The Healing Lodge

The Healing Lodge

Honoring Our Elders Understanding Mother

You've been discussing the relationships you've had with your mothers and mother-in-laws over the past few days. I know you've heard a lot about my dad, but very little about my mother. I can remember a time when my ex-husband hurt me by saying I was just like my mother. He hurt me because I was afraid it was true, and it hurt twice as much because it did hurt me. I was ashamed of myself. Later, when this same creep left me, I saw a therapist for a few months. This was a low point in my life because I truly thought I was worthless, and that no one could ever love me. I should never have allowed this man to reduce me to such a state, but in reality it was my weakness that allowed it - my fault not his.

At one point the therapist asked about my parents. I said I didn't want to be like my mother, but that I loved her. He said I didn't have to be like her, I could be like me. Wow, talk about earth-shattering. How could something so important, be so simple! Why had I never thought of it! Then, he pointed out that if I loved my mother, she must have good qualities. He said I should think about those and choose whether I'd like to take those qualities on for myself. I did think about it and my mother grew into the mother she was, not the mother I had thought.

Now, at this point you're probably wondering what terrible deeds my mother practiced on me. Only one, she loved me more than she loved herself. How can this be? Well, let me tell you about my mother.

My mother was raised by two violent people. My grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. He never worked, but he was a deacon in the Baptist church because he was such an upright and religious man - a pillar of the community because he knew his scripture. One afternoon when my mom and uncle came in from school, my grandfather gave them some money and told them to go to the movies. He said, "I'm going to kill your mother while you're gone." Even now, just putting that act down on paper makes me want to run to the bathroom and throw up my dinner. This was a normal day for my mother.

My grandmother wasn't much better. Her mother died when she was born and she was left to die. Finally, the hospital sent her home to do that, to die, but my biological great-grandmother's cousin took charge of the dying infant, nursed her and kept her alive. Eventually, this cousin married my great-grandfather and raised several more children. Unfortunately, my great-grandfather went from caring father to town drunk. Are you seeing a pattern? Anyway, she grew up hating her father for the humiliating life he forced upon them all. Being the oldest, she helped care for all the kids and tried to protect her mother from her father's violence and very often became the target herself. It made her mean and angry.

So when she married a man just like dad, who was surprised? She didn't just lie down and take it though. Often, she hit back. Beyond that, she worked very hard. She had worked herself through nursing school in the 20's and knew as much as any doctor she worked with. They used the same books to study from back then. But still, my grandmother took a back seat to the men and dared not speak out even when she saw them make mistakes. She took this out on other people, perhaps my grandfather, but that doesn't excuse him. All I know is, they made my mother's childhood a living hell.

On her fifth birthday, in front of all her friends and family they proceeded to argue and cuss - had one hell of a row. Eventually, they left the house. My mom's Uncle Tommy, who truly loved her, picked her up and carried her to her cake, they lit the candles and went about having her birthday. Oh God Ican hardly write this. You just can't imagine how much my heart aches for the child my mother never was. Later, the two parents returned holding hands, having made up. Never a word was said to my mother about ruining her birthday. My mom only spoke of this once, but she said she was so angry at them for coming home all happy because it made her feel so unimportant.

My parents met when she was young - they married a few months before she turned 16. They had four children, I am the third.

My early childhood was uneventful and I believe happy. I don't remember too much, but the events I do remember are happy ones. I remember my best friend Lisa Sue; an Easter chicken; a red and white dress; a curly haired teddy bear - all good things. I don't have any bad memories.

The first bad thing I remember was my mother catching fire. She ran running through the house ablaze. My oldest brother, about 12 at the time, threw her to the ground and smoothered her with a throw rug. He saved her life. Oddly, I don't repeat this story from memory, but rather from being told what happened. Even though I was present and saw the whole thing, I remember none of it. I do remember huddling on the floor in a ball and crying because I thought my mother was dead. I was sobbing and screaming "My mother's dead, my mother's dead" when my grandmother casually picked me up, said "Your mother's OK, they've just taken her to the hospital" and then sent me to school. I was 5 years old. This was the first time I realized that you just did what you were supposed to do, there was no time for feeling bad and no one cared even if you did.

Now, this simply isn't true. Had my dad been there, it would've been different. But my dad was already at work and went straight to the hospital to be with my mom. Had my dad been hurt and I'd been left with my mother, it would've been different. Both of them would've comforted me. But I wasn't left with either of them, I was left with my grandmother. She didn't comfort me one whit.

Now, my grandmother grew into a tender, sweet, generous old woman. But at this point in her life she was still angry and bitter. Someday, I will tell you of my grandmother, but this tale is my mother's. But I want you to know I loved my grandmother very much - once she was old and lovable.

When I was 10, we moved from the place I'd lived since birth to a new home, a new school, a whole new life. It was a beautiful large house, brand new. We had a huge yard. My mother should've been very happy and to this day I don't know what went wrong. But I guess the years of being a good mother and wife had taken their toll on her. She began to sleep a lot, she was depressed, she stopped doing the things mothers do. She didn't attend a school program for which I had practiced long and hard. I was really proud of myself, and hurt that she didn't come. I made arrangements to get a ride that evening with my best friend. When they showed up, her mother said to my mother, "Are you sure you won't come?" and my mom replied, "No, I have to be here to fix her father's dinner." I was furious, was a terrible, terrible lie! Then, she started crying for no apparent reason.

To this day, I still don't know what caused her distress, but I believe it was raising us. I think when she couldn't endure any longer and she wanted to respond the only way she knew - with violence - she took it out on herself instead of us. She internalized it, she beat herself up. She hurt herself rather than lay a hand on us. I think I was in the sixth grade the first time she was hospitalized. My father asked for our help and I wondered what I'd done wrong, just like all kids do.

My mother was gone for several weeks. We only saw her once or twice during that time. Then, she came home. I walked in from school and she put her hands on my face and she said, "You're Susan aren't you?" God, she didn't even know who I was. Suddenly, I wasn't so sure myself. If my mother didn't know who I was, well then, who the hell was I? I just didn't understand. So I said "yes" and told her I was glad she was home. I was scared for a long time.

When my mom was OK, she was the best mom in the world. And that made up for a lot. But, this is about the time I stopped sleeping at night, I think.

The days blended into months and life went back to normal. Mom cooked and cleaned and sang while she did the dishes. She was happy again, we were happy again, for awhile. Then, we began to find her asleep, and then the crying started again. This time, it went much further though. She would scream and wail and she terrified me when she threw things about the house. Who was this woman? All I knew was, there was nothing I could do to make her happy. I tried and tried, but it never did any good.

These incidents began to blur into one another - good times meshed with uncertain times and then terrifying times and then recovery. After awhile, I began to really resent these episodes. Instead of feeling bad because I couldn't make her happy, I resented her behavior because she didn't love us enough to be happy.

These were nightmare years for me. Everyday I wondered if today would be the day they'd haul mom off again. It was embarrassing too. I was different from everyone else. Something was wrong with my mother and certainly something was wrong with me. I knew this, without any doubt, and fought hard to keep the nasty secret.

The last time she was hospitalized was after my sister's baby died. I was already married and had left home. Lisa was my sister's second child. My mom simply could not deal with the grief. I was furious with her. By God if my sister could deal with it then she could do. But instead, she placed double grief on my sister and took the easy way out. But, at this point, I didn't know my mother's story. I still didn't know why she couldn't face day to day life. This was also the last time she needed hospitalization for depression.

After that, my mother continued to suffer from depression, but never to the depths I had witnessed growing up. It's been over 20 years now and my mother is a different person.

But it wasn't until after my divorce and just a few months before my grandmother died that I learned what I've just shared with you. In an effort to do as my therapist had advised me, I went to my aunt (my uncle's wife) who told me just a little of my mom's childhood and the demons she fought. My uncle has had his too, but he dealt with them differently.

Even though I loved my mother dearly, I had been ashamed of her and ashamed of myself for feeling that way. I thought she was weak and was terrified I would be weak like her too. But after my aunt's rebuff it suddenly was clear to me how terribly strong my mother really was. She had grown up in a violent household, devoid of normal love. However, she knew how to love my dad and us. She loved us the way she wanted to be loved as a child, but never was. She gave us the childhood she wanted and never got. And when it got too hard, when she didn't have the tools she needed to get through the day, she was still strong enough to remember that she loved us and would never do to us what her parents had done to her. And not one time did she ever tell us or use any of her background as an excuse. Why? Because she didn't want to shadow the way we felt about our grandparents.

I had been very wrong about my mom. She was never weak; she was the strongest person in my life. She broke the chain of violence - the legacy from my great-grandfather and my grandparents that should've been mine. I only know of one person this strong, and that's my mother.

Proudly now I can say, "I will never be like my mother". I will never suffer from depression, I will never cry the day away, nor will I ever need hospitalization for mental distress. I will not suffer these things, because my mother has already suffered them for me. Somewhere she learned just enough about love to know it was better than violence and rejection, and that's what she past on to me. My mother is one in a million, statistically speaking as well as in my heart.

Proudly now, I can say, "I am just like my mother". I can be funny, generous, kind, and gentle. But mostly, I am strong and I don't hurt others when I can't cope.

I wonder how much karma she reversed in this one short lifetime. I will feel successful if I can only do half as well.

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Photo Courtesy of the National Geographic, January 1997, Our Man In China.

 

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