Once upon a time, I couldn’t imagine wanting to have another conversation with my mom. I seriously thought we’d covered literally everything, death, sex, religion, politics, family secrets, most taboo topics, about a million times, and many that should have been saved for a point in my life which was much further down the road than when they actually occurred. That’s a polite way of saying that mom didn’t have the kinds of boundaries that should’ve existed between parent and child, especially such a young one as me. I didn’t figure that out for a long time. At the point that I did, when I began litigating these matters with her, it was kind of too late. What she’d told me when I wasn’t ready couldn’t be taken back or erased from my memory. When we argued, she’d always say, “well, maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do, but look at how much smarter and more prepared you are for life than everyone else?” Nice try, mom. In other words, she didn’t really have to feel too guilty about what she’d confided in me, at least about her inappropriate confidences.
In all fairness, there was no meanness of spirit which motivated my mom to spill all hers’ and others’ beans to me. She had a wretched childhood, a victim of sexual abuse and every other form of emotional domestic abuse. Her parents were ignorant, living in a tiny mental universe, utterly sexist, including my grandmother who, despite being a smart woman, was living under archaic norms which had been practiced for generations in the old country. Both of these women, mom and grandma, who struggled mightily against each other instead of being allies, became much more free when their husbands died, taking their traditional norms with them. Grandma wasn’t as lucky as my mom. Her marriage was a war. Mom was in a genuine love match. But the bruises she and my dad bore from their childhood years colored their life together. Bright as they were, to me they never got too far from their early lives. They huddled together, always more like kids than grownups. Their behavior was instructive – I learned exactly how I didn’t want to be when I got married. Love, yes. But in a partnership that helped both of us become the best versions of ourselves, rather than bring trapped in time.
From that first moment when mom really scared me by hauling up her hospital gown and showing me her vertical abdominal scar from her youthful hysterectomy, I became one of those hyper-aware little kids who always seemed to be thinking like a forty year old. I was frequently scared, but I also had a lot of confidence in my ability to think my way through my feelings. How lucky to have an operative brain. Being the third child out of four also gave me the added advantage of studying the experiences of my older two siblings and figuring out what was working for them and what wasn’t. Mom had significant health issues, the worst of which was ulcerative colitis. Unfortunately, her doctors started her on what would become a lifelong regimen of benzodiazepines, the sedatives which frequently wind up creating addicts. They gave my mom what I’d describe as a dulling of her emotional pain and not much help with her physical issues. She did acquire a kind of drunken courage to express more about her problems than she might otherwise have found in herself without those tongue-loosening drugs. She didn’t like my dad’s family and they didn’t like her. He’d been the man in their family after his father had died when he was eight. His mom and older sister resented his defection when he fell madly in love with my mother at eighteen and after their marriage the following year, watched him move in with mom’s parents. My mom was threatened by their importance to dad and afraid they’d disrupt her life with him. His mother died right before I was born. Mom nursed a grudge against her anyway and was hostile to my aunt. As a kid I grew up hearing every perceived slight and negative behavior about that family. We were mostly distant from them. My dad was silent about his family except on rare occasions. Mom used to refer to them as the quiet, secretive types which in her view was equated with being too uptight and downright threatening. She used to say she’d die without ever having heard a thing from my dad about the inner workings of his family. And that was definitely a negative for her. She was a talker, wanting to discuss everything, to go deep. When my siblings went silent, she hated it. So I talked with mom, although she was unaware that I kept certain topics off-limits, aware that some information was better held back as it would arouse her fierce loyalty which would demonize anyone she perceived as an enemy. A trait which I acquired by learning and perhaps osmosis.
During my teens I often took care of mom who was in and out of hospitals. When she was home, she continued to share her thoughts about sex, death and family problems with me on a regular basis. Our family was religious but she really wasn’t. She was like a naughty child, often disrupting holiday rituals, fooling around with us kids and acting rebellious to annoy her parents and my dad. She fought openly with my grandmother all the time and was sneaky about her pill taking with my dad, although he was definitely onto her issues. I remember him flushing lots of pills down the toilet. Many times it was hard to figure out if there were any grownups in our family. Mostly I think not. Dad was mostly one but he was also caged in by his childhood fears which he rarely discussed. Mom was more like a girlfriend than a mother. She was funny, told incredible stories and was quite popular with our friends. As I grew up and questioned our intimate, yet unusual relationship, I figured out that it’s tough to parent when your own role models set dreadful examples of who you never wanted to be. I know I was well-loved but every now and then I wanted to feel like a kid who was being guided, rather than a confidante with ambiguous expectations about how to proceed as an adult.
By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had a pretty strong sense of the unusual relationship I’d developed with my parents. We were always close. I knew that personality-wise I was most like my mother, open, talkative and friendly, not reticent, not a believer in silence and secrets. However, I knew that all the exposure I’d been given to all the taboo subjects as a kid weren’t healthy for me and had stolen the innocence I thought children should be entitled to for that brief time when adult life was far away. My mom’s style was stamped on me but I could discern where I never intended to go as a woman and a parent. The strength which she eluded her as young woman, always in an adversarial relationship with a power figure in her life, from her mother to her sister-in-law to my dad, was also a road I was never taking. Fortunately not a victim of intentional abuse myself, I had the advantage of using my cognitive skills first, rather than always being buffeted by emotions. My mom’s childlike loyalty and loving parenting, the opposite of her parents, albeit unsuitable, helped me be stronger and make better decisions than she did.
As I moved into my adult life, married and with my own family, my parents moved to where I was living, to be with me as well as my younger sister who’d made her life near me years earlier. With my dad as a buffer, we all continued to be a tight family unit, with him absorbing what continued to be my mom’s most difficult attribute, her inability to sustain boundaries. But he died young, barely three years after moving here with part of that time taken up by both he and mom having cancer, which ultimately took his life. That left mom on her own, for the first time since she was a teenager. Part of her, although devastated by losing my father, was eager to lead life on her own terms, without having to compromise with anyone for the first time ever. But, simultaneously, the structure of having a power figure to resist and to defer to, was by then, an essential part of her emotional fabric, as natural as breathing. Unfortunately, she cast me in that power role. I still remember after my dad had only been gone a scant month, I was helping her with some paperwork. She looked at me and said that I made her feel safe, just like dad had. I felt revulsion and dread, reminding her that I was her child, not her husband. She said she understood but that wasn’t true. And so began twenty-five years of paying the price for all the confused past, when we weren’t just mother and daughter, but a composite of all types of relationships. I should have understood that when my dad, who’d decided to opt out of his cancer treatment, told me first rather than mom, and asked that I make his funeral arrangements. In the flurry of all the stress in that time, I didn’t understand what he knew implicitly, that I was going to be responsible for assuming his role in caring for my mom for the rest of her life. That quiet passage, lost in the grief of the moment, was the signal that the road ahead would be tough.
Mom became an integral part of my daily life. Part of that was normal and expected. I never anticipated that our interactions would devolve into the type she had with her own mother, endless arguments and grievances on a regular basis and mutual resentment. She handed me power I didn’t want and then was angry when I wielded it. I’d transitioned in her mind from girlfriend to a dubious ally, always on the verge of undermining her and not to be fully trusted. Sometimes things were manageable. She was a loving grandmother to my kids. I always thought she was more at ease with children than adults because they were less threatening. She was a kind mother-in-law to Michael, much sweeter by nature than his own mother. I made massive efforts to help her make friends, took her on family trips and smoothed her way forward. When she became less capable of managing on her own, I moved her into my house. Nothing, however, could alter the negative feelings she harbored which were truly more about herself than me. I went to therapy on multiple occasions to sort all this out and even got her to go with me. But there were certain places she just couldn’t go so I focused on what I could change which was myself.
Despite her many physical issues and illnesses, mom lived to be 91 years old. I never walked away from our relationship, something which was quite simply, outside my emotional wheelhouse. I learned to put more distance between us, at least in my head. I tried to ignore her childish behaviors which worsened over time and eventually, I chose to put Michael first when his cancer, coupled with providing her care, got too complicated. I moved her into assisted living. I know she resented me for that choice. I think she most wanted to be a respected matriarch without understanding that you can’t spend a lifetime as child and then assume a different role when you feel like it. As she got old, she started to slide into dementia. Her demeanor turned sweeter and I was grateful that the last year of her life allowed me to feel more peaceable toward her. Even when her mind was slipping she always remembered that Michael was sick. One time when I was visiting her, she told me she’d had an idea. She suggested that if Michael died, we might move in together. I told her we’d already tried that. She laughed and asked if I kicked her out because I hated her guts. An unforgettable moment.
Mom died in 2015 with my sister and I at her bedside. Her last hours were mystifying as she transitioned from irritability into moments when my appeal to her for mothering elicited that longed-for maternal response. I sang to her and she tried too, before slipping into a different space in which she spent hours, staring straight ahead, moving her arm in front of her as if trying to feel her way through mist or fog. I wondered what she saw. When she breathed her last breath, she had a sudden quizzical look which appeared cognitive, very different from my dad’s and Michael’s faces when they died. I’ve always wished I could ask her what she was thinking, dreaming or seeing.
During these ensuing years since her death, I’ve wished that I could talk with her. I’d like to tell her that when she told me she was scared when her father asked her to kiss the face of her dead sister, I never forgot it. And that I didn’t feel that fear when I kissed her’s and certainly not Michael’s. I’d like to talk about sex as two grown women and how hard it is to live without that intimacy as a widow. I’d like to tell her how well I now get her never being able to go back and forgive essential betrayals from those who supposedly loved us. I’d like to have those conversations now after having lived longer, rather than when she laid them on me when I was too young. I still feel my mom around me and hear her in my head. I don’t want to emulate her as my own road gets shorter. The thought makes me shudder. I hope I can control that. Taboo Dorothy. Unforgettable.