Thursday, May 5, 2011

That woman was my mother

When my children were young, I muddled through motherhood as best as I could. Some things I did well and some things, not so much. While I was finding my way, it dawned on me that my mom had done the same thing. As a child, I had assumed that she was all-wise. As an adult, I grew to realize that had never been the case. As I’ve matured, I have forgiven her for being human. That’s an important task of adulthood. We learn to forgive our parents for being human, just as we hope our children will one day forgive us.

I suspect that, as children, each of us saw ourselves as the central character in our parents’ lives. We couldn’t see that they were people with lives of their own who also happened to be parents. Our moms and dads have their own life stories, just as we do. We’re only a part of those stories. What I didn’t realize until recently is how the circumstances of our parents’ life stories may have more to do with the way they parent us than their intelligence, or their temperament, or their innate ability to nurture.

I’m one of six children. It was a yours-mine-and-ours family. Both of my parents had been married before they married each another. My father had two girls, my mother had a boy, and together they had three more: my brother, and then me, and then my sister. There is a huge age spread from the first child to the last. Even among the three of us “ours” kids, there are five or six years between each of us. My father died when he was in his mid forties and my mother died in her sixties, so we’ve been orphans for over thirty years now. Often, when we get together, we’ll talk about our mother. And, invariably, I will hear my siblings say things about her that leave me asking, “Are we talking about the same woman?” It’s as if each of us had an entirely different mother. But she was the same woman. Or was she?

My brother Bob had a mother who was inexperienced. She probably made more mistakes with him than she did with the rest of us. And while he was very young she had to deal with an unfaithful husband, whom she divorced in a time when divorce wasn’t all that common. That was the mother he had. But that woman was not my mother.

My older sisters, Roberta and Lorena, lost their mother to cancer while my father was away fighting a war. Within months of her death, my father came back home to Ohio and with him he brought a new wife from the far-off land of New Jersey. My sisters met the woman who was to become their “new mother” for the first time. It was not a good beginning, but they got past it. And yet, in many ways, it colored their relationship with our mother for as long as she lived. That was the mother they had. But that woman was not my mother.

My older brother Ken, my younger sister Wendy, and I also had three different mothers. We lived through an event with her that changed everything, but we were in different stages of our lives when that event occurred. My brother was twelve when our father died. But he got to spend the first part of his life with June and Ward Cleaver. My mom was the happy homemaker during that time. She sewed our clothes and pulled every weed out of the yard by hand and had a shiny kitchen floor and trailed along with her husband to his softball games and bowling tournaments and fishing trips. That was the mother my brother Ken had. But that woman was not my mother.

My sister was only a year old when dad died, so she never knew him. My mother went to work outside the home when she was still a baby and my aunt was the childcare provider who filled in the gaps while my mom couldn’t be there. The only mother my sister ever knew was one who worked outside the home. That was the mother she had. But that woman was not my mother.

When my dad got ALS I was five. So, I can remember what he was like before he was sick. But I particularly remember what my mother was like before and after his illness. Not only did the disease take my father’s life from him, it took my mother’s life from her as well. Life as she knew it ended. She had to become someone else. So, when I lost my father, I felt like I lost my mother, too. After he died, she became pre-occupied with survival. Even at the age of six, I was aware of the fact that I was not the main character in my mother’s life story.

When my father was diagnosed with ALS, both he and my mother knew he would not be around to do the things he had been doing for her. So, he had to show her how to write a check and pay the bills. He taught her how to drive a car. He prepared her to provide for herself and her family. This was no small thing for her. On top of knowing that the man she loved would soon be gone from her life, she had the added stress of re-creating who she was in order to prepare for a life she never would have chosen, but had to accept. That was the mother I had. That woman was my mother.

And so, if there is one value that my mom passed along to me, it is to take care of myself. Don’t count on a man to take care of you, Nancy. Have your own career. Be independent. That’s what I learned from my mom. Under the circumstances, what else could she have taught me? Of course, it’s been both a blessing and a curse. Yes, I can take care of myself, but it’s also been hard for me to ever admit I need help. Yet, that’s a big part of who I am. And it’s because of the woman who was my mother.

For thirty years now I’ve been living with the strange paradox of being without the one who will always be with me. I will always remember her courage, her generosity, and her quick wit. But I also can’t forget her brutal honesty and the deep sorrow that weighed her down like a lead apron. Not only do I remember these things about my mother, but I also see them in myself. I would not be the same person if I had the mother any of my siblings had. She is the mother who was unique to me because of the time I entered into her life story. I’m grateful.

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