When my father died and I realized there were questions I wish I’d asked him about his life that would go unanswered. I decided to ask my mother those questions about her life. I really didn’t know a whole lot about her life, only surface things like you’d find in a public biography. I found that I really couldn’t. It wasn’t her unwillingness to answer but that when I probed her past she often broke into tears she didn’t feel comfortable prompting her to shed. I now wish that I had gone ahead and asked some of them because those questions reflect on my own past, not just hers. I will never know some things about myself that would give my heart ease just to know. I don’t know that they would make a difference but they might have.
Maybe I did ask and forgot the answers because I don’t have a mental file drawer with that label on it so I just can’t find those answers. I have a huge amount of information in my miscellaneous drawer. I filed a lot of what Mom said in that drawer because I didn’t know what to do with it, do I believe it, trust it, want it? With Mom, because I had so little trust in her good will, I didn’t listen to her with my heart. I was so very ready to defend myself at the drop of an adjective. It took so many years for me to be able to let down my guard.
What I’ve come to wish I’d found out is about my childhood behavior and specifically looking at ADHD and my relationships. I’ve said for many years that I was ADHD but never really, really thought about the implications of that idea in my childhood and relationship with my mother. On the other hand I have wondered if I didn’t sour the milk for my sisters. How much of what happened can be laid at my feet, how much was all her, and how much was just incompatible personalities? Those are questions I’ve asked myself all of my life. She certainly blamed me for most of it for our 59 years together.
Mother told he she realized she hated me when I was 18 months old. The way she said it made me totally believe her. I so wish I’d asked her more. For her answer to be so specific and me, so young, I wish I knew what it was that she identified about me that would lead her to say that. But I was afraid to disturb the pleasant balance we had finally found with each other and I was going to ask her to go back to such painful things? No. It seemed the price of the current peace between us was the answer to that question, but I wish I knew.
When I look in my baby book Mom wrote so many glowing things about how I was always happy, babbling away, constantly in motion, cooperative, anxious to please and so on. But I wonder if this was a lie for public consumption when they she showed the baby book to friends or maybe so she wouldn’t have to face what she probably felt were her failures as a new mother. At 5 1/2 years old she wrote about her concerns for me that I was not tractable, wouldn’t be guided by her. She called me aggressive and uncooperative then, so I tend to believe the rest was wishful thinking on her part. I suspect she didn’t hate me all the time, but in waves. I probably was adorable at times but often enough I was difficult and willful that it made me very hard to parent. She didn’t seem to be the kind who questioned herself about motives or method so didn’t look to herself for solutions. As far as I ever remember, she blamed something or someone outside of herself when issues arose. At home is was usually me.
Mother never accepted that she did not have a patient personality. She was not only impatient with getting things that she wanted completed, done but she was incredibly and increasingly impatient with those who didn’t agree with her, who didn’t know as much as she thought she did about a subject, and especially she was impatient with children. She had this idea that children were little adults capable of reasonable, rational decisions. She thought children could make good decisions, meaning do what she said, and that children were there to wait on adults without demur. That all sounds harsh but as she aged the veneer of sociability and good manners she had cherished as a younger woman wore thin and her impatience sometimes came out and over rode good manners to a point even I found embarrassing. When I’d say, “Mother!” she’d say things like that’s just the way I feel or something else you’d expect out of an old lady.
I recall one time she had a business acquaintance staying with us for a few days. He was a nice, middle-aged guy from Australia. As usual the talk turned to politics and he said something about being ashamed of his country’s milk-toast attitudes and lack of activism about Viet Nam. Mom jumped on his for his lack of patriotism. I was astonished that she’d do that to company, and someone she didn’t really know. I saw his reaction, it wasn’t good. She just stuck her nose in the air. She truly astonished me at times because of the mantra she had about manners, breeding, propriety and so on. I don’t think she ever saw that her behavior violated that standard she had set.
Even her best friend, Ad, would comment on how “difficult” Mom was at times. They decided to go on a driving tour of North Carolina one time when Mom was probably in her early 70s. Us three kids talked about betting on the durability of their friendship for this trip. I thought they might end up coming home early but they managed. I’m sure it was more about Ad’s loving, forgiving heart than anything else. Ad was not spared Mom’s sharp tongue and bad temper but she usually just let it roll off with the occasional humph and, “well I never …!” I always internally cheered her on. There was no reason for her to put up with Mother’s ill manners. I really never understood why Ad did it but was glad she did. I loved her so deeply. She was the one I looked to as a loving, female adult in my life.
In reading Anne Lamot’s work she talks a lot about her mother and what an awful mother she had. Our mothers were similar in some ways in that they were neglectful, self-centered, and unsupportive. Reading her stuff got me to reading other women’s thoughts on their mothers. So much of the stuff that came out of the self-help movement of the 70s and early feminist work of that period was about mother to mother, how this conflict about child rearing played out. I didn’t relate to it at all, having no children. The current crop of women’s literature is so much more one-on-one with our mothers about what happened to us as children and how it as informed the women and mothers we became. As we have grown older the deeper schisms are being examined and as our parents have died we are freer to tell the truth we know about our own childhoods and the parents we feel we had.
My view is from the bottom up. I always feel like I’m looking up to see both Mom and Dad. In a way I saw the part under the surface, under the dress-up clothes and after the party but my point of view is also from a child’s eyes, a child’s expectations and needs. That makes me a much harsher judge because their emotional, intellectual and spiritual wrinkles, freckles, and shiny spots are amplified. They stand out more for me because I didn’t have a context in which to judge them, only my needs that were met/unmet. I had no tools to be compassionate or understanding that they had failures and successes, that they were winging-it. I didn’t know that adults didn’t know everything. Just as my mother expected me to know how, what, when, why to do things I expected the same thing of her and she let me down. She failed to be the adult she was supposed to be. I had to find the loving grown-up mother outside of my family. I grew up on this precarious ledge outside, not in the warmth of my mother’s home.
I’m lucky, my life has been good and I am happy now. I know I miss my mother so much now because of our unfinished business. I totally love my father but don’t think of him as often. He’s been gone 20 years longer than Mom but also I don’t have the conversations with him in my head like I do with Mom. When he died I had made sure there were no things left out, unsaid.