My mother and I have a very complicated relationship, in part because it is just not about us. It involves a number of people, including many long dead from her past. It also includes what I believe is a personality change caused by a series of TIA (small strokes) she started having when she was in her 40s. It’s been a slow transition, but one that has ended with her being different.
She was never an easy person, and with her history, it’s not surprising. She suffered abuse herself. Somehow when I was in my teens, our roles reversed in a way. I became her confidant. This is something that should never happen between a parent and a child. She told me things because she had no one else to tell. I know now that maybe a good therapist could have helped, but that wasn’t ever going to happen. So I was who she talked to about the things in her life that bothered her the most.
So I know that her grandmother raised her after taking her away from her 16 year old mother and father. I know that she never had a real relationship with her mother. I know she was abused by an alcoholic uncle and that she used to hide in the bathroom to escape him. I know that my great-grandmother would tell her she had “nigger-eyes” because they were brown and became “muddy” sometimes.
This great-grandmother was the same woman who adored me and treated me as something precious and special. But I was not the product of a relationship between two 16 year olds, and I was named for her.
There were other complications. My father was schizophrenic and had had a Section 8 discharge from the military during WWII. He was a self-medicating alcoholic, who went dry for 14 years or so after marrying her. But during the marriage he constantly had affairs, and then he abused me when I was in my teens.
I got lumped into those “other women” that he had sex with, and yet, at the same time I was her first child, and her confidant.
So you can see how fucked up it was. Quite the circle of chaos all around.
She also had a mean streak that got worse over the years. Probably this developed as a protection for herself as a hurting child, but it was used over and over again to hurt those closest to her. I saw it used on us as children and adults. It was a way of manipulating us to get the attention she desperately desired and needed.
All in all, it’s kind of amazing that I can say our relationship is “complicated.” It’s a fucking mess.
But there are things about her that I remember and love and that have so much to do with who I am today.
Right after WWII she was in college and had a Japanese-American roommate. She was asked to do this 1) because she was a scholarship student and easily manipulated, and 2) they thought she would go along with it quietly.
She not only went along with it, she loved her roommate and began a life-long love of all things Asian. She dated Chinese men when she was in college. She loved Asian food and culture.
She was fluent in French. She was offered a scholarship to college in Quebec and didn’t take it. I don’t know exactly why, but it may have had something to do with wanting to be a doctor and be a medical missionary. She flunked the physical and so she changed all her plans. It turned out she had badly scarred lungs from taxoplasmosis. She’d had it as a teen and no one knew. How she survived is unknown, but she did.
She strongly believed in the dignity of all human beings. She got into trouble with our neighbors for allowing a black woman who was helping her with spring cleaning sit at the table and eat lunch with us. Our neighbors thought it was scandalous. (Yes, I grew up in the South.) It continued into my teens when she once again scandalized new neighbors in a new neighborhood an state by inviting all the teachers she worked with into her home for a luncheon. One of the teachers was black. She got quite the dressing down about it from people who lived around us. She made it clear that she didn’t care. That bigotry was not going to be a part of her life.
She was against the war in Vietnam. She had read SILENT SPRING and was against the use of pesticides. She was vocal and public about her very, very liberal positions.
I admired and respected her. I knew that was who I wanted to be. That person who stood up for what was right regardless of what kind of crap ensued from it.
At the same time I was told that internal family problems were “dirty linen not to be washed in public” and discouraged from seeing a therapist about my father’s abuse. Family secrets were kept secret.
But I had learned too well the lessons of standing up for myself, and so I sought care and over the years I got better.
And as I got better, I watched her change. I saw her personality twist into someone that I didn’t recognize. She became a bigot. She watched Fox News and parroted ridiculous statements about what was happening in the world.
Now I find myself unable to bear talking to her. I haven’t visited in years because the last time I saw her in person I came away with a blinding migraine from not saying, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” about her behavior toward her own children.
Yesterday I called her with the intention of reassuring her that we’d received the Christmas gifts she’d sent and to thank her. I also wanted to let her know about the gift I’d sent her.
Suddenly I found myself telling her how much I had respected and admired her for her stand against bigotry. I reminded her of things she’d done (some of which she remembered), and told her that it was that part of her that I had taken away with me. That part of her that I sought to never let die. I told her I loved her, because I do. Despite all the complications, she is my mother. I will always love her, even though she is now someone I cannot like.
I began to cry. And we ended the call soon after. At 4:30 this morning I woke up crying. I was dreaming about her. I think I have been grieving for the loss of the woman I admired for a long time.
It’s why I call her Mom now. She’s not the person I respected. Not the person I admired. She’s someone else. Her brain is twisted and damaged. The mean streak is still there. Always will be. But it’s gotten uglier and more prominent.
I grieve for the good parts of her that are gone. There really was a time a part of her was amazing.