Friday, November 8, 2013

My Mother and Me

When I was a kid, most of the time, I wished I was someone else's child.  

And, I don't mean the fleeting wish that happens after your parents grounded you for not finishing your twinkies or for not letting you go to a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert with the guy your parents bought their pot from (true story).    

I mean, I literally spent a lot of my childhood praying to be transported to another family. I was that kid who sometimes hung around too long at her friend's houses.  Our house was often fraught with alternating bouts of conflict and cold silence. This isn't to say we didn't have our happy times, we did but mostly our house just seemed sad. 

I kept my wishes largely to myself because I was ashamed for feeling the way I did.  Ashamed for being disloyal, for disrespecting my parents for not being grateful for the family and the advantages we had.  

We were a comfortable middle class Jewish family, we had a nice house, cars, clothes, toys, we went on vacations and while we weren't rich, we were certainly comfortable.  My parents played bridge together and in public we were just like every other Jewish family in our town.  My mom was principal of the Sunday school for many years, active in Hadassah, President of Sisterhood.  She chaired the  hamentashen sale and came together with other women in our Jewish community and cooked for the annual Sukkot community meals at our shul.  My dad chaired the Israel Bonds drive several years running and served on the board of our shul.  

I don't have a childhood horror story of abuse but my parents while being strong, charming, funny and highly likable, they were also inconsistent, distant and angry. Sometimes they could be cruel, certainly toward one another but also sometimes toward us.   They both had very difficult, but equally painful, horrific childhoods, the kinds of experiences that shake your most primal needs for safety and security and because of the times they grew up in and had families in, they didn't talk about it. 

They loved each other, but they were both just too damaged to help one another.  My dad retreated into academia and largely wasn't around.  My mom glossed over it all and reserved her pent up depression on us. She took care of our physical needs but not our emotional ones.  

I was an insecure kid, I had problems making friends when I was a small child.  As I got a little older I realized I was never taught how to be a friend to someone, so I wasn't great at it and I was sensitive to rejection.  When I did get included I was afraid and I compensated by alternately being too eager and assertive paired with being terrified and silent.  

I was a bed wetter and I wet the bed much longer than most kids, into my teens actually.  I was terrified to sleep at someone else's house.  Most of those nights, I tried my best not to sleep, I stopped drinking at lunch time and went to the bathroom every half hour all day long until bedtime, trying so hard to empty and lock up my bladder.  Then I tried my best not to sleep the entire night and the next day I would be so tired.  

My parents had the typical 1960's man/woman division of power at home.  My mom took care of the house and the children.  My mom only addressed my bed wetting once, when I was in 1st grade and still wet the bed every single night.  She told me that I was too old to be wetting the bed and that I needed to figure out how not to do it.  How did she help me?  She told me she would stop washing my sheets.  So, that if I wet the bed, I could either sleep on my pee-stained sheets or wash them and change them myself.  I became so scared of her knowing I wet the bed that I slept on my dirty, smelly sheets most nights and took to taking a bath before school so that she would only see me wash my sheets twice a week and think things were getting better.  Of course she could smell and she still washed my clothes so of courrse she knew and ignored it completely.  I learned it was my problem, my responsibility, my fault.  

I remember once when I slept over at my mom's cousins house.  I was excited to spend time with my cousins J and E.  I slept in E's room and my mother did tell E's mom, Cousin F, that I still occasionally wet the bed and she shouldn't let me drink anything.  During dinner I kept saying I wasn't thirsty.  Finally Cousin F poured me a glass of juice and she said, drink honey, and don't worry about anything.  When we went to bed, I was determined to stay up all night and not wet the bed.  E had long since gone to sleep and I sat straight up in bed.  Cousin F came in to check on us and saw I was awake.  Without missing a beat she came over and asked me if I was staying up because I was afraid to sleep, afraid of what might happen.  I didn't answer but she knew, she put her arm around me and said, "honey, who cares if you wet the bed.  If you do, we'll clean it up, easy as pie, now sweet dreams, honey."  Sure enough when I woke up in the morning, I had a pair of E's pajamas on and I was sleeping on two towels.  Cousin F came barreling in the room wishing us a good morning, and winked at me.  The next two nights, I didn't wet the bed.  

I never wanted to leave. 

I was ashamed, not just of the bed wetting but of our whole situation.  I never told anyone about what my mother said to me or the other equally cruel things she would say to my brothers.  I protected her, she was my mom, even though I resented her and didn't feel loved by her, it was one thing if I felt that way, but another thing altogether if people outside our family did.  We were surrounded by loving, caring families in our Jewish community, no one seemed to have a family like ours.  I wanted to belong, to be like everyone else from a loving, caring Jewish family.  

Not only did I learn how to do that from my mother, proving yet again, it's not what we tell our children to do that's important, it's what we model for them.  My mother did it too, for her own parents.  

My mother had a very difficult childhood.  Her mother, the daughter of Orthodox Jews was cut off by her own parents after she became pregnant out of wedlock.  They sat shiva for her and she had to fend for herself.  Single and pregnant in the 1930s.   By the time my mom turned 3, my grandmother was on her 2nd husband.  

Life was mostly not kind to my mother.  She was not shown much tenderness.  Often I think she was like me, forever wishing she was someone else's child.  She became very close to my grandmother's younger sister, who was terribly kind and who took in my mother as if she was her daughter and us, as if we were her grandchildren.  It was to her aunt that she ran to when my dad divorced her and who helped her start over.  She paid for my mother's 2nd wedding and she and my great Uncle gave her away.  Eventually though she turned away from them, unable to bear the thought that she was no longer married to a prominent man, no longer one of those wives.  My mother was a woman of incredible strength, she was a survivor but she never realized all those things were still within her reach, or that people would still love her, even if she didn't live up to the picture she put out into the world, even after she dropped my dad's last name.  

Just like me, my mother never told people what she endured.  To the world, she had loving parents, who were there for weddings, birthdays and Bar Mitzvahs, who were in family photos.  She hugged and kissed them genuinely when they visited and although I didn't realize it at the time, she had that same desperation that I did, that if only the public was the private, everything would be okay.

My mother just didn't know how to be nurturing.  No one taught her.  People may read this and write her off as cruel and she did make some terrible mistakes, but she survived some truly horrifying things.  

What she did do was stop the cycle of chronic physical abuse that was a big part of her own childhood.  She was never able, to the best of my knowledge,  to confront my grandmother or her stepfather and therefore never able to find a way to truly let it go.  

Just like me, she perpetuated the fantasy, but unlike me, she continued it until her mother died and years afterward perpetuating it with her step father for most of his life. 

I remember once, while visiting my mother's extended family when my daughter was an infant, one of my mom's cousins said how wonderful it was to see me so happy as an adult and she told me how she always felt sorry for me as a child because I always seemed so sad.

My mother paid an enormous price for her mistakes as a mother. In the divorce she lost custody of me to my dad and we had a terribly fractured relationship for decades after, sometimes going years with barely any contact.  She lost my brothers too.  She never saw her two oldest grandchildren until they were in her teens and only saw my other brother's children here and there when my brother would take them to her. 

I am grateful that my mother and I were able to repair our relationship.  We talked about the past, and my mother offered no excuses and took responsibility for not giving me what I needed as a child.  

I was lucky that in the last years of her life we shared a close relationship.  We spent the last 5 years of her life, speaking daily by phone and visiting whenever we could. In a weird way, those years were made all the sweeter by the sorrows of the past and although she couldn't break completely free from her own cycle, she did help me to break free, by taking responsibility for the mistakes that she made.  

Although she was never truly able to cut her own iron ball and chain, she did cut mine.     

When my mom was dying of cancer in 2006 my two brothers and I went to be with her.  One evening while watching our old home movies, my brother mentioned that it was the first time that my mother had all of her three children together in the same room since the day my parents finally told us they were getting a divorce.  We gathered at my mom's apartment, she made brisket, like she did so many Sundays for us growing up.  We ate dinner, and in our usual style, ignoring the 400 pound elephant in the room,  chatting about nothing.  Finally, my mom told us she was moving back to Miami and we said goodbye to her.  That dinner took place in 1978. 

We all sat there, flanking my mother's death bed, stunned at the passage of time and at the sorrow of 3 motherless children and their childless mother.  Together for the first time in  28 years and with tears dripping down all our faces, we all started laughing.  Not crazy, nervous or masking laughter, but the genuine sort at the irony of it all, at what we all managed to somehow survive, both together and each in our own way. 

At that moment I looked over at my mother and I saw something in her eyes.  



  1. Karen R ShellenbergerNovember 10, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Beautifully written but so upsetting to read. Only those of us who had abusive childhoods would know how she felt. What amazes me is how we all deal with the abuse so differently. She had your aunt and I had my Mamaw. My Mamaw taught and showed me how to love. You know, the other day My buddies and I were talking about our childhoods and our happiest memory. I couldn't think of one with my parents!. Pity party later today at my house.

  2. <3 Karen you are a shining example of what happens when you break the cycle.