It’s interesting how, once a parent dies, they become a sort of invisible ingredient in the recipe that is you. I tell Nick stories about my mom — not only because things remind me, but also because I want him to understand me. She represented half of my primary caretaker input, after all; half of my example of how reality works; one of two dominant narratives for me to variously accept or reject, as I grew older. But for Nick, and for everyone I’ve met since 2011, a handful of stories is all she’ll ever be.
The interesting caveat about my mom is that a handful of stories is all she was for more than a decade before her death, as well. I conducted an entire relationship, marriage, and divorce in my 30’s, with a man who never once met my mother. I hadn’t seen her, myself, since 2005, when I was on active duty leave from Texas and needed to put my travel trailer in the shop. I visited my parents in Kansas because I had nowhere else to stay. My dad welcomed me, my mom — well, anyway I left early and grabbed a hotel, which is what I guess I should have done in the first place. But this frustrating encounter allows me to say, at least, that she died six years after I’d last seen her, rather than what it would have been otherwise — ten, twelve, I don’t know.
And she wasn’t estranged from us. I spoke to her on the phone regularly, and she mailed letters and cards to my brother and I. She lived with my existentially undemanding dad, same as always. She loved us. We loved her. I think? I mean, definitely. When the fact of love is so disconnected from any typical performance of it, you’re left to your own resources on…what kind of story to tell yourself about it.
And that is probably the biggest and best thing she taught me — totally unwittingly, I’m sure.
The best analogy for her would be that of the severe diabetic. But it was a form of emotional, spiritual diabetes, let’s say, in which all the normal venues of human connection represent sugar. The average healthy person craves sugar; can process sugar; can overdo it on the holidays or when they’re sad, and bounce back. My mom literally survived by limiting her social sugars, more and more and more as she aged, impoverishing her own experience of life in an effort to sustain it. Ultimately dwindling and extinguishing — the cure proved stronger than the disease.
My dad has proven himself to be a spiritual blackbelt, meanwhile, by holding a vision of her that doesn’t allow my brother and I to diminish her, or ourselves, with pity. “Your mother was a magic person,” he has always said, and will always say. “Whatever troubles raged on the surface were meaningless, compared to the oceanic depth of her. Nothing ever touched that, and nothing ever will.” It’s a pretty big thing for him to say — I remember my mom losing her shit on me, on my dad, all the time, when I was a teenager and a young 20-something. This was before she retreated into herself entirely — or tried to.
2005 was my last attempt at dismissing her very clear statement that she did not want to be visited. I visited anyway, and it was with stony chagrin I got back in my car and drove off, the next day, after a harangue that proved unnavigable. She called me, thirty miles down the road, apologizing and asking me to come back, but I wouldn’t. I hate being rejected. I just hate it. I answer rejection, even the slightest rejection, even the most reasonable, conditional rejection, with a total freeze out. I am reduced to a child, utterly without resources, in these situations. The only tool I have is myself, and the only place to take it is away, and the only acceptable duration of time is forever.
I still have some work to do, as you see.
My mother was beautiful — tall and elegant and fine-boned, with heavy waves of auburn hair. A true redhead, but dark on the spectrum. Her face, wrists, and ankles were especially delicate. A quintessential photograph shows her wearing big J-Lo sunglasses (when those were stylish the first time around), and wings of her shoulder length hair swept back and secured with barrettes on both sides. She’s holding me on one hip — I’m a fat baby, and mild as a cow — and she’s closing the refrigerator door with her other hip. One long, long arm is curved up and she’s tweaking the position of her sunglasses with that hand. She has on brownish red lipstick. At the time this photo was taken, she was still able to metabolize the normal sugars of socializing; an ability that would decline as I lengthened, and expanded outward, and demanded more.
Speaking of which: the world lost a good socializer, when it lost my mom. Which loss, as you can see, occurred decades prior to her actual death. She didn’t simply meet people, she interviewed them. Not with any agenda in mind, only genuine interest. She immediately and skillfully moved beyond surface level details — what’s your job? How do you like it? How did you fall into that? What was your childhood like? She was fascinated by people’s accounts of themselves, and the emotional terrains they evidently negotiated. My mom was on equally secure footing with a stranger, a cashier, a neighbor, or, I can only presume, the President of the United States. She wasn’t scared of anyone (or, only everyone, eventually), and experienced zero reverence for national and cultural institutions. Nothing about her was rebellious or disrespectful — I only mean exactly that: zero reverence. Government, church, school, medicine. They were all just psychic monoliths, casting long shadows that we must live among, and she loved nothing more than uncomplicated sunshine.
She felt very strongly, though, about certain “lines in the sand”, as she put it, and particularly in regards to my emerging feminine biology.
“Never nag a man,” she commanded. “Ask him once. And then figure it out. Or live without it. Or leave. But don’t nag.”
“If you’re old enough to get knocked up, then you’re old enough to figure out how to pay your own bills and put a roof over your own head,” she also intoned, when I was sixteen. “I can’t control you, but don’t look to us for help if you get yourself in a jam.”
“You’ll have so much more fun in college,” she soothed, when I was crying again after school, in junior high. We’d moved again, to a new school, but everyone was mean to me again as usual. “It’s a lot different when you get older. People appreciate ideas, and intelligence. Don’t you change a thing. They’re the ones missing out.”
She’d wake me up for school in the mornings by running her hand over my back and just talking to me gently until I became alert. She didn’t expect me to like school, or to perform any particular emotions about anything. However I felt was okay with her, when I was younger.
She loved my dad, and loved us, and increasingly crucified herself. “You all think I’m crazy!,” she’d yell, through a haze of tears. I would swallow the guilt of having had that exact thought occur to me, and deny it. She saw everyone else as the Strong People, increasingly so as she felt herself inwardly collapse. She didn’t interpret anything she might say or do as “mean” — it seemed impossible to her that we, the Strong People, could have our feelings hurt. Only she could have her feelings hurt.
She saw a handful of doctors, after I was born. She never bounced back, the way she did after my older brother’s birth. She felt dull, depressed, drained. The medical community unconditionally dismissed her concerns; a slight for which she never forgave them. Our upbringing was one of living through our injuries and illnesses as best we might. Going to the doctor just wasn’t a thing.
I learned that lesson for myself, as an eight grader. A physical examination was required for my participation on the cross country running team, and the doctor murmured approval of each of my stats as they emerged. Strong heart, good lungs, appropriate reflexes and hearing and eyesight. I was fit as a fiddle. But when he asked me about diet, or allergies, I volunteered that I was vegetarian.
“For how long?,” he asked with some alarm.
“Since I was five,” I said, already regretting my honesty.
“You’re probably anemic,” he muttered, prepping a kit to draw my blood. My blood work came back perfect, to his bemusement. I privately committed not to volunteer information to doctors.
My mother was an excellent cook, and so was/is my father, so food was a vector of much joy and abundance in our lives. We ate simple foods, prepared well and seasoned perfectly, with no resort to cliche Top 40 recipes. Whatever was available and looked fresh, at the store, was what drove our menu. To this day it seems odd to me that people spend their lives sort of…orbiting around the same few culinary archetypes. It’s a very meat-eater thing to do, observably, and not something common for vegans or vegetarians, either practically or preferably. There’s a wild jungle of food out there, and only meat eaters seem chained to a post, from what I’ve observed.
When you’ve had a fraught relationship with a parent, and then they die, you may find that you’ve been holding your breath without knowing it. Holding your breath for some kind of resolution to longstanding tensions — why couldn’t you come to any of my cross country races? All the other kid’s moms were there. Or my wedding? Or my divorce? Or when my dog died and my travel trailer was totaled and I was stranded in Texas with only the clothes on my back? (Thanks, Dad.) Realizing it’s never gonna come, now, is liberating in a strange way. It’s easier to forgive someone when they’ve died; or perhaps easier to realize you were withholding.
Letting people be the way they are is a profound knack of mine, because my first challenging relationship, in that regard, occurred when I had no means of control to exert anyway. Unfortunately, it’s been difficult for me, as an adult, to swing the other way — to stay in relationship conditionally. To draw “lines in the sand”. It’s been easier for me to accept all and everything, with equanimity, and then to leave by the back door when it gets too heavy. When I can’t do that, I simply retreat into myself. I mean, that’s what my mom did with me. No fighting, negotiating, airing of grievance, asking for redress. I was too heavy for her, just by existing, and she always made sure to have a room with a door that closed. I was left to my own devices, which were fortunately — or only eventually — ample.
I’ve inherited this severe spiritual diabetes, when it comes to social sugars. I edge around the monolithic shadows of the Strong People, craving simple sunshine. I struggle to articulate my values and preferences and boundaries — not because I don’t think they’re important, but because of my pessimism that anyone consistently heavy-handed enough to form a blister would honor my attempt at articulation, anyway.
This might be wrong; it might be a defect of character. More heavy handed people emerge from childhood than not, and what am I to do with all of them? Even when I don’t choose them as primary figures in my life, they’re often related to, or in close concert with, those I do choose. There’s not always a room, with a door that closes. (More and more, I resonate with my mom’s estimation of this simple solution.)
And more importantly, how heavy handed am I, really? Anything we dislike or avoid tends to have its roots within us, not without. I ponder that, too.
I think we all grow up with some sort of elephant in the room, if not several. I think we all come to sense that something big and obvious must not be spoken of. The elephant in my childhood was called “I love you, but you’re being unbearable.” This elephant is alive and well, in my relationships, and that’s my fault, or perhaps only my challenge. I’m rising to the challenge more and more, in little ways that only sound like the squeaking of a tiny, polite mouse, to the average ear. Just last night, I sent a private message to a Facebook friend. It said, “I love you, but you’re being unbearable.” I shined my flashlight at the elephant.