Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Posts tagged ‘Mother’s Day’

An Imperfect Mother

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Most of my readers know about my ambivalent relationship with my mother. She was so many things – ill, sad, and abusive, but also independent, feisty, and in her very peculiar way – loving.

When the memories of her other characteristics threaten to make her unredeemable, I remember this story.

She could see things that other people couldn’t or refused to see. When I was struggling with my weight as a teenager who desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer, she took me to the perfect meal. Weird, huh? A meal.

I had spent my fifteenth summer at a dance camp, and I came home freaked out. A couple of months before going to the dance camp, I had gained the necessary ten pounds to jumpstart a late-onset puberty. Literally, before the weight gain, my body fat was too low to provide the necessary materials for a teenage body and brain. Pleased with my new curves, I went with another girl to our yearly dance intensive.

But throughout the camp, my dancing teachers had complained about my weight gain.

After the first few days, they would take me aside and say things.

“Your dancing weight is 98 to 103 pounds. Do you weigh that now?”

I let the ice cream drip down my hand, onto my toe shoes.

“105 is too much for your height.”

I was 5’6” tall.

“How much do you want to dance professionally? Really? That much. Well, you can’t be a dancer at that weight.”

In an audition, before my fellow dancers and competition, my teacher said, “If you lost some weight, you could make the company.”

When I fell out of a double pirouette, the ballet mistress said, “Maybe you could bind your chest. And your hips.”

I slept the whole way home from camp, too exhausted from writing down every little thing I ate, trying to find my balance (no one explained the needed rebuilding to suit my no longer androgynous body), while every second blocking out the faculty’s hurtful comments. Mom met me at the door, and I burst into tears. All week, I would catch her watching me.

On that next weekend, Mom said she was going to the mall and did I want to come? I must have muttered something because we ended up wandering around until we were standing in the doorway of the mall’s cafeteria. Over my objections, Mom pulled me in. She giggled. I had heard her laugh before, but giggling was new. She tucked my arm under hers. Like girlfriends.

“Let’s have dessert for dinner,” she said. “Pick two.”

She slid me a tray, smiled at me, and went off to pick her desserts. Lost before a line of forbidden desserts, I looked back at her. She was bright enough to keep her overt focus on her choices. Time to choose. Anorexia or dessert. I picked the chocolate cake and Jell-O. She didn’t say anything about my choices. Just paid. It was not a big moment but a decisive one.

I guard that memory. Mom could be so many things, lots of them ugly and painful but every once in a while, she was perfect.

Happy Mother’s Day. Share one precious memory, and we’ll guard them together.

(Image used with permission. By Andrew Giovinazzo.)

“Now?” “No not yet.”

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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.”

“What?”

“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.

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