After my brother in law’s recent passing, the women in our immediate family came together at our sister’s house: our mother, four sisters, and my daughter. Due to geographical and logistical challenges, these ‘full attendance’ coven-like gatherings are rare and far between.
We had no agenda except comforting our younger sister for a few days during her time of loss. And we spent the entire visit talking; basically just changing from one pair of pajamas into another. Well, there was eating, napping and drinking, but we mostly just talked. And we talked, and talked. And then talked some more.
The conversations went everywhere: life, love, loss, triumphs, disappointments… anything and everything. But we consistently returned to our childhood memories and our mother’s role in it.
I was fascinated. Our impressions and memories of the same events varied. A lot. Of course this is normal, as everyone will interpret situations according to their unique personality and mindset. But in our case, the age gap between siblings widened even further the differences in point of view.
So I’m going to share my own interpretation.
And I will do so because I have two things that my younger siblings do not: memories of my mother as a young and energetic woman, and an adult’s perspective during her times of great hardship.
I’m the eldest daughter. After a traumatic marriage, my mom divorced my bio dad and then remarried a couple years later. My second sister came along when I was 6, and just under 11 months later a surprise baby boy was born. My mother was ecstatic with the arrival of both.
We moved into a big new house. We went to private schools. Weekends were filled with dinner parties and barbecues. They joined the Lion’s Club. She joined the Exchange Club and went bowling with her friends on weekday mornings. Afternoons were filled with Girls Scout outings, swimming lessons and playtime. I took piano lessons (my grandmother insisted, I hated them) and tennis lessons (I was so bad!). We went to the Beach Club regularly.
My mother thrived on her role as mother and a community member. She was always smiling in all pictures taken around this time. A sweet and easy smile.
Then the stock market turned bear and money got tight. Things got really complicated when I was 13: my mom unexpectedly got pregnant. With twin girls. Though it was still a time of joy, an undercurrent of stress was present. It was totally understandable that she began to look tired on pictures.
A couple of days before the twin’s 3rd birthday, our dad –he had legally adopted me- passed away after a short but brutal fight with lung cancer. Yeah… widowed housewife with 5 kids altogether having a 14-year gap between them. I was a party-loving-yet-nerdy senior in high school and the babies were not even in nursery school. I’m sure that this was not fun for our mom. Not fun at all. She began to gain weight.
I went to college but stayed at home, the middle siblings went from middle school into high school, and the twins went into elementary school. The twins and I are morning people; the other two are not. Mornings were hectic (understatement of the century) and all were cranky.
Everyone had some sort of after school activity and there was a lot of shuttling around. Anyone that has driven a carpool knows how exhausting it can be. The twins never got registered for swimming classes or joined the Girl Scouts. Most days before noon she was ready to crawl into the couch and sleep. But somehow she dug deep and kept going.
We were all still living under the same roof when I got pregnant with my daughter. The twins were 10 years old when their niece was born. Headcount went up to seven: six females with varying degrees of intense personalities and a single male at the beginning of what turned out to be a very challenging adolescence. Once again: so not fun for our mom. She did not even want to pose for pictures anymore.
The first difficulties with the older generation began with our great aunt on my mother’s mother’s side. My mom had somehow managed to always have a very loving relationship with her extremely difficult aunt and she in return –being childless- had designated our mother to be her legal representative and heir. Though she relied on my mother for everything, she was basically a hermit with simple needs so helping her out was quite manageable. Then the Alzheimer’s came along and changed everything.
When it became obvious that the aunt could not safely live by herself, my grandmother made a unilateral decision and the aunt was unwillingly moved into my grandparents’ house. My grandmother had dictatorial tendencies but that is an entirely different story.
The catch to this seemingly practical solution was that the aunt and my grandfather (her brother in law) had never gotten along (read: actively disliked each other). Though she actually sweetened up as she slowly lost her mind, the environment was always tense and my peace loving, very Zen grandfather was always irritated (read: pissed all the time). To defuse the situation, our mom began spending most days at their house, a 50-minute drive with nightmarish traffic from our home on the other side of town.
Mom was still trying to take care of most of the chores around our house. I will shamefacedly admit that we were not great about chipping in to help (understatement of the year) and she was never really good at getting us to do stuff without fight. It was easier for her to make a halfhearted attempt than to wrestle the bunch into cleaning the house. It still looked like a battle zone. I’m sure that this did not help either.
As their collective health declined, she began to spend some nights at the grandparent’ as well. Or maybe she was simply too exhausted to make the drive back home. The twins either stayed at our over there (they hated it) or caught a ride with whomever could bring them back home.
The kids got older and the already tight social security income got smaller. Mom began to panic. There would be a 6 year gap between the twin’s 18th birthday and the earliest time where she could start to collect her widow’s pension. She had to figure out how to make an income for the first time in her life.
First she considered setting up a small nursery school at her aunt’s now-empty big house. Then she thought a home for elderly people would be the better option, so she decided to go into night school to become a nurse practitioner.
Need a recap? I was still in college because I had switched degrees in favor of Engineering (thank God!), my second sister was starting college, our brother had fathered a son and was coming and going between our house and his very young wife’s, the twins were in a middle school close to our grandparent’s house, my daughter was in nursery school in a completely different neighborhood, my mom was taking care of two households and three persons with rapidly decaying health and complex medical needs. And she was going to night school.
Oh yeah, this was so, so, so, very not fun for our mom. Though there are not many pictures, I remember that she looked worn and joyless.
She was still in full crisis mode when the social security income stopped. The only alternative was to take over the renting of the apartments in the aunt’s old house while still managing to cover all of her expenses. Anyone that has managed properties will agree that going into it without an adequate monetary cushion is not a good idea. It wasn’t. But she had no choice.
She dreaded every single payday fearing that the money would not show up and stressed incessantly over the day any of the tenants would move out leaving the apartment in need of repairs or –god forbid- ask for their deposit back.
During this period the signs of severe depression and physical exhaustion were obvious even to me. There were a few ER visits to manage GI distress due to anxiety and an occasional breakdown. But she mostly soldiered up and carried on. Undiagnosed, unaided, and depleted.
She was around 48 years old and her world was imploding.
I just turned 48.
This realization has stunned me. I’ve had my share of difficulties, but they pale in comparison.
When I look back I realize that as a young adult I was very hard on my mother. Though I continued to have a close and loving relationship with her, I harshly criticized her past decisions. I judged her for not getting help for her depression. I became angry at her helplessness and inaction. I arrogantly thought that had I been confronted with the same situations, I would have ‘fixed’ everything efficiently and rapidly. Painlessly.
Then life taught me a thing or two.
I always thought –incorrectly- of myself as having been an ‘easy’ daughter because my mom and I always had a very loving, respectful, and supportive relationship. In retrospect, nothing could have been further from the truth. She must have been scared out of her mind that I was going to screw up my life or get into more trouble than I could handle. I was wild and free. I was confident. She must have been terrified.
Now I know. I’m the mother of a wild and free child. I have been terrified. Now multiply that five times over.
I had a nourishing mother. She had a loving but overbearing and highly critical mother. A force-of-nature mother. I was allowed to grow and roam, she was taught to be submissive and obedient.
My grandmother was an impatient fixer. If she thought my mother was taking too long to do anything, she just took charge and got it resolved –in her own very particular way- regardless of my mother’s wishes. She thought she was being helpful when truthfully she was crippling her child.
I have a lot of my grandmother in me, but I was given the space to figure things out and fix my own problems without anyone jumping in.
I graduated from college and was able to become financially independent soon after. At that same age and for much longer, my mom was constantly worried about where the next bag of groceries would come from or how she would pay if a car broke down.
I have been gifted with a fully supportive, committed partner that has been my biggest fan since the day we met. My mom was all alone and has remained so.
She had awesome friends. Loyal, constant and always available. But during those difficult years she seldom had the time or energy to have leisurely lunches with her girlfriends. When I was going through difficult times I had the liberty to see mine often.
Until now, I had not even considered that through all this my mom was also going through the hormonal ravages of menopause. Now I know the toll that it takes.
Honestly, I don’t know how she made it work. How she coped. How she endured. When she and I have spoken about this she will always say that she does not know how she survived either.
Eventually things got better for her. We grew up and moved out. The parents and aunt passed away. She was finally able to start collecting her widow’s rent. I acquired the old aunt’s house from her so that she would have another source of reliable income.
Mom was on her own for the first time in her life. She could finally relax.
But so many years of constant stress and fretting had already taken their toll. She first had a stroke and then endometrial cancer a few years later. Though she recovered from both, anxiety and worry had become a way of life. Now her brain is a little tired and not as agile any more. Her story remains unfinished, hopefully for many years to come.
I often wonder how she would be if she had had a kinder, easier life.
My siblings and daughter are all adults now; they can all recount their own stories according to their perspective and experiences. I just wanted to share mine.
I will only add that my mom is awesome. A true shero.