This is a tough one for me. Today is my mother's birthday. She would have been 89. I knew I wanted to write about her and post some pictures; but when I was thinking about it I realized I didn't have any pictures of her as a child. And then with a shock I realized I had never even seen any pictures of her as a child. The earliest photo of her is this one, which she told me was taken in her teens, when she did some work as a model for a clothing store.
She was always telling me that she worked all through school and had to give her parents the money, and that she had to make her own clothes. She had two dresses in high school, and would change the style and re-sew them to make them seem new. Among other jobs, she worked in a malt shop, and in those days they made milkshakes by cutting up the hard ice cream with a butter knife by hand until it was soft. My mother did not have a good or happy childhood. Her father apparently was a terrible womanizer and not cut out for family life, though I remember him as a funny grandpa with a big mustache and a British accent who taught me to play cribbage. At 16 he had run away from his own abusive father in London to join the British army during WWI, and ended up being gassed in the trenches. While recuperating, he met my grandmother and they came to America. She was very young, and birthed four baby girls in less than four years, one of whom died of diptheria. My mother remembers that before she was ten, she was sent away to live for awhile with her maternal grandparents in Canada. She often told me it was the only time she ever received any affection or felt part of a family.
This picture is from my Mother's wedding day. No white gown and veil.
It was May 19, 1943. My father was home briefly on leave; he left again only two weeks later. She didn't see him again until after the war; he was shot down and spent more than a year in POW camp. My father adored my mother, and took many photos of her, I have trunks full of them. But for me, it's like my mother never existed as a child. I cannot even imagine her as a little girl.
My mother and I had a dreadful relationship. I imagine this is true for many people. I suspect the tender scenes between mothers and daughters that we see in movies or read in books are mostly fiction, or wishful thinking. There is nothing easy about being a mother, or a parent. And being a child is no easier. I spent years trying to placate and please someone who would not be pleased, trying to avoid the storms of unpredictable rage, and struggling to understand how and why I was to blame. When she was 66 years old she told me, with great bitterness, that her father had sexually abused her. She had never told anyone, not her sisters, not her husband, not a friend, not her own mother. I realize that the pain and grief and fear and helplessness she had buried inside for all those years was responsible at least in part for how she was. I know in my head that she had done the best she could as a parent, but the child in my heart still feels unloved and unlovable.
I didn't learn to cook or sew from her, though she was an extraordinary seamstress, a perfectionist and true artist. She also designed and made incredibly beautiful hats. She was a gracious and charming hostess, executing elegant parties as part of her social responsibilities as an officer's wife. I know she got occasional migraines, and she told me that her grandmother had terrible sick headaches. This matrilineal line of migraines, which sadly I have passed on to two of my own children, came down through this great-grandmother of mine, Emma Muckleston:
These threads of family and experience are woven deep, clear down into our mitochondria and our neurons; I am still learning myself how to be a mother, as well as dealing with this, my own mothering, whatever it was. We can't undo these rows of knitting, nor pick up the dropped stitches. There was no happy ending or reconciliation between us at the end. When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1999, she told the doctor "Well, guess I get my wish now," and predicted she would not live to see her birthday. She died two days before her 81st birthday. I hope she is free at last.