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She sat quietly, staring down at her hands in her lap. She’d been sharing her family background, and then she came to her mother:
“By the time I reached middle age, I was still complaining about my mother. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted a better mother, one who was more refined, less neurotic and much less difficult than she was. I judged her harshly, and my lack of maturity and compassion were present for all to see.
“What was so terrible about my mother? She was a lonely, unhappy woman. Whenever we did our chores as children, they were never good enough; I had a habit of missing corners when I dusted the coffee table, and she would chastise my work. Mom had a quick temper, too; when she became angry, she seemed to only have a voice that ran from loud to louder, and I cringed whenever she let loose. She had an odd habit of bragging about herself, even when she was describing something she knew almost nothing about. I’ll never forget one holiday dinner with guests, when she let everyone know that she didn’t let the Holocaust and concentration camps bother her anymore; I guess she was trying to explain how tough she was. It all seemed unforgiveable, and I would pick a fight with her almost every time she acted inappropriately or embarrassed me. It wasn’t until much later that I put together her story and comprehended more deeply what her life had been like early on.
She sighed and continued:
“My mother grew up in a poor family. Her parents were divorced, and early on in her life her father, a house painter fell off a ladder and shortly afterward died from his injuries.
“But even before that time, she had experienced a devastating trauma. Her maternal grandfather decided to kill himself one day when she was visiting him and her grandmother. For some reason he decided to kill himself by swallowing poison in the bathroom; the pain was so excruciating that he ran screaming into the living room, to the horror of his family—including my mother, who was around five years old. My mother adored her grandfather, so trying to comprehend what was happening was impossible. He died in the throes of his agony. Worse yet, her mother was in the hospital having another child, and her father thought it was best not to tell her mother what had happened. So, my mom was sworn to silence.
“After her mother gave birth and returned home, she understandably wanted to visit her parents who lived nearby. Her husband kept trying to stall, making excuses not to visit. Finally, she went on her own to visit. And learned what had happened. This entire time, my mother had no one to talk to, or a way to process what had occurred.
“In my lifetime, my mother always spoke of her grandfather with fondness, that she adored him, and he adored her. She never expressed any anger or resentment for the action that he had taken, knowing she was there. It was clear she had never come to terms with his act.
She paused and then looked up at me:
“The second event that she told me about was when she went out with a girlfriend as a teenager to a local soda shop. As they were finishing their sodas, my mother slurped her drink. Her friend, horrified at her lack of manners, called out her name, harangued her about her behavior, and said she’d buy her another soda if she needed one so badly. My mother quickly left the soda shop, humiliated and hurt, and they never spoke again. To an adult, this affront sounds annoying; to a teenager it was devastating.
A person doesn’t need to be a psychiatrist to figure out why my mother grew into an angry, sad person, who didn’t have close friends and didn’t trust anyone.
She sat up in her chair and cleared her throat:
“About 20 years ago, I decided I was worn out by being angry at, and disappointed with, my mother; I finally realized that she had done the very best she could as she raised us kids; that she had attributes that I could appreciate if I would only let go of my selfish desires about the mother I wanted and simply accepted the mother who had raised me. So I wrote my mother a letter of apology for the ways I had treated her all my adult life. I let go of blaming her. I took full responsibility, and I hoped she would forgive me. I wrote that I would call her in three days to give her time to think over what I had written.
“I was terrified of making that call: would she yell at me, blame me, refuse to forgive me? When I called her, she acted like the loving mother I’d always wanted. She insisted it was okay, that she figured I would come around eventually (after 50 years!) From that point on, our relationship was transformed. I’m not saying that she still didn’t get on my nerves at times, but I realized that my reaction was my problem, not hers, and would feel my heart open. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.
“Later in life when my mother was a widow, we had a loving conversation about friendship; she reminded me about the soda shop incident. She said that she was comfortable being alone, that friends only hurt and disappointed, and it was simply easier to keep one’s own company. Rather than criticize her or talk her out of her perception, I told her I could understand her choice; that I preferred having a handful of friends and had discovered for myself that the disappointments that I experienced were tolerable. We nodded and gently smiled at each other, accepting our different views of relationships and our worlds.”
* * * *
She smiled and her eyes lit up:
“And what were the treasured aspects that I grew to appreciate in my mother? First, she had a sense of humor. In later years, we would tell stories about silly things we had done and laugh at ourselves and each other’s stories. She was also smart. She was entrepreneurial, starting her own above-ground pool business, eventually dropping that endeavor and becoming a bookkeeper, tax preparer and then an Enrolled Agent. She taught me to sew and knit, and encouraged me in school; I would come home and tell her something about every single class that day. When I wanted to start my own business, she encouraged me and delighted in my success. Although she grew up during the Depression, she eventually learned to enjoy her own financial success and began to spend money on herself (which I had encouraged her to do), and she loved to point out that she had taken my advice. Naturally, I congratulated her for her wisdom, and we both laughed.
I learned in those later years after I had made amends that my mother was not a terrible person, but a wounded, struggling human being. She had done her very best to raise responsible kids, and provide a home of stability and love in the best way she knew how.
I finally realized that she was the best mother I could ever have had.”
* * * *
And if you haven’t figured it out yet, she was indeed my mother.Published in