Monday, February 20, 2006

Mother's Birthday

I was never close to my Mother, in fact for many years, I would have said I hated her.  I guess hating your mother as an adolescent was probably not unusual, especially in the 1960’s considering the parenting styles of the day.  She was very strict and repressive, trying to raise me in a bygone era.  She tried to keep me a child in a decade that was characterized by radical social change.  I remember being quite young, under ten - she made me wear a scrunchy navy blue velvet hat to church.  I remember it so distinctly; I hated that thing.  None of my friends had to wear a hat.  She thought it was elegant or British or some such.  Church was a just a formality anyway, a social obligation; we went because it was the thing to do.  My Mother was oh so very concerned with what people would say or think, so keeping up appearances was her driving force
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I also remember when I was quite young that she tried to get me to curtsy to visitors when they came to our house.  That was really over the top, and even as a small kid, I knew it.  We had a lovely home, and she did a great job with entertaining my Dad’s colleagues at the bank where he worked, but this was 1960’s suburban New York not Windsor Castle.

She fancied herself to be British upper class I guess.  This was vaguely her heritage, via Nova Scotia, Canada where she was born raised.  As my cousin Bette, now 77 put it, she wanted to be much more than a fisherman’s daughter.  Bette said that “back home” when they were both much younger, my Mother’s nickname was “the duchess”.  Did not carry a lot of weight with me, in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Long Island.

As a teenager, I was not to wear makeup or God forbid have anything to do with boys.  I was not one of the popular girls, but these arbitrary restrictions made me feel worse.  I had no idea how to be anything but a smart underachiever, chubby, nearsighted, confused and as they said about kids at the time “emotionally disturbed”.  It wasn’t until I was about 16 or 17 that I began to realize that I had some pretty serious problem at home.  I guess before that I was just chronically depressed about my home life.  My parents fought all the time, and my Mother and I fought all the time.  It was my normal life on the inside, although we seemed quite proper from the outside.  

During these years, I guess my Mother read all kinds of horrible things in the paper about kids doing drugs. For years she terrorized me, going through my purse and my things, listening in on my phone conversations trying to figure out what I was up to.  If I nicked my leg with the razor, she would harass me for shooting drugs.  I must have been a terrible disappointment, because I was truly up to nothing during those years.  I was not a mature teenager with all the problems at home.  This paranoia was also reflected in her behavior toward my Dad - she thought he was trying to poison her.  She hid her medication up in the attic so he wouldn’t get to it.  She also was convinced he was seeing another woman.  I remember her dialing the phone one time to a woman named “Margie” and trying to get me to ask for my Father.  

I now recognize all these less than wonderful memories of my Mother as undiagnosed, untreated mental illness.  

At 17, I escaped home for college, far away from home.  I blew this opportunity big time, but that is another story.   Getting away from my parents was the only goal I had.   After a couple more colleges, I traveled a bit in the States and across Canada, and moved to Hawaii.  My disdain for family life was a huge motivator in my youth. Combine this lack of desire to marry and start a family with the tumultuous times in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, led me to be quite the maverick.   Meanwhile, my parents left suburban NY when my Dad retired from Wall Street, and they moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, home of Jerry Falwell and what was then called the Moral Majority.  Meanwhile I had become a hippie.  My parents and I were on cordial yet distant terms for most of the 1970’s.

I met my ex-husband in the early 1980’s while still living in Hawaii. I had re-joined the straight world, at least superficially, and cultivated an adult-to-adult relationship with my parents.  I put the past behind me, and did not look back with regard to my relationship with my Mother.   I was preoccupied with a whole new set of problems, as I delved into the grown up world of work and relationships.  

When my ex and I moved to Southern California in 1983, my parents decided in 1984 to move here to be closer to us.   My Mother did not look well to me, although she tried to be enthusiastic about the move.  She had sold some of her antique collection when they moved from Virginia.  She was proud that she could make a financial contribution, since the California house they bought was more expensive than the Virginia house they sold.  

They were here only a few months when my Mother discovered a lump about the size of an almond on her neck.  Our lives changed in one day.  The diagnosis was metastatic melanoma.  She died in seven months, in October of 1985.  She was 75, I was 35.  It was relatively quick, but not painless.  Losing someone to cancer is awful - the chemo, the morphine, I was relieved that she did not linger like some cancer patients, whose families I spoke with during our many doctor visits and trips to the emergency room.

So I had no real chance to find closure to my childhood “issues” as we euphemistically call them today.  I’ve been told that just moving on is not quite the same as healing.  She would have been 96 today, the same age as my Dad will be in a few weeks.  Despite his frailty, the dementia, deafness and his own mental health challenges, he’s outlived her by 20 years.  

I often think how I would have handled her care if it had been she who outlived him.  My Dad and I have many differences, but somehow we have always managed in the balance sheet of relationships.  My Mother, different story.  Maybe it can be chalked up to classic mother/daughter conflicts, but we never seemed to have the closeness that some of my girlfriends have shared with their Moms, her delusions just didn’t allow healthy relationships.  

From my Mother, I got my sense of style, my creativity, and my tendency to criticize.   I look in the mirror and see that as I age, I resemble her more, especially when I’m annoyed.  She was not a happy person.  I share some of her talents, and some of her frustrations.  But I am a different generation, a different gene pool.  And oh, yes, I didn’t become a mother.