I like my mother much better, now that she's dead.

I said that to a co-worker recently and she was shocked, as you may be. But it's true. My friend asked me why, and I had to think about it for a minute before I answered.

As a point of clarification, I am not happy that my mother is dead. I would much rather that she were alive right now, enjoying the company of the three granddaughters that made her happier than I had ever seen her. But, with more than a year since her death to reflect, I've come to the realization that many of the things I respect about my mother now, theoretically speaking, were the things that made our relationship prickly, practically speaking.

My co-worker suggested that it might be a case of "time heals all wounds." Now that she's gone, I absolve her from her sins because everything turned out for the best. That's sort of like the movie cliche of the tough teacher/coach/drill instructor who you hate because he busts your ass at school/on the court/in basic training, until you graduate/win the championship/become a soldier and beam with pride.

But that's not the way I feel. I forgive my mother her sins, yes, but that's got nothing to do with her being dead. That happened while she was still alive. As she devolved from a tall, overweight, physically imposing bully to a frail, wheelchair-bound old woman humbled by Parkinson's Disease, I made peace with the person that she had been in order to achieve peace with the person that she had become.

In that sense, she and I were able to salvage something of a cordial relationship in her later years.

I gave a speech at my mother's memorial and said things that I'm sure came as a surprise to some of her longtime friends, who remembered how she and I fought in my teens and early 20s. The theme of my speech (my father called it a "homily," in his completely non-ironic way) was that my mother was a teacher, that everyone in attendance had learned from her. People came up to me afterward -- a number of her former students, in fact -- and told me that I had characterized her perfectly.

Everything I said at the memorial was true, although admittedly spun positively in the spirit of the occasion. The fact is, I learned more from my mother than from anyone else I have ever known. Unfortunately, I learned more from her failings than from her successes.

My mother accomplished a lot, she touched (and taught) a lot of people and she had many friends who thought she was the most amazing person they had ever met. But she also was, at times, frustrated, regretful, bitter, petty and manipulative. And, although my family members might prefer I not say this, she was also physically and emotionally abusive.

My sister doesn't remember -- or has chosen to forget -- that last part. I understand that. It's in keeping with her "always look on the bright side" approach to living, and it's resulted in my sister growing up to be a much more pleasant person than I have turned out to be.

But I have not chosen to forget. I haven't forgotten about the hitting, slapping or hair pulling, or how strong she was, or how scared I was of her, at times. Nor have forgotten about the deft manipulation, both in what was said and what was not said, or the silent treatments, or the hurtful and emotionally damaging words and actions. Forgetting would mean deceiving myself. Forgetting means that you have decided to avoid the hard work of understanding why, which makes a tragedy even more tragic. If something bad happens and you come to know how or why it happened, you are less likely to let it happen again -- either to you, or by you.

My mother hit me more than she should have. Some people will say any hitting of a kid is unforgivable, but an important caveat is the era in which the kid was raised. Thirty-five years ago, standards were a bit different when it came to physical discipline by parents.

And that's a key point. If my mother hit me purely as a disciplinary act, that would mitigate her culpability. But it was more than that, and it went far beyond that. My mother lashed out at me physically and verbally in large part because she was frustrated and depressed, and because she lacked the courage, ability or ready opportunity to do something about it.

My mother's biggest problem was that she was too good at too many things. She was born to early. She was born too poor. If she had come along twenty years later, to slightly more well off parents, she would have gone to college, become a professional and, perhaps, married someone who was more her equal.

But none of those things happened. Instead, she grew up during the Depression and WWII, lost her father to leukemia when she was only 17, was forced to take on a pseudo-parental role with her two younger sisters and got married at her first opportunity. I have no doubt that my parents loved each other, but I also know that my mother wanted a one-way ticket out of her house. And my father had, as she later put it, "a good job and a new car."

Back then, there were plenty of women who got married for reasons like that, or worse. But most of those women didn't have the gifts that my mother had. She was brilliant, and good at many things, and it was that potential that both blessed her and cursed her. She found outlets for her talents, but never THE outlet, never one (I believe) that matched her true potential, or that she was truly satisfied with. I believe she never really figured out what she wanted to be, and it was that frustration that plagued her, until physical frailty made the point moot.

I feel the same frustration in my life, right now.

Like my mother, I can do many things proficiently, but I have yet to find the ONE thing that makes me feel like I am where I belong. The older I get, the more I fear I will never find that, that my life will end up being a collection of lateral accomplishments, rather than the forward line toward a unique destination that most people follow.

It took my mother's death for me to allow the air to clear, to look at the body of work that was her life, and to allow it to provide context for what she did -- and did not -- do. In retrospect, I feel her frustration and lack of control. I share it, and it allows me to retroactively understand why she acted out toward me and attempted to control me, while simultaneously building me up and encouraging me to pursue my dreams and goals in a way that she did not, or could not.

Whatever else happened before or after, it was my mother's actions during my illness that allowed me to continue that quest. She saved my life in a way that I could not, or would not, save hers a decade later.

I know that I failed her when she needed me most, at the end, when she was suffering, when she needed intervention and perhaps even rescue. But we are all guilty: me, my sister, my father. In ways both subtle and overt, she asked each of us for our help, but what help we gave was not enough. There are many reasons for that, all of which absolve us. But the end result is this: she is dead.

But, in death, my mother has become more powerful for me than she ever was in life. Something tells me she would like that.


At 4/18/2009 08:42:00 AM, Anonymous gina dimassi said...

thank you for sharing such an intimate portrait of your relationship with your mother. i agree that it is important that we all look at our relationships with authenticity including all of the things that we would rather forget so we can understand ourselves and our parents better.

many of the negative memories of my parents and their individual frustrations and failures shaped who i became and it continues to guide choices i make with my own children. i think as parents we project all of our expectations onto our children for what we want them to become but forget that we have very little control over the choices and direction that their lives take. so i just try to remember that they did the best they could with the limited resources and support systems that had at the time and try not to make the same mistakes they did. so now i'll give my kids a different set of mistakes to shape who they become, and hopefully some evolution will happen in the process.

as for finding your true calling, i think you've found it my friend. your writing is so honest and fluid i enjoy every word. not that my opinion matters much, but i think that success can be measured in many ways, and if someone relating to your experience counts for anything than i think you're right where you belong.

At 4/20/2009 08:59:00 PM, Blogger Janice Erlbaum said...

Great post.

At 4/21/2009 12:51:00 PM, Blogger Cheryl Podolsky said...

I've found that lots of people improve with death. More should try it.

At 5/12/2009 04:23:00 PM, Blogger Nancy said...

A very powerful, moving, well-written post, Will. I read it a few times to be sure I got everything.

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