Emerging Writer Series
Every couple weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, the essay “Inheritance,” from Mia Innocenti. Mia is a creative nonfiction writer based in New York City. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a 2022 Aspen Summer Words Fellow. Her work can be found in Honeyguide Literary Magazine.
A lot of daughters are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to inherit their mother’s characteristics. I err on the side of adoration for the qualities I’ve absorbed from my mom. I walk like her, I cross my arms like her. I pull the sleeves of my sweaters over the palms of my hands like she does. I laugh a witchy cackle like she does, snort like her, find fart jokes way too funny. I have the same birthmarks she does, the same long arms, the same bad dance moves. I’m petty like my mom. I have the same poor taste in men. And I had an abortion at twenty-two years old, just like my mom.
I didn’t tell my mom about my procedure until two weeks after it was over. I had already completed my stressing and wallowing. I had taken hot showers and skipped my classes. I had started to heal, all without my mom’s help. And that didn’t sit right with her. When I told her about the abortion, I cracked a joke about how I was simply following in her footsteps.
“It really wasn’t a big deal. A quick four minutes and it was done. You know how it goes,” I said with a flick of my wrist. I remember my mom tightening her grip on the steering wheel. Her hands looked pink, her knuckles white.
“We can compare notes now,” I joked. “Maybe over tea?”
I kept my eyes on my mom the whole time. Her cheeks were puffed as if she hadn’t let her breath go and she seemed hypnotized by the road ahead. She was driving us home from a pre-Thanksgiving trip to Target.
In hindsight, I could have chosen a safer time to uncover the only secret I had ever kept from her. She swerved right into the road’s shoulder. I’ve always been the type to speak before I think, stuttering my way through every sentence—a result, my mom says, of being overly excited or anxious. Apart from a few sighs, my mom stayed silent. This came as a shock to me since I’d learned to speak before thinking from my mother. When we pulled into our driveway fifteen minutes later, Mom put the car in park and turned to me. Instead of remaining in her eyes, tears settled onto Mom’s cheeks, chin, and even the tip of her pointed nose. She stared at me for what felt like ten minutes, but could only have been a few seconds, and I wracked my brain for something to say. When I couldn’t think of anything of substance, I whispered, “I’m sorry.” I waited for her to hold my hand or cradle my face, the way she had so many times before after she’d found me hurting. Instead, she turned off the car, unbuckled her seatbelt, and opened her door. Before stepping out, she turned to me again and said, “I just wish you would have told me.”
The first time I tried to write about my mother, a girl in my workshop provided me with only one comment: “You would be the type to have a good relationship with your mom.” I took her feedback as a compliment, though I’m not sure she meant it as one. That girl was right: I am the type to have a good relationship with my mom, and I’m grateful for it. My mom and I formed our first tight bond when she and my dad were divorced. (Past tense necessary: they rekindled when I was seven and have been together ever since.)
For the first six years of my life, she and I lived in a two-story house on Radcliff Avenue in the Bronx. It was the same color as the dry grass in its backyard. The last nineteen years have blurred its image: I can vaguely see both the small front porch and upstairs balcony in a memory of waking up one December morning when I was three to colorful outdoor lights and Christmas decor. I can’t exactly remember the decorations themselves, but what I can recall is the story my mom made up of the elves that must have come while we were sleeping. How lucky were we to have been chosen by Santa’s elves for a Christmas miracle?
The house on Radcliff was haunted, though by who or what we were never sure. My mom told me that one time when I was sitting on my knees drawing, sandwiched between the couch and the coffee table, she caught me with my eyes fixed on the top of the staircase. I shook my head before shielding my eyes. When she asked me what was wrong, I responded, “The man wants me to come play again, but I already told him no.” My mom had always believed in the supernatural. A few days after my reenactment of The Sixth Sense, she sat up in the middle of the night with me tucked in beside her and saw an old man smoking in her reading chair at the other end of the room. He smiled, waved, and, when she’d rubbed her eyes twice, he vanished. The smoke from his cigarette lingered in his absence.
The house on Radcliff was perfect for two people and not one more. It was our place—a new life that my mom began for us all on her own. Although she went on her fair share of dates, she never brought any of the men into our home. They were all unworthy. The house on Radcliff was our oasis, a place where Pop-Tarts and Devil Dogs were for breakfast, Barbies covered the floor, and Gilmore Girls lived on the television. Nothing has ever beat the love I still hold for that house—for the dry grass, the Christmas lights, our ghost. For the time that my mom and I had to ourselves.
As all great things tend to do, the time alone with my mom at Radcliff came to end. She fixed her marriage with my dad, and we abandoned our home to move to a house in a strange suburb where our street sounded like a fruit and our mailbox, inherited from the family before us, looked like a cat. I got older, and my mom’s stomach grew. (When she shared the exciting news of my soon-to-be sister living inside of her, I was disappointed that the news wasn’t a trip to Disney World instead.)
But Mom and I figured out a way to make the shared house feel like it was just ours every now and then. We closed the doors to the office-turned-living room late at night to watch an episode of Gilmore Girls. I thought about those nights a lot in the weeks after my abortion. I felt the ghost of her, pregnant belly and all, next to me on my couch in an apartment I lived in on my own. All I wanted was her there with me, but we’d forgotten how to talk to one another. Our conversations dwindled down to two-minute phone calls littered with small talk about the weather and our schedules.
I know now that my mom was taught to keep quiet about her abortion at twenty-two. She came from a long lineage of women who learned to survive by persevering in silence. Women who stuck out the bad so that the girls who looked up to them would only be exposed to the good. When she finally did come around to speaking about her abortion, she spoke mainly of the public opinion surrounding it. Abortion wasn’t discussed as freely in 1991, and, while my mom wasn’t ashamed of her procedure, she definitely had no plans to discuss it outside of her immediate circle. Conversations around abortion were kept so hush-hush that black coffee parties became common—if not for every woman with an unexpected pregnancy in the ‘90s, at least among my mom’s friend group.
The genesis of the black coffee party took place in her friend’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. The idea was for her friend to consume as much caffeine as she could in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. My mom says they sat for a few hours talking, dancing along to Celine Dion and Madonna, daydreaming about what their lives would be like if they could sing as well as their idols, and finishing pot after pot of coffee. It didn’t matter that only one woman was trying to induce a miscarriage. Everyone drank. It was a holy ritual in which no one was allowed to feel alone. By agreeing to attend a party, your initiation into the club was sealed with a ceramic mug. You drank until your head buzzed and your hands twitched. You drank until you were Madonna or Celine. You drank until your stomach cramped and you couldn’t remember who was pregnant to begin with.
About a month after she taught me about black coffee parties, my mom called to tell me about a recovered memory from her childhood: the scent of burnt coffee haunting her nostrils, and an image of her mother with a mug in hand for a week straight. I built a theory that her mother may have induced her own miscarriage at twenty-two and ran with it. I came across as a sleep-deprived detective, laying out my evidence, desperate for someone to tell me that I was right. My mother and I now talk about the loneliness that came hand-in-hand with our abortions, and I often wonder what it would have been like for my grandma if she ever found herself in our situations. She’d left her friends and family back in Puerto Rico and barely spoke English. Who was going to be there for her? I found the thought of the three of us sharing this wicked commonality fascinating. I called our similarity a generational curse. Mom was quick to reject that notion.
“When we’re not careful, we tend to pick our boys from the crappy bunch,” she said. “But hey, good on us for knowing we don’t want their children. You know when you’re not being watered enough. You got that from your mama.”
The relationship between the two of us lived in tension for only a few weeks. But those few weeks felt like months. (If you haven’t gathered by now, that woman is my best friend.) My mom and I reconciled just before Christmas Eve. I learned that the crux of our issues took form not in the abortion itself, but in the way my mom thought that she had failed me. By my not telling her, my mom thought that somewhere along the way she had broken my trust. That she had shown me a side of her that I didn’t feel safe with. Meanwhile, timing is everything: I had found out about my pregnancy in the days between my youngest sister’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary. How could I have overshadowed either with my mistake? Another side of myself inherited from the lineage before me.
When our relationship took a turn for the better, Mom told me that she had wanted to talk to her mom about her pregnancy when she found out. That she wanted to ask my grandma to come with her because she was sad and she was scared. But she knew that my grandma wouldn’t hold her hand, and wouldn’t cradle her face. She wouldn’t tell her that it was okay. She would say, simply, “Keep your voice down.”
My mom and I sat on either end of our phones silently— mine nestled into the pocket between my ear and shoulder, hers most likely on the kitchen counter while she prepped for dinner. Her voice was static and distant. She had the phone on speaker. I leaned back into my sofa and pulled my knees to my chest as I settled into the idea of the two of us finding ourselves pregnant and alone at the same age. That, despite being in a relationship with someone we loved, we were left so goddamn alone. I thought about my mom filling her stomach with coffee at one of the parties before she needed to and her abortion that followed a few months later. Her friends weren’t there for that. I wondered which Madonna song she had listened to in her headphones the entire four minutes.
I pictured my mom alone in the waiting room, wishing that her mother would have come with her. I saw her eye twitch the same way it does now when she holds back tears, the same way mine does. I think back to my own abortion and how lucky I was to have a friend I trusted to sit by my side. Even though I wasn’t alone, I felt the loneliest I had ever been because my mom wasn’t there. She hadn’t known what to say to me when I told her because she couldn’t see past the thought that I didn’t trust her enough to bring her with me. My mom spent weeks angry with herself for not being there. She thought that she had failed me, not only as a mom but as my best friend.
“Are you still there?”
Mom’s voice broke through the phone. I found myself at a loss for words, the way I had been in the car on our way home from Target. I nodded my head and through some mommy magic, she understood.
“You’re going to be a really good mom one day,” she said. “If that’s what you want.”
I felt a bubble form in my throat and my eye twitched. I looked around the room and found myself back at Radcliff. Two half-eaten Pop-Tarts lay on the coffee table in front of us, a rainbow-scribbled scrap of paper beside them. Mom is sitting on the couch with her eyes glued to the TV. Gilmore Girls is on and we’re singing along to the theme song, “Where You Lead.” I’m braiding her hair, tangling it more with every pull of each strand. Nothing matters outside of this moment, this couch, outside our home. I love her so much.
When I shifted my attention back to our phone call, Mom’s breathing steadied into smooth huffs. I imagined her exhalations mimicking the cigarette smoke that had lingered from our ghost. She was on edge. We were still getting to know each other again.
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