Last night at "Listen to Your Mother" I read an essay about my mom. It's also about me. Mostly it's about finding peace, hope and at-one-ment by telling the truth. Even when it hurts.
My mother left this world several years ago.
Today, May 10th, is her birthday. This essay is a gift. For both of us.
Not About Laundry
It's hard to know how to age gracefully when you don't have a mother around to show you. My mom died relatively young – in her late sixties. Sadly, I'm not sure she could have given me what I need right now even if she were here. A few years before she died I ran into an old friend who knew my mother well. She said, “You know, your mom seemed almost like a ghost to me. It was like she was there. But she wasn’t.” That’s when I decided to start telling the truth about my mom. And about me.
My mother was a battered woman, a survivor of childhood abuse, an adult child of an alcoholic. She was all these things living in a community and culture that doesn’t talk about such things and in a time when there was very little help for women like her. But she did the best she could. She believed in Jesus and in the power of his grace. I'm certain this is part of what preserved her tenuous sanity in the midst of incalculable heartaches. Incalculable is a big word and it’s the right word. I still don’t know all the ways in which she suffered. I may never know.
But if I’m telling the truth here I have to say I wasn’t always sympathetic toward her. It took a long time for me to get past the fact that she failed in her most significant calling as a mother. She failed to protect her children. I did get past it though and came to realize she was limited by circumstances that shaped her— many over which she had no control. I came to understand that throughout my childhood she lived in fear, just as I did, just as my siblings did, and that fear kept her prisoner; kept her from leaving a destructive marriage, from cutting a path to safety and freedom where her children could follow and flourish.
She paid a price for this. When she died the doctors called it congestive heart failure. But I’m telling you: my five-foot-ten-inch, one hundred-forty-five-pound vegetarian mom with no family history of heart disease, died of a broken heart. Her inability to save herself or her children ultimately killed her. I don't blame her for this, for getting out of life early. God knows she deserved a break. I blame the ones who harmed her, who incrementally and very literally stole her life, snuffed out her light and left her bereft.
Because of this most of my life I’ve felt like a motherless child. But recently I’ve discovered irrefutable evidence that she was there; evidence beyond the brunette hair and hazel eyes. Everyone can see I am physically my mother’s daughter.She gave me others things too, less visible things, like: appreciation for fine textiles and architecture, awareness of color, proportion and perspective in design. She passed on an almost compulsive need to have nice things—things that are classic and well made. Things that last. I swear she had dresses she wore for twenty years and, honestly, they were so lovely, so timeless and well cared for they looked like new and never really went out of style.
Until very recently, I had no idea my love of art, form, and design came from the woman whom I had only seen as weak and neurotic. This discovery opened a door inside me, a previously hidden door. It was as a door to The Secret Garden and when I pushed my way through the dry and tangled overgrowth of sorrow and longing and profound childhood grief, I found passageway into a new place within my heart and my mother's heart as well.
You know, she left my father once. Brought five children – twelve and under – on a train from Alexandria, Virginia to Salt Lake City. When my father came after her, although she couldn’t free herself from him, she demanded we stay in Utah. As a result, I was raised from about the age of six in a lovely neighborhood overlooking a pristine valley. There was a kind of hopeful (if artificial) safety in that French provincial on the east bench. University professors, artists, local and state politicians, successful business-owners and their families, surrounded us. And she filled that home with beautiful things—none of which could ever make up for the beauty of her own true self sacrificed on the alter of fear. Nevertheless she surrounded her children with beauty.
It's amazing to me how equal amounts of beauty and ugliness can exist in the self-same space. Like in that neighborhood. Like in our home and in this story about my mother.
My mom was born on the tenth of May. Her birthday often falls on Mother’s Day. This year I will mourn her a little, as I always do, but mostly I will celebrate her life and legacy. I will celebrate what I’ve learned as a woman in spite of my mother. And because of her: That truth is beautiful—even ugly truth. Truth is light—even when cloaked in darkness. And above all that the truth really does makes us free. I am free. I don’t know that my mother could have done this. She lived in a time and place where people were fond of using phrases like, "Don't air your dirty laundry in public." Don't tell the truth. Places and people like this still exist.
But I am not one of those people. And after all, this isn't laundry.