I receive a weekly email about how to write a successful blog. The latest post advised bloggers to be “upbeat and optimistic” to increase readership. Ben tells me that I should write the way I used to write my columns for the newspaper, humorous and with a point. I tell him I'm not sure how to make the past humorous. There are writers like Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed who find the humor in the horror of the past. I'm not sure how to do it. My point is not to increase readership. The point is to tell the tale. For those who read, know this. You won't laugh. But it's the truth as I know it, which is the point.
Today I went to mom’s as usual. When I came in she was animated, her eyes sparkling. When I sat down next to her as I do when I go over, she started talking about a birthday remembrance from the third grade. She had invited her teacher to dinner.
“I really liked her and she really liked me,” mom said. “I was the teacher’s pet and Mom made a cake with caramel icing.”
Then she said she remembered an incident in the fifth grade. I was amazed that not only was her memory so intact, but that she was, after all this time of recalling the past, telling me new stories, ones I had never heard. The teacher didn’t like her and she didn’t like the teacher. When the teacher left the room for a moment, a boy scooted over into mom's seat with her. When the teacher returned she was angry and ordered the two of them to stay after school.
Mom said, “I’m not going to do that,” and started for home. Somehow that sounds familiar, like the time she announced to the doctor and nurses after a stroke that she wasn't going to rehab. She told someone to tell the teacher that she was going home to get her mother.
“The teacher said I was the most ill-bred child,” mom said. Stubborn is more like it.
“But Papa Strain [mom described Papa Strain as a neighbor friend] lived across the street and he was a member of the school board. He had the teacher, Mrs. Ransom, apologize to my mother.”
Mom went on to recount an eighth grade experience, but I interrupted her. I was feeling claustrophobic, like if I heard one more of her memories I was going to vomit memories. It isn't as if I don't like to hear mom's memories. I am, as I have said, the designated family historian, along with being the designated family caretaker. But a journal entry from 1996, 14 years ago, says, "I'm so tired of hearing mom's memories, I want to hear my own."
I said, “I don’t remember any of my childhood,” feeling sorry for myself and angry at my feelings. But, of course I remember my childhood. It is told within these pages. But I don't remember birthdays and have few happy memories. I would like to have optimistic and upbeat stories to tell my grandchildren that will make them laugh and think, "Grandma is cool," as this story of mom's fifth grade experience will for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. That is the gift she offers, and that is the gift I offer by recording the stories. I will not share my memories of my childhood with any grandchildren I may have. Instead, they will have to read my blog.
I felt like a spoiled child. I reminded myself that I have a right to set boundaries on stories that pierce my heart over and over. I remind myself that this journey with her isn’t just about her. It is my journey, too, my experience of life with mom. I am part of the story. I am not just the caretaker, the one who is here to make sure Grandma is okay. I ask myself, where is the rest of the family to sit with her and listen?
As if to mollify my feelings, she said, “I’ve told you how I used to hold you. I held you until I couldn’t hold you any longer. You were still missing your father and I was grieving."
That was supposed to make me feel better? It occurred to me that somehow when my father died a pattern was set up of her holding me, and me holding her, us grieving together and me somehow expected to assuage the pain of his passing just as she was trying to assuage the pain of his passing for me. The word “still” resonated. Did she think I ever got over missing my father, especially since I was repeatedly reminded how sad his death was and how he died, "just when things were getting good?”
“Mom, I always missed my father,” I said.
That segued into her guilt over marrying Sam—again. “I thought I was doing the right thing,” she said for the thousandth time. And I thought, how many times must I hear this? How many times must she repeat this quiet agony of knowing she made the wrong choice and how it hurt her children.
“I didn’t want to leave you with a babysitter.”
Wouldn’t that have been better?
When I asked her if she didn’t rush it by marrying Sam, she said yes, but that she needed a father for her children, that her mother and Sam’s mother knew each other and that he seemed like a good “candidate.” She said that Sam would hold me in the beginning, but that she didn’t know what happened after that.
"I thought he cared,” she said. “It was the “damned liquor,” referring to the changes in him. Or, did he just trick her into believing that he would make a good father.
Mom said she thought he was jealous. “I can’t wait until the ‘we” means us,” Sam once told her. He had taken on a widow and her two children three months after her husband’s death. What did he expect?
Mom recounted the story of getting me dressed one time and hearing my father’s voice when she said, “Oh, I wish you could see her.”
“I see her, honey,” he answered.
“He talked to me twice after that, and I’m not making it up,” she said. She tells the story of how she went to the attorney’s office and she saw him there a couple of times and each time he was a little farther away from her.
“His dying was the saddest thing that could have happened,” she said.
My father had set up his children’s dental practice and was ready to open. Mom had decorated the office in light reds and grays and bought little chairs. He had bought new slacks because he wasn’t going to wear white. He never got to wear them, she said. “Dollard (my aunt’s husband) took them back to the store.”
I never like to cry in front of my mother, but I cried as she told me this new twist in the story. I don’t know what else to say, how else to come to terms with these stories and remembrances. What I need to say that I can’t say is, “It’s all right.” I have said, “Mom, you did the best you could.” I can’t say, “It’s okay, it wasn’t so bad.” I don’t know what else mom needs. Or, what else I have to offer except my daily care and as she calls it, “my ministrations.”
The sadness of losing my father has permeated our lives. If a good man had come along to replace him, we might have made our peace with his passing, moved on. But a good man did not come along until after we were grown, after Sam was dad, after the damage was done. Instead, a sick man came along, but also a man who provided well for my mother in her old age. How do you slice that one? She is provided for so that the burden of her care is lessened, while I carry the burden of memory of his abuse.
As I prepared to leave that day she said, “Just remember that I always loved you and Stanley more than anything.”
It feels like an agony to hear those words, rather than a joy. It feels like a burden, an unrequited grief, that her love for us never was able to protect us even when she thought she was “doing the right thing.”
Sorry, blog readers, this isn't a funny story.