Whenever I’m with my mother,
I feel as though I have to spend
The whole time avoiding landmines.
~ Amy Tan
If ever there were a simple statement to explain the difficult relationship I had with my mother, Amy Tan’s is it.
Born in 1921, Maria (aka Mary) was the eighth child and last girl (Three boys followed.) born to my grandparents. Three children had passed prior to Mom’s birth, as happened so often in the early 20th century. Life was not easy as Grams and Gramps were immigrants, and the money he made working at the mill didn’t go far. Mom was sickly as a child and fought pneumonia and other bronchial illnesses constantly.
Mom wanted to be a nurse, but the family had no money for her to attend nursing school, so she ended up being a nurses’ aide for a few years until she graduated from business school and became an administrative assistant at Sealtest Milk Company. As a teenager and young 20-something, Mom watched her older sisters marry and have children, and she spent time babysitting her nieces and nephews much to the chagrin of one of her fiancès. You may be asking, “One of her fiancès?” Yes, my mother was engaged three times. Said Gentleman #1 was upset that his Mary spent so much time with the children that he broke off the engagement. Gentleman #2 was electrocuted, and
Gentleman #3 was my father.
I never understood how or why she married him in the first place. He was a mean drunk who smashed any self-confidence she had until, for as long as I knew her, she was a wilting flower. One of my first memories is of the time she was pregnant with my brother. She was wearing a white maternity blouse with big red dots, and he was trying to get her to drink a Tom Collins. He insisted. She resisted. He yelled. She wept. I cried.
Her biggest joy was being a mother, though, and I sometimes think that was the reason she married him. She miscarried her first child, and she never got over it and would often mention it to me….even the last time I saw her before she passed.
As I grew up, my mother made sure that my brother and I got a good education. In fairness, both of my parents did this, but she was the one who helped with reading and math problems. She was thrilled when report cards came out and we had good grades. When I got to high school, started thinking on my own, and became more independent, though, it bothered my mother. She had always suffered from depression, and I’m sure the fact that I was not going to live the life she wanted me to live—become a nurse, get married, have kids, stay home—contributed to her increasing melancholy.
She did not want me to go away to college, but she allowed that Walsh University in Canton (50 minutes away) was “…all right, I guess.” When I got a job in Columbus after graduation, she didn’t talk to me for the entire summer. When Mike and I married, she got mad over some perceived slight and refused to talk to me for two months. When Mike got jobs in Atlanta and later in Las Vegas, she blamed me and refused to talk to me. When I told her we were only going to have one child, she yelled, “You are damn selfish,” and she stopped talking to me for a few weeks.
That was her modus operandi: Twist what I said or did or how I said or did it and get mad, stop talking, and make my life hell for a few days, weeks, or months. Don’t judge her too harshly about that, though. She was fragile, and there was good reason. It took a few years, but a priest in Las Vegas made me realize what was going on with her.
“You do realize,” he said to me after I cried to him about a then-silent period, “that your mother sounds like someone who had been abused. Did your father hit her? Did he drink?” I’d not mentioned either, but Fr. Jim was astute enough to recognize the symptoms through my words. He talked for another 15-20 minutes, but it was that first sentence that slapped me into reality and helped me learn to deal with my mother.
I tried to be more patient and to avoid any “land mines” that would set her off. We switched roles, and I became the parent. I had to be firm, and I insisted she ask her doctor to give her something to help her diminish the dark fog in which she lived. I could tell immediately when she stopped taking it, and I would threaten to cut off communication if she didn’t start up again. It was tough love.
I tough-loved my mother.
Tough Love. I love my mother. I loved my mother. I tough-loved my mother. If I hadn’t, we would have had no relationship in the last 20 years of her life.
The bottom line is this: As I celebrate Mothers’ Day alone in Italy, I’m yearning to talk to my mother. She was a good mother even with all of her foibles.
I’m also yearning to talk to my son. I hope he thinks that I’m a good mother to him. More importantly, though, I hope he realizes he doesn’t have to worry about dodging land mines with me.