On this mothers’ day I needed to take an objective look at my mom and her place in my life. I have at various times in my life been totally accepting and trusting and devoted to her (under 12), more distant and distrustful (12-34), and finally outrightly hostile and accusatory and rejecting (35-present). Now I need to step back and be more objective and balanced in my thoughts and feelings about her.
I understand WHY she was the way she was. Her father deserted the family – her mother and a younger sister – when she was quite young. Her mother had to work full-time during a period when that was an unusual situation. They were poor when she was growing up – lived with grandparents, didn’t have their own home – wore hand-me-downs from relatives, etc. She married her college sweetheart and they were happy – looked like they were on the way to a wonderful life together – had 2 children. When my father died, I was 3 and my brother was 3 months and she didn’t know how she was going to make it on her own. She married again when I was 5 ½. Her 2nd husband was our security – our ticket to a better, more comfortable, upper-middle-class life-style.
I think everything was fine between us until the step-dad came along. Then she transferred all her affection and loyalty to him. I didn’t realize that until I was 12 and was shocked to find that I was on my own and had been for a number of years. Any time there was a conflict between the step-dad and me – which was frequently – through no fault of mine – she was not there for me. She would just disappear or passively side with him. He was verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually abusive. She either did not want to acknowledge it or was unable to admit it. I finally figured it out. I saw her at that time as having abandoned me into his hands. Later I saw her as an accomplice, enabler and accessory to the crimes. When I was 10, a half-brother came along and another was born when I was 13. That marginalized me even more since I didn’t belong to both of the parents.
All the while, she kept up the best of appearances. It was very important to her that everything look good. We were church members who never missed attending the expected services. We had a beautiful house and all family members dressed well and appropriately for every occasion. She spent lots of time in home decorating and planning and purchasing her wardrobes and ours. Her children had better Halloween costumes than any of the neighbor kids. In high school, I had a tailor-made suit, a custom-ordered cashmere sweater and a made-to-order leather jacket. My brother and I took golf lessons. Our younger half-brothers had horse riding lessons. We went on vacations to Florida and Europe. She cooked wonderful and creative meals and was very concerned that table settings and gift-wrappings and holiday decorations all be perfect.
Everything looked wonderful from the outside. But it was an atmosphere that alternated between sterile and toxic. I was little more than a prop in an elaborately-staged tableau for public view. I was expected to perform at the highest level of academic success and I managed that - but I was considered a disappointment and a failure because I was not also an athletic and musical prodigy.
I probly should be thankful that I grew up with a lot of comforts and luxuries – i know many kids are neglected in many ways that i was not - but I’d have been happy with less material benefits if it also meant less abuse from the step-dad and less emotional neglect from her.
I have tried to re-connect with her since the step-dad died when I was 34 – shortly after I started remembering my early life events – and recognized that I had been abused in numerous ways. I had survived a deep depression, a period of suicidal tendencies, and had entered therapy. After he was safely gone I thought perhaps it would be safe to try to re-establish a relationship with mom based on mutual acceptance of the truth. One time when I was visiting, she was waxing sentimental about my real father and I decided to ask her about some of my memories of the step-dad. I had no doubts that what I remembered was actually true. But she denied everything. There were events that my full brother and I had talked about that she was adamant had never happened. That was the last time we talked about anything serious and personal. How can you have any trust in a person who edits and re-writes history to meet her own need that everything be “nice”?
Now she has Alzheimer’s. She not only has conveniently “forgotten” the unpleasant details of our family life – but she has also, inconveniently, forgotten so many other things. It is too late to hope that I will ever have any real communication with her. She tells the same few stories multiple times in every “conversation.” She asks the same questions only minutes apart. But that is not really so much different from the way I have related to her ever since I was 13 years old and realized that I was on my own. Everything is superficial and calculated not to upset her.
I did not send a card or gift this year – or even call. What is the point? Last year, before she knew everything, my wife sent her a card with both our names on it. I was upset that she had made this minimal but expected and conventional gesture. This year she did not do that. I suppose when mom dies, I will have to speak a eulogy at her funeral. A year ago I would have considered not even attending. But I guess I can think of enough “nice” things to say about her so as not to shock the crowd. I feel no need to ruin her reputation. I know she had reasons for the things she did and didn't do. But I cannot truthfully say that I love her – and I have not since before I was 12.
A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense to not himself.
Or just as mad.
So there you are.
Stark raving sane.
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead