My first and most complex relationship


Posted by on Dec 6, 2009 in Angst, anger, anarchy, Death and renewal, Mother | 0 comments

Slamming the door in anger was not allowed in my home. The punishment was to be spanked, and then with deep shuttering sobs shaking my body, I was required to go back and close the door gently. Sometimes it took three or four repeats to make the closing sufficiently soft to suit my mother. I think I was about eleven when I finally learned the lesson that my anger would have to be expressed more covertly. I do not think it was the lesson my mother intended. It was around that age when I started stealing money from one of her many pocketbooks on an almost daily basis. She carried a different one each day, leaving a wealth of change jingling in the bottom of all the others. It was money she never missed, money I did not need, money she would have given me if I had been able to explain why I wanted it. I did not care to explain even if I had known why. I took it and spent it at the drug store on cherry fountain cokes or strawberry ice cream sundaes, often treating my friends too, the ones my mother told me really didn’t like me because I was whatever thing she was annoyed about at the time.

We were at eye level by the time I was eleven but I grew three inches in the next year, making her the smallest, but still the most terrifying person in my world. Although we never spoke a word about the changes happening in my body, my mother’s tight lipped disapproval seemed to increase as I morphed rapidly from child to woman. It was that summer that I finally stood defiant and stared her down the last time she ever dared to punish me physically. I did not sob or even speak. I waited until she was finished shouting her angry triad and hitting me, and then I walked quietly to my room and shut the door softly, just the way I had been taught. Behind that closed door I sat dry eyed and felt the power grow in me.

I became a stranger to my mother that day, as she did to me. It was not that moment alone, but the accumulation of blows both physical and emotional that made me close the door gently, my rage sucked inside. Since that time I have traveled many miles and years from my childhood home, often being self destructive, very rarely turning my anger outward. I never realized how much I let it control me until the spring day in 1994 when my sister called me and said, “I’m afraid I have some very bad news.” Although Mother had been ill, the death was unexpected. None of us believed a woman so strong and fierce could actually die, especially not during what her doctor said was a simple surgery. I was numb inside for many weeks, but pictures of that time come to me in dream-like memories.

My husband drove the twelve hours to the place I once called home. My children sat in the front of the van, frightened, while I lay silent and almost comatose in the back seat. I wish I could say I tried to find words to comfort them, but I was an empty husk, moving only mechanically, unable to even hear their loving attempts at condolences. Sometime later that evening I sat in the enormous bedroom my mother shared with her husband of fifty eight years and listened as my family tried to figure out how to arrange a funeral without Mother’s supervision. No one asked my opinion. I was the outsider, a role I deserved, but there in the middle of my chest I felt the old familiar anger at my mother for bringing me to this place with these feelings. Right beside the anger was the grief for the mother I always wanted, and hidden beneath it all was a terrible guilty relief that I never again had to hear her tell me why I was a failure.

Thousands of people who loved and revered my saintly Mother filed past her casket where she lay so tiny in death. She wore an unfamiliar blue suit, my brother’s choice of clothing. On her cold left hand was the diamond my father had given her for her 50th anniversary and on the right the Eastern Star ring I had never seen her wear in life. My sister had insisted the jewelry be buried with her. Somehow in seating people for the funeral my family and I ended up on the second row, with me on the far end, directly behind one of the giant columns of the First Baptist Church sanctuary, while my father, brother, sister and all their children sat in front. It was only later I realized I had still been praying that in this last goodbye I would somehow finally be a child beloved, cherished, asked to come to the altar rail and receive her blessing. The symbol would be lost on her of course, because kneeling in public was a scorned ritual of the Methodist Church that I had joined despite her objections.

As the time without her has slipped by, I have shed my anger a bit each year, like a snake letting go of its skin in order to grow. In those rare times when I have lost my temper with one of my three children I have done my worst by going to my room and slamming the door. The boys accepted it and left me alone, but it always made my daughter furious to hear the noise, the closing off of communication. I have come to understand that my resolve to never spank my children did not free me of the curse of my own childhood. The slamming of the door is no more helpful in teaching them to deal with their anger than the blows from my mother’s hand. I had to invent a way of showing love, and allowing anger, and letting my children know how amazing they are to me. In those areas where I have done badly I have gone, pride discarded, and asked their forgiveness. Hopefully I have not made them suffer too much because of my ignorance of mothering. I do not want to have to die to set them free.

Read More

Mother’s Day

Posted by on May 11, 2008 in Death and renewal, Mother, Spirit | 0 comments

When I was a child, when I was a Baptist, when my mother was alive, we would be pinning on our corsages about this time on a Sunday morning. They would all be red carnations to honor our living mothers, and later I would look around the church sadly and uncomfortably at all the white ones that designated the departed mothers. My grandparents didn’t come to our church, but my mother’s mom attended the tiny chapel in Echols, Kentucky, where the only sign of civilization other than churches and houses was my grandfather’s general store. My dad’s mom didn’t go to church at all as she never learned to drive a car, had been reared as a Methodist, and was not especially religious, one of the things I liked about her. After what seemed an eternity of fidgeting on hard wooden pews in our itchy starched clothes, my parents would take my brother, sister and I out to eat in one of the two acceptable restaurants in our booming metropolis of Beaver Dam. It was a rare treat in those simpler times, a change from my mother’s roast beef waiting at home in the oven for the potatoes and carrots to be added and other vegetables to be cooked while we changed out of our Sunday best and helped Mother get dinner on the table.

This formulaic happy childhood exists for me now just out of the corner of my eye, disappearing if I look directly. Occasionally a smell assaults my nose and takes me back there in a quick flash, the wooden floors and ice cream smell of my grandfather’s store, the musty coal oil and biscuit odor of my grandmother’s house, the sweet funereal scent of a corsage, all transport me to those days of innocence. I can’t help but think about them all on this day, the tactless and self absorbed mother of my mother, the fierce and outspoken mother of my father, and the brilliant but insecure mother that reared me with a love that was deep enough to drown us all. Now they are all gone, dust to dust, and I am left to write the history the way I remember it.

Today my Mother’s day is not about flowers or church or dinner. In fact, we celebrated it yesterday, hiking the Rose River and Dark Hollow falls loop in the Shenandoah, my son and daughter in front of me most of the way, occasionally letting me lead. Dinner was an accidental discovery in Charlottesville in a restaurant that looked like a Big Boy Diner complete with a chrome counter, cozy booths, and black and white tile on the floor. It turned out to be an authentic Greek restaurant where we ate amazing stuffed grape leaves with Tzatziki, a delightful and authentic Greek salad with tons of feta, and grilled lamb and chicken on homemade pita. When I woke this morning I thought about what all of my foremothers might think about my unconventional taste, and I wondered what history will write for me in the hearts of my children and my grandchildren. I know it will be a story of love, hopefully one that knew when to let go, one where it did not take death to release a grip of control.

My girl and I sat in the back seat on the way from Charlottesville yesterday and I told her a story about the grandmother I loved most dearly, the one born on the day after her birthday, the one who may have bequeathed her a bit of stubbornness, a bit of delight. She was feeling patient and she listened to the tales of cooking stoves and flat irons. We moved on to summer evenings in Kentucky where we sat around the pool with her grandparents on the last night of our annual visit, the only time everyone finally relaxed. I questioned her about what the world could possibly hold for her and for me as we move swiftly into the future. I hold this precious minute in my hand, examine it, wish for it to last forever, and then it’s gone on the wind like dandelion fluff, to settle and grow in some unexpected place.

My children are restless today, one in Seattle with his wife, the future of our family in her body, one in Fredricksburg with a boy who wants to love her forever, one sleeping still in the basement, but soon to be gone, with only a spider’s silk string to find his way home. How I love them I cannot tell. Made of words alone, there is not a book big enough to hold the emotion. I want to thank them all today for making me a Mom, expanding my horizons, challenging me to do things I never believed possible when I was a child, when I was a Baptist, when my mother was alive.

Read More

Rear View Mirror

Posted by on Oct 3, 2006 in Angst, anger, anarchy, Dad, Mother, Reckless youth | 0 comments

I wish everyone could have a childhood like I imagined mine to have been. I find with time I have blurred the sharp angles of real memories with a heavy snowfall of fantasy gathered from books, movies and television. In short, I have Disneyized my own biography until everyone comes out looking like characters from a 50’s sitcom. I have to admit that I am a second generation enabler, although I’m becoming less so as each day progresses. Sometimes I wonder if anyone actually ever had a truly happy childhood. I read lots of stories to that effect, but then, I also write stories like that too. I am not denying there were joyful moments, laughter, true affection, and shared adversity that made us all strong, but a lot of the time we were no better than any other addicts, desperate, lying awake, wishing for it all to end, and terrified that wishing might make it come true.

I have become bogged down of late with writing true, and then finding I do not have the nerve to put those words out for everyone to read. The Disney version is so much more palatable, which is why I cover so many early memories with a warm blanket of nostalgia. I suppose my childhood was average overall, producing neither an ax murderer nor a saint, but like the majority of people, I grew up in a dysfunctional family. If you could squint your eyes just a bit though, the out of focus picture looked almost perfect, like the undertow in the ocean, invisible but deadly. When it was time for me to create my own family, I was determined not to use the pattern already cut for me. While feeling smug that I was wise enough to learn from their mistakes, I was at first oblivious to the fact that what I created was merely dysfunctional in different ways. It takes a lot of energy to keep up a fantasy family, making sure that everyone looks good all time to everyone outside. My mother processed that energy in abundance, and I seem to have inherited her skills, strength of will, and propensity to delude myself.

When she made her final escape to a place where there is no need for delusion, I began to see more clearly. I have a stack of poems written in that era that attest to my loss, but also to my release. After a time though, I stopped hearing a lot of the voices she had set inside my head. By the time my father left to join her, I knew the voices I could still hear were being propped up by my own inner struggle alone, and I was finally able to stop their destructive power. No one gets a clean slate to write on however. I bear the scars of every word spoken, every blow landed. I wish it were myself alone standing bowed, but defiant, from life’s repeated jabs, but to my great dismay, it is too late to erase the pain that I have passed on to my progeny. Life repeats, laughing at our slow wittedness, and I come at last to the punch line to discover I have heard the joke before, and should have known.

So what to do with this too late revelation? For my own part I will embrace the reality, but try to refrain from the telling of needless hurtful truths. The kindness of loving lies is a difficult tightrope, but one that must still be walked at times. The one person I will never knowingly lie to again is myself. I have found the price for those comfortable and easy falsehoods too high to pay.

Read More

Fairy Tales My Mother Taught me

Posted by on Apr 15, 2005 in Mother | 0 comments

I come from a long line of strong women, much to the consternation of the long line of men also associated with my family. I remember reading the stories of happily ever after women in fairy tales and imagined myself in those settings. After a few minutes I would realize that I was bored and went off to climb a tree or build a fort. I would sit in my imaginary tower for about 5 minutes waiting for the prince before I went off to do something more exciting. When I started dating I listened to other girls describe things their boyfriends did for them. I puzzled over why I never attracted the sort of man who threw his coat over a puddle for me, figuratively speaking, of course. I recall one day after I married my first husband when my girlfriend said, “Michael shampooed the carpet for me yesterday.” When I questioned her, she recited a laundry list of chores that her husband routinely did because he considered her too “frail” for hard labor. Thinking to shame my husband, I spoke up at the dinner table that evening,
“You know, Michael shampooed the carpet for Carlene yesterday.”
“Maybe he’ll shampoo ours too,” came the reply from behind the newspaper.

Now my first husband and I came to a parting of ways, certainly not because of the carpet, but I will never forget going to his apartment one day where he and his current girlfriend were living. I knocked at the door several times before he answered. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you”, says my x. The scene before me was the girl, sitting at the table reading the newspaper, and John, hand still on the vacuum he was running in the apartment. At that moment I realized a great truth. It wasn’t the men, it was me. It started me thinking about my grandmother, hoeing a half-acre of corn in the midday sun, in a bonnet she made from one of her chicken feed bags. I also remember her with an ax, cutting the head off one of those chickens for Sunday dinner. She taught me to scald the bird and pluck the feathers, soak them in salt water, then bread and fry them up on a coal oil stove. She gave me the basics of gardening, taught me how to make soap from wood ash and bacon drippings, crochet fluffy things to sit annoying under lamps and ash trays, and how to keep the dogs away from the rabbits she kept in a pen out back.

Now this was my dad’s mother, and she and her daughter in law had little good to say about each other. My mother could do all those things too, but she was a modern woman, a generation removed from the farm, and glad to see it gone. She had a hatred for dirt and poor housekeeping that gave me nightmares before my children were born, anticipating her arrival in my less than immaculate home. Not that she was afraid to get her hands dirty, which she proved by raising a garden, putting up wallpaper, making furniture, canning and freezing and even bathing a baby raccoon my dad brought home from a hunting trip. When my dad started his business selling auto parts, Mother proved herself an astute businesswoman, learning more about cars and their components than most any man in the county or even the state. She was caught in the odd time warp that occurred between WW II and the woman’s liberation movement. She had never been able to attend college, but she sent both of her daughters with the money she earned running a business in a man’s domain. When time came for us to work, she objected, telling us that our husbands should be able to support us and we really should stay home with our children.

The strange dichotomy that was my mother has haunted me all my life, but in many ways I am the living legacy of all my mother was, and all that my grandmother was too.
My grandmother, born right before the turn of the century into a poor rural family, knew a respectable woman must work from dawn to dusk if she expected to have a good life. Mother came of age in the depression and her image of herself varied strongly with the reality of the person she became. Both of them were pioneer women and my grandmother held to that image even though she had to support her family for a time. She knew that women, the weaker sex, required a husband, so she married and buried three of them. My mother was steel, inside a silk glove, but she believed herself to be more of a wildwood flower. My generation burned their bras and talked about free love, disdaining the materialism that our parents and grandparents struggled so hard to provide for us. Through all generations the tremendous magnitude of the relationship between mother and daughter continues to drive women crazy. We want to please, we want them to be proud of us, but at the same time we hate the part of ourselves that desires that approval. At least that is the way it is with strong women. I don’t really know about relationships between mothers and daughters that are of a compliant mindset. I’m not even sure they actually exist. For years I thought that my father was the boss in our house. I thought that because my mother told him he was with such skill and adroitness that I think she believed it herself at times. Perhaps the women who appear to be frail flowers are actually just cleverer than I. They don’t feel the need to prove anything, so they get their carpets shampooed and the chicken’s heads chopped off without having to compromise any parts of themselves. If that’s true, don’t tell me, just let my daughter know in private and maybe she won’t have to work as hard as I have.

Read More