It was the fourth doctor appointment of the week and I was anxious to get home in time for the kids. I scrolled through articles on my phone that I had been saving to read for such situations but I felt my eyes begin to cross and glaze over with stress and exhaustion. For not the first time, I pondered why waiting rooms have to be constructed to increase your anxiety as opposed to the other way around. No windows, grubby upholstered chairs with stains and tears, nondescript artwork, potent cleansers with cloying fragrances, soiled and crumpled magazines, support staff screaming into their headsets over each other like announcers for a train station. Everything about it screamed, “Run for your life!” Not stick around to save it or heal anything other than a need for punishment.
A woman slightly older than myself passed through assisting an elderly woman with an oxygen machine. Her mother I assumed. I didn’t mean to stare but it reminded me of so many doctor appointments with my own mother. The elderly woman had been shuffling along and suddenly raised her head to meet my eye. I smiled out of reflex but her expression didn’t change. Her daughter smiled in response and a second of shared recognition passed between us. I nodded in acknowledgement and she smiled more widely. Her mother didn’t appreciate our nonverbal exchange that she interpreted as at her expense because she suddenly responded to me by sticking her tongue out and giggling. Her daughter gasped but all three of us chuckled. What came next startled all three of us equally. I started to cry.
Something about the impishness of the woman’s display of mischief, the tableau of the daughter walking her, and the hideously necessary oxygen tank that marred so many of my own memories with my mother. It all brought it back and I found myself sobbing in the waiting room. That of course was when the support staff decided to finally call me back after an hour long wait. I looked up to apologize to the woman and her mother but they were seated on the far side of the room and it would have been awkward to walk that length to do so with the employee standing there waiting for me. Besides, with an old lady name like my own if I didn’t jump when they called my name there was bound to be a mix up and an elderly person would have gone in instead. Trust me, it’s happened before.
Even after I left the office and the unknown pair behind, I had thoughts of my mom on my mind throughout the day. Like most days. It’s been over a year since she passed but it could have been mere hours depending on the memories that visit me. On the drive home I thought back about the times we had been in that same hospital and the time we got lost on the way to one of her appointments. I burst out laughing with the thought and how my mother rode the volunteer’s golf cart like she was on the Rose Parade float once again a princess. She was preening and flirting with the dapper old man that drove us across the hospital campus. This was only seconds after berating me in public for having the wrong instructions from the scheduler. Every inconvenience was a fresh opportunity for her to unload her frustration on me. After all, “all abuse is heaped on the mother” seemed to be less of a saying and more of a mantra for my mother. Her expectations for me didn’t ease in their pressure as I aged but increased especially once I was a mother myself.
When I’ve considered writing a memoir of sorts I always go back to the complicated relationship between my mother and I. Book and chapter titles that I’ve toyed with are the following, but not limited to:
“Stealing Coupons and Other Stories of My Childhood”
“Sit on your hands!”
“I Used To Be Pretty”
“You’re Right to Be Lazy: You Don’t Want to Look Like Me”
“Pretty Girls Deserve Pretty Things: Let’s buy that when you’ve lost weight…”
“Children were The Best Part of My Life: My Adult Children are Ungrateful and Wasteful”
It was a 76′ avocado green Pontiac that was our respite when I was seven. My mother’s mothership of freedom away from our household. A momentary lapse from our poverty. A reminder to me of her choice of the misery she knew because she feared the unknown. Not as simplistic as that but no more false than the reality of the cracked vinyl of those back seats in the scorching southern Oregon heat.
The rain started unexpectedly like a blessing bitterly wanted from above. I edged myself closer to the car window in hopes of that magical scent of rare summer rain despite my typical loathing of the blistering summer wind. I closed my eyes, breathed in the heavy mist, and listened to the poignant ethos of the pop lament of Elton John’s, “That’s Why We Call It The Blues”. My mother glanced up in the rearview mirror when she heard the tell-tale sounds of my older siblings beating on each other and she predictably yelled, “Sit on your goddamn hands! Do you want me to take you home to your father?”
The next day wasn’t any better and there we were. The five of us, my mother and us four kids, piled into her shit heap of a car yet again in the heat to avoid our father. She claimed it was to run errands but we all knew that she was low on funds and that we were just driving in circles. That was until her car stalled in what was considered bumper-to-bumper traffic in Grants Pass. Four cars were lined up behind us, honking, even though there were two open lanes to our left. Our mother started to cry and yelled at them to shut up and go around. After a moment to collect herself, she instructed my eldest siblings to get out and help her push while Jim steered the car to the A&W drive-up diner. We waited there in the heat for Ed to come help us with the car. I admired how quickly my mom acted in these situations, marveled at her resourcefulness, and was dumbfounded at why she stayed with Ed.
We had these unexpected adventures often. Bad luck followed my family like a stench. Was it poor choices? Generational trauma? Or simply the result of poverty? I just know that every house we lived in, and we moved often, was grubby and full of mismatched castoffs like the clearance section of a thrift store. Walls with mold, floors that were rotted through, mice moving under the carpet. I would watch tv and wonder why I was so unlucky as to have ended up in this life I was in and dream of being someone different.
We were willing participants for any of my mother’s hairbrained schemes and errands just so we could avoid being at home. Whether it was picking through wood piles of scrap to find usable firewood only to return home with a mere trunk load of dangerous wood for burning and hands full of splinters to show for it but it was free after all. As my mother pointed out, better free firewood and blistered fingers than a cold house and an expensive doctor appointment for sick kids. None of us pointed out the flaw in her logic, save my brother, Sean. He could say whatever he wanted to my mother and she would laugh. He and my other brother, Jim, were her favorites. Jim could do anything he wanted and Sean could do and say likewise. He was the one that announced, “Right, mom, because infected fingertips are a great alternative.” She laughed and the rest of us shook our heads in disbelief.
I was to placate her, assist her, and remain silent. If all of my siblings were clamoring for toys or gifts I would be the one to not ask for anything and thank her for the scraps I was offered. My siblings resented her praise to me for such behavior so I learned to accept the scraps and share them. Whether it was a bag of candy or a prized game. There was no point in hoarding it to myself because we had so little space to ourselves and I would rather play with my siblings than be ignored as I typically was. My sister, Ann, would dote on me as long as I joined in with her ideas of play so we built elaborate fort cities of sheets, cardboard, and pillows. If I was lucky, I could use my brother, Jim’s, cars and I would create cities and speedways from cardboard and scraps of packaging. Sean was on his bed reading. I rarely saw him doing anything else once at home unless his friends were over for his ultimate love, Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing games. He tolerated me joining in as long as I didn’t mind being an ork, a dwarf, or a creature of his making. His friends found my questions and annoyance of Sean hilarious yet endearing. I ate up the attention and delighted in pestering them until my mother decided I had worn out my welcome and would reprimand me by announcing that I needed to come help her make snacks for “the boys”.
In her mind, she was saving me from embarrassment and Sean from further irritation. In my mind, she was reminding me that I was an annoyance and needed to be in service to others to redeem myself. More importantly, little girls like me were not to take part in such games. I thought that would end with childhood but it didn’t.
My role to her was of caretaker and that was the purpose, in some form or another, I was to serve the rest of my life with her. Whether it was parking her car for her if she came to visit me downtown at my condo, dropping her off at the door so she didn’t have to walk as far, or switching tables at the restaurant multiple times until she was well suited. I was trying to make it up to her for all the abuse she had been put through but not the other way around. She felt I needed to be more grateful and I felt she needed to choose to live for herself.
My thoughts returned to the present and I considered what some of our exchanges would be like if I was in her shoes and speaking to my own daughter. The thought made me shudder. Of all the mistakes I’ve made, I know I’m at least breaking a pattern when it comes to my own children. One of those particular conversations I had had with my mother stood out.
It was a late night drive to escape Ed for a few hours after he had beaten my mother and sister. I was in my early teens and was sitting in the passenger seat looking at my mother’s face in profile as we drove in the night on back roads. There weren’t any street lights, just the occasional light from houses and the glow of the dashboard to illuminate her face until we neared what served as civilization in those parts. A convenience store, a video rental, a gas station, a greasy diner. The flashes of her tear stained face suddenly appearing out of the dark reminded me of the old black and white film noirs I watched where someone was riding on a train going in and out of a tunnel. She was her own mystery and I was playing the part of an audience.
She was telling us stories about her own childhood and how bad those beatings were. How we needed to understand how bad our father had it as a boy, as did she, and that if we knew this it would explain his behavior. My sister and her were arguing about this point and Ann pointed out, “So you think that excuses this?!”
“Sometimes you don’t like the people you love.”
I looked at her as her face grew wistful and she smiled in the growing dark with her split lip.
“You mean like dad?” My small voice braved.
She chuckled and shook her head. I couldn’t tell if they were new tears or simply the ones she hadn’t wiped away from before.
“You shouldn’t talk that way…He’s your father. He loves you.”
My sister’s voice came muffled from the backseat, “No he doesn’t. He’s just an asshole.” I tried to see her face but I didn’t need to, really, to know she wasn’t exaggerating, after all, she was right.
This is the mysterious truth of the love I have for my mother. I don’t need to paint her as a hero for her to deserve my love anymore than I need to enjoy turkey on Thanksgiving to make others feel better about their crappy holiday. My mom was flawed like us all and I don’t think she deserved a “#1 Mom” mug but, at the end of it all, love isn’t about someone deserving your devotion or affection. The love I have for her, or anyone, is a choice and I’m not keeping score of whether or not they’ve earned that from me. I learned that from her in her words, if not from her actions. She should have saved us from Ed but she feared what might be worse in the world that could await us. After the life she had, I don’t blame her for that.
There’s a story from my childhood that I think is analogous of my relationship with my mother. She had made a bargain with me that she would pay me for every cent I saved her on groceries by cutting out coupons for her. There was just one catch.
To aid in this venture, my job was to take the $1.50 from her to pay for the Sunday newspaper and purchase that copy from the vending machine at the front of the grocery store just outside the doors. She would sit in the car and wait for me to do so. But I wasn’t buying just the one copy.
Each paper had one bundle of coupons in the center and, with some practice and courage, I discovered how to slide out the bundle by spotting the heavily inked, colorful pages as she had taught me. Not just one but MANY bundles from the stack of newspapers but only pay for the one copy. I even learned how to stack multiple copies on top of one another when I returned home to cut out several prints of the same coupon at once. Then these would be organized into categories for her into envelopes to help her shop in a more efficient manner. I was ten and wanted a job so I jumped at this venture with a zealousness that my mother had not anticipated. She realized her mistake after the first grocery shopping trip that cost her an excess of twenty dollars. Mind you this was in the late 1980s so that wasn’t chump change.
There was one snag in our arrangement though, other than the obvious issue of me stealing coupons from newspapers in broad daylight for my mother, if she didn’t have money to grocery shop then I couldn’t make any money as her “personal coupon-clipper”. (That was the unofficial title she gave me.) Yet my mind pondered this and came up with a solution. Many of the coupon adverts offered the company information and, at times, gift certificates if you participated in surveys or contests. This was far before the internet or social media so I took to pen and paper, wrote countless letters, filled out forms until my hands cramped, and furiously mailed the companies asking for coupons and certificates for our family.
I sat back in satisfaction while envelope after envelope rolled into me with coupons and certificates. Precut, genuine, free money from companies that were happy to respond to a little girl who was trying to save her mother money. My mom stood stunned looking at the stacks of coupons. She was impressed and realized her mistake. How was she going to use all of these?
We returned to the favorite vending machine to find local coupons to pair them with to double up, triple up, and even get more mail in certificates for spending them! She sent me to the machine and waited. I was so excited that I didn’t notice the shadow pass over me of an adult that had been watching all these times that I had ripped off the newspapers and now approached me.
“Young lady, do you know that you’re not supposed to be doing that?”
My hands shook but I wouldn’t let go of the inky paper that I was hugging to myself.
“No,” I tremulously offered the truth.
He smiled in condescension and shook his head, “Where’s your mommy?”
His voice sickened me and I took a painful breath against the shaking in my body, “She’s inside shopping.”
“Well, let’s go find her.”
He wasn’t going to let me escape. It sunk in that I didn’t have any options left but I didn’t want to give my mom up. Without saying a word I pulled our newspaper out of the stack, dropped the coupons on top of the machine, and marched over to my mother’s car.
She was staring at me in disgust and was glancing up at the man, “Barb, what are you doing?”
“I don’t want to do it anymore.”
She grumbled obscenities with a scarlet face and drove us home muttering something about how I had embarrassed her and didn’t I know that she couldn’t show her face there again now. I said nothing, just listened and felt I deserved her disappointment as I looked out the window to avoid facing her. It didn’t bother me that I got caught as much as that I let her down. I would have done anything to please my mother and, now that she’s gone, it still hasn’t changed.
You might think that those are the stories that come to mind and I resent her but I don’t. I think of the restaurants we enjoyed and her outrageous antics with fondness. How generous she was with strangers and friends alike. Her savant ability to solve Wheel of Fortune before anyone else including the contestants or her competitive nature with Jeopardy. Her laugh. That joyous, shaking belly laugh that sounded so unlike her appearance. It was as if Eddie Murphy was doing a voiceover for her. I miss you, mom.