MISS MOOX + time


With the approach of yet another Mother's Day, I think about my own mother.

Thoughts of her are always mixed at best, even now, though I've come to love her and forgive her; memories of terrible times are coloured with the tints of pity, remembrance diluted with the salve of understanding.

My mother was only a month short of her twentieth birthday when I was born. When I think of that fact now it is with a mixture of awe and horror. At twenty-six, I do not feel capable of taking care of a child; and at nineteen, I cannot imagine my own sister doing so either.

My parents had been married slightly less than a year; he was six years older than she. They'd met when she was fourteen and he twenty, an age gap which understandably caused great concern to my grandmother and step-grandfather. They went so far as to forbid the marriage, a prohibition my father overstepped: which has caused him much private agony of conscience since.

My earliest memory of my mother is of her stepping away as I lay naked and terrified on my stomach on the changing table, a thermometer protruding frighteningly from my behind. I screamed and kicked my legs, twisting my head to look back at this unknown intruder. As my mother left, she left my line of sight. I desperately wanted to cry "Mom, Mom," but I was too young to say the word. My mother tells me I was six months old when this happened. As I look back on it, it strikes me as being somewhat symbolic of our relationship.

My parents met at youth group in their local church. My father, a recent convert, began attending shortly before she, invited by a friend, did. I remember a married female friend of my parents', also a member of that group, remarking that all the girls had been after my dad. My mother, a naive fourteen-year-old, liked to bicycle. In a spurt of impulsive enthusiasm, she invited my father along. Thus grew the relationship.

It was rocky from the start. Not only did her parents disapprove, my father was tormented by doubts and wavering. In his misguided zeal, he thought that God was calling him to be celibate. He even went so far as to throw the rings he'd bought her into the Susquehana River, a fact we joked about whenever we crossed it on a family drive. Eventually he somehow settled it with his conscience, and they married. She was eighteen; he was twenty-four.

I've struggled for some time to understand the brand of Christianity they imbibed. One thing is for certain, it could be described as fundamentalist. Women were subordinate. A married couple's duty was to produce as many children as possible. Corporal punishment was the way proscribed by God for disciplining children. A man was the king of his home.

To this was added the darkness of my father's upbringing: a cold, loveless father who believed the only purpose for life was work and who was incapable of emotional attachment; and a harsh mother. My mother also had her damage: I believe my grandmother could be and was a martinet; and she'd been severely wounded by her parents' divorce when she was five. To this day she speaks about it with pain; the alienation from her father lasted until late in her life and when he finally did make re-contact, it was less as a father and more as an acquaintance.

My father had and has complete sway over my mother. She is an emotionally vulnerable, easily-influenced person, yet with a will and character that can be hard as rock. Added to this was her belief that as a "Christian wife", it was her duty not only to submit but to obey her husband unquestioningly. He treated her like a child: ordering her around, threatening her, putting her down, talking to her in the sort of way mean people do to their dog. He would not allow her to use "his" possessions, like the electronic copier; she could not work outside the home. Her purpose was to be a wife, mother, and homemaker, and to do as he pleased at all times.

Once as a teenager I saw her sobbing inconsolably after he'd treated her particularly badly. In a rare display of sympathy, I tried to hug her; she pushed me away with a fierce, "Don't touch me." In her distorted philosophy, to accept sympathy for her husband's mal-treatment was tantamount to betrayal.

She had mild cerebral palsy and overcame it as a child through sheer discipline and the prodding of my grandmother. She learned to walk, though to this day she does so with an odd swinging, pigeon-toed gait; and to write, though she does so with a shaky, uncertain hand. She was also prone to sudden strings of drool; a fact that embarrassed me excessively growing up.

My parents believed that the God-ordained way of educating children was to homeschool them. In this way, we were to be spared the evils of a godless, unbelieving world and be kept more "pure" than our peers. My mother, in a genuine act of self-sacrifice, taught us at home for years, until my youngest sister persuaded my parents to let her attend public high school for her last two years. We were five siblings and all of us but the last home-educated from kindgergarten through twelfth grade.

I think of her, a young mother of twenty-five when I began school, with three small children under the age of five. She taught us all how to read, write, and do arithmetic. She did this while cooking, cleaning, and caring for the home incessantly. I am flabbergasted by this accomplishment, whatever the reasons driving it; and I respect her for it now. I didn't always.

The family life was chaotic. Her method of keeping order was screaming, insults, facial slaps, and the frequent and harsh application of the rod. Small frustrations would escalate till she was yelling, face red and furious. She had a gift of incredibly cutting invective which left deeper wounds than the stick. Our behinds were often sore and the only form of discipline was anger, an anger which descended unpredictably and uncontrollably. We lived in fear and the constant effort to outwit our parents. This proved depressingly futile because it was impossible to know what would bring on displays of disproportionate wrath. When parents have issues with anger and believe in corporal punishment, the children had better beware.

As a teenager, I despised my mother; and yet, at the same time, felt strangely protective of her. I recognized her weakness; she was emotionally unstable, and, I believe, depressed for most or all of the time I was growing up. I never felt guarded or nurtured by her. In so many ways she was the child and I was the adult. I knew myself to be stronger, wiser, more savvy. I spurned her pitifulness and determined not to invent myself in her image. I became a tomboy. In my world, to be female was to be weak, vulnerable, downtrodden; to be male was to be strong and free. Therefore, I wanted to be a boy.

My mother was never emotionally available to us, as physically available as she was. The only emotion we had was her anger or her tears. Still, she represented the closest thing to love that I knew. Compared to my father, who alternated between total unavailability and demonic rage, she was almost gentle and kind. When I wished my parents dead in a car crash, I sometimes hoped she'd survive. She was more forgiving and more permissive, when not curbed by my father. She occasionally tried to speak up for us against his unjust wrath. He was unbendable and illogical, and her efforts generally useless; but she earned my grudging respect for it nonetheless.

When I left home at nineteen, I threw myself into my new life with total abandon. When I attempted suicide after going into a psychotic depression, and the secret of my family abuse came out, it caused an uproar at home. My parents felt hurt, angry, and betrayed. A small firestorm grew, with my father accusing the people who helped me of "brainwashing" me. They denied abuse, though my mother guiltily admitted "mistakes" and being "too harsh" on me as the eldest. For a while, until I learned better, visiting home was an ordeal of terrible fighting, with my parents flinging accusations too hurtful to be borne. I handled it unwisely and said things which only precipitated arguments. These days, we just don't talk about it.

My mother doesn't call me. My father, in a surprising development, sometimes does. I call my mother at intervals of a few weeks and listen to her talking about her life. She sometimes asks questions about mine, though the answers must be brief or they will be overtaken by a stream of response. I get impatient with her interruptions and angry at her inability to listen. I sometimes get the feeling that I am wounding her by talking at any length about what I am doing, as though I violate her by having a life of my own. She was devastated by each of us leaving home; perhaps because a chunk of her life's purpose walked out the door with us. Perhaps, too, because she understands our rejection of our upbringing, and feels it as rejection of herself and her beliefs.

There is no place for emotional honesty in our conversations. No room for talk beyond life's surface. Lurking below the pleasant chatter about the gym she's joined and what my siblings are doing, there is a firestorm of woundedness which it is our mission to avoid. Scratching that surface provokes hysteria; though it means paying the price of superficiality, not doing so also means peace, false though it may be.

When I visit, the relationship is awkward and strange. Her initial excitement at seeing me quickly dissipates and she doesn't talk to me at all beyond essential pleasantries, unless I initiate conversation. I inhabit a house with a silent and disengaged stranger who buries herself in chores or reading and leaves me to fend for myself in finding a bed. I end up rushing around with my siblings and re-bonding deeply with them, then leaving feeling guilty for not having paid attention to her.

She's been very depressed. Issues with my sisters pushed her nearly beyond her limits. A few years ago she went through a period of suicidal thoughts. She's now on medication, though I know the issues that provoked those thoughts remain unresolved.

But when I think of her now, it is not often or not usually of the bad times. A fierce nostalgia comes over me as I think of her long and arduous years of sacrifice to teach us, to cook and to clean and to watch over the house and to put up with all of our mischief. I long to make up for it to her, and I wish I could soothe her hurts. Sometimes, it feels as if with a word everything could be put right. I know it cannot. I pray for her instead.

And she is endearing. She is pathetically childlike, capable of genuine glee over small gifts like a certificate to her favourite restaurant, stamping supplies, flowers for her garden. She loves her dog and taking walks outside. She generates projects with lots of enthusiasm and finishes them haphazardly. She sends me handmade cards, as whimsical and naive as their maker. She buys me small gifts for Christmas, and sends little checks on birthdays. She tells the same stories again and again. She's physically frail, with a litany of complaints.

I wish I could protect her. She needs care, a fragile but plucky flower. Despite our problems, I long to enfold her in my arms and tell her everything's going to be OK.

I sometimes think that one day the roles may be reversed, and I may be caring for her. I hope that I can; I wonder if I would be able to. Would I have the patience and the kindness to bear with her foibles, to perform the most demeaning and intimate services for her without thinking of the ways she abandoned me as a mother? Will I have the grace then to understand and realize that her own hurts were driving her, that she knew no better, that she had no one to weep over her pain? That she was just a child when I was born? Can I imagine what it would have been like had she met a kindlier man than my father?

I hope so. Deeply flawed as she is, she is my mother. And I love her for it, despite everything else. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

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