This is a hard post to write and I really struggled with whether I would actually post this or not. But, I believe in no secrets and in honouring that belief, I will let you all read about something I have never shared online before.
I hate Mother’s Day. I hate walking through the drugstores with the pastel signs of motherly love. I hate the cards with the messages of thank you for a mother’s unconditional love, for the guidance and patience, for always being there. Because that was not my experience.
I have written about my mother before and her descent into dementia. What I haven’t written about is her younger days. Specifically, the years she spent raising me. Or not raising me as the case may be.
My mother is a complex woman with complex issues. She was raised by parents with an alcohol addiction so extreme that they completely lost the ability to support their family in any way so that my mom and my uncle had to drop out of school and work to simply keep a roof over their heads and some semblance of food on the table. At age 12 my mother was working full time doing other people’s laundry by hand.
My grandmother was a brutal and controlling woman who felt no compunction at physically abusing my mother. Once she grabbed my mother by her hair and threw her across the room so hard that a big patch of my mother’s hair was ripped out of her head. She forced my mother to sleep in the same room as her until my mother got married, just to make sure my mother wasn’t having sex. And when she did get married, my grandmother refused to attend the wedding and kept my grandfather and aunt from attending too.
So, my mother has good reasons to have complex issues.
When she was 21, my father came on to the scene. My dad was a bit of a white knight. He liked to rescue people and my mother was no different. He saw a need and stepped in to rescue her. Six months later they were married. What my father discovered was, that while he could get my mother out of her parents’ home, there was really no rescuing someone with such huge issues.
My mom started drinking and abusing prescription drugs when I was about 6 or 7. She would spend hours, and sometimes days, locked in her bedroom, claiming to have a migraine. It took years for me to realize that there really wasn’t anything wrong with her head, something she told me when she was drop dead drunk and made her way out of the bedroom. For years I believed she had a brain tumour and that no one but me was taking it seriously. I remember begging her to go to the doctor to get it checked.
When I was 8 or 9, we were hosting a Christmas party at our house for the neighbours. My mother, of course, started drinking and at some point in the evening, my dad suggested she had had enough to drink. In her drunken state, she stumbled out onto our back porch. I followed her. And before I could do anything, she had climbed up on the porch railing and had jumped to fall the two stories into the rocky creek below. Unbelievably, she wasn’t hurt other than a few scraps and bruises. That event was a defining one in my life.
She would hit me with a big wooden spoon or slap me across the face. Mostly it was the wooden spoon but once she did black my eye. That was a hard one to explain when I had to go to school the next day. This continued until I was 17 when, after she slapped me, I hit her back. She never hit me again.
She did try to commit suicide one other time. I came home from school one day to find her crawling along the floor. She had taken a whole bottle of the tranquilizers that had been prescribed to her and had been drinking hard all afternoon along with it. She had done this in hopes that she would die. At 16, I was the one who called the doctor who called the ambulance (this was pre 911 days). I went with her to the hospital. I had to dig through her purse to find out what pills she had taken when the EMTs asked me. I was the one to whom the doctors released her, and I was the one who had to go catch her when she ran out of the hospital barefoot and drunkenly tried to escape. I was the one who took her home in a cab, praying all the way that she had money in her purse to pay for it, and I was the one who had to explain to my dad when he got home, what his wife had done that day.
Eventually she did stop drinking and abusing drugs. What she really needed was a good counsellor but she would never go to one. She would never admit the things that had happened to her when she was growing up, and I was expected to never mention the things that happened to me while I was growing up. Secrets. This was the watchword of generations of my family.
I moved out as soon as I possibly could and when I had the opportunity, I moved half way around the world to live in Tokyo.
Through all of this, my father found ways to pretend it wasn’t happening. When the worst of it was going on, my dad spent years building a 26 ft sailboat in our basement. When he retired and had more time at home he started to study Spanish. He studied 2 hours every morning literally for 2 1/2 decades and never learned to speak it. I think the purpose was not to learn Spanish but to have a respite from my mother’s constant conversation and complaining. She couldn’t (and still can’t) have quiet for more than a few seconds. I think the constant conversation is to distract herself from her internal anguish.
In spite of all of this, my parents had a great love. They were married 67 years when my dad passed away. That was three years ago and still, every day, she wants to die just so she can be with him. This sounds morbid, but for my mother, it is just a statement of fact.
They travelled together, they did Masters swimming together and competed together. They both painted, both read and both loved British comedies. They swam in lakes and the ocean together. They sailed together until my mother’s bad back prevented her from going on the boat. At 70 and 80, they still walked hand in hand. They truly loved each other.
So, the Mother’s Day cards that I see in the stores have little connection to the life that I knew as a child. Instead I try to find funny cards so that I can avoid the sentimentality. I wish there were cards that said, “Mom, even though you screwed up a lot, I know you did your best and I love you anyhow.” or “Mom, I forgive you for everything and I still love you.” Those are the cards that I wish I could give my mother. But, even before dementia took her memory, my mother denied everything that happened when I was a child. She couldn’t handle the message in the cards that I would like to give. So, I go for funny.
There is an upside to all of this. I have my own daughter. I made sure that I didn’t follow my mother’s path although I have made my own share of mistakes with her. I have admitted my mistakes, apologized for them, and even offered to pay for therapy if she wants it. Now, she and I have a great relationship. She calls me regularly, asks me for relationship advice, and lets me know when I screw up. I love her with all my heart and I believe she loves me back – she does tell me so.
So, I think if I am to give anyone Mother’s Day wishes, it would be for me. In spite of her spectacular failings, I still love my mother and I am working hard at forgiving her. I have taken the mistakes she made, learned from them and have done the best possible job with my own daughter. Maybe it is time to turn Mother’s Day around and make it for myself.