My family is fragmented.
We’re like this ancient vase: cracked, pieces missing….beyond repair. Anger and resentment makes a horrible glue.
I’m not sure how it became so easy for all of us to turn our backs on each other. We invented disposiblility. At least that’s how it feels. Most of my family doesn’t talk to each other and hasn’t for some. Distance and silence are easy. They also eliminate the awkwardness of effort.
It’s funny, teetering on pathetic, actually that at age 52, I still have this sophomoric fantasy of someday having this orchestrated nuclear family–straight out of one of those Little Golden Books, I had as a child.
In my fantasy, my last name is Smith or Jones and it’s a patriarchical unit that includes parents who exemplify love. Broken down, that would include a mother who’s loving and nurturing; a father with a spine; older sisters named Babs and Sis, a dog named Spot and Fluff, the cat. And I would be this sweet, loving proportionately built girl-child; excelling through life because of an enviable support system that always made me feel loved and strong, win or lose.
We had all the trappings. On paper, it looked good. As far as my sisters and I were concerned, we were very much like these three little girls; posed for the world to see. Perfectly dressed in taffeta, crinoline and Niagara spray starch–posed in birth order, magazine smiles at the ready.
While Child Protective Services never intervened, my childhood wasn’t all that great. I was -like a million other kids–troubled. Troubled people were the reason and I have spent years and countless paychecks on therapy and Zoloft trying to understand how and why.
Maybe it was because I always had that damned unrealistic family fantasy in the back of my mind.
A few months ago, I was summoned to the Texas Hill Country. Partly by my mother; partly by a need to get out of Houston and breathe different air. Daughterly duty also played a role
I stayed with my mother who now boasts a life consisting of 81 years on this planet. The woman who bore me 52.7years ago, truly is an amazing woman. She’s short…only 4’8″ (4′ 9.5″ providing her coif is sufficiently teased and Aqua Netted) but in many ways she’s the tallest woman I’ve ever known. Her personality is as it has always been: bigger than life. I appreciate her now in ways I couldn’t….
My problem is that I always allowed her mothering to get in my way. You see, she wasn’t necessarily a bad mother…perhaps, not the best for a woman like me. I wasn’t a bad daughter either…just hardly the one a woman like her should mother.
We’ve always had a rather tumultuous relationship. I’m not even sure why. I do think we’re both to blame though.
A little background: I knew I wanted to be a Broadcast Journalist since age six when a camera crew captured the top of my very blond head which appeared over the back of my centenarian great grandmother’s wheel chair. KENS-TV, the CBS affiliate in San Antonio had come to my home town to film her 100th birthday party. Guess life expectancy for former South Texas pioneer women wasn’t very high in the mid 60’s.
That night, clad in Winnie the Pooh footed pajamas, I sat cross-legged on the cold linoleum floor in front of the Curtis Mathis that night, waiting to see if I could see me on the news. Sure enough, there I was. You could only see the top of my head and only for a fraction of a second, but it was just enough to make me realize what I wanted to do, to be; to experience when I grew up.
I feel sure my mother had the same aspirations most of her life. But she dropped out of Baylor her Sophomore year to get married. Her hopes of being a writer were dashed when my oldest sister was born. Protestant procreation urges forced her to sprout two more groin fruit. I was the third and last bi-product of this Sealy Posturpedic co-mingling.
I am more like my mother than my two older sisters. In me, she saw herself and that was both good and bad. I became what she wanted to become but because of personal choices, didn’t. But I don’t think she always saw it like that. My mother has never been one to admit mistakes and because of that, at times I feel she needed to believe others stood in her way. This conveniently allowed her to cover up her own disappointment for never trying harder to do all the things she wanted. In fact, after a very tumultuous divorce, my mother was convinced that her marriage to my father–the result of falling for some line about his coercive fears of being made to fight the Korean hun and only returning to Texas in a coffin–was the main reason why her dreams of becoming a writer, were trashed.
The truth is, she never tried to write throughout her years of child rearing. I think she was scared of both failure and success. But that all changed several years into her retirement. She finally went for broke and took a few writing courses, but dropped out when the instructor harshly critiqued her essay. All of her life, her flawless dreams of being a published author never included being “edited”. No dreams ever do.
Sadly, she never wrote again and we all knew better than to ask why. The sad part is that we also knew that she actually could write very well. Even all these years later, I hate that she let one person’s very subjective opinion sully every aspiration she had.
Perhaps that’s only added to the conflict between us that has existed for decades. For reasons that I would suppose are deeply Freudian in nature, I feel certain that my mother both loved and hated my very public career in TV and radio. Whenever she had something to say to me, it was almost always critical. She found fault in every report; with my appearance in every TV stand up. She hated what I wore; how I phrased something. Then, if she couldn’t find fault with my performance, she criticized the station itself or the city it was in…or my salary. Yet I know she was proud of me because she would express her to other people but for some reason, she could never tell me she was proud of me to my face. I think she wanted me to succeed yet she needed me to fail. And that resulted in many attempts to shake my confidence. Most of the time, I deflected her negativity by striking back with arrogance. I acted like a know-it-all brat who fiendishly went for her emotional fontanel by rubbing her nose in my successes on more occasions than I care to admit. That almost always resulted in horrendous shouting matches that would make wharf whores and teamsters blush.
Regrettably, we’ve spent a lifetime arguing more than anything else. But this visit was different. At least, it certainly felt different.
This time, we weren’t rivals, but we weren’t friends either. I’m not sure what we were. But I do know the dynamic between us was very different. It was easy. I guess one could even call it effortless efforting, Somehow, the anger induced sparring of the past fell by the wayside. For one week we were civil. It was as if we’d managed to evolve into two much calmer women who understood each other…maybe for the first time ever. We celebrated that by drinking Scotch and sipping wine on occasion. We went shopping and tended to business. We watched TV together; we tried to out play each other on “Jeopardy”. We ran errands together; we had dinner out; cooked dinner at home and hosted a dinner party for family one night, but regardless of what we did in the course of the day or the plans we had in the evening, every afternoon at 5:00 like clockwork, we’d go outside and sit on her front porch to watch Monarch butterflies pilfer nectar from flowers wilted by a hard summer drought. We watched migratory geese fly south for the winter and wondered out loud how in the hell the geese selected the lead HGIC (Head Goose In Charge) and what a drag it was to be the weakest in the phyla and be forced to fly at the end of that famous “Y” pattern. We laughed at silly jokes and shared memories. We talked about love and life and failure and successes–other peoples’ mind you; certainly not our own. And yes, at times, she couldn’t help herself. She’d revert to type to do what she did best: she played mother and I knew I had no choice but to reprise my role as daughter.
And here’s the difference I wrote about earlier: I took it all. I just sat there and quietly endured six afternoons of being barraged with comments about my skin and how bad it looked. I learned that my hair was cut in a style that was much too young. I dressed all wrong for my age. I looked bloated. She’d ask me why I choose THAT eyeliner and how could I wear those shoes? And last but not least in order to meet a nice man and settle down, she insisted that I couldn’t just sit in my apartment and wait for one to knock on my door. I needed to get out there, take a chance, BUT I SHOULD AVOID GOING TO BARS TO MEET MEN!!
I said nothing. Arguing wasn’t an option, nor did I didn’t want it to be. I decided that I had two choices within this new ritual we were establishing: I could take the negative things she says to heart and flounder…OR…I can see my positives as I know them to be and refuse to allow someone else’s insecurities and feelings of inadequacies to rewrite my life’s profile page, even if that person is my mother; especially if that person is my mother. I had come to terms with the reality that this was who this woman has been and is; what she’s all about. It’s who she always will be and in the course of my week spent with her, I finally stopped fighting that fact. It was as if my life as her daughter and her life as my mother had reached some mystical reckoning simultaneously. And it all came into focus under the nuclear explosion of color that is a Central Texas sunset. In a way, she’d earned the right to be her whether I liked it or not and the late afternoon light proved that true. It illuminated her face and it showed every line and wrinkle, courtesy of so many years and experiences. It was odd seeing her like this….literally in ‘a new light’….and because of that, I never averted my gaze. I desperately wanted that image of her permanently emblazoned in my memory.
And as I sat on her front porch afternoon after afternoon, I realized that I no longer felt the need for approval that would never come. I no longer wanted her to compliment or coddle me. I didn’t want money or maternal recognition of any kind. I simply wanted time. That’s all. I wanted more time to be with this woman.
As twilight drew near, she’d always suggest that we go inside. I’d always oblige, but did so under silent protest. In many, many ways, I didn’t want to go inside. I didn’t want to leave that porch. I didn’t want to leave her house.
The truth is, I didn’t want to leave my mother.
I once read that Life is but a candle’s flicker; out with a puff of smoke. All week-long, that sentence kept coursing through my head. I know her years left on this good Earth can be counted on a few fingers. Even so, I refuse to regret anything that’s happened between us. Even the bad stuff. Every afternoon, in the midst of butterflies, questions about flying geese and shadows that grew longer with each passing minute, I made a vow to replace every regret with better memories. Mercifully I realized or rather, I hoped, I’d still have time to make more.
Armed with this new strategy and mindset, I stood with her one last time on her front porch this morning. I got in my car after two hugs, a promise to return in a month, one kiss on the cheek and one “I love you”. I was the one who said it. She said nothing. She never does. When it comes to expressing emotions, that’s the one time when this normally chatty woman becomes utterly dumbstruck.
When I arrived back home to Houston after a long, three-hour drive, I looked in my purse. Tucked inside I found one of her trademark powder blue envelopes which contained a $2.00 off coupon for some Oil of Olay anti-aging skin-care product; a $3.00 coupon for Metamucil and a newspaper article about the pros and cons of being loveless over the age of 50.
Two coupons and a newspaper clipping told me what she couldn’t: that she loved me, too.
I guess every so often Little Golden Books, while tarnished, can have some basis in reality.