My Manhattan career began at a small yet very chic ad agency on Broadway in NoHo, which was referred to in those days as “Silicon Alley”. You know the type, soaring loft ceilings with the guts of the building displayed like a designer construction site. All of the desks were at off angles and the walls were bright yellow. Everything that wasn’t coated in paint was polished stainless steel. It was all just so shiny. Coming from a sea of grey cubes at Raleigh’s IBM campus, it was like I had stepped into Oz.
We worked eighty-hour weeks, blazing new trails on what was still referred to in some circles as the information super highway. At that time we had both the Chef Boyardee and Jose Cuervo accounts, which meant all of the free canned pasta and tequila you could consume. Most of the food was left over from failed market testing of new recipes like Shrimp Alfredo and the like. Mock if you will but if you’re broke, drunk, and designing at 2 am shrimp in a can doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. The copywriters were always off smoking pot in the stairwells. Our ideas were plastered online and on billboards. We had the flashiest websites and the cleverest taglines. “Cuervo. Make strangers your friends and your friends a lot stranger.” We were living the dream.
For years Mom would refer to this as my “career phase” as if it were something you could take an antibiotic for or at least outgrow in time to make some babies and get that coveted part time gift shop position. At the time she said her biggest failure was raising me to be too independent. I’m not a parent and likely never will be but that seems a little backwards to me. In fact, my independence is the greatest gift she ever gave me. I should thank her for that, but I probably won’t.
“I’m sorry I made you bipolar.”
Wait, what? My mother stood in the kitchen stoically wiping a dish that was already dry. “I know I made you this way.” I was stunned, and at quite a loss for words. I was already uncomfortable in this scene even without the abrupt confession.
My mother’s house was so her: beautiful and unwelcoming. She had always lived in that damned yellow kitchen. Lemon and white striped wallpaper, stiff and perfect, topped with an elaborate wrap-around border painted with fruits and vegetables. I remember when she picked out the wallpaper. She loved that border so much but it was about two inches too wide to fit over the top the doorways in the room. Instead of picking a slimmer one, she made the interior designer hand-trim the extra two inches of white border off the bottom, cutting around each leaf and stem of that intricate pattern until it blended with seeming effortlessness into the stripes below, just passing above the impeding doorways. That was my mother.
I was wedged awkwardly into one of her prickly wicker side chairs; staring blankly at the back of her head as Fox News was droning on in the background. “I don’t think that’s the way it works, Mom.” I didn’t want to let her off the hook. There were so many other things she needed to apologize for. This just wasn’t one of them.
I was just grateful that she finally acknowledged something went wrong with the way she raised me. While she was misguided in her apology, I appreciated the effort. In many ways I’ve made peace with it all. Maybe I’ve just become skilled at compartmentalizing over the years. There’s the adult version of me who sees a tiny, increasingly frail woman inching slowly and tragically toward dementia. It’s difficult to harbor rage for such a helpless creature. But child me? Child me is pissed.