As a kid, I loved fairy tales, but I could never connect to Snow White. I reveled in the rebellion of Cinderella and the bold bookishness of Belle, heck I even enjoyed Sleeping Beauty if only for the dragon. I just never could get myself into Snow White. She seems so lame in comparison and I couldn’t identify with her struggles or her villain.
Snow White runs away from her struggles, and then her struggles come knocking. In the fairy tale, she opens the door to the dwarf cabin for the Evil Queen three times. The first time she opens the door the Queen has a poisoned hair comb, the second time the Queen brings a corset to crush Snow White’s ribs. The third time is when the poisoned apple makes its appearance. Disney edited down to just the apple, a choice that really takes away from the sheer stupidity this girl engaged in. Fool me once, shame one me, fool me three times and maybe Snow White shouldn’t make decisions anymore.
I was always so annoyed with Snow White for this. You would think that after that first time she wouldn’t open the door again. There is a limit to how stupid someone can be to keep opening the door and letting the thing that has hurt you in the past into your home and life. Right?
I think the first time I ever gave a shit about Snow White was in my women’s studies course in college. I was reading a book about the feminist nature of fairy tales when I came across a passage that changed everything for me:
“As child psychologist Bruno Betterlheim point out a century and a half after the Grimm’s fairy tales were written, it is unbearable for a child to that Mother can be indifferent to his needs, angry, punitive, threatening – can even want to be rid of him for a while – so he concludes that the heartless female must be an intruder who has taken the place of his good, kind mother while he wasn’t looking. She must be a stepmother, witch, ogress, or wolf who will be replaced when his good mother reappears on the scene.
The Brothers Grimm, who started their work as scholars bent on unearthing the roots of their Germanic culture, unconsciously colluded in this fantasy of the split mother. When they realized that the first editions of their Nursery and Household Tales were being sold not only to their fellow folklore scholars as planned, but primarily to newly prosperous middle-class parent who wanted stories to read to their children at bedtime, they censored their language. In the original edition of this story, printed in 1812, Snow White is persecuted by a woman identified as her mother….” – Spinning Straw into Gold by Joan Gould
That changes things a little bit, don’t you think? If the woman on the other side of the door is your mother and not a witch, how are you supposed to keep it closed?
Some families pass down plates, or blankets, or glass. My family, we pass down traumas at the hands of mothers. As a child, I had three grandmothers, two who loved me and I saw regularly, and one who I knew of but rarely saw. At the holiday dinner tables, my mom and aunt would discuss how half of the family still wasn’t speaking to each other. There was a great gaping wound in the family left by the actions of a woman who barely spoke to her children.
There is a memory, stored in a box in my mind. I am small and my room is a soft pink and grey. I have freshly brushed hair and sit on my bed in my pajamas awaiting a bedtime story. My mother comes into the room and holds me in a hug that crushes me. It hurts a little more than it should. Her perfume is too strong to my sleepy senses. She whispers something that to my child’s mind was, “I will always love you. I will never abandon you. I promise to never be cruel.” It was strange and scary in a way I couldn’t voice.
I don’t know much about my maternal grandmother. I think in the course of my life thus far I have spent maybe 72 hours in her presence. She did all the things that were expected of her, she sent gifts and cards for birthdays and holidays, but she was not a part of my life. From the stories I have heard I know that she was a cold and unfeeling mother who cast out her children after her divorce. I know that reconciliation between my maternal grandmother and three of her children is a recent thing and has required that they bury their past grievances and pain.
It’s not a normal thing to grow up knowing you have a grandparent that doesn’t love you or doesn’t know how to love you. Parents, and grandparents by extension, are supposed to be the loving safety net that protects you as you grow and change into the person you were meant to be. There is a reason that Cinderella is a fairy tale, because mothers are supposed to love their children.
For years I thought my grandmother was going to be a hiccup, the one cruel member of the family that we tolerated and loved in spite of her shortcomings. My mother would have her Cinderella story, of how her mother loved one child best and pushed the other out of the house in rags, and that would be the end of it. Mom got the happy ending with the prince and children. It could be a scary bedtime story for soft pink rooms, told over teddy bears.
Then, one clear November day my world crumbled.
My father’s battle with cancer took four long, torturous years. It picked away at each of us in deadly ways we still incapable of expressing. Watching your hero be eaten alive from the inside is not a pain any child should bear. Ten years later I still struggle to deal with the impact of those days and the regrets of an adult looking back at the actions of a paralyzed child. Vast corridors of my mind are filled with aching memories I dare not touch for fear they will bring me to my knees, even now.
His death, at the time, seemed to be the worst thing that could possibly happen to me or my family. I had lost my mentor and adviser. Gone was the person who had given me so many of his passions. In truth, it was the aftermath of his death that ruined our bonds and began a new cycle of pain. This is a fairy tale, remember? It’s not a real fairy tale without a dead father and a worse fate that follows.
My mother and I have always had a slightly strained relationship. She was hoping to have a ‘girlie’ girl, someone to share in her love of all things pink, glitter, and perfumed. I came into this world fully formed and ready to dress up in nothing but jeans and leather. I can’t stand glitter. Dresses make me feel exposed and uncomfortable. I don’t enjoy romance movies and would rather watch a good action flick or better yet science fiction. I don’t like live music and I would rather read than go out and party. My father imparted on me a cutting wit and a tendency to be sarcastic at all times. On those Meyers-Briggs tests I come out nearly every time deeply in the ‘thinking’ categories, my mother is all ‘feeling’.
These aren’t world ending issues, mind you, just the normal problems women experience with their mothers. We did have shared interests and in all things, she was still my mother, so what did it really matter that I wouldn’t dress up the way she wanted? Sure we fought about the clothes I wore and the movies to watch but who doesn’t have those fights with their mother?
My mother did not handle the loss of my father well. I am putting it lightly here. Stephen Sondheim got it right with Into The Woods: act two of this play is where the princess losses her mind. My mother took to her bed like Sleeping Beauty, cursed to spend the rest of her days entombed in her bed. It lasted for years.
I was a child when this happened though my body was that of an adult, my brother was younger still. In a matter of months, we lost both of our parents. We were lost in the woods without even breadcrumbs to show us the way back.
At first, we stood by her. I pulled her out of bed and made her shower, I drove her to doctors and to church and begged her to care, or try to care, about the world around her. My brother stayed home more and more in order to spend time with her and attempted to get through to her. My aunt came over nearly every day to help us. We tried sending her to three different mental health facilities, each time she would leave or tell us we were wrong. She wasted away in a state of disassociation so great that her children’s care ceased to mean anything to her.
Eventually, we both had to turn away. I had to finish school and get on with my life and my brother needed to complete college. We stopped trying to connect with her so hard. We moved on with our lives. The castle held nothing for us, it was time to go off into the world and leave Sleeping Beauty to her curse.
Six years after the death of my father, my mother woke up, and she wanted to eat our hearts. She told us both in so many works to ‘get fucked’. She accused us of drugging her. She accused my brother of robbing her. She took my aunt, who had spent nearly every day helping us and her, off her will and changed it to her other sister who she barely spoke to. She blasted us on social media and in emails for being uncaring and heartless.
The horror of those years will never leave me. To watch my mother die, in her own way, and come back as a monster determined to rip my heart from my still beating chest. This wasn’t the woman who had held me in that room filled with stuffed animals and promised never to be cruel, she was a witch wearing my mother’s face. The step-mother had arrived.
My aunt once told me, “When my mother turned her back on us I had to convince myself she was dead. I wouldn’t have been able to go on with the thought that my own mother could hate me so much to cut off all contact. So I told myself she was dead. It helped”. I think about her words and the tale of a young girl with snow white skin who’s mother wants her dead. I think about how in the fairy tale Snow White lets the witch into the cabin three times, hoping against hope that this time they can be reunited. She didn’t seem so stupid to me now. Now she seems desperate and sad.
Now, I understood Snow White. She felt like me.
“Once we have accepted the story we cannot escape the story’s fate.” – P.L. Travers
There are journals, filled with the stories of each time I opened the cabin door. The time we tried going to New York for Thanksgiving and the horror of being walked out on in a city that was not my home. The fruitless struggles of trying to reason with my mother when she started dating a man who was a no good snake, and then having vindication when he robbed her, but at the expense of her engagement ring from my father. I have emails filled to the brim with poison. A stab to my scalp with a comb made of words. A corset of pain crushing my ribs. A basket of apples, rotten to the core.
This is the part of the story where I took a page out of Snow White’s book. I kept opening the cabin door.
Sure, I stayed away, locked in the woods far from her castle, with my friends there to cheer me up and protect me. I made a family out of those who I was not related to by blood and they saw me through the worst of it. There was even a prince out in the woods, but this story isn’t about him. Then, when I was ready to try again I would unblock her from my phone and give this relationship business another try.
It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been perfect, but each year we get closer to being able to bury the pain of the past. I know that I will never look at my mother the same way. She is not the same person she was before my father died. Then again, neither am.
In life so often we are taught to love and obey our mothers. They are the vessel through which we enter this life, and yet they are not infallible goddesses. They can disappoint us and leave us broken and scared. They can be just as cruel as an enemy, and their blades reach twice as deep because they know where we are weak and vulnerable.
I tried writing a version of this story years ago, back when I kept the cabin door bolted against the woman on the other side. I tried writing a story about my brother and I eating too much red sauce for this blog, because I wasn’t ready to share this tale. I have tried many times to put into words the weird empty pain I feel every day from the holes in myself left by the abandonment and wrath of my mother.
When Courtney asked for submissions to Meet Me At The Long Table I mostly thought she wanted recipes, but I have come to realize this is less about the food and more about being open about who we are and what makes us tick. I don’t think I could introduce myself, as I am today, without baring open this part of myself.
Hi, I’m Alyse. I like fairy tales, science fiction, baking, researching, leather jackets, colorful sneakers and the smell of fall. I hate the color pink, all things glittery and nearly every romantic comedy I have ever seen. This is a piece of who I am.
It’s getting better now. I open the cabin door and the woman on the other side is not dressed in rags and holding a poisoned comb, or a corset to crush my ribs, or a basket of rotten apples. One day I will open the door and see a woman I can think of as my mother. We aren’t there yet, but we are getting close. This fairy tale isn’t over, there are no iron shoes in the future, we still have time to pick a new narrative. This is our story, but it’s not over yet.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman, Coraline
Since apples are the theme of the day, I’ve created a ‘poisoned’ (just with bourbon) apple pie recipe to share with you as well. You can find the recipe here: ‘Poisoned’ Apple Pie.