Twenty-four years ago today, my mother died suddenly at the age of 73, just two months shy of her 74th birthday. She had been ill for some time with one thing or another, but appeared healthy the day before. When she died, I cried bitter tears for the relationship we never had. In truth, I’d spent most of my life being angry with her for any number of reasons, but still always seeking her approval. I wanted that other kind of mother, the kind my girlfriends had, the kind who loved them and accepted them exactly as they were, who loved them unconditionally.
I could write about all the unhappy memories, the lifetime of perceived hurts, all her failings as a mother to me, but I’m choosing, instead, on the anniversary of her passing, to put things in a different perspective. It took me more than 10 years after her death to let go of the anger and to acknowledge and accept that my mother was only human, a woman who suffered from myriad physical issues, alcoholism, depression and the memories of a truly difficult childhood in the slums of cold water flats in Manhattan. Until the day her mother died, their relationship was fraught with pain and anger.
• Imagine that you are six years old, the child of Polish immigrants. Your father is a drunk and your mother a selfish woman who frequently disappears without notice. You are the third of six children, three boys and three girls. You come home from school to find your flat empty, your family gone, evicted, and you have no idea where to find them. You find the building super, hoping he will know, and eventually, you catch up with the rest of the family.
• Your shoes are falling apart, but there is no money for new ones, and winter is approaching. Your father, a barber whose greatest accomplishment is that he once cut Teddy Roosevelt’s hair, takes you to the shoemaker where you pick out a lovely pair of boots. He tells the man he will pay him once he has the money, but the shopkeeper is no fool. He refuses to extend him any further credit and throws him (and you) out of the store. The humiliation of that day stays with you forever.
• You’re about to graduate grammar school, 8th grade. Although you can’t sew worth a hill of beans, someone has given you a hand-me-down dress and you’ve managed to alter it to fit your tiny frame for the event. You carefully place it in the chifferobe to keep it from getting wrinkled. On graduation day, you open the drawer and to your everlasting shock and misery, the dress is gone. Where? Your mother sold it to the rag man for money to go to the moving pictures.
• Graduating at 16 from high school, you are especially bright and you’ve been awarded a fully paid scholarship to Hunter Teacher’s College, but you don’t have the bus fare to get back and forth, and besides, you have to go to work to help support your family. Your dream of becoming a teacher evaporates, leaving you unfulfilled for a lifetime.
• You’re about to deliver your third child when your mother picks a fight in the hospital elevator and punches you in the stomach. No harm to the baby, but what kind of mother would do such a thing to her daughter?
• Your older sister back east has had it, so she sends your mother to live with your family in the Midwest. Things are difficult with her—she’s diabetic and non-compliant, and nothing you do suits her. She doesn’t like you, she doesn’t want to live with you and she lets you know it. One day while vacuuming, you discover a pastry hidden under the upholstered chair in her bedroom. You confront her, an altercation ensues and she tries to push you down the back stairs. Your husband has had it and insists she go back east.
• A few years later, you relent and allow your mother to come back. Things are no better than they were the first time, and when she throws a plate of food at your youngest child because the green beans are not cooked to her liking, you’ve had enough and you send her packing once again.
• Your mother is in the hospital, not expected to live much longer, so you make the obligatory trip back east. You should never have bothered, because when you try to talk to her in her hospital room, she spits at you. You cut your visit short and go home, and when she dies, you cry tears of bitterness for the relationship you never had.
Once I had released my own anger and bitterness, a very different sort of memory began to emerge at the edges of my consciousness, one by one, until it occurred to me that there must have been a time in our lives when we were not constantly at odds. Somewhere, in my early years, there were memories of nature walks down to the meadow on Buttonball Lane, cooking lessons as soon as I was tall enough to stand on a footstool and reach the stove, paper doll cutouts from her magazines, and of course, a never-ending supply of pencils, paint, paper, scissors, crayons and other art paraphernalia, with encouragement to follow my creative instincts.
I understood that Mom was the sum of all her experiences, and that she was only human. Three months after my birth, my next older brother contracted polio at 3 years old. She became his physiotherapist, spending hours working his muscles in hot baths, as well as caring for the rest of the family. She never really had a chance to bond with me as an infant, her only daughter, and never really seemed to know what to do with me. I was the “wrong” kind of girl, the tomboy who wore dungarees, went barefoot, climbed trees, dug up nightcrawlers for fishing, brought tadpoles home in my pockets, played baseball and had no use for baby dolls. I was no dainty little flower.
All these years later, I choose to cherish the good memories, and while I acknowledge the rest, they no longer dominate my thoughts. Today, I’ll think about all the noisy, “eventful” family dinners, Dad’s favorite thick n’ thin merino wool sweater with the leather buttons, handmade with love, the seemingly endless shelves of books, all available to us without reserve (education was extremely important in our home), the beautiful gardens she created wherever we lived (but she could kill any house plant in short order), her boundless love for her grandchildren, the cut-throat Scrabble games (she usually won), her amazing culinary skills and too many other things to list. And finally, after all these years, I can say, “I miss you, Mom. I love you.”