Mother Taught Me Through Dysfunction

My mother was loving when I was little but then the distance grew.

I didn’t have the most ideal relationship with my mother, Sandra. In fact, I refer to her as such only because of biology.

When she was young, Sandra promised herself that, if she ever had children, she wouldn’t be like her own mother. Instead of being a tough, authoritarian figure, she would be a “friend” to her kids. This led to scenarios like the time I said no to someone offering me pot and went to boast of this achievement to my mother. She said she wouldn’t have cared if I smoked. She was my friend, and as a friend, she didn’t care if I developed an addiction to marijuana.

Another fun scenario was when I was going through her books for something to read and everything I was interested in contained explicit sex. When I went to her about this, she told me to “skip those parts”. I was ten years old or thereabouts. A good mother would have tried to get appropriate literature but I guess she felt I could handle it.

I have always puzzled over Sandra’s desire to not be like her own mother. My maternal grandmother was a wonderful lady I loved very much. The greatest sin I ever heard her commit as a mother was telling Sandra she couldn’t get married at sixteen. Since Sandra went on to divorce her husband a few years later, I rather think grandmother had been spot on in her wisdom.

A Mother’s Lessons

That being said, I can’t say that Sandra didn’t give me important life lessons, some of which I am only just now beginning to appreciate.

Don’t toss gasoline on the fire.

My parents fought a lot, all the way up until I was in my later high school years. Stanley, my father, suffered from PTSD (he was a Vietnam vet), which caused him to drink, and he had a bad temper. Being a former boxer, he understood the sort of damage he could cause with his fists. So, when things really began to escalate in an argument, Stanley (if he wasn’t too drunk) would try to leave.

Sandra was like a dog with a bone. She wouldn’t let things go. She would follow him, keep harping on him, sometimes being the first person to strike a blow. My father’s temper would snap and a few minutes later, Sandra was left on the floor bleeding and crying.

I’m not saying my mother deserved what she got. Stanley should have just kept walking and ignored her. At the same time, though, it taught me to not toss gasoline onto a fire. If the other person wants to walk away from an argument, let them. Sometimes, it’s best to be the first person to walk away.

Coffee is lifeblood.

Sandra could not be approached until she was on her second pot of coffee. This was probably due to insomnia combined with an inability to sleep pass five a.m. Because of this, I got my first taste of coffee at a young age and was sometimes the person to set up the coffee maker in the evening.

I love coffee. Don’t hand me the big chain brands. I’ll drink Maxwell’s House if I have to, but I would much rather have coffee from smaller companies where more attention is paid to quality (like Mystic Monk Coffee–yum!). I also make my coffee very strong. If you ever come to my house and I offer you coffee, be prepared for the caffeine buzz of a lifetime. Coffee or hot tea can make any day better.

When all else fails, read a book…for a while.

Later in her life, my mother became more of a recluse and buried herself more into books. I began to do the same in middle and high school. When your everyday life is a cement truck load of crap, reading is a wonderful escape.

However, it’s best not to stay stuck in a fantasy world. Sandra and I missed out on being in each other’s lives because we were too busy hiding in-between pages. When I entered college and began making decisions for myself, it was a painful wake up call for the both of us. The illusions we had created of the other person were shattered.

The person I thought was my friend, who wouldn’t mind my change in religion or choice of friends, turned into a mother figure who did care very much but waited too long to tell me. I was supposed to be the dutiful daughter who obeyed a system of mores she never voiced but which she thought I would implicitly know. It took over a year of therapy for me to admit that.

Never give up hope.

When Stanley died, Sandra’s world ended. The last years of their marriage had mellowed. Stanley had become more loving. He wanted to spontaneously dance with her in the kitchen and spend time with her. By then, though, Sandra had become so spiky and depressed, she didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I didn’t see much of their relationship during the last year or so, because I was at college, but when I was home, it seemed to me that there was distance between them.

After his death, there was a lot of talk about him being her “soulmate”. I wonder how much of that talk came from a large amount of regret that she wouldn’t dance with him in the kitchen while he sang. She gave up any hope of living a life after his death, burying herself in books. When she was diagnosed with COPD, she didn’t tell me and continued smoking.

After she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, Sandra died a week later, as if being told she had cancer gave her permission to die. I was left wondering why myself and my upcoming wedding weren’t good enough for her to hold on just a little while longer. I suppose that will be a question that will haunt me for the rest of my life. But should I be surprised? She declared herself long ago that she was my friend, not my mother.

Don’t do what I do.

There are plenty of other lessons I learned from Sandra, but the sad thing is that many come from not doing what she did. Where she swore to be a friend to her children, I promised to be a mother who makes sure my children know what is expected of them and to teach them a system of values. I could have gone in a really bad direction if it weren’t for a grandfather who took me to church on Sundays.

I suppose this is also why in my stories, the mother tends to either not be there at all or soon to not be there. It’s hard for my imagination to wrap around a family where the children actually want to stay close to their parents and where the parents are truly parents. I try to write it and it comes off as stereotypical and flat.

The greatest lesson in the world, about love and family, is one that I am still struggling to learn.

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