Stuck in a Moment

November 9th, 2013

Georgia Nikki webGoing through old photos, I came across this one taken soon after my birth. Here we are, my mother and I, at the beginning of our journey together. We both look so innocent, but by the end of her life, we had grown far apart from the closeness pictured here. Or perhaps I deliberately cut a cord that felt as if it had been wrapped around my neck for a long time. If I regret one thing in my life, it’s that I was never able to love her unreservedly or forgive her completely. Maybe because I never felt loved in that way myself. No memories of praise or encouragement from her, and only one memory of a time she hugged me. I guess it was so rare that it stuck in my mind for years. My brothers and I grew up in the stormy emotional wake my father’s desertion left behind. There was a clear division in my childhood — before divorce in technicolor, after in black and white. In my memories, our house was dark, cluttered, falling apart. Things broke and sometimes never got fixed. Tile popped off the bathroom wall and was never replaced. Walls weren’t repainted and grew dingier over the years. But things also never got thrown away. I could go in the bathroom 10 years after I left home and swear there was the same stuff still in the medicine cabinet. Over time, she filled the two extra bedrooms with shelves of canned food she never opened, old clothes, magazines she would never read again, and other flotsam and jetsam that everyone but my mother viewed as junk.  Sometimes I have dreams where I’m lost and anxious in a place like that — a shadow version of the house I grew up in. To this day, I don’t fully understand why she lived like that. My mom was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and she had an incredible work ethic. She wrote poetry, read voraciously, put herself through college by working in tobacco fields to supplement scholarships, became a teacher whose students loved her, and supported us as a single mother in a time when that was rarer. But I’m not sure she was ever happy, and as she got older, there were more and more periods when she was bleakly, hopelessly miserable and friendless. As a child, I didn’t know how to help her when she was in a dark place and it scared me. As an adult, any desperate suggestions I made to pull her out of gloom and tears always met with resistance. Antipressants? Travel? Join a club? Therapy?  It all sounds laughable to me now, but at the time I was clutching at anything that might rouse her. Of course, they were solutions out of an unrealistic novel in which the main character suddenly has an epiphany, comes to her senses and lives happily ever after. I wanted to fix her so that she would  have a life and so that I could stop feeling guilty for having one myself. By the end of her life, I had started protecting myself against the feelings of helplessness she triggered by hardening my heart. I’ve spent lots of hours in therapy talking about my mother, and it helped me understand that there are many reasons why our relationship was so thorny and hurtful. I know that she was unable to move past the breakup of her marriage, that she was stuck in that moment in some fundamental way. I know that she was heartbreakingly lonely and vulnerable and yet somehow weirdly un-empathetic when it came to me and my brothers. I know that she grew up in a poverty-stricken home where just making ends meet probably took precedence over displays of affection. And of course I know that my version of childhood may be much different from that of my brothers. My head knows all this, but my heart still misses what it never had.

4 Responses to “Stuck in a Moment”

  1. V-Grrrl says:

    It is sad that her abandonment by your father pushed her somehow to abandon you and your brothers emotionally, and that her refusal to be fully present and loving to you made it impossible for you to be so for her. Broken hearts and/or mental illnesses leave such painful wakes that disturb generation to generation.

  2. phyllis says:

    I understand your longing. I could never really love my mother and for many of the reasons you state, and some you did not. I have a very good relationship with my kids, though, and I am so thankful for that.

    It’s hard to let go of. I don’t think I ever have.

  3. Amey Warder says:

    This is beautiful writing. Thank you.

  4. Patti says:

    As I went through my journals gathering information for this story I am writing, In Giving we Receive, I came upon the following entry…while visiting a church service I noticed the assistant pastor’s wife, their newly adopted baby girl and their two adopted older boys were sitting in front of me. I was fixated on the pure love his wife showed to the baby girl and the older boys. After the service, I asked Mike, the assistant pastor, how the older boys were dealing with their younger sister’s arrival. Mike replied, “As my wife said, they get to give what they never received.” This explanation opened my heart and came full circle when a few days later; I was at the hospital visiting my step dad. My dad had a stroke and had become childlike and very forgetful. My mom was displaying impatience with short, curt sentences. As I witnessed the dynamic between them I stepped into her shoes, I felt my mom’s sadness, her fear. I wanted to hold my mom and let her feel safe and protected. I wanted to give my mom what I didn’t get from her in childhood. In that moment complete healing took place for me. We can heal by giving what we didn’t receive.

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