#87 A Family Dinner

There is an old movie of my mother holding my toddler fingers as I sort of walk at the classic toddler angle. She smiles for the camera and doesn’t notice that I’ve fallen and she’s dragging me across the grass. For me now that picture represents what my life would become.

Only through the writing of these essays, performing exploratory surgery on myself without anesthesia, do I have the nearly full picture of her lifelong treatment of me. I finally have names of diagnoses for her underlying condition and explosive episodes. Did I believe growing up that she was a different kind of mother? Yes, but that did nothing to help me trapped in the world her mind created, nor as a grown woman who never understood her hatred or that she had made a coldblooded choice between her two children.

Early in these essays I wrote in #4 Straddling The Bumper, about being dumped by my mother in a hospital far away in Seattle. One late July morning she drove me to Seattle. When the ferry arrived at the city she pulled my father’s Buick off the ferry, drove around the line of cars waiting to board in the other direction and made her way through traffic traveling east to an old towering brick building with huge rod iron fences around it. She took me inside where it smelled of antiseptics. Sounds ricocheted around the cinderblock walls and linoleum floors. We were taken to a hospital room with three beds where I was put into a gown. I had the room to myself. And my mother left. She went to have lunch with a friend and caught the ferry in time to drive the rest of the way home to be with my brother that night.

Early the next morning, still and silent and alone, I was wheeled into surgery, and I can remember the smell of ether as the rubber mask was lowered onto my face. I woke after surgery alone. And I was alone in that hospital for nearly two weeks. I had no books, no dolls, and no family. I was nine.

That is not the worst story about choices my mother made. But it was and is the most defining memory of how I had already learned to cope and play the role she had created for me. I overheard nurses standing outside my door pitying me and talking about what must be wrong with a mother who would leave me there. Hearing them only made my spine straighter. I had already learned to take care of myself by necessity. While at the same time protecting an illusion about our family as if we were normal. I was not about to show fear or pain, vulnerability or an ache inside. I was all right. I would always appear all right. And from that instant on, without knowing it, I inevitably protected my lying mother. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for me; I was helpless to do anything but protect her lies. I was never to speak of that surgery or hospital stay. She had told some of her friends I was away at camp.

In that early essay I also described an immune illness that halted any forward motion of my adult life when I turned forty. Nothing would ever be okay again. In an effort to do anything I could to outsmart the illness, I foolishly reached out in a letter to my mother for answers about why she made that decision so long ago. In my determination to get healthy I needed to rid myself of the freight I was carrying. The hatred that came back in a letter from her, telling me that I deserved to be sick, ended all communication with her. I could not take her venom one more millisecond. The estrangement was no solution but it stopped the direct abuse. A friend who contacted her during that period to get my address was told that my mother didn’t know where I was and that I was “missing.” She actually pretended to be worried so the friend wondered if she was doing anything to find me. But it was just another of her lies.

After seventeen years, that cloak of estrangement would experience a rip in my protection. My nephew and his wife organized a dinner with my mother, my bother and his wife because they had never experienced a family dinner with all of us. He was just over a year old when his parents separated. He deserved to have his family together just once. No matter how much chaos it caused my digestion just imagining seeing my mother, I would not deny him that. For several years when she either came east for a visit or more frequently when I made a duty bound visit home, I’d get a severe case of bronchitis. Once I understood the source it stopped, but that’s how miserable the thought of being in her presence was.

But seventeen years later I’d made a commitment. I keep commitments. Travel plans began. I had remained 3,000 miles away from her all my adult life. If I thought it would have lessened the pain to go farther I’d have moved to Switzerland.

Since my mother would be at the dinner, was it possible that she had reflected, had regrets, and even mellowed toward me after nearly two decades? Maybe, just maybe she would apologize at last for making the choice between her children. By then I was in my fifties. Friends were overly hopeful for me because they didn’t know the stories. I went west for my nephew.

There was never any way to tell him stories of my mother’s bizarre treatment of me. Except for tolerating her anxiety and constant need for attention, he has a relatively decent relationship with his grandmother.

The last time I had been in a room with my mother, she had her husband hit me with his cane. I was thirty-eight years old. I would never stay under the same roof with her ever again, or be in her presence without a witness for protection. So a friend here in Pennsylvania went west with me. She had never been to Washington State. She had never vacationed without her husband who loaned her to me for the trip.

Most of the journey was delightful with great weather and the sparkling beauty of Seattle. I visited a friend. Then it was time to rent a car and drive to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. My friend understood something about stress with mothers, so she promised not to leave me alone for a minute with mine. If you think that’s ridiculous, think again.

The day of the family dinner, we were out west at the beach and the rain forest with my nephew and his wife as our tour guides. But the dinner ahead was crowding into my head. My only preparation was to be aware that I didn’t want to let my mother draw me into conflict. For me this dinner was entirely about my nephew and family he never had. He had never been told stories about my father, his grandfather who would have adored him.

Dressing for the event, I was determined to appear calm and casual. No one could comprehend the dread I felt about having to see that face that had contorted so many times in anger at me all my life. I didn’t know then what I do now about her. I only knew that she had forever been my opponent, never a caring mother.

We were a couple of minutes late arriving. The others were already seated. I adopted my usual outward upbeat manner and straight spine. My brother hadn’t stood to greet me since, well ever. So it was no surprise when he didn’t rise to greet me then. I put my hand on his shoulder to say hello. I spoke to his wife, not one of my favorite people. And I walked to where my mother was seated. I leaned in to not exactly hug, I’m no hypocrite, but lightly greeted her with a brush to the side of her head with mine. I was stunned when she said as if surprised, “You’re so beautiful.” The entire time I was growing up she made it quite clear that I was ugly and no man would ever want me. This was a first. I kept that to myself and introduced my friend to everyone and we were seated, I across from my brother’s wife, my friend across from the brother who had loathed me all my life: the brother who only gained by my absence.

Not a word had yet been uttered by anyone. I had barely taken my seat when my little mother, eighty-something, and looking sixty at most, nearly climbed across the table at me. She spit out what she had brilliantly planned. She threw her first dominating punch saying, “It wasn’t my idea to lose touch with you.”

There it was. In front of everyone she established that she had nothing to do with my absence. She was the victim and she accomplished what she had been desperate to do for seventeen years. Her maneuvering began and she knew I was no match with my impeccable manners. I had never been a worthy opponent for her, which now looking back must always have annoyed her. Once she told me that I was “too nice.”

I would not be dragged in with my nephew there. I didn’t have argument in me and certainly not there. For me, the dinner wasn’t about us. She had guaranteed that her lie held. As always, if she lied and no one disputed her, it became the truth. Was I going to straighten everyone out, sounding like a frustrated teenager at that dinner? No. Her ambush was a success. The one-woman stampede had begun and no one else knew what was crackling in that room. They didn’t know that I had already been accosted. On the inside I was bloodied and mangled, carrying the burden of someone else’s lie. I smiled and talked with my nephew’s wife.

To this day I relive that moment. I imagine a calm and perfectly poised response in a lilting voice. I’d say something like, “If you want to discuss that with me, we can do it another time. I came 3,000 miles so that my nephew could have a dinner with his family for the first time in his life. I’m here to tell him stories about Dad, and our childhood. This dinner isn’t about us.” In my imagination, that startles and silences her. I also imagine that we go on to tell lively and fun stories and laugh and are a family, but only in my mind.

When she blurted out, “It wasn’t my idea to lose touch with you,” I wanted to scream, “You monster.”

Since it was clear that I wasn’t going to fight back, she threw another punch by asking a question to which she knew the answer. She asked if I knew that some old family friends had been out to visit. I told her that I had not been in touch with them in more than seventeen years, which she also knew. I wanted to ask her a question. Did she know that their son had broken my ribs decades earlier? But I didn’t. To avoid more scary confrontation back then I protected him too.

At the dinner to keep from fighting, I was again protecting her. You may think that by protecting the abuser you protect yourself. It doesn’t work that way.

The dinner wasn’t going at all well. No one seemed to have the same assumption as I, which was that we were there to give my nephew and his wife a sense of family. I wonder now how the whole thing started. It may have been my mother who instigated it so she had the opportunity to make her proclamation that everything was my fault. My sister-in-law, the only woman on earth who just might be odder and stronger than my mother, didn’t order any dinner. She just sat across from me frowning. Likely she was wondering if I was in town to try to get into my mother’s will.

We all asked if she was ill. She didn’t even sip the water. My friend is social and found it easy to talk with my brother. She showed pictures of her husband and family. So they were fine at that end of the table. I finally sparked a conversation with my brother’s wife. She’s a teacher and we talked about the impact on media on young minds in the classroom. At least she stopped glaring at me with enemy in her eyes.

My mother kept trying to engage me in a fight, all she’s ever done. I wrote a play with a character based on her performed in the 1990’s. Watching it in rehearsal was the first time I realized that my mother only ever engaged me in anger. At that dinner I tried to talk about my dad to start family stories about him for my nephew. But then my mother brought up how he had beaten me. Not the kind of story I had in mind. I had held back and held back, but went off my plan of restraint. I told her that she had caused that beating by getting him to lose his temper. She was the one who encouraged him to beat his children.

There it was. She got me to bite. The little old lady got me to fight back. The peculiar family reunion/dinner was over. There would be no fun stories of growing up with Dad. Maybe there aren’t any.

When we were outside, my brother and his wife disappeared. No hello. No good-bye. I put my arm around my mother’s shoulder and said to her that if she wanted her daughter back in her life, to let go of the past, for my nephew’s sake if no other reason. That completely surprised her and she asked, “What does he have to do with it?” There it was, her inability to understand the dinner wasn’t about her. And of course the last thing she wanted was me back in her life. That had never been in her plan. It terrified her that I might return, because no doubt I would eventually tell some of the stories.

Later that week, I agreed to have lunch with her, but only because my friend would be present. Alice, my mother who drove her hot little Mustang to the lunch, talked non-stop to my friend for three hours about her cat and mostly about my brother’s divorce of thirty years earlier. She asked not one question about my life.

Then I decided to ask about the hospital incident. In person I wanted to see what she’d have to say with a witness present. She put her head down nearly onto the table and actually said, “I don’t know anything about down there;” meaning female “down there.” My friend kicked me under the table in disbelief. Maybe she was trying to get me to pursue the matter, but I knew the lies would just keep coming.

Unfortunately my witness/friend left the table for the ladies room. Stupidly I didn’t get right up and leave too. Alice had been playing with a folded piece of paper, which she slid across the table at me. It was a letter I had written to her when I first moved to New York at twenty-four. She said she saved it as a “keepsake;” her word, and it was proof that she had been a good mother. It was her evidence. I didn’t look at it, but I knew the letter. It was from a good daughter. And nowhere did it say she was a good mother. I could never have said that. It was difficult enough for decades finding non-committal mothers day cards.

After that trip I tried to keep in touch by sending her a birthday card months later. She wrote back criticizing the card, and that was it for me. She’s been out of my life ever since and has convinced the other half of our town that hadn’t heard it before that I’m a horrible daughter. And at the age of ninety-eight she’s still pretty convincing. If my name is mentioned, she wails, “Do you know what she did to me? Do you know what she did to me?” But she never says what that is.

In my imaginary monologue I would stand at that dinner and tell everyone how she had made a bargain that I never understood. I would have told them that the full throttled hell of my life began just about forty hours after my father dropped dead of a sudden heart attack. That was the morning she woke me and told me, “I’m never going to help you, but that means you’ll never have to take care of me.” Decades later, I see the plan. It was what she had always intended. My father’s death just made it easier. And she never did help me financially, with an education or one bit of moral support. She never met my stepchildren. She knew nothing, cared nothing of my work or health or happiness or despair. Ever. Just how destined I was to live a life of pain took decades to fully sink in.

I would have told them that night what I then understood about her lie about my hospital stay and the lie about the fall as a very little girl causing later surgery. Something had happened to me, and it wasn’t a fall off my father’s car. But I didn’t say that.

I wanted to yell how she beat me and slapped me but never in front of Dad. He never knew. But I didn’t say it.

I wanted to tell them all how she hated me for being successful. She told a friend that I had inherited a lot of money, which was the only way I had such a beautiful house. Another lie. Now I realize again that she was talking about herself. She had inherited a lot of money from her parents: money that has made her wealthy all her life. But I didn’t say it.

And I wanted to tell her that if I had been able to get help as a child, I’d have been removed from that household. At least today I would be. But I didn’t say that either.

When she sent me the ugly letter criticizing the birthday card I later sent, I did write a letter itemizing why I would never have anything to do with her ever again. I doubt if she saved that opus as a keepsake.

It’s been another ten years since that dinner. And I’m glad I didn’t stand up and say those things. It never did any good. I no longer need to say them or to relive those moments. The greatest notion that has stayed with me about changing the past would have been to achieve emancipation from her. But there was no one to turn to and I was still protecting a monster. Time to retire that wish forever.

After all of this writing and digging, tunneling much of the way, I’ve been more aware of my broken start in life than ever. I see reasons, connections, and disconnections. The amount of respect I’ve received or expected for myself from men, friends or colleagues directly correlates with what my mother taught me to expect.

Miraculously these memories provided clues and one by one I’ve put together a puzzle and I’ve understood, not everything, but much about my mother’s insanity. Also by sharing the essays some of her multiple diagnoses have been explained. Her hatred of me was really hatred of herself. Her mother hanged herself for her daughter and grandchildren to find; an ultimate act of narcissism. Yet my mother always described her childhood as idyllic. Everything was a lie. Lies that she may have come to believe.

For decade after decade, it hasn’t been possible for me to read a book or see a movie with a scene showing a parent’s love without wondering what that is like. When I was a girl my family watched Father Knows Best. But when that thirty-minute fiction was over, our normal returned. Today a fictional loving family can still bring me to tears; a fictional kiss or fictional hug for a child just for being alive, something I’ve never known. Today a simple act of kindness or thoughtfulness from someone surprises me. I was not taught to expect kindness. And my self-contained demeanor does not invite thoughtfulness. When you never knew a mother’s loving care, your brain never develops the capability of accepting or seeking loving care. As one very direct person told me years ago, “Elizabeth, look at you. You’re just not a sympathetic person.” I was never truly cherished in any relationship. Now I know I deserved to be. I may be damaged but I am not my mother.

My mother’s relationship with my brother was far from normal too. She bought his loyalty for life with her considerable wealth. I’ll never know which of us was the most damaged. She taught him to hate me. She lied to my father about me. How torn he must have been because he did love me. But with my father gone so young, I’ll never fully know how his personality helped hers. Someone like my mother needs a spouse who in many ways makes the behavior possible.

The harm parents inflict through benign neglect can cause a range of insecurity or confusion. The harm a parent does when they mean to do harm is criminal. My mother set out constantly and continuously to do harm. And that has been the greatest open wound for me during the writing of these memories. I was forced to see the repetition of my bad decisions and relationships; enough to stop a water buffalo in its tracks. My life hadn’t been at all what I thought. When I recognize the patterns and how my parent fulfilled her own self-loathing through me, I still get flattened. There is no rescue from my mother, from my original family really. I’m rescuing myself now one corpuscle at a time.

As a girl she had turned me into her maid, cook and hairdresser. The only material things she ever gave me growing up were nice clothes. I understand now that it was because it was visible to others. She often screeched at me in one of her high pitches, and between slaps threatened to take a new pair of shoes or sweater back. My brother received an education; she paid for his business, his house, and his divorce. I accepted getting nothing.

There are many more essays I’ve started that could be added to My Stupendously Stupid List. But I may have come to the end of my ability to relive them all. I will compile the most important stories into a collection. And I’ve considered adopting one of the essay titles; You’re Sick, You Need Help, And Other Things My Mother Told Me Growing Up. If someone reads them one day and recognizes their childhood, that would be everything.

I’ve read memoirs that have happy endings. The happiest ending I can provide with these memories now is evidence of my emerging toward the other side.