They [mess] you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were [messed] up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
— Philip Larkin (elided for propriety’s sake)
Philip Larkin had it half right. He forgot to add that they also pass on a complicated fascinating story, sometimes expressed in the strangest of ways. Yes, human beings are flawed creatures, but we’re essentially all looking for that unconditional love we first spied in our mother’s eye.
In America, today is Mother’s Day. Millions — billions — of dollars spent on flowers and cards and fancy meals. Lots of good times and laughter if we don’t look at the abandoned ones in old folks’ homes, the mothers no one visits.
Yes, that should be “Mother’s” Day in the title of this post since most of us have only the one. But the poor victims of parents’ serial marriages must endure more than one woman carrying that title, even while in their hearts that may be a void.
I know a grandmother who is doing a wonderful job of raising two grandchildren. But her grandson is quick to correct anyone who refers to Grandma as “your mother”. His reflexive loyalty is sad, since his mother has the bad habit of promising him things that never happen. I worry for his future.
Mother’s Day in America is one of those Hallmark occasions. If you don’t have other allegiances — a home place where you feel a deep sense of belonging, or, say, a religious faith that imbues all your days with occasions — moments — of grace, or a strong sense of kinship networks — well, Hallmark will have to do as a signaling mechanism. I suppose it could be worse.
I have to write this post. You don’t have to read it. Lord knows any sensible person would hesitate at the shore of what may turn out to be a swamp. But writing it here will save me burdening any more thank you notes with reminiscences of my mother or my daughter. They’re both dead now, the first old and full of years, the second a woman who never quite grew up but nonetheless managed to wear herself out too soon.
Not only is today Mother’s Day, but it is also the anniversary of my only daughter’s death. A sad conflation, innit? Yet I am surprised that the sadness isn’t so fierce any more — it more closely resembles a weight, one which is less a burden with the passage of time. But that’s not because mere time changes anything — it doesn’t. Gabriel Marcel (my favorite moral philosopher) said, in so many different ways, “I love you means you shall not die.”* Time doesn’t heal so much as it changes our perspective. Thus, the stone moves further away from the foreground, and its new relative size changes the landscape of grief. Again.
There are moments when I clearly ‘hear’ the voice of both my mother and my daughter. They seldom weigh in on the same subject, since their interests are different. And that’s another thing: my inner dialogue has begun to refer to them in the present tense again, as though they were still among the living. Obviously they’re not, but both of them are quite insistent that for me at least they’re here to be heard, and I’m to respond.
Two very different generations with two quite disparate points of view, but both speak with great wit. Both of them also have the habit of not so much speaking as making pronouncements. Perhaps that originates in the fact that though they may sometimes have a lot to say, they’re not saying it from here anymore.
An example: when I woke up the morning after Shelagh’s death, I heard her in my head quite clearly and immediately. She laughed and said, “So, Mom, what are you going to do on this, the first day of the rest of your life without me?” Anyone who knew Shelagh would agree: only she could say something so brutally funny. A week later, on the day of her funeral, I left her graveside to return to the church; I’d forgotten to give a check to the minister. She wasn’t around so I looked in the bathroom in hopes she’d be there. She wasn’t but the first thing that struck my eye was a trashcan overflowing with crumpled papers — the discarded sheets from Shelagh’s funeral service. I sensed a distinct, “Hmph. Mooommm! Don’t they realize I’m immortal?!” She was disgusted by those failures to recognize her new status.
I’ve come to realize that despite the damage Shelagh’s death caused her children, for her it was time to go. She was simply worn out, too tired to continue. She’d battled so long to be well and it was never going to happen. A few weeks before she died, she’d said to me in great despair/hope: “Do you think you could find a priest who could do an exorcism?”. Thus, after the immediate shock of her sudden death wore off, I saw her leaving us as a ‘cure’ of sorts — radical, but a cure nonetheless. Jung would have agreed with me. Shelagh was the one who explained that to me. And as she reminded me, her greatest fear was death. Now she’s beyond that.
Both my mother and my daughter are now wiser versions of their incarnate selves. Mother has come to terms with the fact that she was indeed a valiant person. That despite her great anxiety (it can be a Celtic curse, methinks) she played a brilliant game with the cards she was dealt. Shelagh’s shame is gone; she’s free to laugh at herself and at the rest of us and her stellar wit is less caustic than it was while she was here.
One time I wrote a letter of apology to each of my three adult children from my first marriage. I certainly had plenty to apologize for, on that we were all agreed. I hand-delivered each copy because to mail them seemed as though it would compound my original mistakes (and all parents make grievously ignorant mistakes: notice how grandparenting often improves as a result). The letters were more or less the same, with amendments to each epistle to address each child’s particular grievance of my mothering… but as I remembered it, i.e., as the adult in those circumstances.
My first son read his and was overwhelmed with grief. I simply held him as he cried and told him I was sorry, especially was I sorry that love wasn’t enough; it never is if you don’t have the skill to know what you’re doing — or what you’re failing to do.
The second son read his letter and looked at me angrily: “you think this gets you off the hook? It doesn’t get you off the hook, not one bit.” Actually, I’d never assumed such a thing; my motivation was to put my own heart at ease by saying these things out loud… or on paper (which is a more lasting record), and moving on from there. I knew he had his own work to do in that regard. Ironically, he was the most loyal of them all, proving that anger can sometimes be freeing. Once he said that, it was out in the open…
And Shelagh? Oh, my. She wept a bit and then said, “Oh, Mom, I’ve made every one of your mistakes and added some of my own for good measure. Poor Mom!” And she smiled at me… I quoted Phillip Larkin’s poem to her and she laughed.
They had a hard time, those three hostages to fortune.
I will never have to write such a letter to the future Baron because… quite simply, I gave him a good dad. The fB got the kind of dad I thought I was giving the first three. A family therapist asked me once what I thought a good partner’s qualities should be. I didn’t even have to think about it: I enumerated the list I’d carried in my head since I was old enough to think about such things. Her response was to tell me that I was an unrealistic perfectionist, that such people don’t exist. I didn’t argue with her or point out what I thought my mate’s faults might be or what they might find maddening about me. Since you can’t win an argument with a lawyer or a psychologist, there’s no point in defending one’s view. But I knew in my heart that the list was the right one for me. Who/what I had mistakenly perceived my first mate to be was the opposite of who he eventually became. But the Baron was the embodiment of all those things. So, being burned once, I suspiciously waited for him to morph into the opposite of what he appeared to be. But he never did. Yes, he has matured in wisdom and grace, but he remains characterologically the same person he was when I met him.
So I reiterate my point that the core of being a good mother is giving one’s children a good father. When fate intervenes — e.g., when a father dies — it is not the same order of wrongness as choosing badly. You can’t control anything, really, but your choices can ripple through your whole life and sometimes those simply can’t be changed or modified.
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone: to those who had great mothers, to those who are trying to get past their past experience, and to those who can do a good Gallic shrug about the whole family “thing”. As it turns out, Phillip Larkin was right, but Gabriel Marcel was even more right when he said, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.”
Mais oui, M. Marcel!
|*||See this short paper on Marcel’s link between love and hope. The author doesn’t mention the quote but he does say one may not quote him without permission. So in Jesuitical fashion I’ve decided a hyperlink is not a quote.