October 29, 1987. Twenty-five years ago today my beautiful mother gave up her fight. She was only 44 years old but I guess she was tired of the battles she was waging. My mom was a fierce alcoholic and I never remember a time when I was young when she did not have a drink by her side. As I got older she did make a couple of attempts to quit but, like most people in her position, she was not properly equipped to overcome what lay at the root of her issue.
I often think about the things my mother gave me and those things I feel I missed out on. I try not to dwell on either list but, I think today’s anniversary warrants some reflection on both.
I will start with my bitching. I’m sure all moms piss their kids off at one time or another. Mine never did until I was about 16 years old. I usually tell people that my siblings and I had a “Brady Bunch” existence as far as things went at home with my mom. She was a substitute teacher at the Catholic school we attended, she was my Girl Scout troop leader, and she sewed a bunch of our clothes and helped us with our nightly homework. She only ever worked part-time while we were growing up so she always had a good, hot meal ready when my dad came home at night. She balanced out the anger and aggression that was my father but, I don’t think any of us ever knew how precarious that balance really was.
Her drink of choice was a sickly sweet mixture of Jim Beam and Sprite. By the time we were out of our bath at night she had a tall one next to her on the end table by the couch in the den. Dad sat at the other end of the couch staring at the TV. I cannot remember any conversation between the two of them.
I never remember my mom having any fondness for mornings and I now know she must have spent them all hung-over. Beyond the nightly drinking, none of us would have said my mom had any problems. The drinking just seemed normal. It did not touch us. I’m sure my father would have a different recollection but we don’t really talk about these things. My mom medicated in the way she was taught to medicate. She came from a long line of alcoholics. I now look back and know that most of her family members were high-functioning drinkers masking some dysfunction.
So, if my childhood was close to idyllic, how exactly did my mom fall so short of giving us what we needed?
The thin film that was wrapping up my parents marriage burst rather abruptly when I was a junior in high school. They took the three of us into our formal living room to break the news that Dad was moving out and they would be getting a divorce. We were all in shock. But, the real devastation was yet to come. My mother spiraled into a dark horrible place that forced my brother to live with my dad, my sister to completely disown her and, me to live in fear that I would come home and find her dead. We spent the next seven years wondering what had happened to our comfortable existence. My mother was a disaster and I hated her for it. She was weak and broken at a time when I needed her. She died when I was only 23 and a part of me will always be angry at her for that.
She did not see me get married. She did not come to my aid when I got divorced. She was not at my side when my daughter was born. Part of me has always felt that she gave up on her children when her husband gave up on her. I felt like she was so selfish and weak. Did I mention weak?
OK. Enough complaining.
I mentioned at the beginning of my dissertation that my mom gave me things. She did and they are many. My mom was a brilliant peaceful woman. She was very giving of her time to the three of us. She taught me how to diagram a sentence and how to deal with my monthly girly cycle. She assured me that it was perfectly acceptable to eat spaghetti for breakfast and that meat and potatoes could take on oh, so many different forms. Most importantly, my mom taught me how to carry things.
I have carried many things over the years that I could not have managed without the lessons I got from my mom. I forced myself to be the strong woman that I wanted my mom to be. I allowed myself to forgive my mom and realized that she did the best she could. My mom was most likely manic-depressive and did not know what to do with the demons that drove her. I have taught myself a great deal about mood disorders in an attempt to know more about who my mom was and also to be more empathetic to those suffering as she was.
I miss my mom and I wish she were still here. I wish she could see her gorgeous granddaughter. I wish she could share in the happiness I now have with my amazing husband and step-children. I know that her favorite color was yellow and that she loved the music of Carole King. She loved lazily shelling pecans at my great-aunts kitchen table and had quite the green thumb for the roses growing in our backyard garden. My memories of her are wrapped up in a comfortable olfactory mixture of cigarette smoke and Chanel No.5. She was my mom. My sweet, sad, hurting mother. I wish I had known how to help her. I wish I knew what it was that allowed her to give up on herself.
I am certain that she left here knowing that I loved her and that is a comfort. I wish I had enough faith to think she is in a better place. What I do know is that I am in a better place because of what she gave me. And what she didn’t.