On the latest season of the hit HBO show, Succession, there’s this scene with a weighted conversation between a mother and daughter. Throughout the series it is clear the relationship between these two is strained and distant. One evening at a bachelorette party somewhere in Italy, the mother and daughter find themselves sharing more than a cigarette out in the open air. The mother tells her daughter, “You’re my onion.” The daughter returns the compliment.
Last night, after weeping to Tems’ cover of “No Woman, No Cry,” I came to an understanding: my mother is my onion.
I will be turning 31 soon and have been reflecting on the width of my heart—how often it minimizes, how it shrinks its own worth. I’ve been reflecting on how I have had to be my own mother. I cannot remember many days when “I love you” left my mother’s lips or when a hug was gifted to me. But I can remember my kindergarten graduation. A five-year-old Tonya was less impressed with cutesy dresses and more comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts. My mother was embarrassed. One layer of the onion.
I was the good student. I rarely missed days at school, never asked for homework help, stayed out of trouble. But I remember the night she kicked me out of her house over misplaced candy or chips or whatever silly thing that did not matter. This was the first time she’d ever disowned me and meant it. She didn’t ask me to come back. She said I had the devil living inside of me. We didn’t talk for months after that—not until I reached out to her about attending my college graduation. (Most days I think if I did not send that text she would not have been there.) Another layer of the onion.
But the first memory is the one that cuts deepest. As a young mom, she left me with my grandparents to go live her life in New York. New man. New siblings. The first layer of the onion.
This is not to blame my mother for what she did not have but to understand why things feel the way they do. I am needy; I feel undesired; I hold on too tightly; I push people away. I have loved many men and have seen them walk away—some were even difficult to let go of. Some I let inside just to feel something, anything. I am caught between these two truths: I want love, but I don’t deserve it.
When you slice into an onion, there are often tears that follow.
I struggle with control because I am afraid of what I cannot keep. But in the keeping there is a void, and in the void is my mother’s name.
The last time I saw her was in 2019. We barely talk now, and most of our communication is through text messages from my little sister that read something like, “Mom says hi and she loves you.” It feels like grieving a parent who is still alive, like living with the presence of a ghost.
Melissa, you are my onion. This is not a bad thing. It is a map, a blueprint, a layer I peel back to find that my worth was there the entire time. I will be turning 31 soon, and I am proud of the woman I am becoming.
Who or what is your onion, and how are you peeling back the layers—how are you healing?