My mother drives me crazy. Right now, I would love to sit her down in a chair and lecture her, quite passionately with arms flailing as I pace back and forth in front of her, about how selfish, inconsiderate, and stubborn she is. She has a spell over me, and I know I must break it if I am to have peace in our relationship.
Just a day or two ago, I offered to buy her a train ticket from New York to either Texas for Thanksgiving or to San Diego for Christmas. I thought she’d jump at the chance to have the train ride to see the country that she’s always desired––particularly since it would mean seeing her great-grandson for the first time. She declined.
Her excuse is her animals. (I’ve often said in the next lifetime I want to come back as one of her pets––they receive far more attention and care than my siblings or I have had.) But I was prepared. Erin, my sister, had offered to take care of Mom’s animals, but I knew I had to enter the conversation about this cautiously. Mom admitted the dog would be no problem, but her cats are the barrier between her and freedom––or at least her excuse as to why she couldn’t dare venture too far from home. At first, I said we could find someone to feed them, hoping to segue into telling her that Erin was also willing to cart all of her nine or so cats (the number is in continual flux) to the farm. But before I could announce the solution to the problem, I heard the sternness in her voice. She was building a wall. Her final remark––and the final blow to my hope that she would embrace her great-grandmotherhood––was that she feared someone would come onto the property and take something.
Envision this: My mother is a bag lady with a house. My brother, sister and I have tried numerous times to clean out the junk––mostly with her permission, and sometimes out of shear necessity, like when the freezer in the cellar malfunctioned and neither she nor my father suspected any problem despite a strange odor filtering into their living room that burned one’s eyes. Bottom line: she does not subscribe to Goethe’s belief that we should not let the little things in life stand in the way of the big things. But she always has been this way.
During my childhood, mom was often distracted in caring for friends and neighbors––all who seemed to need her far more than we did––than to really be present for us. As I grew older––and thereby more responsible––she put me in charge of dinners and other household chores so that she could go bowling or volunteer at the hospital as a Pink Lady. I was the one who often cleaned the house as well. My mother wasn’t the mother I wanted her to be. Nor is she being the grandmother or great-grandmother that I want her to be.
Mom became a great-grandmother on June 11, 2009. Less than twelve hours after my grandson was born, I sent emails with photos attached and created albums on Facebook for all to see. While my mother is not computer literate, she has at her disposal a handful of friends and relatives all within a 15-minute drive (one a two-minute drive and another a two-minute walk) who have computers and many computer skills. Yet, she never took the opportunity to show any interest in seeing Jude’s pictures, or seeing her grand-daughter’s glow as a new mother. A herd of wild elephants could not keep me from being by my daughter’s side while she birthed my grandchild. I just didn’t get it.
And I still don’t. A month later when my son––the proud uncle––sent 45 pictures to her, having written detailed descriptions on the back of each––when I called to check on their arrival, she quipped that she wouldn’t even have time to look at them if they had arrived because she was busy doing something for the church. I bit my tongue. But in my mind, I was thinking. Why is it so hard for you to embrace us? Why is it so hard for you to show your love for us?
By listening to my thoughts, I knew that I hurting not only because she wasn’t there as a grandmother for my daughter, she wasn’t there for me as a mother. I thought I had come to terms that she and I would never have the kind of relationship that my daughter and I have. Looking back, I didn’t want my mother at the birth of my daughter. We are just not comfortable with each other. And we certainly don’t have enough to talk about to spend an hour on the phone each and every day. Yet, I’m always leaving the door open for her to be more for us––to be more for me. It just doesn’t seem to happen.
To her credit, my daughter has informed me that Mom has been toting her grandmother’s brag book around in her purse and showing the clerk at the grocery store and her friends at church the pictures of her great-grandson. But I want her to do more. I want her to move out of her comfort zone and hop on a train and come to us. I want her to consider how much easier and less costly it would be on all of us if she would just for once put us before her animals and her fears. Likely this will never happen. So I have two choices: I can write her a note and tell her how she drives me fucking crazy and how much she has failed me, or I can work on forgiving her. As I write this, I am tearing up because I know that if there is any hope of finding peace in our relationship, it won’t be because she gets on a train and appears on our doorstep. It will because I have done the hard work and made the hard choice of learning to forgive her.
A friend of mine once told me: Stay in the present, meet people where they are at, and respond appropriately. I cannot take my mother back into history and have her make up for all of the times she just wasn’t there for me––physically or emotionally. I can be with her in this moment and accept that she fears the world beyond her little village in Upstate New York. And I can respond appropriately by choosing to change my response to her. It will take some work, but when I allow myself to let go of my grudges, I feel the spaces in my heart being filled with gratitude that I have had mothering from many wonderful women. And when I am not picking at the wounds of my disappointments, I remember the moments when my mother has been the mother I needed her to be.
Most of all I have gratitude for the experiences my mother has given me. If she hadn’t made the mistakes she made, I would not be the mother that I am. And without the mistakes that I have made, my daughter would not be the beautifully present mother that she is.