Kim Magowan & Michelle Ross ~Abuse and Other Words My Mother and I Disagree About

My moth­er acts like the con­flict between her and me is seman­tic, rather than due to her crap­py par­ent­ing. For instance, when I try to talk to her about how when I was a kid and she was pissed at me, or sim­ply found me irri­tat­ing and noisy, she would make me sit in the garage by myself for hours (pitch dark, smelling like ran­cid milk), she says, “It’s ridicu­lous to call that ‘abuse’! I nev­er laid a hand on you. Your gen­er­a­tion is much too loosey-goosey with words.”

Which makes me smile— mad­den­ing as my moth­er is, the way she’ll let fly some phrase like “loosey-goosey,” as if she’s a fifties house­wife in a flow­ered apron, kills me.

So I press her. I want to know what oth­er words she takes umbrage with.

She gives me a look to con­firm that I’m not mess­ing with her (my moth­er and I have min­i­mal trust in each oth­er), and says, “All right, what about gen­der? In my day, gen­der was a con­crete thing that you just were. You all act as if it’s a cos­tume you can just throw on. ‘Today I’m feel­ing like a girl.’ Gender is not some­thing you feel!”

Says the woman who tells me I ought to make an effort to look more fem­i­nine,” I say. “And what about your birth­day twin?”

My moth­er hates it when I call David Bowie her birth­day twin, though it is true they share the same birthday—same year as well as the same date. I real­ized this only after he died, and weird­ly, this fact prompt­ed me to call her when I heard the news. I took Bowie’s death hard. What my moth­er said: “You didn’t even know the man. It makes no sense to be so sad.”

Impossible to explain to her that as a kid, I felt more seen by David Bowie than I did by my own moth­er. Those long, dark hours in the garage, Bowie was who kept me com­pa­ny. I sang “Life on Mars?” to myself and the crickets.

On the phone that evening, I repeat­ed “sad­den­ing bore” over and over again until my moth­er said, “Finis!”

Now she says, “His songs are nonsense.”

And what do you mean by nonsense?”

My moth­er looks at me, again to ver­i­fy that I’m not fuck­ing with her, and appar­ent­ly decides instead I’m a moron. She twirls one hand in the air, con­vey­ing dis­missal. “Poppycock. Balderdash,” she says, and again my irri­ta­tion at her dis­solves in the face of her words. The fifties house­wife with the apron morphs into some Victorian lord with a hooked, dis­dain­ful nose and a bur­gundy vel­vet smok­ing jacket.

Sometimes I think my moth­er and I would final­ly get along if, instead of try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate, to explain our­selves to each oth­er, we just sat across a table and occa­sion­al­ly emit­ted sin­gle words: “star­ship,” “per­ni­cious,” “grasshop­per.”


Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teach­es in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short sto­ry col­lec­tion Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her nov­el The Light Source is forth­com­ing from 7.13 Books this July. Her fic­tion has been pub­lished wide­ly.  She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award.  Her fic­tion has recent­ly appeared or is forth­com­ing in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, and oth­er venues. She is Fiction Editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.