For all of you out there who are happily feting the woman who raised you, I have nothing but warm feelings. I love the sight of mothers and daughters laughing together, or huddled close, or even just smiling. Days like Mother’s Day bring the best and the worst out in relationships. The shiny perfection meets the reality.
For all of us, our relationship with our mother is fundamental and affecting. The ripples reach every beach in our being. That relationship forms us.
I love my mother. She had difficulties. She could never overcome them. She needed to be loved, unconditionally, more than your average. She was like fire, enticing and dangerous. Many people never saw the raw Marilyn, or Lyn, as she came to prefer. Like an acolyte on a pyre, I grew up experiencing the agony and the ecstasy of her attention.
Mother was the youngest of seven. She was born when it was clear that the Great Depression was a fact of life. The family was fortunate that relatives had a nearby farm. Summers were for working the land and producing food. By the time my mother was old enough to help she was also old enough to know she had no interest in helping. I bet her family howled with laughter at her antics.
I never met her father, except through stories and there weren’t many on offer; he died when she was 16 and that was a traumatic experience for her. She told me many times that she had snuck out to be with friends the night he died, she wasn’t home when he died and she regretted that. Or she regretted the additional suffering her family went through because not only was the man dead but the youngest child was missing. No, she didn’t want to relieve her family of suffering, but, more likely, she wanted to be there for the event. As if having snuck out didn’t make as good a story now.
Sneaking out was my mother’s favourite activity. She snuck out on my father. She snuck out on us. She had a lot of fun. When she couldn’t sneak away, she’d drag us along. This is probably why I’ve never wanted to get involved in local theatre. Mother was a ham. She loved theatre. She didn’t seem to get many roles. She loved the experience. I don’t recall her complaining about rehearsals, just fretting that she’d be late. My father was busy with other activities, so other men came to get my mother. Other members of the theatre community. She had a lot of fun.
I did get to watch her, once, in a small production. She was a vine. What a ham! We kids, in the audience, were laughing and screaming for the prince to “Watch Out!” My mother kept writhing, wiggling, and wandering closer and closer to the rapt prince.
Socially, there were few who could keep up with the woman my mother became when she stepped out of our home and into the wider world. I saw her on both sides of the door. I was in awe. And terrified. I couldn’t figure out who my mother was. Now I know. I have enough life experience, and adult experience of my mother, to be able to appreciate her more fully.
When I was maybe 10 I liked to playact scenes out. Some required makeup. In one series of self-scripted scenes, I was from Mars and covered with green swirling lines produced using my mother’s eyeliner pencils. One day, I forgot to lock the bathroom door and, when I was mid-monologue, my mother walked into the bathroom. I froze. She looked at me, naked but for swirls of eyeliner, for the longest couple of seconds in the history of time. She smiled. She smiled, nodded, and said, “So, this is where my eyeliner has been going.” She locked the handle, stepped out, and quietly closed the bathroom door behind her. The lock snicked. I had been given permission to have imagination. What greater gift can a powerful parent bequeath?
Our relationship was full of contradictions. Black and white types of contradictions. The truth/the way things are was defined moment by moment. You could not trust a single story my mother told. She was such an inveterate liar that I find it ironic and hilarious that I was the designated family liar. The story about imagination? The flip side was that the creativity was also considered lying, somehow. It got twisted up. My stories became those kinds of stories where everyone grimaces, shakes their head, and roll their eyes.
My writing was encouraged. Small stories and poetry. Mostly poetry. Poetry was compact. Poetry could be memorized and brought out for demonstrations of my mother’s children’s supremacy. My sister and I were artists. I don’t recall my brother getting as well-defined a future as my sister and I received. He got her sloppy, hungry love. She felt reflected in my sister and me. Different kinds of attention and need.
When I was 11, mother introduced me to bartending. I was taught using the “splash and taste” school of bartending. After successfully getting my mother hammered I would be offered my reward: a drink of my own. Now, I was to make it a lightweight. Less booze than mother’s drink. I never got caught. I mixed my drinks just as strong as hers. Stood me in good stead later when I spent nights passed out in dangerous places.
When I was a teenager, my mother was going through her own crisis. At the cusp of my teen years, my mother left dad. She moved out when he was out of town. She was now a single mother with three children. Luckily, we were all old enough to run our own days. I learned more about sex with men. My mother had already trained me as her bartender and I got a lot of practice. My sister introduced me to pot. Saved my life.
The hardest part for my mother was her loss of a social life. All the men who had courted and had sex with her when she was safely married, started avoiding her. Her girlfriends, all safely married, did not want to be haunted by the spectre of divorce. She became a fifth wheel and spent quality time, instead, at home with her children. Her violent behaviour, which had faded as we’d all grown taller than her, reappeared. All that passion misdirected.
Being lonely, being unfettered by a husband who protested expenses, Marilyn signed up for several credit cards and got them. Easily, far too easily. There weren’t any problems, at first. But, for the rest of her life, my mother stubbornly resisted every effort I made to explain how credit cards actually work. No.
She would cry, howl, yell, growl, whatever her mood, in response to the dunning letters she’d received. “It’s MY money!” Yes. She thought it was her money. If she didn’t make a payment, it was okay. The worst were the dunning letters that declared they would seize property. “I didn’t use THAT card to buy my TV! They can’t take my TV!”
In later years, when she’s run into these credit card fiascos, the situation was bandaged with a donation from me to her. Happily, we never ever got around to opening a joint account (to make the transfer of funds easier). I am glad I never got my credit associated with hers.
During the early years of the separation, the entire family heaved with tension and confusion. For a while, my mother simply ran her life as if my father simply lived somewhere else and still provided any and all needs. He bought us a chest freezer and a half a cow; this has always struck me as odd. Why, during all the years previous, had she not thought of this? It wasn’t our practice and the freezer didn’t survive our first move.
In her dotage, a term I use loosely, my mother resumed the chest freezer gig but filled it, instead, with large batches of food she’d prepare. The woman barely ate. In her last couple of years, we tried several ways to ensure she had food. We knew that most of the money we sent her went towards alcohol and cigarettes. She bought her cigarettes on the black market to save the taxes. My mother! She never stopped surprising me.
My sister was the first to escape my mother’s den. She headed first to my father but found that, in spite of the motorcycle, she just couldn’t live with him. She moved in with her boyfriend and his family. This was her Pleasantville.
My brother was sent off, next. He bounced back, not long after.
When I left, I did it the best. I didn’t go to our father. I left town. I used my thumb to find someplace to put down roots. I disappeared for a couple of years. When I returned, I wandered to my mother’s office; it was familiar territory. I arrived as my mother was putting on her coat. Good timing, I thought. But mother’s face when she saw me told me that something larger was going on. I had no idea what good timing I had. My mother had received a call. There was a body and would she come and take a peek? It seems that my previous job, at a federal department, had a dangling paycheque for me. When I didn’t pick it up after several months, they notified the police. Weird, but true, if my mother can be believed.
I was a burden to my mother. Even as I propped her up and cared for her. I had learned, at some point, how to live and love without judgment. Her mercurial ways were no longer a rip tide in my life; I had learned how to get out of her way and protect both her and my boundaries. She appreciated this. Deeply affected, she took to a modified version of her interfering. As long as my boundaries remained in place, she didn’t have access to her superpower and could no longer goad me into revealing secrets. Boundaries were her kryptonite.
My mother had a charming technique that she used to get information from people. When you were a stranger or someone she depended on, she could make statements that prompted you to respond. Now, these statements could be outrageous, but largely they were her opinions of the moment. And, I think, she was genuinely curious about other people but her curiosity had a strange hankering to it. A hunger ached in her.
When I would spend time alone with her, my mother would pester me using a technique I called “sharking.” During the day, before she’d settled into her TV chair, she would circle her apartment and I’d find myself a key point of the circuit. The other key point was the wine bottle in the kitchen. Each time she passed me, she’d pause and make a statement or ask a question. Each one was a probe, and I’d long since learned how to cope with these probes. Some I’d simply ignore, she had a short attention span. Some I’d give a non-committal “huh.” Then I’d get nailed. She was relentless. During one visit, while I was trying to figure out what she’d done to her computer, she circled until she got me. I think it was a combination of trying to untangle her files and stay off her baited hook; I lost it when she arrived behind me (another much-used tactic) and said, “I don’t know why Doris played that drug song at your father’s funeral.” Doris is my father’s widow. The song in question is “Candy Man.” It was my father’s favourite song. We had an argument about the song and, surprisingly, I may have “won.” She relented in my steadiness. My argument was that it didn’t matter what the subject matter was or wasn’t, it was Dad’s favourite song.
For most of my working life, I sent money to my mother each month. I occasionally made extraordinary donations to help when her credit card debts were generating new demands. It frightened her that lawyers were writing letters to her. We set up meal deliveries. We ordered groceries online and had them delivered to her.
Her response? STOP! First reason: “The meals are too salty.” When she was assured we could change that with diet choices. Oh, uh, no.
Second reason: “It ruins my plans to have to wait for them.” Oh, do you go out every day? No. Do you usually go out on the spur of the moment? No, have to arrange the disabled bus. Oh, so knowing that a meal is coming on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday interferes with your life so much that you can’t function. No.
Next reason: “I don’t like having to get ready for them.” Now this I get. For my mother to leave her apartment for any reason (think check the mail and do the laundry), she needs to shower, do her hair, do her makeup, and dress. No sleep pants and t-shirt with sleep rumpled hair.
I didn’t even demure at this since I understood. But, out of the blue, the truth came flying from her mouth with the final reason, “I’d rather have the money.”
I remember when I, as an adult, semi-resided with my mother. She needed help with rent and I needed a landing spot for when I was in town working. My dog feared her. I had to bring the dog, but I made it as painless as possible for him. My mother resented the dog coming along; she wanted me to visit her. Walking the dog became my period of freedom and her period of worse loneliness.
My mother would chat at me the entire time we were in the apartment together. Sometimes, in the middle of the night I’d hear her in the hall and when she could hear me, she’d stop in my doorway and chat with me. She always stood the same way. Hipshot, ankles crossed, one hand with a cigarette near her mouth, one arm across her chest, her head slightly thrown back. She smoked with dedication. Each draw was a commitment. Deep, even intake followed by a variety of expressions of smoke: through the nose as a trickle, a gust through the nose, out the side of her mouth, with her head turned aside and a stream of smoked from pursed lips, and, finally, fogging out of her mouth as she talked.
I can’t think of my mother without also thinking of cigarettes and alcohol. Moments after she finished her morning coffee, she would have a glass in her hand. As she got older, she started her day with watered wine. She claimed she drank less. One evening I watched her switch to beer as she dressed to go out. She kept up with the beers until her ride arrived, late. I waved her off, have fun! The next morning she told me that she just couldn’t hold her liquor like she used to. I must have looked either confused, skeptical, or otherwise disbelieving. “Yes, I’m serious! I only had two drinks last night and I was on my ass!” Right, I thought, you don’t count the bottle of wine and several beers that preceded the drinks at the bar. “Wow,” I replied. What else was I going to say?
Oh, I could have told her she was daft, but it’s unlikely you have seen the rage monster that lived inside her. It consumed her at times. It rampaged like wildfire, tearing through her mind, leaving nothing but ash behind. Sometimes the burning contained entire histories of truth and fabrication; in the moment of the pyre, there is no difference between fact and fiction. What mother says in that voice, with that rage, that is the truth right now, and you better believe it, buster, or you’re out on your ass. Never mind that it’s my income making things easier. Decades of training kick in. I believe.
I love my mother, still. I have few good memories of her. Some funny, like when she insisted I loved her more than I love my wife. The proof, according to my mother, is the connection we made when she first looked into my deep, brown eyes. My eyes aren’t brown. Never mind that we white babies aren’t often born with deep, brown eyes. She’s thinking of someone else’s baby. Nevertheless, there was no convincing my mother, and my wife, wisely, did not try. What my wife did try was to keep from laughing or storming off. I, on the other hand, kept finding odd reasons for leaving the room, and in one case, the building.
One year, my aunt paid for Marilyn to fly to BC. I was in Washington State. Apparently, there were plans for me in there somewhere but I didn’t hear of the trip until my mother was practically leaving for the airport. My aunt ended up hospitalized during my mother’s visit, leaving my uncle and mother together to yank mercilessly on each other’s nerves. My wife and I decided to take my mother over to Vancouver Island so she could spend a few minutes with her grandson. We drove up to Vancouver. We picked up mother. From the back seat, she would pipe up with wondrous lines: “The way you drive it’s no wonder you have no friends.”
All that theatre training must have been helpful because my mother could pitch her voice and project without yelling. In fact, some of her mutterings were more audible than other people’s normal conversation. It didn’t change anything to turn up the music. I can never thank my wife enough for that weekend. While we were settling into the hotel, which did not have a bar, my mother revealed that she’d not had any alcohol for the three days she’d been along with my uncle. He was, naturally, quite distraught about his wife in hospital and he didn’t like how much my mother drank and smoked. So, he decided to not drive her to the liquor store. This is Canada, folks, you buy your booze from the government in most provinces.
There was one liquor store open, for the next half an hour. We didn’t know our way in Victoria, but we rolled down our windows and queried pedestrians wherever we could find them. We got the liquor store in time. Agog at the offerings, quickly as we could, we made several selections and headed back to the hotel. At the door to her room, my mother snatched the bag away from me and turned away.
We were relieved. The idea of my mother going through DTs down the hall was frightening.
For the last 7 years of her life, I lived far from my mother and spent time with her through phone calls. It was odd to hear my voice on the message machine at her apartment while I sorted through the debris of a life. She died one night, nobody is sure which night and was found when the neighbours complained of a smell. Not the way you want to have a loved one go. The message on the phone had, initially, played out in an apartment occupied by a dead woman.