Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Mother's Words

This is a beautiful piece of writing by my mother, about her mother. My grandmother was a cult leader, and is still to this day an extreme narcissist, although now she has Alzheimer's and is not able to wreak the same level of damage on her fellow man.

Here are my mother's words:
One striking aspect of how our mother raised us was how actively she defined and described the world to us. Some of the time she would teach us things, perhaps when we were in the car on the way to school or to the grocery store. I remember a mini-lecture about the banking system when I was only about six, and a few years later one time when I was sick she told a clever story about antibodies. She described the white blood cells as little soldiers who willingly gave their lives as they defended the body against infection. She could also be funny and charming, and I can remember all of kids standing in a circle around her, laughing at some joke or story she had told. She enjoyed being the center of attention with us, just as she had with kids in high school and boys in college. And we enjoyed being the recipients of her performance.

But her verbal descriptions of the world went far beyond the times she told us jokes or taught us facts. She defined life to us. She told us what mattered and what didn’t. She told us what we thought and what we felt. She told us what we wanted – and she told us who we were. She told us everything we needed to know. And she seemed to imply that anything she didn’t tell us was something we didn’t need to know. As I recall my childhood, it’s as though she was providing a narration, almost a voice-over, for my entire life, creating for it the meaning and the purpose that she decreed.

And yet, much of the time when she was talking, what she was talking about was herself. She continually painted a verbal self-portrait for us, and anyone else who was listening, of who she was. She would mention, almost in passing and yet with great frequency, how smart she was. In her childhood she had been advanced two grades in school. Later, she had earned the highest GPA ever seen at her college. "And ‘smart’ is better than ‘pretty’ because it lasts longer," she would laughingly re-tell the tale of how she had made this remark to a casual friend, thus scoring points over the prettier, but much less bright other woman.

And she talked about her social successes, as well. How popular she had been in high school and college. How she had been engaged "five and a half times – I never was sure about that last one", before marrying our father. And she bragged, even while telling us not to make the same mistake, that in the bar where she had met our step-father "all the girls wanted him," but she was the only one who could catch him.

Most of all, though, I remember that she told us what a wonderful mother she was. She told us that she loved us. And she made it very clear that her love was somehow better, stronger, and more special than the love other mothers had for their children. She described her love for us in almost mythic terms. It was important to her that we know how lucky we were. And it was important to her that we respond by being very, very, grateful.

Since I have begun looking back through my life, and really thinking about all the things Mama said, about us and about her, it seems to me that in some ways her words were the best thing about her. The narration of her love served as a great source of comfort and reassurance to my young life. I was often lonely or afraid, but I could console myself with the powerful descriptions she had given me of her love and commitment to me. Her narration was like a warm river, surrounding us and promising to buffer us from the pains of life.

It has been extremely painful to give up this vision, this sense of having been valued and cared for. But, if I am honest with myself, I must now admit that while her words seemed warm and loving, her behavior was cool and distant. I can’t remember being hugged. I’m sure I was, at least sometimes. But I have almost no memories of ever being held or even touched, while I have what seem to be dozens of memories of standing near her, not wanting to impose on her or to be a burden, but still longing for her to reach over and hug me. And it has been a shock to realize that I can’t remember any times, through all the years of my childhood, of my mother looking me in the face. Of her making eye contact with me and choosing to interact with me, one-on-one, rather than as part of the crowd. She spoke to me individually sometimes, if I sought her out while she was washing the dishes or ironing clothes. But I can’t remember her ever turning away from her other activities to look at me.

She spoke her words of love and loyalty with great passion and warmth, but she said them from across a table, or when her arms were full, either with laundry or with my baby sister. I took her words to heart. I clung to them, I believed them. But they did not seem to actually come out the depths of her heart, and they did not heal the ache in my soul.

In the end, it feels like my mother’s description of her marvelous love for me was another way in which she was talking about herself, rather than about me. She spoke of her love in those glowing terms in order to prove what a wonderful mother she was, not in order to actually love me. At the time, I had the sense that her warm and loving narration was telling me my life story. But in some deep, confusing, yet terribly important way, she seemed to have left me out of my story, even then.

What struck me the most, I suppose is that those middle paragraphs describe exactly how I felt about God towards the end of my faith.
[I]t seems to me that in some ways [the Bible] words were the best thing about [God]... It has been extremely painful to give up this vision, this sense of having been valued and cared for. Even when I believed in a loving god, I didn't believe he loved me

My mom is a Christian, so she doesn't read my blog (she knows it's an anti-theist one). However, she said I could post this here, and I'll be sure to pass on any comments to her. Remember kiddies, it's not just what you say - it's what you do that matters.


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