When anyone asks me to describe my childhood, I have a stock answer. “We had a childhood written by Stephen King starring Cruella DeVille and Captain Ahab.” That usually shuts them up. It’s painful when you don’t have the All-American-Family portrayed by Norman Rockwell. I have the European-Holocaust-AbsentShipCaptain-family portrayed by Bosch and Dali.
My dislike for my mother, Cruella, swarms like a soul-sucking tornado as Mother’s Day approaches. My mother died in 1998. The whole shebang was surreal. Mom had been dying three times a year for a decade. She had deathbeds in Alabama and California; places I could not get to without long expensive plane flights. But I tried. I really tried for the first couple of years. Then I said, “Fuck it.” With an eye on being the good daughter, I lobbied my husband for Mom to come live with us. He said, “No. I am not having that woman who caused you so much pain live with us. I can’t watch her hurt you.” He left the room, slammed every door in the house before driving off in his rusted out Camaro. I sat in our house still rattling with his anger. Okay, that was a resounding no-go.
So time passed; Mom continued to have near death experiences. My sister went to live with her. I sent money secreted from my own account but a few times from the household account. Ten years passed until one day I received a phone call from my sister. “Mom is dying. She’s not going to make it through the night. Get on a plane.” Uh-huh. My sister rambled while I rolled my eyes. I don’t remember why Mom was “dying.”
The next day, I received another phone call. “Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it … “ I finished the sentence, “Through the night.” My sister yelled until she hung up.
My sister called again on the next day. I looked at the caller ID, answered nonplused, “Don’t tell me. Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it through the night.” My sister was all kinds of pissed. “Look call me when she’s got one foot through death’s door,” I said and hung up.
The rest of the week passed into the weekend. Monday around a quarter to one, my father called me. We chatted in a weather-report kind of way before he said, “Well she did it.”
“Your mother died thirty minutes ago,” he said.
I stood looking at the phone, examining the soft blue hue, feeling the weight of the receiver in my hands, and inside … nothing. Then both of us started laughing. “Oops, I misjudged this,” I said.
“She was dramatic,” he said. We hung up. Big portions of my life began. I felt free. Open to the many different possibilities of living without the specter of her cruelty.
The loss did not hit until ten years later when it was safe to mourn. I was writing a short story based on a fragment of memory – an interaction with Mom where not one character in the story was sympathetic. Mom’s motivations were beyond my understanding but I knew the event happened. I looked for explanations of Mom’s behaviors in books, class notes, newspapers, and family albums. I found them. With that information, her actions, some good but mostly horrific, made sense. Compassion for her battled my history of contempt, grown from the minefield she dug. The confusion caused my gut to knot, my head to pound, and sizzled my dreams to the point of night terrors. When my perceptions of the world have reorganized so I don’t feel like I am peeling off my skin, I’ll tell you.
Mom would say to me, “To know everything is to understand everything.” Maybe she was giving me a way to view her life and behaviors in a larger context.
My therapist would say to me, “All behavior is productive.” Maybe he was asking me to stop with the duality of right and wrong.
They were both right. I weep for my mother, the no-escaping tragic course of her life, the bad turns she took, and the relationships she blew. I weep for myself, the mother I never knew until she died, the things we could not do together, and the long years we spent hating each other. On this Mother’s Day, you can celebrate or feel nothing, mourn or let it go, I will support you either way. Not everyone has a Rockwell family.