I come from a legacy of mothers who left their mark upon me, etching profound disturbances, carving hollows of loss. I was determined to be different, but there's something about wounding deep below the surface that's not easy to escape. I knew when I was nine that my mother and grandmother were not what I wanted to be, but the webs they wove caught me anyway.
It's easy to see them in my mind, my mother and grandmother, each of them always with a dreamy look in their eyes. In their photographs they exemplify another era, the thirties and forties, vintage glamour with perfect makeup and sleek silk dresses. My grandmother wore a boa flung over her shoulder when she graced the Captain's table on ships to England. The idealized image of their glamour is the way I prefer to see them, but the truth was that they could be as terrifying as a lightning storm, the thunder of their rage and anger that would only end with their deaths.
This wildness would blow in whenever my mother arrived on the train from Chicago to visit us, having left me to be raised by her mother when I was four. I lived with my grandmother in Oklahoma, where we'd moved when I was six, my small body pressed by the insistent plains wind. The wind and great space of the plains incited a longing that never had words, etching me with a feeling that to this day comes upon me when I land in the Midwest.
In a yearly ritual as I grew up, I'd stand by the tracks at the Perry, Oklahoma, train station, watching the great white eye of the train hover in the silvery horizon, suspended in time and space. The train would burst into the station like an out-of-control animal, and time would stop when a striking woman with dark hair and eyes, her heels clicking on the bricks, approached me and my already-simmering grandmother. The held breath of the moment wouldn't erupt until later when we arrived at the small frame house -- mother and daughter circling around each other, seeming to be searching for the best place to strike. Gray cigarette smoke filled the house and the sound of their voices rose to the ceiling as I tried to think of a way to stop them. But how do you stop a storm?
Passionate to understand my mothers, I soaked up history as I lay in a featherbed with my great-grandmother Blanche. I was eight and she was 80. Born in 1873, she seemed to know the history of everything. Her teeth in a jar by the bed, she told me about baking bread in a wood cook stove, feeding a gang of harvesters, growing a garden and canning for winter. "I married your Gram's father on a snowy New Year's Day 1894," she told me. "Two months later he died." She fell silent then, and in that moment I understood the dark moods that fell over my grandmother. "Poor thing, your Mam Jo'tine was left behind when she was a baby. Never was right, Lulu off galavanting with her fancy clothes."
She shook her head, her grey curls rasping on the pillow. I understood then the tense moments as the train approached, the smoky storms when mother visited us -- their history trailing behind them. I became a sleuth, trying to understand what happened and how could it be changed. The seeds had been sown for my life path: psychological sleuth, therapist, and ultimately writer.
"I'll never be like them," we all say about our families, but the power of patterning rubs grooves into our psyches -- we're shaped by childhood no matter how much we try to break out of it. It's fair to say that growing up without my parents shaped my inner psyche, despite the smile I put on my face to greet the world and how I'd try to cover up my shame.
After three marriages -- which I came to understand were based on the unresolved issues of abandonment by both parents -- I was a single parent of three children, including a daughter. Sometimes I would be overtaken by memories of loss, grief and anger while I wrestled with how to be a different kind of mother. Through therapy and the compassionate confrontations by someone who could see the "me" hidden in the mess of family history, I began to wake up to my life. My therapist told me to write about what happened, to capture the stories.
Later I became a therapist, and continued to try to understand my legacy. I learned to practice awareness, to sit with uncomfortable feelings. I had always believed that if my grandmother and mother could see beyond the hurts, if they could only listen and tune into each other, they would find peace. But 10 years before Gram died, she paid Mother several thousand dollars to never return, and they never saw each other again. When Gram was buried in the Iowa cemetery, I made a pact with myself: I will NOT allow such a terrible ending with my mother when the time comes, no matter what.
Through writing my memoir, Don't Call Me Mother, I found my voice, along with new ways to see my wounded mothers. I wrote a story about my grandmother as a 20-year-old girl whose first baby was stillborn, tuning into her grief, wanting to learn more about her as a young woman. By stepping into her shoes, I found compassion for who she was, and who she was trying to be.
I searched genealogical records about my mother's early years -- I wanted to know when her mother left, and what happened to her as a little girl. I wanted to know how my mother could deny to all her friends that she had a daughter and grandchildren -- a wound that would be cut anew each year. I kept trying to get her to see how smart I was, that I was a valuable person, that my children were beautiful, but she scuttled us through back hallways the few times I brought the children to visit her in Chicago, and on her deathbed she screamed, "Don't you dare tell them you're my daughter."
Still, I kept the promise I'd made to myself so long ago. I was with Mother at her bedside in the last few days of her life, when the brain tumor no longer allowed her to speak, our hands grasping, tears flowing for both of us. In that moment forgiveness flooded my heart as I saw all my mothers -- my great-grandmother Blanche, and Gram -- floating near us, well-intentioned but broken. At my mother's death, the curse lifted from my body, leaving me freer than I'd ever felt before.
When I got home to be with my daughter, for a moment it seemed that I was getting to know her for the first time, able to see her more clearly, as if I'd always seen her through the fogged lenses of my own brokenness. But despite any promises to myself about being a different kind of mother, somehow I'd been unable to see anything but her wrong choices, her faults. One day, consumed in anger about something, I just stopped, suddenly seeing myself from the outside in, seeing my grandmother yelling at my mother. There it was -- the pattern I had promised myself I'd break -- being played out despite how sure I was that I could be different from them. It felt like an engine out of control inside me, so powerful was the urge to criticize her. I stopped shouting -- something kicked in and I stood, confused, angry and curious. How could I change what was happening? I had to do it now!
I searched inside me for the love I knew I had for my daughter. I had to dig down past the fears her behavior engendered in me, and my own guilt for all I had done wrong: not enough boundaries -- I'd been overcontrolled, so I'd become lenient, which was supposed to be better. And yet it was anything but. There was guilt, too, a lot of it for being so absent.
I remembered her birth -- the amazing moment of awe when she came out of my body, a little girl who was passionate, who had her own will, who had a voice. A girl who hugged and kissed, a girl who wanted to be with me, though I didn't quite know how to be with her completely.
"This is my daughter," I reminded myself, "and she needs me to find my way to her, to accept her." I asked myself how I could love her even if I disapproved of her. How could I speak with her in a way that would allow a gap between what I didn't like and what might be possible --unlike what Gram and mother did? I began to practice this, like a meditation, controlling my disapproval, and as I did, it became easier between us, though we had many more moments of struggle as we created a new kind of relationship.
When she married a man who was good to her, who came from a large affectionate Italian family, she settled into learning her own way to be a woman and eventually a mother, which meant staying at home with the children more, making cupcakes for birthdays -- things I didn't do.
Her daughter has my middle name, Joy, and I was there when she uncurled out of her mother's body. Six-year-old Zoe and I have a special bond. Hearing her tell me how special it is to have me stay with them makes me feel that I belong with a family for the first time. And when the three of us curl up together on the couch, my daughter's dark eyes gleam with contentment. There are times when she looks like my mother; her hands are my mother's hands. Sometimes she catches a look on my face and says, "I know this is special for you, Mom."
Sometimes during these moments, I gaze at them, seeing beyond the present moment, seeing my beautiful Gram and Mother at an earlier time, when life stretched out with hope that things could be different. How I wish they could have had such simple joy as I have now. When Zoe, Amanda and I scratch each other's backs or hold hands, my body soaks up the visceral proof that I did it -- I broke the pattern, and my reward is to be blissed out in their embraces, all of us freed from the shackles of the past, free to be simply happy.