Recently, I have been overwhelmed by some of the articles written by women who have survived an unspeakable past and learned to thrive. I was humbled. I kept thinking, “Wow, have I been blessed to not have such stuff in my past.”
Mothers can be cruel in so many ways – and it seems typically aimed at daughters. They can look the other way when their daughter is abused. They can impart abuse themselves, either verbal or physical.
But after I read and pondered these articles, it struck me that cruelty doesn’t have to be overt. It can be just as cruel to withhold love and affection from a daughter as it is to impart abuse. Because it is far more subtle, it takes a long time to recognize it and to do the work to grow and thrive.
That was my mother. I worked hard at moving past it. I have grown and thrived to the point where my first impulse in reading the above stories was to be thankful for my life. I guess that means I’ve had some modicum of success.
Yet Laura Gray’s story of her childhood created a question in me that I’d never thought to ask: What might have happened to my mother to make her the person that she was?
She passed away in 1996 after years of self-abuse, so asking her isn’t possible. Our relationship was rocky, at best. I shiver when Mother’s Day comes around on FaceBook and so many people are painfully missing the mother who loved them, was their best friend and confidant, who shaped their lives. I never missed the care she took of everyone but me.
I knew snippets of her life: incredibly poor family, left home at 16 to live with an aunt in Chicago, carried bedpans in a hospital until she was somehow “discovered” and walked the runway as a fashion model, got married, and then divorced within 6 weeks. She never told me why.
Somehow, she found a job as a secretary at Standard Oil, where she met my father. Married, had me. Suffered breast cancer and a radical mastectomy at the age of 38, before reconstruction was possible, before help groups were available.
She picked herself up and started college to become a teacher. For most of my life, she was in school and when she finally achieved her goal, she was worshipped by her students.
When she retired, she lost her purpose and turned to pills and alcohol to numb the pain. My father kept her supplied, which was a very sore subject between my father and me. Ultimately, smoking combined with the other “stuff” overcame her at the early age of 74. The years before her death were filled with anger, distrust, and arguments. Thank God for my husband who was my rock throughout.
What made her the way she was? I’d always blamed breast cancer, and indeed I’m sure that was part of it. But recently I’ve been pondering whether there was something deeper, earlier, and more profound than I ever knew.
At some point in my teenage years, my mother and her brother made the decision for their parents to move them from Illinois to Florida, where her brother and his wife would look after them. I heard whispers of grandpa abusing grandma but was never invited to be part of the conversation. I’d forgotten that until I read Laura Gray’s story and had a lovely conversation with Laura Staley about “mothers.”
Yikes! What if my mother left home to escape abuse? That opened up a whole new avenue of thinking about the snippets I’d heard, and everything I didn’t know. My mother’s generation had no refuge; life was what life was.
As an adult, I spent many years trying to understand myself – the person I had become in the shadow of my mother – I was blessed to have my husband who saw my worth and taught me love. I was also able to consult with professional therapists over the years who listened and asked those crucial questions.
Today, I am good. I have grown and thrived. I wish I could say that my mother would be proud, but I know that wouldn’t be the case. I just couldn’t seem to find that thing that would spark her pride in me. But I’m pleased with where I am.
Yet, the strangest thing has been happening. I sense my mother here. The first time it happened, I was in graduate school, struggling with a take-home exam. After grappling with the question for hours, I finally went to bed. I woke up with the answer and with an overwhelming sense that my mother had given it to me.
Since then, her presence has come and gone, been manifest in people that I felt connected to, or just a sense of wanting to tell her something I thought she’d be interested in.
So, as I’m reading these recent articles about mothers and their daughters, I’m trying to figure out what I’m supposed to be getting from all this. This internal conundrum will probably stick around for the rest of my life, but I have had one epiphany that is important to me.
A mother shows her love in different ways, and I have latched on to one example of my mother’s love. She told me “No.”
My childhood response to my mother’s distance was to act out, be lazy, and have little tolerance for taking responsibility. I played my way through college, hoping to be a star on Broadway although I ultimately realized I really didn’t want to work that hard. So, after several changes in Majors, I finally graduated and sat around for several months, half-heartedly sending out resumes while lounging around at home.
My father, being an ex-Marine, decided the Marine Corps would be good for me and convinced me to join. “After all,” he said, “this is the time of affirmative action, so they’ll be excited to have a pretty young girl as a Marine.” I didn’t have any idea what a put-down that was – Private Benjamin had nothing on me in terms of naivete.
Marine Officer Candidates have the ability to drop out after a certain number of weeks, with no contract or obligation. So, I wrote my parents and said, “Come pick me up.”
My mother wrote back, “If you leave, you’re not coming home.”
It was the most loving thing my mother ever did for me. I finished OCS, met my wonderful husband of 44 years, found out I was actually good at something, and have grown and thrived.
What do I make of all this? I have a couple of conclusions…
First, love can manifest itself in hidden ways. We have to keep our eyes open to see what we may not want to see because it doesn’t fit our current paradigm.
Second, things happen to us, and we have a choice. We can see these things as if we are victims, or we can make the choice to not be a victim. Laura Gray and Laura Staley have made that choice and because of their willingness to share their journey, have opened my eyes to a new paradigm about my mother’s love.
I have also come to appreciate the age we live in, where exploring our own vulnerabilities is a show of strength. That wasn’t the case in my mother’s generation. Our world today is welcoming – perhaps not everybody – but there are forces around us that say, “Let’s share our stories,” and I am grateful to the Lauras and to Dennis Pitocco and BizCatalyst 360° for the platform that makes sharing safe.