I want to tell you about my mother. I want to tell you her story, but even I don’t really know it.
My mother was a cipher.
I found out things about her life in snips and chunks and tiny worn scraps left in pants pockets, without context or narrative thread. I’ve spent years trying to put them together into a story, her story, and make it read like a whole. It’s hard. Her story died with her. I can’t get the rest of it, and the bits that I have are stained with my own bias.
I know her childhood was abusive, and dismal. She grew up in a cold-water tenement with a shared bathroom. Her father beat her mother. Her mother beat the kids. My grandfather, when I knew him, was generally kind but not very engaged. My grandmother was a cruel, twisted woman who could cut you down with a look or a word. She openly played favorites and shit on everyone else. She was racist, hateful and vicious. No effort was good enough if it wasn’t perfect. She was nasty, through and through.
My mother was molested by the handyman in her building when she was 7 years old. When she told her mother, she was beaten, then made to scrub herself and her clothes in the washtub. All the while, her mother screamed at her and threatened that if she told anyone, she would never have any friends and the neighbors would call her dirty names.
Did I mention that she was 7 years old?
If you’re thinking her childhood resembled some Dickensian horror story, minus the workhouse, you wouldn’t be far off. There were good times, but mostly, it was a miserable existence punctuated by periods of hunger, abuse and self-loathing. All this helped make my mother into the woman she became—a woman who didn’t know how to love. She was critical, and judgmental, and always concerned with outward appearances. She used shame and guilt to control, and she was very, very good at it.
Mom was smart, and an achiever, but she was routinely passed over for scholarships and promotions because of her gender. She embraced feminism as a means of survival. Because of her struggles, she made sure I never missed an opportunity because I was a girl. She instilled in me the belief that I could do or be anything. She banned Barbie and Disney movies. When I wanted to be an international spy, or an astronaut, it didn’t matter what other people thought. Mom said I could be anything I wanted to be.
The simplest way to tell this story is to say that my mother had a terrible childhood, and it set her up to fail. She also had a mood disorder that wasn’t treated for most of her life. She was addicted to approval. She was a good victim, and a frequent one. She made victims of her children, until we fought back or ran from her. Then she didn’t know what to do, so she sought help. This is also the least complex way to tell this story, and unfairly one-dimensional, because my mother was a multi-faceted being full of dichotomies and hypocrisies that were, more often than not, the result of an unexamined life. She wasn’t a bad person, but she was so very ill.
Later, as an adult, I tried to come to terms with my own abuse. Given that our narratives were different, we couldn’t really talk about it together. This made resolving it more difficult. I understand that admitting her complicity wasn’t a bridge she was able to cross, but still, it wounded me deeply. I’m still bleeding a little.
The closest we ever came was when she said to me that she could understand if I hated her. That from me, she could take that. It lifted a weight from me that I hadn’t known I still carried. It also made me realize that I didn’t hate her. Despite everything, I loved her. I didn’t like her much of the time, but I loved her. I understood how damaged she was, and that she just didn’t have the tools to do things right.
In January, it will be 10 years since my mother died, here in our home. She died unexpectedly one morning. My daughter couldn’t wake her up, and her breathing was erratic, so we called for the ambulance. They loaded her into the rig, and once inside, her heart stopped. After 45 minutes of resuscitation efforts, her heart rhythm continued to be nothing more than a flat line. Despite my medical background, all my years of training and “insider” knowledge, it took me 45 minutes to ask them to stop. They remain the most difficult words I’ve ever spoken.
As I stood next to the gurney holding my mother’s cooling body, I lay my head on her chest and sobbed. This was the best we would ever be. This was the closest we would ever come to resolution. I lost more than my mother that morning. I lost a bit of myself too.
I have since learned more parts of Mom’s story, but I don’t know where they fit. I can’t ask her about them. So I sit with all my little scraps of paper and sift through them, trying to piece together what is true and what is exaggerated. Each revelation changes how I think of her, because we have no new truths to balance out the old ones. I don’t like this. I feel like maybe I’m betraying her, but I can’t be sure. Maybe by accepting the good things I was betraying myself. I can’t know.
I’m coming to this anniversary, and feeling less concerned with knowing what’s true and what isn’t. My mother will always be a mystery to me, and I will never have the answers I seek, so I will have to live with the unknown, simply because it’s unknowable.
I’m going to scatter her ashes this coming year, and let her go. Let go of the mystery and the wondering. Let the wind pick up all the scraps and bits of paper and take them. I know everything I need to know. The scraps are just scraps. They don’t make a picture. They just make a mess.