From a place of courage deep inside of me I share this story of my mother, our difficult relationship, the transformation it birthed.
I could describe my mother as characters from a fairy tale. I experienced two of them consistently: the queen and the witch, and think wicked witch, not Glinda. Her ability to shape shift without warning, cue, or empty wine bottles strewn about still takes my breath away, terrifies me, and as a child traumatized me.
What I also know about my mother, having tracked her every move as a way to survive, is that she was an amazing, animated storyteller. Sometimes at dinnertime after a day of being a substitute teacher in our public schools for elementary and middle schoolers, my mother would come home with colorful stories. She’d push back from the table, stand up, use her whole body and imitate her students’ antics. My dad, older sister, younger brother, and I would burst out belly laughing as her body gyrated, arms moved, face contorted to capture a real interaction she had had with a child. Being a substitute teacher could not have been easy and yet, she embraced this job with a well-oiled sense of humor.
I knew she actually made a positive impact in the lives of the children she’d later teach full time. As I stood next to her at our County Fair it was incredibly painful watching other children spot her amidst the noise of the Ferris wheel, the smells of popcorn, funnel cakes, cinnamon, hay, and manure wafting through the air. The children’s faces would light up with pure joy. They’d break free from the adults they were with and run full speed towards my mother shouting, “Mrs. Staley!! Mrs. Staley”!!! They’d embrace. She’d talk with them for a few moments with a beaming smile. These children clearly felt seen, heard, valued, and uplifted by the presence of their beloved teacher, Mrs. Staley.
She earned mastery in rewriting or remaining staunchly disconnected from her words, emotional reality, her deeds, and their impact. She defended and deflected ferociously.
This, of course, reinforced the thought that her cruel interactions with me really were about me. Maybe they kind of were. Behind closed doors inside my parent’s house, it seems she saw in me all that she loathed about herself. Many people told me I looked just like my mom. That may have been enough to trigger the ferocious storm of red rage she became. I often never knew what triggered her anger or I would’ve done everything in my power to have it not happen. I wished desperately that I could become one of those children she hugged at the county fair. Believe me, I diligently worked at this well into my adulthood to no avail. I walked around as the “Split All Bad.” As an adult, I learned there were phrases for my mom’s troubles: “I hate you, don’t leave me.” was one of them. She also never owned her ways. She earned mastery in rewriting or remaining staunchly disconnected from her words, emotional reality, her deeds, and their impact. She defended and deflected ferociously.
During my second year of high school, my mom was approached to run as a “sacrificial lamb” candidate for a seat in the state legislature in a district overwhelmingly controlled by the other party. After all the years of working side by side with my dad on political campaigns, it now became her turn to be in the spotlight. It was the first time I had a window into a world where my mom thrived. Her focus and energy shifted full throttle into this candidacy. She ran like there was absolutely nothing to lose! She showed up at every candidates’ night. She researched and formed thoughtful positions on important issues; she listened to what voters were saying to her. Answering phone calls and canvassing door-to-door, she labored like a woman on fire. Her presence became notable as her opponent started showing up at the different events. I think he actually got a tiny bit concerned. She earned the endorsement of a major newspaper, the local party, and several other groups. With her focus on her candidacy, I experienced a brief reprieve from her difficult ways with me.
I saw who she could have become. I believe she would’ve been fierce and fearless in the often rough and tumble world of politics in the 1970s and 1980s in central Ohio. I remember election night that year vividly. Though she lost she was joyful and excitedly amazed to have earned so many votes. “I don’t know that many people! Oh, My goodness!” She lived proud that she had given people a choice, that she’d run a solid campaign, that people had voted for her. I got to experience my mother as someone so much bigger than mom or teacher. I’m moved by this realty even more so today.
I committed myself to breaking free, to finding my own voice, heart, and soul in our world. I told my mom the truth about my life choices and took the heat. My siblings ran scared of confronting her when we became adults. I chose to live with a man before marrying him. I chose to walk away from an academic teaching position to be a fulltime parent. She roared and belittled. I chose to have a home birth with my second child. She ferociously criticized. I told her. “You’re scared. I’m not.”
What I learned from all her fierce words thrown at me was that I could be strong and resilient in my truth, in my courage, in my path.
With entire pit crews of healers and decades of all kinds of therapies, traditional and alternative, I discovered that I have a natural ability to tell stories that make people laugh. I know what I value, what I stand for in my life and for others. I learned I could be tender with the tough and kind with the cruel, or simply walk away.
For ten years I created boundaries for myself and my growing family of two children and a second husband. When this marriage ended and my life imploded all around me, the phone rang, again. This time, after a decade of not answering, I picked up the phone. “There’s a For Sale sign in your yard. What’s happening?!?!” They updated me on their lives, their failing health. I shared about my singlehood, a contested divorce, and almost losing my son twice. This watershed conversation filled with vulnerability, exhaustion, and compassion opened the door to a time period I now describe as détente.
On four separate occasions, my mother actually cried several times and apologized. “I am so sorry. I really did and said awful things to you. Oh, God, I’m so so sorry. I love you.” “Yes, you did, mom. I forgive you. I love you, too.” My mother had never cried in front of me, ever, until these discreet interactions which took my heart apart, brought breathe back into my lungs, and stunned me into a different type of caution. It was all too good to really believe. When I told friends, we’d weep together. It seemed like the beginning of a possible happy ending for which I had yearned all my life. Who doesn’t ache to be fully loved and accepted by their mom?
When I didn’t immediately morph into a Grown-up Cinderella; when I didn’t move in with her and my dad to take on the job of full-time care of both of them; when the gifts of money my dad gave to me didn’t result in a purchased “love exchange of services rendered’ she turned on me for the last time. My love was never for sale.
I stand proudly in front of people willing to share stories that inspire and uplift.
Ten months ago, I moved to North Carolina, the first time I’ve lived more than 30 miles from my parents’ house. I am safe, free, strong, alive. I continue to create a beautiful life filled with love for my adult children, for many beloved friends, for a business I cherish. I stand proudly in front of people willing to share stories that inspire and uplift. I honor the life my mother gave me by birthing my very own life of love and service. In many ways, I became the very best version of a woman who struggled and failed to become the best version of herself in relationship to me. I became fearless in sharing my lived truths, fierce with profound compassion for others, and huggable with beloved ones and sometimes a stranger, who quickly becomes a friend. We often walk or run quickly towards each other to embrace, to honor being seen, to appreciate with gratitude this love.
I love you, mom.