This week's essay has been contributed by guest blogger, Momsomniac. I'd like to extend my gratitude to her -- for contributing her memories of my mother and for being such a good friend.
As I thought about how to write this, I realized that much of what I had to say casts my own parents, particularly my mother, in a bad light. So I want to start by stating – emphatically – that my parents are not Bad People. They were barely more than children when they married. To my mind, my mother, who dropped out of high school at 17 to marry my father, was a child. They grew up in relatively traditional working class families, my mother with no small amount of abuse at the hands of her father. So all things considered, they did okay. And if they were unable to untangle the mixed messages they gave me and my sister – words in support of the modern notion that we could be anything we wanted to be and actions in support of the notion that women existed to please men - well, that doesn’t make them bad. It makes them human. So, in light of that ...
I have two stand-out specific memories of Nancy, and two more general ones that I only realize are a reflection of her parenting now that I am, myself, a parent.
All of these memories, as with so many memories, are memories of myself, but with Nancy in them. There are two reasons for this -
One is that I was a teen-ager, and like many teen-agers, as my world expanded with new feelings, thoughts, and desires, it also shrunk to my own line of sight.
The other is that, as Deb has stated earlier, Nancy was not a parent who was ‘ever-present.’ She certainly DID some parenting, as I recall, but she didn’t go out of her way to insert herself into the lives of her children or their friends. That, in a way, makes these first two stand-out memories more special.
1) When my parents’ marriage was falling apart, my mother, who had devoted more than half her life to waiting on my father, didn’t handle it well. I never knew what she’d do, or how she’d respond to things. One week-end, the group of us had been playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) at Deb’s house and we had just wrapped up the game. As I had been instructed, I called my mother and asked her to come get me.
It was around 5 o’clock. She told me she’d be there at 6 and that I better be out front to meet her. I suppose I spent a little time hanging out with Deb, and then dutifully went out to meet her a little before 6. Six o’clock came and went. No Mom.
After a while, Nancy came out and tried to get me to go back inside. I wouldn’t. I don’t know if Nancy thought I was an unusually obedient child or if she understood I was afraid. In any event, after about another hour, she brought out 2 stools (buckets? chairs? [memory is unreliable]), and she sat outside with me until my mother showed up at 11 that night. I don’t recall if she stared at my mother or if she just turned and walked back inside. I do recall that she didn’t say a word. It felt ... good.
2) I went through puberty when I was in the 3rd Grade. By the time I finished 8th grade, I was tired of my peers trying to touch me and asking questions about my breasts. I was more tired of teachers holding me after class for no reason, or making comments about my body. So I did what any thoughtful pre-teen who felt out of control would do; I developed an eating disorder and lost 30 pounds (I don’t mean to be flip – I just don’t think people realize how much this can be about unwelcome sexual attention).
In any event, by the time we moved to Florida, I looked as if I had never seen puberty and didn’t have any hope of seeing puberty any time soon. This is when I met Deb and her family.
One of the boys in the D&D group “run” by Deb’s brother had insisted I be allowed to play after a conversation he and I had about books. And when I came to the house, Nancy then insisted that Deb be allowed to play. I recall being afraid that all this would cause me to be seen as an interloper, and eventually I was, but not before Deb and I became friends. This was important, because I had moved from a small town where I was well known and well-liked by my peers to a place where everything good about me was seen as a threat to the current order. I needed friends.
I was allowed to spend the night when these games were played solely because Deb existed. A sister to one of “those boys” made the house safe, in my mother’s eyes. Without Deb, I would not have had even this short stint of being a part of a group of friends. And often when I spent the night, I would wake up early and there would be no one awake except for me and Nancy.
I had gradually begun to gain my weight back and I appeared to be going through a very late puberty. And one of these mornings, Nancy tried to talk to me, to get me to talk to her, about how my body was changing. I was rather amused, because she couldn’t have been more wrong about what was happening to me. But on another level, I felt deeply moved that a friend’s mother would be concerned that no one had had this talk with me, and would try to take this on for herself.
General memories that I only realize NOW are about parenting:
1) There was one night I recall running (with the D&D group) all around Deb’s neighborhood, playing Frisbee on the tennis courts, and being chased by “police” because we were out after curfew (likely neighborhood patrol – there was no curfew where I lived a few miles away).
Nancy was no doubt at home, secure that we were pretty good kids and that a group of kids heading out with Frisbees on a beautiful night was nothing to worry about. This was probably normal for Deb and her brother. But I had never felt so free in all my life.
2) Deb and I would spend our nights devising skits, telling stories, and “experimenting” (let’s lie down and try to say the alphabet backwards while we rub our temples and see what happens). At the time, I thought Deb wanted to do these kinds of things because she was younger than me. But over time, I realized that this was just ... Deb.
See, at 13 there were already a LOT of messages in my life about how interested I was supposed to be in boys. These were often not positive messages, more along the lines of what I call the triangle of shame (girls only matter if boys say they do; all boys want is sex; sex is bad), but clearly I was supposed to be very interested. I wasn’t, but I thought I was supposed to be, so I tried. Except for when I hung out with Deb, when it didn’t matter.
She couldn’t have cared less about the boys sleeping in her brother’s room downstairs or what I thought of them. And though it’s clear that she had her own awakening and struggles later, I do suspect that the way she was mothered gave her the freedom to be herself at that time. And as an extension of that, as long as I was with her, I was also free to be myself - utterly indifferent to boys, fascinated by other things entirely, and all ...
So to sum it up, to my mind, Nancy in many ways gave me Deb, who has been my friend since I was about 14. And that was 30 years ago. Who would not be grateful for that?
Momsomniac (Florida, 1985)
Monday, July 20, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
“Someday, when you kids are all grown up and don’t need me anymore, I’ll swim out in the ocean until I so tired that I can’t swim anymore. It will be a gentle way to go, just like falling asleep.”
My mother’s discussion of suicide filled me with fear. I begged her not to drown herself, told her I’d always need her. I felt responsible for convincing her to stay, to live, to be my mother forever. At that moment, she seemed so distant, already miles from shore, too far to return, already drowning, already dying. I didn’t know what to say or do to bring her back.
Afterwards, I thought a lot about that conversation and her suicide plan. It worried me, certainly, even though it was years distant. I felt like a burden had been laid upon my shoulders, one that I had to bear alone and in silence. It seemed wrong for a parent to tell their child about their intent to commit suicide, and I wished that she hadn’t told me. By telling me, though, she invited the possibility that I could prevent it from happening; I could keep her alive. And yet, she seemed so definite, so certain, that I felt helpless to change her mind.
Did she really mean it? Was it just a cry for help, or an expression of her feelings of despair at that moment? I cannot say for sure. I felt at the time that it was not merely a momentary whim, but something she had thought of more than once. She described it in detail, and dwelt longingly on this idea of peaceful death.
I don’t remember my mother as chronically depressed. In fact, I would have characterized her as cheerful for the most part. Other than these occasional conversations about suicide, and one or two bouts of crying, I am hard pressed to find specific memories of her being deeply sad. Perhaps she hid it well. Or perhaps these episodes were uncharacteristic, merely intermittent bursts of misery. Regardless, I am sorry for the pain she felt at those times, but I cannot help but feel a kinship with this depressive side of her.
I struggled with depression for much of my adolescence. I know how hard it is to keep that ache inside, how one longs for connection and comfort. I think I understand why my mother needed to express her wish for an end to the pain. Her vision of suicide resonated with my own desires for a release from suffering. But did she understand the distress she was causing me? Did I understand the distress I caused others through my depression? I knew, but it didn’t change anything; indeed, it just made things worse.
I’ll never know if my mother would have carried out this plan, as she died well before it was to be put into effect. I hope she would have weathered her emotional storms, as I did mine. But I wonder . . . not really knowing her internal landscape, I’m not sure whether these were the kind of storms that pass by, or those that get worse and worse, leaving only desolation in their wake.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
My mother wore hats. Not all the time, certainly, but often. She had a whole collection of hats in her bedroom – mostly wide-brimmed hats. There was the suede hat with a floppy brim, a favorite of hers. She also had a black, Amish men’s hat that my brother and I brought back from our visit to Pennsylvania Dutch country, and a similar black hat that had a narrower brim. That was the hat she was wearing when she got hit by a car.
She and I had gone to pick up her boyfriend at the airport one night. On the way back, she was making a left turn across a divided highway and didn’t see an approaching car, which clipped our van as we pulled into their lane. None of us were injured, but my mother was very upset about the accident and, I presume, worried about the people in the other car. She jumped out of the van and ran across the road without looking, and that’s when she got hit by a car. Her body tumbled off onto the shoulder. Her boyfriend then got out of the car and ran across to her.
This left me alone in the van, which was running and still sticking out into the intersection. I remember being very calm as I tried to figure out what to do. I was too young to have a driver’s license, but I wondered whether I should move the van to a safer location. Or should I stay with the van, but not move it? In the end, I left the van running and crossed the highway (after carefully looking for cars!) to see how my mother was. Both of the cars that had been involved were on the side of the road. I saw the cracked and crazed glass of the windshield that had hit my mother’s body, and I remember being surprised that such a slight person would be able to inflict so much damage. I had the image of her body as a bag of sand, shattering the glass as it impacted the windshield. She was lying on the weedy berm, unconscious and still. Her hat wasn’t on her head; it must have blown off when she was hit. I knew she would want her hat, so I hunted around until I found it. I brought her hat to her, just as she was coming around.
The first thing she said as she opened her eyes was, “Where’s my hat?”
“It’s right here. I have it for you.” I felt smugly pleased that I knew her so well.
An ambulance came. My mother was the only one injured (the people in the car that had clipped us were fine). I remember her holding onto her boyfriend, and her blood was seeping onto his jacket. I worried that the blood wouldn’t wash out and had to restrain myself from saying so. She refused to go to the hospital, even after repeated urging from the ambulance driver. She was fine and wanted to go home, she said. I assume her boyfriend drove us home, although I can’t remember. I do remember the deep bruises and abrasions on my mother’s back the next day and how sore and achy she was. Yet, amazingly, there were no broken bones, no organ damage. I didn’t understand how she could emerge with such minor injuries – after all, she had shattered the windshield of a car! At the same time, it never occurred to me that she could have died in the accident. I was calmly sure that she would awaken and would, of course, want her hat.
After she died, I kept most of her hat collection. In addition to the various hats she wore, there were items of unusual headgear, including a full fencing mask. I started to collect hats of my own, and I wore hats (both hers and my own) throughout high school and college. Wearing her hat, I could recapitulate her style and feel connected to my mother. Gradually, though, I stopped wearing hats with any regularity. Maybe my sense of style changed, or maybe I was able to let go of my mother’s style and find my own. Or, more likely, it became obvious that it was unusual, if not downright odd, for women to wear these types of hats. As I tried to understand the often confusing, unspoken rules of women’s fashion, it was clear that my collection of hats did not fit in, and I just didn’t have the requisite panache to buck the system successfully. Although I wore them less, I still held onto the hats, now displayed on the wall or crowded into a closet. Gradually, I got rid of some of them, as it became clear I wouldn’t wear this one or that. I finally persuaded myself to give away the fencing mask. But when I look in my closet today, I still have a few hats – mostly my own, some gifts from others – the straw hat I wear for gardening, the patchwork Guatemalan hats, a red beret. But there amongst the diminished collection is her floppy suede hat and her black hat. It might even be the one I rescued from the side of the highway.