Sunday, February 22, 2015

If you have something nice to say, I don't want to hear it

I stood at my aunt's house at dusk two Aprils ago, comforting three generations of cousins as they sobbed  over my mother's death. "I can't believe it. She was just over here. She was so good to us. I'm going to miss her so much. I just loved your mother..."

I was numb. I wanted to scream at them, tell them how angry I was, how deeply their kind and thoughtful words hurt me, but I couldn't. I'll admit it. I have mommy issues. I have hated my mother for a couple of decades, but there is no way in that moment I could have made sense of my emotions to them. And the truth is, nothing good would have come of them knowing the truth about my mother. 

By all appearances, Mary was a good woman and perhaps an excellent mom. She worked hard to support me on her own. She recovered from every disaster to come out on the other side with more than she started. She was amazing with money, and no one could make yeast rolls any better than she. 

I am who I am, for better or worse, because of my mother. She is the reason I can cook, and I cook well. She is the reason I am punctual. Always leave the house 15 minutes before you need to. Better to be early than late- I must have heard that at least a thousand times.  Other pearls of wisdom that were ingrained in me include:
  • Friends are not important. 
  • People only want to be your friend because they want something from you. 
  • We have neighbors. Therefore you can not do anything outside where they can see you. 
  • Parties are stupid
  • Church is for the weak, and just something you do on Sunday. The preacher doesn't really expect you to do what he says from the pulpit 
  • Sex is just for the man, and women who enjoy sex are sluts
  • You will never be like those people (referring to anyone I admired) 
  • Don't be like your sister
  • Therapy and counseling are for the weak
As a child I thought Mary was wise. I would sit at the table with her and marvel at the ways she handled adversity in her life. Growing up with an alcoholic father she encountered situations I could not imagine. I heard about how she stole grandpa's keys to avoid riding with him drunk. She shared stories of running away from neighborhood boys. I realized that I was like her; I had my own secrets to survival. She had no idea how alike we were, but I knew how deep the bond was. 

As a teen I thought she was a tyrant. Her rules made no sense. For example, I wasn't allowed to date, but I couldn't go to homecoming dances stag, because girls who do that are sluts. I wanted to play sports, but I wasn't allowed to because I was a piano player and I might hurt my fingers. And then I was told over and over that I would be stupid to go to major in music in college. But the biggest argument always stemmed from the concept of friendship.

Mary had a simple take on friends- just don't have them. At all. Friends are leeches, hanging around with you only because you offer them something they want. No one needs friends. And truly Mary did not have any. Everyone in Mary's life fell into one of three categories. There were family who needed her, family who no longer deserved her, or the unrelated. 

Over the years I watched as Mary helped various family members. And over the years I listened as she ranted about them, how they were dumb and helpless, how they would never be able to make it on their own, how stupid they were. These were the things she said about my sister, my father, my grandmother, my cousins, even my ex-husband after she would get home from helping them in some way.

I don't have to imagine what she thought about me. I told her I was raped as a child, she told me I was making a mountain out of a mole-hill. I told her I was in a fight on the bus, and that the bruise on my cheek was from getting my face stomped.  She thought it was funny and told everyone we met, laughing about it, right in front of me. I told her I was date-raped at 14, she told me it was time to put me on the pill. I attempted suicide and she told me that was because I was weak. I told her I was placing a child for adoption, she told me I "could at least abort it." She kicked me out of the house twice; once as a junior in high school and the other as a pregnant single-mom.

By the time I reached my mid-twenties I saw Mary for who she was, a narcissistic misanthrope. She had no altruistic intentions when helping people; she had projects. Those whom Mary helped sat in awe of her kindness, which only served to validate her already low opinion of the unfortunate project. Whoever this project was, Mary would be obsessed about it. She would visit her project once or twice a week, and make sure all the the project's needs were met. This would go on for a while and then suddenly, without warning or explanation, Mary would cut off all contact. Since these were family members, my sister or I would inevitably run into one of her projects and be asked what had happened to Mary, why she wasn't around any more. We had no answers.

I finally freed myself of  relying on my mother at age 23. Despite my effort to set boundaries, simply to protect myself, Mary still had a negative affect on my life. I felt obligated to maintain a relationship with her for the sake of my children, but I limited how much I would tell her. Even so she found ways to meddle, attempt to sabotage even, my relationships with my husband, children and in-laws. She called John, more than once during the first years of our marriage, and warned him that I was bi-polar, depressed, and often suicidal. She took my children to see movies I told her I didn't want them to see. She convinced my in-laws to write her into their will, leaving everything to her should John die before they did.

But my children adored her. For another decade I continued to fake it for their sake. And then things changed. She didn't show for Thanksgiving dinner. When I called her she told me she had to be at home because she was having a roof put on her house. After that, she just stopped calling. My boys would call her and talk, but she would not have any time for them. Their doting, indulgent grandmother just suddenly didn't want anything to do with them. No explanation. That was somewhere around 2007. She did not attend Jared's graduation or any of John's high school basketball games.She did not see the kids on any holiday.

Mary died in April of 2013. It had been at least 5 years since any of us had had any contact with her. But she contacted her sister and nieces regularly. When they couldn't get a hold of her, they called my sister. Mary had probably been dead a week. The coroner said it appeared that she sat in her chair and died peacefully.

I knew my mother's death would be hard for me. I knew it would bring to the surface all of the feelings I had successfully compartmentalized for so long; feelings of anger and abandonment. In a strange way I was prepared for that. I even had a counselor waiting for my call. Seriously, I had seen her a year earlier to prepare myself for talking about the rape, in detail, for the first time. She recognized on our first meeting that my mother was one of the demons I needed to exorcise.

I was not, however, prepared for others telling me what a wonderful person she was. I was not, and am still not, able to listen to people talk about their wonderful memories of her. And I don't say that to demean those people; I know that they genuinely have those positive memories. But I also know that they did not have the pleasure of seeing Mary's ugly side, which is the part I remember most. Standing there on my aunt's stoop, watching my cousins fall apart, hugging them while they cry on my shoulder, hearing about all of the interactions they had had with her in the last month; it was simply salt in a wound.

I decided long ago that the cycle ends with me. I am not my mother. My husband and children make sure that I do not become my mother. I know that I  have not yet forgiven her because I am still angry with her. I very much want to let that go, and it is getting better. Forgiving my mother has been so much harder than forgiving the men who raped me, but it is something I have to do, so I continue to work through it.

But in the meantime, please avoid telling me how great she was. I know you are being nice, and it's not you, it's me...but I just don't want to hear it.

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