There was a time in my youth when I wished my Mom was dead.
As soon as I wished it I realized that it was a terrible solution. I knew that my Mom drove me crazy in various ways but it was certainly not fair to request her death in order to set me free from my reactions to her.
I knew that she enjoyed living and I did not begrudge her that. I did not actually wish harm to her. She did not need to die, I knew that. I just needed to separate myself from her.
Mom was always there for me but sometimes her love or maternal attention felt destructive. I would inevitably regret reaching out for help. Whether it was emotional or financial, her help was like the well intentioned rock walls that people put up to save their sea shores, the effect of her attention sometimes caused more erosion than protection.
There was something about my relationship with my mom that was claustrophobic and dangerous. She had a way of watching and commenting on my life that was suffocating. And while she could be maternal and caring, even almost doting at times, she could also be cool and dismissive.
If there was a battle of the wills then she had to win, and she would use whatever tools necessary, mockery, sarcasm or even physical power in order to rule supreme. She was competitive and fiery.
If I was in pain she assumed I was exaggerating and would imply that I was weak. If I was in love she would question my judgment. If I wanted anything at all she would suggest I was greedy.
Maybe I made our relationship more painful by wishing she was something that she was not. She could only be who she was. When I read about Martin Amis talking about his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, I saw that what I had with my mother was not unlike this relationship. It was more competitive than maternal; it had a manly air about it. She nurtured and then she fought. She prepared us to fight.
I kept wishing for a soft mom with soft arms who was a refuge against the world, but I did not have that. And in fact my Mom did not have that either, with her steely blue eyed librarian mother with the feminist leanings. As I age, my sense of certainty that I have managed to avoid the same pitfalls and personality faults of my mother fades into a more sympathetic notion that maybe my Mom did not fail.
Maybe mothering is not about constant nurturing and altruistic sacrifice at all times. Part of what we do in weaning our children is push then away from our breasts, even when they cry. If they don’t learn to survive without us then we will have failed.
We may sometimes push our children away in order to set them free. That might be true. But we also make stupid mistakes and have moods. No one’s fault, no one deserves it, it just happened. Not only do I not know what I have done already that has hurt my children, I don’t know what I will do in the future. I will try very hard to be a good mom, but at times I will fail, quite by accident.
As the grains of sand drop one by one into the hourglass, the witch watches us and laughs. This image, from the family favorite, The Wizard of Oz, is definitive of my mother’s effect on us. My Mom was not the bad witch, she was kind hearted and fairly powerless, but she conjured witches.
Mom created a feckless and humorous God-like character, the Old Bitch Above; this mythical creature had a looming presence over our lives. OBA, as she was known in our home, would punish those who became too confident. OBA may give you a bad hair day just when you thought you were pretty, or make you trip when you were proud of your shoes. She had that kind of power. She brought you down off your high horse. Like a Greek God, or even the emotional Hebrew God, OBA had moods and emotions and you never knew what she would throw at you next.
Looking back, I see that my Mom was the physical form of OBA. She was unpredictable; you had to watch your step. Sometimes she was nurturing and sometimes she was harsh. And she never said sorry. I learned to keep my dreams or opinions to myself because if I turned to her for comfort it would come back at me like a boomerang at another time, with a sudden attacking reference to that private conversation.
Even now, while we embrace in love and forgiveness as her energy drains out of her body, she can still throw a knife. While I was telling her about a business idea that I had (once again forgetting what this admission would lead to) I said, “If it is any success at all…” and she said without thinking, “Well, that’s not likely”.
I laughed in my head, back on the same ground, aware now that the constant negativity that had accompanied me all my life was just under the surface. She was aware that she had done it again, but, true to fashion, would not take it back. We let it go. But sometimes I see my life, and those of my siblings, as plants struggling for light, twisting and contorting to find the nourishment that we need to thrive.
As I accompany my Mom around the track, on her last lap, our faults are forgotten and our desire is to show love and acceptance. She says wonderful things about my writing; we talk about philosophy, writing and ideas. In fact, even in our hardest times we have always been able to talk about ideas. That has always been our connection.
Sometimes her past rises up to torture her, she feels ashamed and irritated with herself, acknowledging that her strong pride and stubborn nature may have been unnecessary or harmful to herself or others during her life.
But I have no argument or anger anymore. Life is like one of those mysterious Irish folktales that show life as a meaningless struggle punctuated by madness and magic. My Mom likes to quote from some tale that she studied, lost now, “A man longs and longs and nothing comes of it”. She likes this line; it satisfies her on some deep level.