#85 You’re Sick, You Need Help, And Other Things My Mother Told Me Growing UpPosted: August 6, 2014
Almost a dozen years ago, visiting ex-step-children in upstate New York, we all went for a hike in a beautiful and hilly park. There were dozens of fellow hikers and everyone slowed down considerably when we hit the first hill. That’s about when the adorable four-year-old in our group started shouting to us, to everyone, “You can do it. You can do it.” He was walking backwards orchestrating his repetitive cheer to a crowd of strangers who picked up their pace. Even when his father had to carry him on his shoulders he continued with the melody, “You can do it.” And we did. We all did.
Words shouted in encouragement make a difference. Words, ugly words, shouted in anger and hate make a difference too. Both change a child’s brain chemistry.
Writing about this subject and hauling up the detritus from childhood is getting more and more difficult, and yes, less frequent. I’m not the same person who started this project, precisely because I started this project. That’s the good news.
The repulsive news is that it’s harder and harder to write with the same perspective for these stories. I don’t care to make them palliative, and have little desire left to make these stories funny or entertaining. Most aren’t funny. Drawing a straight line now from what was primarily a mother’s insanity, to my finding my own way; hell no wonder my life is no guide for a perfect path.
I’m going to concentrate in this story on my mother’s favorite screeches. The title is what will likely remain as the title of the full work. And I’m getting there. Her voice was nearly always filled with hate and anger. I didn’t know she was sick, I just believed she hated me. And many times, far too many times, it included a slap or a whack with a wooden object crackling on my face or back. And never when my father was there.
My clue to remembering my age when these sharp nails were shot at me is which house we lived in at the time. I was seven and eight in one house in North Carolina when she started with, “You’re sick, you need help.” Picture a seven-year old girl being screamed that. Did the thirty-seven year old mother expect the seven year old to know what she meant? Was I to walk to a driving school, pretend to be tall, take driving lessons, then climb into the family car, and find help? At seven? Okay, that’s a little funny. What kind of help? Did I have a sick stomach I didn’t know about? Well, no. But that’s what she screamed at me. She screamed that at me through grade school, junior high and high school. I never got used to it. It wasn’t possible to let the meanness just roll off my heart.
When she yelled those daggers at me her face screwed up in an angry wad. But it’s only now, knowing what was wrong with her, and by that I mean her multiple diagnoses, that I understand she was talking about herself. She was probably screaming what her mother, the one who hanged herself, screamed at her, well, before she hanged herself. Yet my mother always claimed a perfect childhood.
My father was never present, ever. My brother was.
“What did I ever do, that was so bad, to deserve you?”
She dragged that one out as she yelled it. Not easy to do in a high pitch of hysteria. “What…..did I ever……do……that was so bad…..to deserve you?” That began when I was in junior high, and continued through high school. She’d yell it up the stairs at me. I can only recall three occasions in twelve years in that house when she actually came up to my room. An example of what I might have done to have that screamed at me was not folding the laundry fast enough. My father never heard those words. My brother did.
“My mother told me I’d be punished one day when I had a child. You’re my punishment.”
Ah such encouraging loving nurturing maternal words. It wasn’t a matter of if that endearment would come out of her mouth, but when. My father was never there. My brother was. He was being trained from my very early years to believe that I was worthless. He was as good a student at learning to see me as insignificant, as I was a student at being beaten down.
“You wouldn’t be so ugly if you smiled.”
That one had an exquisite meanness, because she started it right around the heartbreaking mine field that was puberty, and it went on through high school. It was her version of what other mothers said: “You’re so pretty when you smile.” That statement increased to a weekly routine. Want to imagine what that causes a girl told by her mother, the person she is meant to trust, to see in a mirror? Even now, a lifetime later, when someone tells me I’m well, aw shucks, attractive, I look behind me. Never did she say that when my father was present. Always when my brother was.
“No man will ever want you.”
That started in high school. Again, never when my father was there. And it escalated after he died. There were a variety of reasons that would set her off to scream that at me, but she continued to say it to me long distance, when I ran 3,000 miles away from her. I knew she was just being mean, telephonically. (Someone used that word with me once. I hate it.) By the time I was about twenty-seven and living with a man in New York, that phrase finally stopped. It may be the wrong reason I chose him when I did.
No man ever did truly cherish me. I was never taught how to be cherished. But that wasn’t what she was screaming. It certainly wasn’t what she meant.
“You have a much higher IQ than your brother. Why aren’t you doing better in school?”
Again, yelling. She was informing me that I was very smart, a good thing, but why was she yelling it? She went on to accuse me of having trouble in physics entirely on purpose just to embarrass her. Since my father was a teacher he had a copy of everyone’s IQ. There it was in black and white, and she stabbed at my name on the page on the dining room table with her finger. I had been told, all my young life by her, that I was stupid and how smart she was. Now she was yelling that I was smart. Neither my father nor my brother was there that day. But I remember closing the front door so the neighbors wouldn’t hear her screaming at me.
When I see any family, real or fiction, arrange for a tutor, or do anything they can to help a child study, it’s wonderful but I don’t know how that feels. The fact that I was smart enabled me to pretty much fake it to that point, or breeze by, but only so far.
“DON’T BE RIDICULOUS.”
That may be the phrase where I’ve heard her sharp voice the most. I’ve written my mother as a character in a play and she speaks that line. I almost couldn’t bear it watching any performance. Whenever I did have the courage to ask for something, it was her response. Again, never when my father was present. But inevitably when my brother was there. He was her partner in many ways. She confided in him. And she taught him to loath me.
But the most dramatic time she used the phrase “Don’t be ridiculous,” was on the one and only occasion I asked for help as a young adult and I’ve written about it before. I had the opportunity to follow my dream so much sooner than imaginable, to buy my own radio station with two friends. I was in radio in New York. It took plenty of pacing in my office for me to call her at work 3,000 miles away. All I needed was to borrow, with interest, $10,000. She said, “don’t be ridiculous,” with a sneer as if I was twelve asking for a new pair of shoes I didn’t need. She just said, “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m busy.” And she hung up on me.
No one was present for that.
My brother got a car for high school graduation. I got luggage. When my father wanted me to have a car, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” She should have given me a car. I’d have left sooner.
“You’re So Uncoordinated.”
This was one of her many specious claims, but I believed her for a very long time; as long as she was telling me that. Sure, in the seventh grade one of the guys had to yell when it was time for me to swing at the softball. And I didn’t love gym class. Who did? But I was addicted to golf, that is until my father entered me in tournaments against the best boy golfers my age. Though I was six inches taller than she, I had to play with my mother’s golf clubs that she never used, and had to wear her golf shoes that were too small.
I was an excellent skier and taught skiing when I moved to Seattle and again when I moved east. I was a strong water skier. I played a very decent game of tennis, with plenty of bad habits but I held my own with better players. I’ve become a much better swimmer, and I love to hike. No one but my mother and brother ever accused me of being uncoordinated.
“I risked my life to have you, and this is what I get.”
The other part of that was to display her cesarean scars from both my brother and me. She actually walked around naked to show it off. She said she wasn’t supposed to have more children, and I was the one who might have caused her to die. Again, father never there. Brother was.
As in everything else, when she badgered me repeatedly as stupid, uncoordinated, thoughtless, sick/crazy, ugly, or her life’s punishment, she was talking about herself.
But I couldn’t know that back then.