I have a feeling this is going to be a hard post to write. It will be hard in part because some of my readers knew my mother and may have even considered her a friend. I’m choosing to write this anyway because I have always tried to be honest here and it’s time to be honest about mom. Through my writing process I feel like she is slipping away from me. I fear that writing about her will forever alter my relationship to her.
My mother passed in 1989. I was 19 years old and that day will forever be cemented as the day my childhood ended. My mother was my entire world. When she passed it felt like everything that tethered me to the earth was gone and I was just floating around on the wind. It felt like all of the color in my life had drained away and all was left was that place I go to when I need to shut down and shut the world away. It felt like nothing would ever be the same again and nothing was. She was everything.
When I was a child it was always mom and I against the world. I now believe we were engaged in some pretty serious trauma bonding. My mother could be very funny and affectionate but she could also be brutal, cruel, and very mentally ill. Sympathy for her upbringing and mental illness has kept me from being totally honest about her with myself. I can honestly say that I cannot remember a time when I was not her caretaker. As a little girl I scrambled to make sure she had her needs met and listened to every worry and sadness she endured. I was acutely aware of how deep her mental illness ran even if I could not articulate it at a young age.
Growing up in my home in the 1970’s it was not unusual to see violence. My mother was physically abusive to my father and he was mentally abusive to her. She thought nothing of flying into a rage and chasing him around with a butcher knife. I was spanked with a belt but that was pretty normal for that time period. What stands out to me is all of the other physical stuff she did. She often pulled my hair, pinched me, and threatened me with hell. As I got older and stopped crying when she spanked me she turned to slapping me. This also was not so unusual for the time period, but a few times she did it hard enough to knock me down to the floor. I can recall asking my father why he left me with her knowing how violent she was and he said she needed me and he did not think she would ever really hurt me. I countered him by saying, “if it was bad enough that you needed to get away then it was bad enough for you to take me away.” He did not agree. He always told me that it was my responsibility to look after her. He couldn’t do it because she was too dangerous for him to be around. What a terrible thing to expect for a child to take on.
She was mentally and emotionally abusive. My mother was very afraid of the rapture and hell was real to her. She would threaten me with hell and missing the rapture for childish offenses like complaining that the shower was too hot. Her and my father bragged about how they hardly ever had to spank me and how I never got into any trouble, like they were expert parents. The reality was I was too afraid to take any risks. Anything I did including not cleaning my room could lead to hell, remember honor thy father and thy mother. Not doing well in school might make me miss the rapture. That is how high the stakes were in my home. My mother was so afraid of hell and the end times that she would lock herself in her room and pray and speak in tongues for hours. I would sit on the floor by the door and wait for her to finish. Praying myself that she would be ok and that god would listen to her prayers. During this time she would play her gospel records and I was not allowed to watch tv or listen to my records. I was alone all the time and then when she got home I was alone some more. This is all happening before I had completed elementary school.
She was scrappy and we were always struggling to pay the bills and keep food on the table. You will never hear me say my mother did not work hard, she was in fact one of the hardest workers I’ve ever know. But even when she was working two jobs we never had what we needed. She was a pick yourself up by your bootstraps kind of woman. She would NEVER ask for help even if it meant exposing me to extreme hunger and deprivation. She was raised to distrust the government and so she wanted nothing to do with social workers or government aid. My mother had so much pride in her gritty determination and I admire her for that, but it is time for me to get real about her choices. It mattered more to her that no one know our business than it did that I went to school hungry. She once became extremely angry with me for telling a neighbor that we had no food. I was somewhere around 1st grade. I learned a hard lesson about keeping my mouth shut. She had family members around that she could have asked for help but her pride made it hard for her to go there. So instead we twisted in the wind. More often than not my dinner was boiled potatoes with just a little salt on them. not the kind of nutrition a growing child needs. I still cannot understand why at times we had more than enough and at other times we had nothing. I can only say that she would cry on my shoulder and I would tell her mommy it is alright even as my stomach churned. I was always telling her it would be alright. I was always assuring her that I didn’t need anything. She was tough, but I was tougher.
When I was molested she did nothing to help me. She showed me no compassion and called me names. She got angry with me and I think she was feeling ashamed of me. Her and my stepdad said some really awful things to me, things I cannot bring myself to repeat. I feel this happened in part because she never really let me be a child. Both my parents treated me like I was an adult and used my intelligence to absolve them of their crimes of not parenting. She did not try to get me help in any way and we went for a long stretch where she did not talk to me. I was 12. The worst thing that had ever happened to me had just happened and I could not go to her. I had no one to go to except myself. When I got older and I spoke to both my parents about this issue they seemed to not understand that it was child abuse and that I was in no way old enough to consent. I started to grow cold when the realization came over me that after caring for her for so long and listening to all of her woes she would not be available to do the same for me. Our relationship only worked one way. On two different occasions a boy of color wanted to date me in a very puppy love kind of way she called me a horrible name. I don’t even want to write it here and I’m sure you can guess what it was. I had no idea what that term even meant but she spit the words out at me and looked at me like I had done something really wrong if these boys were interested in me. She was so flawed and yet all through my childhood she would give me that look, that look that told me she thought I was disgusting. I tried to tell her that these boys were nice and they only wanted to talk to me on the phone but she wouldn’t hear anything I had to say.
She checked out of church but still insisted that I go. She never felt accepted at Calvary Gospel and eventually she just quit going, But because she was worried about my soul and eternal damnation she pushed me to keep going. I desperately wanted her to be proud of me so I did, plus I was scared not to. She knew that the people there were both racist and classist, and she knew they treated her as less than and that is why she left. Somehow none of those worries applied to me. Even after Steve Dahl molested me she continued to allow me to attend for years. I can tell you that if my child was molested by an adult I would be sure that my child was pulled out of that atmosphere completely. There would be no second chances. She knew the congregation was full of vipers, mean spirited awful people and yet she continued to push. The message I got from her and my dad was that I was strong even stronger than they were. My dad could not take my mothers meanness but I could be expected to weather it. He kept telling me that if he took me away it would kill her and he couldn’t do that to her, but what about me? At times I feel neither of them saw me as fully human.
I withered away before her eyes. When I look back at photos of myself during my early teen years I am so skinny. The bones in my neck stick out and my arms look like twigs. Once I got older and could work for my own money I was much better off and it shows in the photos. My eyes have dark circles around them and in every shot I just look haunted. Around this time three things happened, my mother married an alcoholic and had another child, and she started to get sick. She has always had bad allergies and in her 30’s she developed asthma. Once she remarried and especially after my little brother came into the picture she just checked out of parenting me. She let me go on auto pilot unless something happened to temporarily snap her out of it. I became an after thought and soon everything else became more pressing. Jim, my stepdad, liked guns and so they started amassing a collection. He was depressed and wanted a new truck so she bought him one. I don’t think she realized how bad his condition was until after they were married. He couldn’t work and smoked like a chimney. His smoking effected her health and mine and yet she did nothing to stop him. They would fight and I would hide just like when I was little. I barely ever came out of my room and when I did it was always weird. My stepdad would sit in the living room and watch porn after my mother went to bed.. She would often go to bed early when she was working a lot or when she was sick. I couldn’t get to any room in our house including our bathroom without walking through the living room. I was so embarrassed and he just sat there staring at the screen. I feel he did it on purpose because he wanted me to stay in my room. He made it clear from the beginning that he wanted my mother but not a daughter. I complained to her about how antisocial he was towards me and she would throw her hands up as if she had no power. I told her about the porn and she got angry with him but talked to me about it more in the context of, “Men, I don’t know what to do about him.” I was about 13 or 14 at the time. I guess what I am trying to say is that she could never be depended upon to act. She was more like the child and I was more like the adult sounding the alarm to her and telling her how inappropriate things were. I could never have friends over or have anyone spend the night.
I never went to the dentist and rarely went to the doctor. My mother had many health issues and always sought treatment, I cannot sat why I never went to the doctor except that I did not complain.
At age 15 I moved out of her house and in with my father. I was very aware at the time that this was the worst thing I could do to her. She saw my father as a deadbeat (he was), a scoundrel and a cheat. By now I’m sure you can sense how bad things must’ve been for me to make this choice. I came home from school one day to find my little brother who was still in diapers standing in the road. I was embarrassed that the other kids saw this and hurried to scoop him up and bring him inside. Once inside it became clear to me that my stepdad was drunk. He started laughing at me in my distress and I took my baby brother to my bedroom and waited for my mom’s return. When she got home from wherever she was I lost my mind and told her exactly what I felt. As much as I felt I needed to protect my brother I knew I needed to protect myself. I told her I was going and asked my dad to come get me. She cried and I felt bad for her, I felt guilty. A small part of me hoped this would wake her up that she would choose me and James my brother over Jim and his addictions. She stayed with Jim, she let me go. It isn’t like we did not see each other or have a relationship, we did but it was never the same.
If you are still here with me I appreciate it. I know this is a long post. I’m starting to see my mother as a irredeemable character in my life story. Where in the past it was so easy for me to feel sympathy for her and cut her some slack. Now all I can feel is pain for my child self. She never really mothered me, she left me alone all the time starting around age 5, she let me go hungry, and she was so consumed with her own issues she could not or would not help me when I needed it most. She was judgmental, harsh, and obsessed with her own life. She gave me some gifts but the burdens way outweigh anything good. She left me too early. I do not blame her for her early death but I blame her for staying with a toxic man for so long whose habits contributed so much to her illness. I am angry with her for not putting James and myself first. I’m angry because of her learned helplessness. I grieve because in order for me to heal and understand myself fully I have to get brutally honest about her. Even now the little girl in me is begging me not to write this. She is making excuses and showing me evidence to refute my claims. But the evidence doesn’t hold up, there is just too much bad there. I still love my mother but I no longer see her as the heroine of my story, now I know who the real heroine is, it is me.