of ways, different from my relationship with my own mother —I did say I get unreasonable.
“It’s easier to see the beginning of things and harder to see the ends,” wrote Joan Didion many years ago, and I think she was right. I can tell exactly when my fascination with my parents began, or at least when I first remember being fascinated. It was the day I was born —no, I’m kidding. It was actually the day I turned three and asked that, for my birthday that year, they let me sleep in the same bed as them forever. “Forever is a very long time,” my mom replied. “That’s right. I want to sleep in the same bed as you and daddy for a very long time.”
I was five when I started brushing my teeth in my parent’s bathroom. It was a lovely time to be around them because as they were busy getting ready for the day, they forgot about me for a few minutes, just enough time for me to witness, barefoot and in my pajamas, the wonder of their adulthood. I loved watching my father fix his hair. The shape of his head. The smell of the yellow sticky wax. The way he spread a tiny bit of it on his palms and then evenly applied it onto his hair, and how I thought (and still think) that no other man could ever be that handsome, morning, afternoon or evening. The TV was always on in their bedroom, always on some sensationalist news channel that I deemed boring and unappealing.
“Why do you have to watch it all the time?” I remember protesting.
“So I can do a better job of protecting you,” He replied.
I was on Facetime with my mom last week and I noticed she’d lit some candles in her study. She didn’t tell me she is into candles these days, nor did she have to: the order in which she’d placed the candles gave away that they were a thing. I know it because I have made it my job to observe her. My mom puts the rice first on her plate, and then the beans, on top of the rice. It’s never the other way around. One time not too long ago, we were eating lunch at a Cuban restaurant with my dad’s coworker from court. It was a lovely day out and the event was going smoothly until the waiter started serving her plate. Son of a gun got it all wrong: he put the beans first, and then the rice. I could tell right away that she was disappointed. She smiled a little polite smile and reached out for the plate, but before she could say anything, I raised my hand quickly and asked if I could have it instead. She looked at me a little confused because she knows that, just like her, I take my beans on top of the rice. But if only one of us can have this privilege, I’d rather it be her.
There was a time when my father’s sessions at court were broadcasted on a local news channel, and even though it was a super bureaucratic job, I didn’t miss one episode. How could I? My father was on TV! And then he’d come home at night wearing the same suit he’d worn earlier and it would be my turn to wear it. I’d have dinner in it. I even wore it to bed a few times, and my poor mom had to wait for me to fall asleep so she could undress me. I didn’t care that it was as hot inside the house or that my hands couldn’t reach the end of the sleeves. It was my father’s suit, so obviously I had to go to bed in it.
There was also the day I moved to a different state to go to college and my old man cried so hard, he slept at grandma’s because he couldn’t bear to look at my empty bedroom (before that, the last time he slept at grandma’s was the summer of 1970). And the time I secretly learned how to play “You needed me”, by Anne Murray, on the guitar, so I could surprise my mom on her birthday. And all those times hugging their pillows when they were traveling because I missed them terribly.
I want to sit down in front of everyone I’ve met and ask, much like a child would, “Is it normal to feel this way?” I would love to learn that there are people out there who are like me on this matter, but I don’t think I can handle the verdict. And hey, who knows? Maybe it is a healthy thing, after all. Maybe it’s a kind of benign survival tool: this primal need to feel loved, cared for, indispensable. It might even be evolution’s fault —I might have been wired to be crazy, to pass judgment on female poets I have never met whose mothers’ books mean the world to me. You know what? I’m going to begin a literary tradition: to write story after story about how irrational it is to not be crazy in love with one’s parents. I’ll start with this one.
* Ilustração: Thiago Thomé (Liquidpig) para a Confeitaria.