I have a difficult relationship with my mother, complicated by the fact that she’s dead.
In my early years, I remember a soft woman who’s always smiling. Though, I have all of five memories of my early years, so perhaps I should say I remember her doing that before I was nine. After that, there’s less smiling. More scowling. More drunkenness. More screaming as my father beat the living crap out of her.
Then, in my teen years, I remember a more resigned, quiet woman, living under the verbal lash of her mother in law. When Nanny moved out for a nursing home, my mother withdrew into her bedroom. I saw her when I went looking for her or when she came out to cook meals. I don’t remember seeing her clean or even do dishes, but I was also withdrawn into my room, so perhaps I just missed those things. My father tried to reach out to me and her but we’d both pulled away for our own reasons.
I remember only being scolded by her twice. Once, as a little girl, when I kept getting into the cherry tomatoes. The second time as a college student, when I confessed I had lost my virginity. The first was understandable. The second? She never explained to me that it was best to wait for marriage, so I only felt confused. I knew I had done wrong in the eyes of our religion but couldn’t see how I did wrong in her eyes. (I also remember her yelling at me while she was drunk but I don’t count that as parental scolding.) People, particularly teens, may be tempted to say, “Oh, how lucky you were!!”
My dear reader, I would have given anything to be disciplined by my mother. Perhaps she did when I was very small and I just don’t remember. It wouldn’t matter how I saw it then. Now I know that discipline is a sign of love, when done correctly. A parent disciplines because they want the child to grow up to be a responsible adult who can take care of themselves and obey the rules of society. A parent that doesn’t discipline must not care.
I keep telling myself that my mother didn’t seem to take much of an interest in my rearing for two reasons. One, she wanted to be my ‘friend’. She told me so. “Suzanna, I swore to myself I would never be like my mother.” According to her, her mother had been controlling and strict. Therefore, she felt she needed to be the exact opposite. Friends don’t ground friends, or spank them, or give them a curfew.
Secondly, she felt that I could take care of myself. I was a quiet child. Withdrawn. A reader. I preferred entertaining myself with books, PBS, and wanderings in the great outdoors. When my grandfather no longer took me to church, I got myself there. When I came home from school, I did my homework without being told to do so. My mother, I guess, felt that I didn’t need parenting. In reality, I had withdrawn into my own little world because the one outside it, with the drinking and screaming, was one I didn’t want to be a part of. In my teenage years, I had an almost OCD fixation with my room. It didn’t have to do with cleaning but with keeping outside contaminants out. I hated anyone coming into my room, especially with a cigarette, because then my room was ‘contaminated’ by the outside world. Maybe someone experienced in children or knowledgeable in child psychology would have been aware of the warning signs.
I remember going to a child psychologist after I developed a phobia of large trucks. I had been in a bus accident and my parents did become worried about me when I showed obvious signs of fear in the car. The psychologist told them I was a remarkably ‘adult’ child and not to worry about me. I remember saying what I thought he wanted to hear.
My mother did care for me. It’s not that she ignored me out of spite or anything. She taught me how to read. She lent me books. When I had problems at school I wanted to talk about, she listened. We were friends at one point. However, it was an uneasy friendship. There was this gap between us that neither of us knew how to cross. After I got into college, my father and I grew closer, which seemed to push her away. It’s so odd. Can’t someone be close to both parents?
My mother died February 2010 of lung cancer. After my father’s death in 2005, her withdrawal grew worse. She wanted to die. I think the only reason why she didn’t commit suicide was… Actually, I don’t know. Perhaps she feared going to hell, though that’s never been a belief of the Baptist church, to which she belonged. Perhaps she felt it would be too much trouble to bury her. Perhaps she didn’t want to bring shame unto my brother and me, though we wouldn’t have seen it that way no matter what others thought.
After I graduated college, I became her mother. She never seemed to have enough money for food or utilities, so I helped when I could. I remember taking her to the grocery store and filling the cart. I remember listening to her cry over the phone about my younger brother not doing enough to help her, as if I could discipline my brother. I did try but it didn’t end well.
When we found out she had stage 4 lung cancer in late January 2010, I tried to get her to take chemo. Her question was ‘why?’ She wanted to die. The cancer had metastasized. So, what was the point?
I wanted to tell her that the point was that I was getting married in June and wanted her there. I wanted her to put the veil on my head, the bouquet in my hand, and give me the advice every bride expects from her mother. I wanted her to cry and be proud of me, dammit.
I never said those things, though. I felt like I shouldn’t need to. The fact that those things didn’t seem to matter made it feel as if my life choices didn’t seem to matter, just like how they didn’t matter when I told her I said no to drugs (she told me she didn’t care if I smoked pot) and when I became Catholic (she took one of her super pills at my Confirmation and passed out in the car). The only life choice that seemed to matter dealt with my sex life and after that, she stepped back, which only served to confuse me and make me think that she stopped caring. And if my life choices didn’t matter to her, then I didn’t matter to her.
My wedding dress came in early, so I hoped to surprise her with a wedding in the hospital room or something. Just a notary and a couple of witnesses. In the eyes of the Church, I wouldn’t have been married, but I would have been in my mother’s eyes, which is what I cared about. I could sort it out with the Church later.
She died a week after her diagnosis, on February second. She slipped out of my fingers and away to a place where I couldn’t demand answers from her. I only have my memories, my guesses, and my excuses for her. I’m 28, will be 29 in April, and I have no idea what to feel about her. I know I love her but I’m confused at such regard and affection for a woman who, according to my memories, didn’t seem to care about me after a certain point in my life.
In my novels, whenever there is a mother figure, she’s distant. The main character does not have an easy relationship with her. This is why. I don’t know how to relate to the memory of my mother, didn’t know how to relate to her when she still had a pulse, so how can I write about a mother/daughter relationship?
Desdemona, in my current work in progress, is having to deal with her mother keeping secrets from her. As I work through the novel, I feel like I’m working through my own emotional landscape. Why did my mother not seem to care? Why did she just let go of her life as if it didn’t matter? Why didn’t she see that she mattered to me? Now, I wish I had taken her by the shoulders and said, “I’m sorry you had a crap life and that Dad is gone. But Adam and I are still here. Can’t we be enough?”
But memories can’t answer and the Heavens are silent, no matter how angry I get or how much I cry. Like Desdemona sifting through letters and journal entries, I must sift through my and my mother’s pasts and perhaps the answer will come to light.