Today would have been my mother’s 82nd birthday. I can’t even imagine what a wizened old crone she would have been, what with the sun-exposure, the smoking, the arthritis and asthma. I can’t imagine this specifically because the cigarettes killed her at 49, when I was 21, and that was a long time ago.
We did not have a great relationship. As a small child I worshiped her, greatly assisted by the fact that I didn’t live with her. She was someone pretty and shiny, with whom I spent very little time and almost all of it fun. Except when it wasn’t.
She married a good man, my step-father, Jack, who adopted and adored me, raising me as his own and giving my mother and me everything a hard-working man could afford. He came to the school recitals, the ER visits. He was faithful, and a good father. She was miserable; it was her default setting.
She was also in need of some serious therapy to get over her own bad childhood, filled with the emotional and physical abuse she would pass onto me in due time, also possibly the three children born before me, whom I never knew, for whom she lost custody.
There was much anger between us, in those teen-age years. An estrangement, ended only by the news she was in hospital, dying. She was way too screwed up on pain meds for anything to be discussed, revealed, or mended, so we told each other we loved one another, and I brushed her hair and tended her nails. When the end came, my first thought was, “It’s over,” as in all that agita and mess between us.
And God laughed, and laughed….
Because of course it wasn’t over, not by a long shot. It was years later and I had my own daughter approaching adolescence before I realized that, for all the truly good work I’d done on my head in the years since her death, my mother was finding ways to screw up that relationship. That there were things in my head scary enough to need a professional to guide me through them. So I found a warm and wonderful woman with a doctorate and many years in the field of Psychology, and she guided me in laying to rest some old demons, and taught me how to recognized the un-slain in the future, and deal with them when they arose.
When I think of my mom now, two weeks past American Mother’s Day, on this, her 82nd birthday, mostly I just wish she had been happier. Never happier than when she was miserable, she was just so deeply sad and angry. I wonder who she might have been? So far as I know, no one alive now could tell me who Donna Dee Kelly really was before she jettisoned anyone inconvenient and created her own life narrative out of thin air, spinning an elaborate web of half-truths and lies completely incapable of withstanding the weight of, or shielding her from, the circling hawks of facts and truth. For most of my early childhood the answer was to run, moving us every two years, whenever (I now realize) those birds of prey circled too near her.
It’s easy to recall some of her characteristics: generosity; flirtatiousness; charm; a vile, hair-trigger temper; a complete inability to accept responsibility for her own actions (“you made me hit you”); fear, always fear, of censure, of being discovered, of being less than perfect, of being found out. While I can recall some of her character traits, I have no idea who she was. It’s entirely possible she didn’t know, either.
I wonder, have I shown my daughter who I am? (Leaving open the possibility that she might know better than I.)
The Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas, in her excellent book, An Ordinary Death, writes movingly of sorting through her mother’s letters and writings, discovering a different woman than the one she knew, the woman her mother was outside of being her mother, and how she wished she’d had different conversations with her mother as an adult. I wonder if I do enough of that with my own daughter? Have I been brave enough?
I wonder, what conversations would you have, what things about your parent’s lives, would you want to ask? Keeping in mind that timing is everything, I’ll suggest to anyone reading this and fortunate enough to have a parent or two still around, it will be a treasure beyond price if you get their stories now.