Memorial day is for honoring our veterans, our ancestors, our memories. I consider it a day of reflection on those we’ve lost but also of our own history. I feel we need more of those days in general. Days of reflecting on our origins and understanding our past. Mental health days of not pushing to fulfill to-do lists to please others. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that I need to learn how to be better to myself. That starts with knowing myself better, having boundaries, and standing up for myself. Something that I need to model for my kids.
It’s two months until the one anniversary of my mother’s passing. It doesn’t weigh as heavily on me throughout the day as it did initially yet when it does come to mind it leaves me dumbfounded again that she’s gone. How could someone that loomed so large in my life simply disappear? How do we make sense of this any more than animals can? I still remember sitting by her bed waiting for her to breathe one last breath again. Afraid to let go of her hand and have her taken from me. I never really had her is why.
I grasped for connection with her throughout my life but she pushed me away so many times with her words or actions. Laughed off my attempts to work through conflicts with her and lashed out with criticism unpredictably. I embarrassed her with my need for discussing feelings or relationships. She didn’t save my published work or share it with others. Not even when I had my own column in the local newspaper in high school.
She was ashamed of me for studying psychology at university. Disgusted when I divorced my first husband. Exasperated with me when I admitted to having postpartum depression. Yet, unfailingly, was quick to say how proud she was of me to others in almost equal measures as she was likely to be deprecating if I was critical of myself.
I remember breaking down into tears when my daughter was only three months old and explaining the dark thoughts I was having. How I desperately needed someone to help me. That I felt judged and lost at how to be a mother.
In vexation she threw her hands up, “Oh, Barb, of course people judge you. Everyone judges each other. Stop feeling sorry for yourself! Do you know how BAD I’ve had it? Oh, my god! You’re so ungrateful…”
It’s hard to make peace with the many sides of my mother. The many little lives within her life and not all of them shining examples of the woman I loved but the truth of who she was. A very complicated woman who was unflaggingly kind and generous with most, especially strangers, and yet incredibly hard on her own children. We were to show gratitude for her sacrifices and recognize that she stayed with an abusive husband for our sakes. That was the truth that she told herself. Yet the story we had to live was a childhood of abuse, cruelty, and poverty. Just suriving the dinner table took skill and wit to avoid the wrath of our father by making him laugh. Whether at your expense or someone else’s, the rules were not fixed and anyone could be a target.
Looking back, I now see that my parents were floundering with their own issues and the emotional neglect they received in their own upbringings. They felt they were giving us a childhood that was an improvement upon their own. As frightening as that sounds, they most likely were. Both sides of my family tree are known for many eccentricities but the one that is never acknowledged is being neurodivergent. For two people like my parents to have been raised without the support or acknowledgement of their neurological otherness must have been incredibly confusing and maddening. It was rare for autism to be diagnosed back in the 1950s, let alone acknowledged or accepted. Added to that the stigma that remains even now. It isn’t a surprise to me that they felt we should be understanding of their struggles even as children because they had no idea how to be parents much less adults. It’s heartbreaking enough to think of how many generations have suffered through cycles of abuse but couple that with the ignorance around autism and the intolerance of others and to experience all of that within your own lifetime…it’s too much. My mom never admitted to being autistic but was willing to discuss the idea and consider it in her last few years. We shared books about neurodivergence and talked at length about my kids and our opinions on the topic. It hurt to watch at moments as the realizations washed over her face or the relief at why certain behaviors were common for her. It explained the rage she experienced from her father and my own as well.
My father was known for his mercurial temper that was triggered by the smallest indiscretion from wrinking paper to sitting in his spot on the couch. His sensory sensitivities were numerous and not to be commented upon but avoided like mines in a field. Yet he could draw, from memory, photo accurate portrait sketches of animals and humans alike when the mood struck him. He couldn’t manage to hold down a job if there was a boss to answer to but he could rebuild or customize cars for drag races or commissions requested from friends. He could have been a brilliant architect, and was a talented draftsman, but lost his chance of furthering his career because he didn’t understand how to behave in a work setting. We haven’t spoken in almost fifteen years. To me I lost him a long time ago when he chose to be a criminal instead of a father. Yet my mother stayed in contact with him after the almost forty years of marriage with extreme abuse out of a sense of duty and concern for him even after their divorce.
He never wanted to be a father or a husband. He just wanted someone to take care of him and felt that he was cheated out of the love he deserved in his life. There was always justification for his rage. Never an apology but a rationalization for his behavior. He felt entitled to abusing others because the pain he inflicted was nothing in comparison to the pain he felt internally and in the past. If you confronted him with his actions he would laugh in your face or fly into a refreshed rage for the accusation.
I’ve forgiven him. I’ve always wanted to be a mother and can’t imagine treating my children the way he chose to treat us yet I understand his feelings of being deprived of the love that he deserved as a child.
I’ve been sorting through books, photo albums, and scraps of memories today. In amongst the boxes of dust and emotional dynmate I found letters and sticky notes of my mother’s. “To-do” lists and grocery orders. She had beautiful handwriting like the calligraphy font of wedding invitations. On one dirty remnant of yellow paper are the words listed, “Lotto tickets, smokes, SPAM, eggs, denture glue…” I chuckle to myself and set it aside for my boxes of things to keep.
Smoking was my mother’s way of stimming. It was her security blanket and her solace yet the thing that killed her. She would readily praise her children in front of others and recount all of our accomplishments as if she loved motherhood but the moment we were at home she wanted to be left alone to read and smoke as she sat outside on her milk crate. If she wasn’t reading she was cooking and if she wasn’t cooking she was cleaning and if she couldn’t be found she was at work. I rarely saw my mother sitting or resting unless she was eating or sleeping. Quite often, the moment she sat down she fell asleep. I always knew she loved us and loved being a mother but poverty and restless from deep trauma kept her from being able to allow herself to enjoy her life. It hurt to see our mother treated so badly and unhappy.
So many opposing feelings today. Maybe that’s what this day is really about. Making peace with the conflicting truths of our past and those we loved. A memorial to loving them not a measure of their character. After all, honoring the fallen or those we’ve lost doesn’t mean that they are less deserving of our love or tribute because they’re flawed. We love not despite the flaws but with them as part of the picture.
I thought about this as I approached my daughter’s room to check on her after a moment of my husband overreacting about a mess she had made this morning. I knocked and heard a small voice say, “Come in.”
“Do you need my “sorries”, mama?”
“No, you have nothing to apologize for.”
“You can always have my sorries.”
“You can always have mine too.”
She hugged me and said, “I love you.”
It was in that moment as I held her that I reminded myself why I forgive those in my past and try so hard to be a good parent for my kids. I fail at moments, as we all do, and I tell myself the reassurance that many parents tell themselves, “At least I’m doing better than my parents…” Yet what is “good” can only be judged by my children themselves someday. I only can hope that we’ll look back together and memorialize those we’ve loved and lost.