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Saturday, August 17, 2013

My mother, myself.

Thérèse of Lisieux

My mother and I, as with her own mother, had a complicated relationship.

I suppose most mothers and daughters do, at least on some level. Books have been written about the dynamic. Any way you look at it, your relationship with your mother is complex. At any given moment, it can be as joyful as it can be difficult.

My relationship with my mother was no different.

I think that's because, as much as I did not want to be like her, the truth is that there are parts of me that are very much like my mother.

My temper, for one. My tendency to sarcastic humor, for another.  My love of cooking and baking are some of the good things I share with my mother. And, my grandmother.

My mother wasn't a big church-goer. My grandmother went to Mass every day, and I went with her. My mother loved Jesus and often sang hymns around the house, but she had a real distaste for and suspicion of the institutional church. Hmm.... remind you of anyone?

My mother loved to write. My grandmother could only write in Portuguese and then, only at about a fifth or sixth grade level. My mother wrote letters to EVERYONE. Distant relatives. Old friends. Her siblings. Her children. The week before she died, I got an eight page letter from her, filled with chatty information about this or that. "The Epistles of Lydia," we called them when they came in the mailbox. She never complained about the extra postage.

She once entered a writing contest on the radio (long before we had a television set in the house, we listened to EVERYTHING on the radio). She won second place - $25 whole dollars - which absolutely delighted her, and us. She joyfully spent on some clothing for her four children and a new dress for herself.

My mother did not like either of my two spouses. The first was an addict - like her husband and her father and most of her brothers. Her instincts were good on that one. The second is a woman, which my mother simply could not get her head wrapped around.

I have always been super cautious around the people our children were "serious" about. Not because they were bad people. I just couldn't imagine anyone being good enough for any of our children. Turns out, they were very wise. I couldn't have chosen better life partners for them myself. 

My mother also had a great devotion to Thérèse of Lisieux which, I confess, I will never really understand. My mother was Very Proud of being Portuguese and didn't much care for the few French immigrants in our neighborhood. Why she chose a saint of French heritage, I'll never know.

She told us lots of stories about the four years my father was away, fighting in WWII on the Pacific Front. She would say that she would pray her rosary in front of a statue of "Therese of the Little Flower," offering a fresh flower from of my grandmother's garden, and pray for my father's safety.

At this point in the storytelling, my father would say that, so many times while he was in "the jungles of the Philippines, the bullets would be whizzing by and not one hit me. It was . . . it was . . . a miracle," he'd say. "It was . . . . . . ."

Then, he'd look at my mother and they'd both smile and say together, "St. Therese." 

As we got older, we'd love to join them. We'd all shout together, "St. Therese!!"

When we got a home of our own, the first thing on my mother's wish list was a shrine to St. Therese in the yard. My father dutifully made a shrine out of cement, painted it aqua, framed a 'grotto' in wood and slid in a piece of thick plastic to shield the statue from the elements. The plastic could also be lifted so that my mother could change the silk roses periodically, when they faded. 

St. Therese of Llangollen
After my father died, she sold that house, moved in with one of my siblings, gave a lot of her stuff away, and put some stuff in storage, including the statue of St. Therese.  A few years later, when her own health started to fail, she started to give some of her "stuff" to particular people.

Once, a few months before her own death, when I visited her in the hospital, she reminded me that she had not left any money to me in her will. I had disappointed her, she said, and my "lifestyle" had "hurt a lot of people". 

This, after I had traveled 5 hours from NJ to MA to visit with her. She was like that. 

Like I said, our relationship was complicated.

But, she wanted to know if there was anything of hers that I wanted. At first, I thought it was a set up. One of my mother's classics. Whatever I said I wanted, she'd say was already promised to someone. The old pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you emotional trick so common to those who are spouses of those who have an addiction. It mirrors what they experience, living with an addict. I've come to believe that it's one way to communicate what they are experiencing internally - to make you feel what they are feeling because they can't express it with words.

As we talked, however, I realized that she was sincere. Maybe she was feeling a bit guilty about cutting me out of her will? Not that I wanted her money. Or, cared, anymore. She was entitled to her anger and if this made her feel better, to "punish" me through disinheritance, so be it. 

She kept pressuring me, gently. It was uncharacteristically gentle for her. She must really not be feeling well, I thought. 

"Surely, there's something of mine you um....... remember me?"

Ah, now, this was different. This wasn't so much about a gift as about a memory.

Suddenly, I knew.

"St. Therese," I said.  

"What?" she said, startled and trying to take in my answer.

"I'd like the statue of St. Therese. I'm sure no one else wants it."

My mother smiled. I think my response really pleased her - so much so, that she had to gather her thoughts before she put them into words. "Do you promise to take care of her?" she asked. "You know how much she means to me."

"Of course I will. You know no one else wants her."

"Good," she said, and then, "Done." 

I knew, as soon as she said it, that it would never happen. It would, I was certain, be the next red hot item wanted by one of my siblings. And, indeed, it was.

My mother died five years ago, on July 29, 2008. I was at the Lambeth Conference in England at the time. It wasn't easy - and, one of my siblings didn't make the scheduling any easier - but I was able to get home just in time for her funeral. 

And, no, I still don't have my mother's statue of St. Therese. Oh, I was given a little planter of St. Therese that my sibling insists is the one my mother intended for me. 

It is not. The one I was given was one of the planters my mother had in her hospital room. I remember it well. It's not designed for outdoors. And, it's too small.

It really bothered me for a while. From time to time, it would make me angry. It wasn't about the statue. How dumb is that to get angry about a statue?

Here's the thing:  I had made a promise. To my mother. A few months before she died. 

It was the promise I made that couldn't keep. I hated to admit it, but it really hurt.

And then, I realized I had more control of the situation than I realized. 

On the fifth anniversary of my mother's death, I bought my very own statue of St. Therese. That's a picture of her above, on a cement block for now, in between and among the boxwood rose bushes.  

She'll soon have her own pedestal.  God knows, she deserves one.

I also took out the St. Therese planter I was given, put one of my plants in it, and set it in my kitchen near the window. She and the plant seem very happy there.  She certainly didn't deserve to be wrapped in bubble wrap in an envelope and stuck in my closet. 

My family's dysfunction is not her fault.

Taking care of her and buying my own statue for my own yard is one way to keep as much as I am able of the promise I made to my mother. 

My mother always taught me, "Never make a promise you know you can't keep".

I am my mother's daughter. 

And you know, finally, after all these years, I'm okay with that. 

It must be the miraculous work of St. Therese.  

Or, maybe I'm finally becoming an adult. 


Lisa Fox said...

This is good.
Ah, yes, mothers and daughters. I wish mine had ended better.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No matter how they end, I think many of us wish our relationships with our mothers were - or ended - better.

Sextant said...

Mothers and daughters, OK but what about mothers and sons, and mothers and daughters in law? Complicated relationships! Indeed!

My sin with my mother was that I went through puberty and became a sexual being. As a teen my mother knew that I was placed on this earth to get a girl pregnant and cause her eternal shame! The desire was certainly there, but I was too shy and too much of a gentleman for such activities. A girl would have had to sign a release form in triplicate and get it notarized before I would have attempted any hanky panky. So I didn't manage to get a girl pregnant until I was 33 and was married to her for 6 years. So the problem in my early 20s was that I was not getting married and giving her grand kids like all her nieces and nephews were doing with great zeal, ironic what a few years can do. Then the problem in my late 20s is that I wooed and married a mortal woman who I loved very much. That really pissed my mother off.

Love as you know is a zero sum game. If I love my wife y amount then I can love my mother only x-y amount. That was one problem. The other problem was that I was undoubted having sex with this woman which is something that my mother had hoped that her son would never do. I believe I was supposed to somehow provide my mother grand children through asexual reproduction. This would accomplish several goals, one) I would not be engaged in filthy bodily relations with a woman, two) she would not have to share those grand children with a mother and another grandmother, three) I could give all my love to her.

If my mother's goals for me seem confusing, imagine how I felt. What ever I did, (except not shaming her in my teens) was wrong.

Well my mother never accepted my biological short coming of the typical method for mammalian reproduction through sexual intercourse with a female of the species. That fact that I enjoyed it so was rubbing salt into the wound. But she could hardly hate me, her own flesh and blood, so it was my wife for which she maintained a life long deep and abiding hatred right down to her cold little heart.

When she got decrepit I had to take care of her, I no longer had the luxury of storming out of her house in a rage and not talking to her for months over some nasty and untrue thing she said about my wife. I would be washing her dishes and she would say "You know, I have never particularly cared for your fancy wife." "No shit, Ma!"

Well she didn't write me out of her will, probably because she hated my sister's husband with equal passion. My mother made life hard for herself, needlessly. She went to her grave feeling betrayed by her children and hating their spouses. She forced a choice on both my sister and I and we chose our spouses. The only love that was a zero sum game was hers. She had to love us less because we loved our mates. What a very sad existence. And yes, it was complicated.

JCF said...

So. Very. True!

[FWIW, I came out to my mom on her death-bed. I *think* she understood...but she wasn't really capable of verbally responding by that point. Part of me is sorry, of course, that I didn't do it sooner. "There just never was The Right Time". So it goes.]

Elizabeth, if you don't mind my asking: I don't even know how many siblings you have. But do any/all share your mom's "lifestyle" {Barf!} beliefs? Hang in there---

St Therese, who had some wacky beliefs (was a real struggle for me to get through "The Story of a Soul". The story of a highly NEUROTIC soul, more like it), pray for us!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - Suddenly, your blog name had become a delightful play on words for me.

I don't know about mothers and sons, so I can't write about my experience of it with any veracity. My mother - and father - idolized their "son and heir". That was totally in keeping with their first-generation immigrant status. My mother didn't like his wife but then again, she really didn't like any of her children's spouses. She was a very complicated woman - as your mother seems to have been and thus, your relationship with her, which included your spouse.

Sex does figure into things, I think. Freud had a field day with that - but especially with mothers. He blamed them for everything. I've pretty much gotten over the blame thing with my mother. I've come to understand a great deal about what shaped and formed her - biology, culture, the time in which she lived, religion, family dynamics,and, of course, alcohol - and I sometimes marvel that she was as functional as she was.

There's a grave at a monastery in Cluny, France. Every headstone of every monk has his monastic name with these words, in Latin: "He did the best he could." When I saw that, I thought of my mother. She did the best she could. Well, maybe not always her best, but she didn't live in a convent, either. (I also note that living in a monastery is one way to deal with sexuality.)

I think the biggest problem is that we've all bought into the Myth of Perfection about our parents and families. It's not bad enough that they are, like us, human, but that they aren't perfect, the way we think other parents and families are perfect. It's our expectations of behavior - mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers, sons and mothers, fathers and sons and daughters, etc., as well as siblings - that only add to the pain of disappointment and betrayal.

I hope you one day find peace about your relationship with your mother. I love the 12 step saying that holding onto resentment is like eating rat poisoning and hoping the other person will die. That was me, for a long time. I've now come to accept the fact that, when I go to heaven, my parents will be there. And, having stood before The Truth, they will be perfect. So will I.

Not now. Not yet. But, one day.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Ms. Conroy came out to her mother on her death bed. It was the only "right time". She died ten minutes later. In this case, I think it made her mother happy and she could go in peace.

I have three siblings - two sisters and a brother. My brother suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's. One sister suffers from a psychological disorder and has been self-alienated from the family for more than 25 years. She didn't come for either my father or mother's funerals. My remaining sister carries my mother's flame, as it were. It's not completely her fault. She was specially groomed for the part. She has never forgiven me for "leaving the nest" when she was a kid. One of our mutual grade school teachers told me, years later, that she would cry in school, saying that I had "abandoned" her and left her in that "crazy house". Apparently, she even wrote a poem about it, which is what prompted the discussion. The scary part is that I remember my mother saying that about one of her older siblings who left home when she was 17 and married a few months later at 18 and moved all the way across the country to be as far away as she could from her "crazy family".

Interestingly enough, my grandmother came to this country - alone - when she was a teen. She was the youngest of 7 and the only girl and her mother had just died. She knew her fate if she stayed in Portugal, so she convinced her father to let her stay with her mother's sisters in Boston for a few months while she grieved. She never went back.

See a family pattern of behavior there? Mmm hmm.

Holding onto resentment and anger is poison. It poisoned my mother and it poisoned me for years. I've had to work very hard to get the toxins out of my system. I'm not 100% - probably never will be as resentment and anger have long shelf lives and there are always trace residues in the system - but I am sufficiently healed to have some insight and awareness in order to stop the patterns of behavior when I see them.

It takes hard work and many years to become an mature adult. I just may achieve it before I die.

Cath Hollywell said...

Ah thanks for this Elizabeth, it's a really compassionate and oh so accurate picture of the mother daughter relationship which I'm sure many will recognise.
I for one after trying hard for so long to NOT be like my mum have discovered, (much to my shock, shame and others amusement) that I am in so many ways like her! Briliant.
I guess that one of the gifts of growing older is realising that acceptance of both her and I is now the way forward..Catching myself before I fall into the fear and hardness that was part of her legacy sometimes feels like a full time job! I'm also very aware that I'm the first in my family to be able to do this which sounds big headed when in fact I'm aware of its blessing.
So much easier to remain in my judgement of her, but once again I'm called out to move beyond this to somewhere more life giving and paradoxical. More than even the anger I've felt towards her is the desire NOT to be held its captive I'm therefore very glad to read your words and receive a helping hand onwards..
Cath x

Sextant said...

A very apt reply. I have never been particularly fond of Fraud, I mean Freud, but sometimes I think he was vaguely on to things...I just believe that he blew ideas way out of proportion and created theories that served his world view, my favorite being the correct way for a mature woman to have an orgasm, which would naturally require the presence of a man. (Good Vibrations internet sales violated the Comstock laws in those days--although Sears and Roebuck had a rather robust business in electrical massage units). It turns out that he was on to something, but rather than a measure of maturity it is simply wiring. Women have huge variabilities in pelvic innervation and one experiences orgasms where the connections exist. So I imagine that with mothers, he was on to something but probably exaggerated it to the moon and back. As such I would look for a mole hill in Freud's mountain range. My general observation in life is that each generation does not know how to handle the sexuality of the generation before it (parents) or generation following (children). We act as though sexuality is a gift and curse limited to our own generation, and an aberration in other generations.

Forgiveness is one my grand interests in life. It rather fascinates me. I like your rat poison analogy...although it is low dose, just enough to make you good and sick--generally not enough to solve anything. Myself, I have always looked at grudges and resentments as carrying a couple concrete blocks (standard block weighs 36 pounds). It is not impossible but it is hard to do and gets very tedious. The thing with carrying a grudge like the blocks, you do all the work. You become the agent of your own unhappiness on the other person's behalf. You do the work for them at zero cost to them...rat poison indeed! Forgiveness allows you to throw away the rat poison and toss down the concrete blocks.

I have been thinking about grieving here a lot lately, a friend has lost loved one. I came to the conclusion that it is not time that heals all wounds but the process of grieving itself, the pain, the confusion, the abject blackness of it all. I don't think there is a shortcut. I think the same may be true for grudges, resentments and forgiveness. I think it is a process and like Ecclesiastes there is a time for being pissed off and there is a time for forgiveness. When you get tired of eating rat poison and carrying concrete blocks, then toss them down and forgive. Ironically forgiving is a very selfish act. I haven't quite got there yet, but I will.

Thanks for your reply and I am glad your back. I missed your posts. BTW was there not a recent celebration or something that you have not told us about?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Cath - I am glad for one thing: That, like their mother before them, my daughters will give their full, public assessment of my life after I've died.

I can only imagine what they will say. I hope they are as forgiving as I've been with my mother. If not, well, then that does say a lot more about me than it does about them. And, it does say something about my own mother that I'm able to forgive her, as she forgave her own mother.

That, more than anything else, gives me hope about mother daughter relationships.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think forgiveness plays a huge part in the grieving process. We have a saying in my "business": 'Pain touches pain'. Grief is, in many ways, the experience of the accumulation of many experiences of pain: anger, betrayal, loss, disappointment, etc. That's why it's such a long process. It's a powerful force, not to be underestimated or misused.

And yes, there was a celebration. We decided to keep it very private and low key because it was, for us, a formal, legal process of the truth we've known and lived for 38 years. Giving it too much attention gave it too much power and seemed to diminish what we've had.

See what I mean?

Muthah+ said...

Sistah, I don't have the same stories--no one does. But the feelings are the same. It is when I hear her words coming out my mouth that I know I need to get back to my therapist! ;>P

Thank you for this sense of pathos and grief. It touches what I hold for my family and which has begun to mellow.

Your mom died just before mind. I remember the silence on your blog. Oh yes, you wrote but there was silence in your voice. I knew that time would come when you would speak of that stuff down inside. (I have no love for the Little Flower either) but I am glad to hear that you are taking care of her for your promise's sake.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah+ Oh, I can hear my sibling saying that it's all about the statue. It's not. It's all about the promise. The older I get, the more more important promises are. And, they were always important to me.

Yes, we all have different stories, but the theme is always the same. Mother-daughter stuff is as much endlessly fascinating as it is painful.

Screw Lucy said...

It is. Years ago I accepted the positive ways I was like my Mom and Dad and the negative ways. I am thankful and honor them for the good and acknowledge the bad and strive to rise above.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Amen, Lucy. Amen.

Prairie Soul said...

I do admire your thoughtful and compelling writing, and this post is another fine example. But above and beyond that, this strikes me as extraordinarily courageous. Thank you. There's so much to reflect upon here.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Prairie - I've done a lot of work over the years. More than courage, I think this just reflects that work.