It occurred to me, sitting here looking at a blank screen, that I don’t want a reconciliation or an apology or even an acknowledgement of her sins from my mother. I don’t want her to change or to morph into a good mother or ask my pardon…all of which is a good thing because this week, she has been dead 19 years.
But when you realize what you don’t want, it starts to frame and clarify what you do. And I find myself pondering what, if my mother was still alive, would I be wanting from—or for—her at this point in my life.
I turned 70 in March and my mother would have been 88 in June. I am married to a younger man, am semi-retired, and I live overseas, half a world away from the American West Coast were I was born and raised. My life is busy and it is full. Much of my downtime is spent reading, researching, and thinking. At my age, we ponder our mortality and review the lives we have lived, the mistakes we have made, and how we might have chosen differently.
One of the things my mental meanderings keep coming back to are those mistakes. Real life doesn’t have any do-overs and all too often wisdom comes far too late to make any difference. The best we can do in situations like that is to review those mistakes, try to understand what was driving us at the time, and try to determine if a different choice would have made any difference. The big surprise to me is the realization that, for the most part, another choice would have made little difference because changing my choices would not likely have had an effect on the other people in the equation. It is humbling to realize that the bad choices I made in my past were not the defining act in the event because the others involved in the event had their own agendas and my choices were only a small part of what ultimately transpired.
I grounded my daughter for cutting school and she jumped out a second story window and ran away to a friend’s house. Below the window she jumped from is a sticker bush (planted there to deter would-be housebreakers) and when she showed up at her friend’s house she told her friend’s mother that her bruises and scratches were from a beating I had given her—and no mention of cutting school was made. Outraged, the mother took my daughter in and for a few weeks she felt properly self-righteous about it—until she discovered that my daughter had led hers into cutting school for days on end.
Reviewing that scene, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t grounded my daughter? What if I had given her extra chores? What if I had made her attend Saturday detention for the rest of the school year to make up the days lost? What if I had said nothing except “Go back to school—you have a lot of missed work to make up”? Would any of those change my daughter into a different person? Or would she still be a girl who was willing to jump out of a second story window into a vicious bramble bush, lie about her mother to the mother of a friend, and then show her gratitude for being taken in by corrupting the daughter of her benefactor? No choice I could have made in that circumstance would have changed my daughter, her ethics, or her sense of entitlement. For all these years I have beat myself up about making a bad choice and suddenly it occurs to me that I had much less power than I believed myself to have and there was no choice I could have made that would have made my daughter anything other than who she really was on that day: a girl who so believed she was entitled to do whatever she wanted, regardless of the law or parental edict, she was willing to risk injury, then lie (a lie that had the potential to see me jailed!) to and con the mother of a friend and, on top of it all, induce that friend to defy both the law and her own mother. She was that kind of person, no matter what I chose to do.
Applying this newfound knowledge to other situations, I have discovered that my sense of guilt or responsibility about them is largely misplaced because other autonomous individuals played a part, a part over which I had no influence or control. When my NexH decided to cheat, what kind of reaction would have changed his mind or his behaviour? He had already shown himself to believe it was ok for him to cheat, so much so that he actually put the hotel room on his American Express card, a bill I paid every month. Would having a hissy fit at him rather than pretending I didn’t see that charge on the statement have changed his belief that he was entitled to do this? I had a friend who found out about her husband’s mistress when she was paying the credit card bills and found a charge for a ruby pendant. It was almost Valentine’s Day and she waited—in vain, it turned out—for the diamond and ruby trinket to be handed to her. When confronted, he not only admitted to the mistress and the jewellery, he was very clear that he felt entitled to have both a wife and a mistress and wasn’t going to give either of them up. Nothing she could have said or done would have changed that sense of entitlement and he was genuinely surprised when she moved out of the house and started divorce proceedings.
I have rifled through the vaults of my memory, extracting events here and there, wondering how a different choice on my part would have changed the outcome. In particular I have pulled out memories regarding mistakes I believed I made with my children, poor choices, unthinking decisions, harsh words or punishments and, for the most part, have come to the conclusion that my part in these events wasn’t as big or as decisive or as significant as I initially believed. I was a player in a drama, a drama with other players, each with his or her own agenda and script and we each played our own parts, seeking our own ends, despite being in proximity to and nominally interacting with others. Too many times my words and deeds, which I once believed to be pivotal have, on brutally honest review, been ineffective spouting off, words on the wind that were heeded little or not at all. Their paths were set, their objectives were goads, and I was merely an opposition to be overcome or ignored.
Several years ago I read a sobering article about the influence we have on our children and how, once they reach the age to be relatively independent (once they have started school) how their peers actually have an increasingly greater influence on them than we, the parents and family have. The older they get the more children seek the approval and acceptance of their peers over and above our approval. We have much less power and influence than we think we have.
And so I began thinking about my mother and realized how right that was. Despite her brutal and controlling ways, I was more interested in the approbation of my peers than hers. My boyfriend’s approval meant more than hers. I rejected her tastes, her politics, her beliefs, and much of her values. I was too afraid of her to be outwardly rebellious, but there was nothing she could have said or done that would bring me to share an outlook I found repugnant. Yes, I wanted her approval and love but I didn’t want them at the cost of being untrue to myself, even at that young age. I wanted her to approve of me and who I was, rather than approve of how good I was at pretending to be the person she wanted me to be. I wanted her to love me, the essential person, not the child star or academic powerhouse or teen beauty queen. And so I realized that the direct power and control my mother had over me was fleeting, lasting only as long as I allowed it.
I began to wonder what, then, would I want from my mother if I could see her again. Would I want an apology for the cruelties and indignities she had heaped on me over the years? Would I want contrition, enlightenment such that she knew she was wrong? Would I want her wallowing in guilt for her years of brutality and neglect? Begging forgiveness? Declarations of love and devotion and respect? A heartfelt, tear-stained reconciliation? As I envisioned each of these scenarios I soon came to realize that not one of these were within the realm of possibility, even if she were still alive today. Because, regardless of my wants and needs, she would still remain herself, ploughing forward on her own set of tracks, bound for her own destination, regardless of what I brought to the table.
It was then that I realized what I wanted was not something from her but something for her. I wanted her to drink from the cup prepared by her own hand, to experience that which she created and set in motion. Not the events themselves, mind you—I would not wish those events on anyone, not even her—but the emotions, the feelings, the fears and the despair, the pain and the sense of futility and hopelessness, the narrow focus and gut-wrenching grit needed to climb out of the pit of depression she had cast me into and the dogged determination of therapy, reliving every horrifying moment in detail, complete with the mindless pain of loss after loss after contrived and carefully orchestrated loss.
I would want for her an abundance of empathy, enough to last her for eternity.
What is it you would want?