I’ve been reading Terry Tempest Williams’ latest book, “When Women Were Birds” – a memoir of her mother.
This is one reason memories of my mother surface within.
Friday, September 21, 2012 was the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death.
My memories of her are fading. Jergen’s lotion reminds me of her hands. Someone will laugh, and I think of the tone of my mother’s laugh, tossing her natural red hair, green eyes shining bright. She claimed an Irish heritage but in reality she was of Scottish descent. Arscot is the family name on her mother’s side. Holding only a high school diploma, she had a brilliant mind and a lifelong fascination with science and space. She might have been a novelist – gifted with an penchant for detail and a natural talent for storytelling. Her ability to spin reality into her own particular version, one she could live with, was convincing albeit confusing to me. Sadly her reality change, known in psychological language as “splitting,” was the end result of a damaging childhood. Beginning at the age of four years old she was left in charge of a younger brother and sister while her parents disappeared on periodic drinking binges. Upon returning home her parents would berate her because the house was dirty and the baby needed her diaper changed. She was always the one who was supposed to pick up the pieces when her parents failed. At the age of five she contracted polio and rheumatic fever. She claimed she spent a year in bed fighting the diseases. She lived with a damaged heart, in body and spirit.
My mother’s mother was named Agnes. Agnes’ mother died giving birth to her, and so she was raised by her distant and depressed father and a caring aunt who never married. Pregnant in high school with my mother the course was set for a complicated mother/daughter relationship. My mother’s father was named Roland. His dreams of becoming a football star were crushed when his got Agnes pregnant. Instead of college he married her, and my mother was born. He, like his father before him, became an engineer with the Union Pacific railroad driving the route between Salt Lake City, Utah and Green River, Wyoming. They were perpetually poor, living in a small house two doors away from the highway and a block from the Miller High-Life beer brewing factory. (Imagine the irony of a beer-brewing factory in Salt Lake City?) I have fond memories of this house and my grandparents. My memories of being loved and feeling safe stand in stark contrast to the memories my mother had of her parental home.
When she was fifteen years old my mother married the man who became my biological father. It was 1955 and they were Mormon, married in the temple.
My birth father comes from a large middle class family, he was one of ten kids, the second born I think. I remember their home, a two story ranch, large and sprawling on the side of the mountain.
At some point in time, when I was very young, my mother was hospitalized in a mental institution. I don’t know how long she was there, but I do remember my birth father taking me and my younger brother to visit her. Somehow her parents had her committed even though she was a married mother of two. My grandmother once told me that my mother had been diagnosed a “perpetual liar.” Eventually she convinced her father to get her out, something my grandmother seemed to regret for many years. My mother had a lifelong fear, resentment, and suspicion of doctors and hospitals.
When I was two years old I remember going to the hospital to have my tonsils removed. In those days parents could not stay the night (or mine chose not too?). They put me in my pajamas and said goodnight and left. I in turn refused to go to sleep. At some point in time my uncle, my mother’s only brother, came to the hospital with a couple of his buddies. They must have been seventeen years old. My uncle and his friends laid hands on my head and prayed for me. In my memory I feel asleep right after that prayer.
At home, two days later, I decided an apple was a good idea so helped myself to one. I walked into my mothers room while eating it. She was sleeping but calmly got up, called the pediatrician who made a home visit to check on me. I remember sitting on the kitchen table while he checked my throat. Apparently I was fine. I also remember a warm summer day when my mother and her sisters were canning peaches in the kitchen and I was playing outside. I ran behind someone swinging and got hit in the head. Bleeding, I ran into the kitchen where I was cared for and comforted by my mother and my aunts. I have a scar across my eyebrow marking the wound and the memory.
I hold in tension, memories of being cared for by a loving mother with memories of being confused about reality as determined by mother, and the need to be a mother to my mother.
My parents divorced when I was five and my brothers were four and one. My mother moved in with a girlfriend, taking one of my brothers with her. I went to live with my paternal grandparents in their home with my father and youngest brother. We had a room in the basement, roughly constructed next to a family room with a sliding glass door leading out to the backyard. President Kennedy was assassinated the year I lived there. I learned about it over the radio on the school bus as I headed to first grade. The adults in school that day were stunned silent. Televisions and radios played in the classrooms, or so it seems, and we students listened along with our teachers. I watched his funeral in that basement family room, “Puff the Magic Dragon” playing in the background. (is that a weird memory or what?) I had frequent nightmares sleeping in the basement room but was too far away from other family members to cry out. And so I covered my head and prayed. One of my brothers shared that room with me, as did my father whenever he was home.
After a year, more or less, I moved back in with my mother and two younger brothers. She was twenty-three, single with three kids. But she had managed to save enough money to rent a small basement apartment in a tiny house.
The apartment had a kitchen, two bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom. I shared the larger bedroom with my two brothers. There were stairs in our room that went up to the owners’ portion of the house. Once the woman, Mrs. Healy I think her name was, came down those stairs, uninvited, to check on us. Imagine her concern with having a young single mother and three small children, in an era when divorce was rare, living below her. I felt judged by the way she looked at us and by her uninvited visits. She reminded me of the wicked witch of the west, but I am sure she was not. Looking back now, through the eyes of an adult mother with grown children, it seems to me she may have been kind and caring to take us in and worry about us.
Within another year my mother married again, and we had a new dad. Christmas that year was amazing! So many gifts including a pink Schwinn two wheel bike for me. That spring my mother gave birth to a little girl. She told us the baby died in childbirth, but years later I learned that she was given up for adoption. Apparently she tried to contact my parents, some thirty years ago, and they refused to have contact. This breaks my heart, how it must have pained her to learn this. It breaks my heart to know I have a sister I will probably never know. She was given up for adoption because it was assumed my new father was sterile from a motorcycle accident. When my mother became pregnant, so soon after their marriage, it was assumed that the child was not his.
Another year later I had a third brother – apparently my father was not sterile. About a year later dad #2 legally adopted me and my two brothers from my mother’s first marriage. We were now one family. My biological father gave up custody of us. I think the pressure was overwhelming. My mother coached us on what to say to the judge – why “we” kids wanted this new family. What did I know? I was an obedient child. The end result is I was cut off from my biological father and his family, not to see them again for nineteen years, and never to rebuild a relationship with them.
When I was nine we moved from Salt Lake City to Nampa, Idaho. I missed Salt Lake, my family, the mountains! True there are mountains in Idaho, but in this small town the mountains were distant and the tops were flat, mesas. It was strange. My mother became depressed. The doctors gave her Valium.
A year later we moved to Wisconsin. My mother continued to be depressed. She spent all day every day for an entire year in bed. My brothers and I spent all day at school. I loved school and went even when I was sick with the flu. I much preferred to be in school than home. I read books and played the piano and my clarinet. I played outside in the tree house my father built.
Four years later we moved to Ft. Worth, Texas. I was fourteen going on fifteen that year in Texas when my parents decided to leave the Mormon Church. Their decision was based on a teaching of the church that said all families whose parents had been married in the “temple” were sealed forever as a family unit in heaven. My mother wanted the sealing of our family in heaven to be transferred from the father/husband she divorced to the father/husband she was now married too. The church refused. So we left the church.
We left the Mormon Church during my freshman year of high school. It was the school year of 1971 and 1972 and my mother bought me a subscription to MS magazine. We sang “Dixie” at football games and got our first African-American students at school, following a lengthy teaching for student and teacher preparation. I went to concerts – Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was common for girls to ‘faint” in the hallway. I often spent the hour of algebra class in the nurses office, and yet somehow I passed algebra. It was a crazy mixed up time filled with racial riots, the Vietnam war, drugs and music star overdoses, and the first birth control pill.
A year later we moved to Illinois. Two years later, at the age of seventeen, I graduated from high school and went to college. That winter (1974) my father left my mother and moved to Puerto Rico. She lost the house because he hadn’t paid the mortgage in months and left her with no money. Two of my brothers ended up with friends in Chicago. My youngest brother stayed with my mother who moved to Southern Illinois to go to college with me. (Oh my, my mother wanted to be me!). Eventually my mother moved to Puerto Rico in a failed attempt to reconcile with my father. The divorce became even more bitter and angry. Often I was caught in the middle unable to know whose version of the truth to trust. My mother moved back to Chicago, got a job and managed fairly well for a few years.
In 1985 I married and she moved to Salt Lake City to care for her father who was dying from Emphysema. By 1992 I had two children, my grandfather died, and my mother moved back to Chicago to live with me. That did not go well. She called me “controlling.” Imagine, she is living in my house with me, my husband and our two kids. We are completely supporting her. I even give her the money she uses to buy my Christmas gift. And when I tried to manage money and make my own decisions, she became bitter and called me controlling.
Eventually she moved into her own apartment but our relationship was never the same again. All my life, prior to that point, I had been my mother’s defender and supporter. If you have read the “Drama of the Gifted Child” you know what I am talking about. You will understand the magnitude of the loss of self that resulted from me having that role in the family.
It was during these years, when my mother lived with me, that I returned to therapy. I started seeing a therapist several years earlier in an effort to understand my life better. Then, I was numb. I was unable to identify how I felt, physically or emotionally, in any given circumstance. Was I angry? Was I sad? Was I sick – did I have the flu? My therapist helped me feel and identify feelings and understand my mother. I understand that she had a version of reality that was her own and my job had been to support that version of reality. To do this I had to shut down my sense of reality and live hers. The chaos of living her reality carried with it so much internal conflict that it forced me, out of survival, to shut down my feelings and emotions.
Despite years of work and therapy I still have occasions when I doubt my version of reality. This is usually triggered when that reality is complicated by other people who are not acting in healthy ways. Passive aggression, distorting the sequence of events of what was said or done, trigger anxiety in me as I try to set the record straight – which sometimes causes people to become even more passive aggressive. When I am angry or hurt or upset or feel like someone is being inappropriate in their behavior, I struggle to respond and not react. I struggle to function from my neo-cortex (the thoughtful reflective response) and not my limbic brain (defensive, flight or fight reptilian response).
I wish I had had a healthier mother. Or a healthier father. Or any healthy adult role model in my life. What I had was God. Always God – prayer and hope and God.
My mother died, from a massive heart attack, on Sept. 21, 2004. Her physical death exacerbated the complicated love I had for her. She had, for all intent and purposes, died for me after the last bout of living together in 1993. At that time, realizing the magnitude of her limitations as a mother, I grieved that she and I would never really have the kind of close loving relationship which, as a child, I thought we had. Her guarded realty left no room for me as an adult, self-differentiated woman with a husband and children of my own.
My mother died. And I disobeyed her instructions to me. She once said, bitterly, “When I die have me cremated. Do not pick up my cremains. Do not have a funeral for me. Do not put flowers on my grave. If you can’t tend to me and give me flowers when I am alive, I don’t want them when I’m dead.”
I was working at the church when I got the call that my mother had died. I drove to her apartment, worried that the police would take her body away before I arrived. I drove frantically calling my friend who knew what to expect and what I should do and who I should call. I arrived to find a police officer in her kitchen. Her roommate was pacing, distraught. She had died in the middle of the night, he found her in the morning. He, a practicing Mormon, and I an Episcopal priest went to her body and we prayed for her. She was an agnostic. From the great beyond I figured she was either grateful for our prayers or rolling her eyes. I prayed for peace, for the repose of her soul, that she could finally be happy. He prayed something similar. A little while later the police officer asked me to leave the room while the coroner’s office packed up her body – he thought it might upset me to watch them slip her into a black bag, like a garment bag, and take her away.
And then she was gone.
My mother was dead.
The coroner had to perform an autopsy because she died at home. But the report confirmed a massive heart attack. I arranged to have her cremated.
Then I called my uncle, the one who prayed over me when I was two. I called my brothers. We decided to NOT do what she asked. I got her cremains back and traveled to Salt Lake City. With my husband and kids, uncles, aunts, cousins, and my father (dad #2) – we buried her on the side of the mountain. We buried her in the same cemetery where all of our family members are buried. We put her urn in the same plot as her father’s casket. She would have liked that. She loved her dad. It snowed the day we arrived in Salt Lake but it was warm and sunny the day we buried her. I told myself that was a sign that she approved.
It’s hard to believe that my mother has been dead eight years.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote this about her mother after her death:
Her absence has become her presence.
Terry Tempest Williams, in her recent book, “When Women Were Birds” reflects on the relationship she had with her mother. It was the kind of relationship I wish I had with my mother. Terry Tempest Williams and were both born in Salt Lake City to Mormon families. She is two years old than I. I feel an affinity with her, given our common birth, heritage, and name, although the trajectory of our lives has been very different. The way in which her mother’s absence has become her presence is different from the way in which my mother’s absence is her presence. My mother was absent even while living. In some ways she is more present to me now than she ever was while alive. I can appreciate all the best in her without needing to deal with and reconcile the tragic difficult parts of her.
In remembering my mother I give thanks for her life. She always tried to be the best mom she could be. I know that. Toward the end of her life she suffered and grieved that she was not able to be a better mother. She regretted the treatment of my brothers, the abuse. She saw the trajectory of her decisions and feelings and managed, to a small degree, to accept her pain and regret instead of splitting and shutting down. She shared with me some of her remorse.
When my mother died she was in one of her phases – refusing to answer the phone when I called, and rarely calling me. I let go of times like these. They always passed. But not this time.
My mother died.
But in my heart she is more alive than ever. Although I look more like my biological father, as I age I see aspects of her in my face and my body. I have become my mother; a better, healthier, happier version of her. I think, I hope, she would be pleased.
My mother. Her absence has become her presence.