Forgiving the hurts, savoring the beauty
My mother has been dead for 14 years now. It’s hard to fathom. I remember my daughter rolling her eyes at her own temerity when she recollected what she’d said to her grandmother. As a child, she’d commented to my mother that it was hard to imagine that the world had existed before she (my daughter) had existed.
“Oh, I assure you, it did,” my mother replied. And yet, could she have imagined that the world would still exist when she herself was gone?
I can, without effort, see her face in my mind’s eye as she said what she did – that marriage between “oh brother” and “spare me.” She had that look perfected to an art form.
Two more different women could hardly exist than my mother and me. Her childhood was a dark abyss in some ways, anecdotes shared, but nothing of real substance. Something had wounded her. Somehow, she became a brilliant, beautiful, educated woman with some serious gaps in social and emotional understanding, even in practical sense. I asked her older sister once, the one she had fleetingly referred to as having mostly raised her, what had happened in their childhood. All my aunt would say of their mother, forbiddingly, was, “Some people should not be parents.”
Whatever it was, it turned my mother into someone who was almost pathologically private – she never shared what she believed spiritually with her husband of nearly 50 years in all the time they were married – and emotionally cool except to a very small, chosen few, and even then, I suspect it was limited. I’m not sure she ever understood the level of sharing most people consider friendship in this day and age. She loved my father. She adored my brother, who in many ways was the love of her life. She regarded me as a small, loud, indiscreet, messy confusion that, somehow, through a series of misadventures, she’d been landed with. She loved me. She admired my talents. She could barely endure my presence for any real length of time. She was ashamed of me, especially as I acted out as a teenager ,and then even more so when I grew fat.
She made me lonely, even desolate, far too often.
Now and then, though, there was magic. That light of magic shone through the cracks in her perfect composure, serenity and distance. She was the best mother ever when we were sick. That soft, elegant, cool hand pressed against a fevered forehead instantly soothing a piercing headache. A spoonful of honey dispensed to soothe a cough or sore throat. Chicken soup and toast served on a tray and all with the calm ambiance of classical music playing in the background. It felt like safety and love in a household that all too often, despite its immaculate beauty and socially gracious exterior, was neither.
She was absolutely terrifying at board games. She very likely would have made an amazing spider in another life. I can’t for love or money remember the name of this game, but it involved different colored pegs in varying sizes that you had to remove without allowing a spring-loaded slider to move more than a fraction of a millimeter. She would sit there, studying the board, driving me crazy with nerves and anticipation as she picked just the right pieces out of the complex assembly. I don’t think I won more than a few times; I swear, the woman could have been a Roman general for all her understanding of complex strategies.
Her most wonderful and absolutely horrifying moments involved humor. My father was and is a ghastly punster. He landed them on us any- and everywhere, but most often at mealtime, like a truly rancid fart dropped at a high-society party. Oh, the bombs that man dropped. And oh, our anguish as the truly hideous nature of these verbal excrescences dawned on us – and my father’s inexcusably gleeful expression as the agony bloomed within us. This may be where my mother perfected “that look.”
Anybody who saw her deal with only one or two of these occasions would truly not have grasped the true nature of the woman. She might have seemed like the put-upon and long-suffering victim of my father’s cleverness, but anyone who thought that would’ve been wrong. My mother was waiting, very much that spider, patiently plotting.
Days might pass and my father would continue on his path of merry verbal destruction – and still, she waited. She waited until that glorious moment, that instant of perfection when she came up with a pun so grisly, so horrific and so totally unanswerable that there was no comeback to be found for it. It was the killing blow, the coup d’etat, the be-all and the end-all. She would drop her bomb and then lean back with grim delight as my father’s mouth would open and close as he grasped for some answering sally – to no avail. My mother had won. Sweet, sweet revenge, born of patience, strategy and sheer deviousness, was hers.
My mother was unknowable to me – and remained so, for the most part, until the end of her days. And yet, those purely delicious, enchanting moments may have been the real person that she had hidden away for safekeeping. In any event, I have to some extent stopped trying to solve her mystery. Instead, I try to forgive the hurts and savor the beauty that was truly there to be found.
In the end, it’s what I have to keep of her.