A long overdue tribute to my mother
My mother had a certain phrase that, when she said it, bristled every hair on the back of my neck. It was, “I did the best I could.” For years I would almost get physically sick when I would hear that. She didn’t say it often and started saying it only when I became an adult, but it would grate on my nerves. I wanted to scream, “There’s no fucking way you did the best you could. You were stoned most of the time. I’m doing the best I can. Not you.” I stayed away from her, in part, so I didn’t have to hear her rationale for poor mothering. Mind you, if you’ve ever had a bad mother, you know that while you can put down your mother, no one else can. Human nature defends your blood, but I can be vicious and rude and downright mean when it comes to my mother’s inadequacies. But you can’t. It also doesn’t help when outsiders try to tell me, “She did the best she could.”
But upon the occasions of my older daughter’s graduation from college, my younger daughter’s 18th birthday, Mothers’ Day and every emotional experience of late, I can truly and honestly admit that my mother did the best she could. Do you know how many years it has taken to get here? I was in therapy for 3 years on the promise that I never had to forgive my mother. I started out my first session with, “If I have to forgive my mother when this is over, then we better not even start.” And because the counselor said, “I will never make you forgive your mother,” I was able to begin the work I needed to do.
And then God did a remarkable thing. I had a tiny iddy biddy nervous breakdown 7 years ago. Although not hospitalized, I was forced to take off work for 3 weeks and get some medication. (And when the first two anti-depressants didn’t work, I suffered a paradoxical effect that was horrendous.) But for a brief moment, I finally understood what it must have been like to be my mother. The only difference was (a) I had drugs, (b) I had a supportive family, (c) and I had remarkable friends to help me through. My mother, on the other hand, must have suffered from clinical depression for decades with no help, no friends, and 4 daughters who just plugged away trying to survive. (Is it supportive when, as children, you do not get into trouble so that your single mother is never blamed?) And when I say “no friends,” I mean not one. When people got divorced in the 50s, the husband often took custody of the friends as was the case in my parents’ divorce. And although my mother had a mother, she never went home for help or called her for assistance or relied on her siblings for support. She was depressed and truly alone in her struggle. I thank God for my experience so that I could “walk a mile in my mother’s shoes.”
But lately, as my children grow up and I see the adults they are becoming, I am very emotional about my mother’s life. I tell my daughters how much I love then, how proud I am of them, how stupendous they are, things my mother never said. I guess for that generation, those things were expected and subtle. Two things have come up recently that make me think my mother was remarkable. As most of you know, I have a job that is boring and unfulfilling. Sure it’s not hard physical work nor is it under the iron fist of an ogre, but it is boring and with no friends around. And yes, there is a low salary, but I do it for the benefits for which I am so desperate. But I marvel at the fact that my mother was a linotype operator (which is hot, noisy, tedious, smelly work) for 40 years, 25 with the same company. She worked long, hard hours, thus the tedium, at a machine that melted metal, thus the smelly part, and clunked down metal letters, thus the loud part, day in and day out. She had no friends as women did not work much in those days let alone at union jobs. The men had nothing to do with her. She smoked and drank coffee all days long while setting type, mostly for medical books that were very complicated and tedious. She didn’t have a car so she relied on one man in particular to pick her up every day and drop her off. She never took a vacation, never had sick days. She had to take off 4 weeks to have me and hope she could reapply for her job when she came back because there was no such thing as maternity leave. And before you say I’m a bitch for not admiring her all those years while growing up, I never knew that was remarkable until I became a mother and learned that maternity benefits were not always part of the work world. Second, my mother was laid off from this job at the age of 58 (which seems younger and younger) after decades in the same profession. (Printing is all done by computer which they offered to teach her if she moved to St. Louis. Ha!) At that point, she decided to go to college, a dream she had always had and that had been nipped during the Depression. First, she CLEPPed out of two years. Do you know what that means? My brain is losing brain cells (7000 a day, I hear), and the thought of taking any professional test right now boggles my mind, let alone one that could get you out of taking college courses. She started college as a junior. (This was all pre-AP classes that kids take now to enter college with credit hours.) Next, she not only got her bachelors in anthropology but she continued on to get her Masters in archeology. No, there was no purpose, no job, no reason, no future but she did it, I guess, to prove she could. We called her the modern Margaret Mead, and although we were semi-proud of her, we did not go to her graduation or applaud her efforts at the time. After attending my daughter’s college graduation this past weekend, I cannot believe not one of her daughters attended her graduation. At the time, I guess, we were still so resentful that she did not cheer us on, pay for anything, encourage us, or say she was proud of us, all the things that children hold against our parents. We could not rise above our selfishness for one moment to rejoice in her victories, and for that, I have many regrets.
I hate it when we repeat those phrases that our parents have said that we find as true when we become adults. My mother would tell us, “I put a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly.” This generation, one I call “The Generation of Entitlement,” expects all that and more. And I have repeated those words to my daughters reminding them that anything else I provide is icing on the cake. I am not here to provide a car, a computer, a college education, an abundance of shoes, their own rooms, and every other little thing their hearts desire. Those are extras. The fact that my mother never had friends meant she also never had “gentleman callers.” We never had a parade of men in the house. We never moved from our crummy little roach-infested apartment. We knew it would always be there at the end of the day and that our mother would always be sitting on the edge of that bed smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. Because she worked constantly and utilities were often shut off, we were never evicted from our home nor “had” to move to avoid the authorities. I never realized what a form of stability that must have meant for kids who lived precarious lives. Because of the times, she was put on every prescription drug to shut her off, shut her down, and keep her from plunging off the Missouri River Bridge which made her a zombie most of the time. And yet, she got up every day and (after drinking a pot of coffee) went to work (where she drank the other pot of coffee). She sewed clothes for 4 girls, sometimes at the last minute (including my prom dress while my date was at the door). I don’t know how she stayed awake or how she went to sleep. (Well, the drugs helped.) And as each day brings more and more forgetfulness with age, I marvel at the fact that this woman went back to college to earn 2 degrees when she was in her 60s. And I regret that I did not celebrate her achievements at the time. Deeply regret.
At a recent Sunday school class (Stop laughing, yes, I teach the high school Sunday school.), we were discussing death and regrets, and I mentioned that it’s difficult to tell someone who is dying how we feel at the time even though we should have been saying it all along. This very wise 14-year-old, whose father is a breast cancer survivor, said, “It doesn’t matter if you say those things before your loved one dies. They already know.” I was speechless, not only at the profound statement but also at the thought that I didn’t need to live my life with regrets for what I never said to my mother. So 10 years after her death, I do not have to regret not telling her how remarkable I thought she was or how brilliant she must have been to go back to college late in life or how proud of her I was that she earned 2 college degrees or how exhausted and lonely I knew she must have been all those years or how sorry I was that she had to go to a tedious, unfulfilling job for decades or that I was sorry that I was so selfish and angry as an adult that I could not applaud her efforts or that I was thankful she made me stronger by providing just the basics and was not the extras (necessarily) and that, for the first time in my life, I truly believe she did the best she could. This young girl reminded me, “She already knew.”