My mother and I were standing in my kitchen today chatting about life and how crazy and wonderful it is, even with our past traumas. This is a frequent conversation that I both enjoy and dread when I see the subject heading down that path. We have both been through some shit, some of it unbelievably awful. And we both know that life can be incredibly beautiful. There are days that I truly can’t believe that my mother isn’t a serial killer after what she’s endured, and I’m always thankful for it, because honestly, she should be a monster. And people who know the details would get it.
I learned resilience from my mother. I learned compartmentalization and survival techniques that I only realize now were just that. Not any conscious lesson, really. We never talked about trauma as we were living it before my father was kind enough to die shortly after my tenth birthday.
My mother’s despair and frequent suicidal state before she finally received medical help was invisible and unknown to me on any level other than the fact I knew she suffered from depression. Completely unknown to me, at least, until this last year, as were the joyful times out with friends and gentlemen suitors, none of whom I knew existed. All my young eyes saw was a stoic, strong woman, though I didn’t even recognize that it was strength at the time. Most of the lessons I learned were through osmosis I believe, absorbing the quiet strength of a super heroine just by being lucky enough to have her as the one to raise me, doing so in her own quietly loving but very undoting manner. June Cleaver she was not. Nor am I.
My mother will be ninety years old soon, and while we have always been close, I am learning so much more about her now that she’s living under my roof, a change made necessary by the little things we take for granted as younger folks becoming more of a challenge for this always-capable woman. Often, we’ll be discussing something benign like the difference between duck eggs and chicken eggs, and the next thing I know, I’ll be regaled with a story about how my father would come home drunk and get in her face, hissing “Say something…say something….SAY SOMETHING…” The game was, if she was silent when he said this, he would eventually stagger off to bed frustrated and disappointed that she didn’t “play the game.” She had learned early that if she “said something” that he would beat her bloody.
Other times she’ll drift away from a conversation about what shade-loving plants we should get for the west side of the house we’re building, and she will gush about Harry Manson, the man she truly loved but who had disappeared one day never to be heard from again. She will wax nostalgic about the times that he would drive down from the Naval Base in Washington as fast as he was able and spend every last minute with her until his friend and shipmate would impatiently honk the horn in the wee hours of the morning because they had to get back up to the base to avoid punishment for being late for their ship to head out to sea once again.
I like these musings better, though my heart breaks for her that she, after enduring countless abuses and horrors as a child, ended up with my father instead of Harry. She deserved Harry.
She brings up the abusive behavior I was on the receiving end of from my first husband, and there are days I can handle this better than others. My mother speaks of her own past abuses, the beatings, the rapes, as if she’s discussing trips to the grocery store and how they’re always out of the brand of soda pop she likes. No real inflection, no tears, just a matter-of-fact tone as I’m screaming on the inside and knowing that, if I react outwardly she might stop telling me these stories as to not upset me. And it’s times like these that I know that even when acknowledging my mother’s strength, her amazing coping skills, I’ve sorely underestimated them. And that, while I knew about a lot of her demons, some of which I bore witness to as a little girl (“Say something…”), I had only seen the surface of it. And that I’m afraid of what else I will learn. Of what else my childish eyes were too selfish to see, though I do try not judge my pre-adolescent self too much for this. I try not to be ashamed that my own strength pales next to hers.
She brings up the day where she realized that my ex-husband wasn’t the man she and other people saw on the surface, much in the way people didn’t “see” my father and only saw that fun, charming man who sang and made jokes and was kind to children (other people’s that is) and say, “Oh, Dorothy, you are so lucky. Tom must be so fun to be married to!”
She mentions the first time she saw that “switch” in my ex’s temper and how it was so different from the man she saw run to help an injured child on the beach that one fourth of July we all spent together. And I have to keep myself from saying, “You have no idea,” because, even though that one “switch” she saw was just a glimmer of the monster he could be, she lived through much worse.
I mention, when relevant, the microwave being thrown at me, or the time he slammed the dining room chair onto the floor so hard a foot away from my left side that it shattered into kindling – he always remained just shy of hitting me, until I left him that is. The abuse was mostly verbal, emotional, and threatening. But my stories seem like mere inconveniences compared to what this woman standing in my kitchen has lived through.
She asks me if I ever get angry at the man who I am married to now, and I have to think about it. And I think hard. Because the answer is still surprising to me. After the years I spent in my previous marriage worried about when, not if, the other shoe would drop after a day or two of no incident, and never feeling like I could take a deep breath and relax…because of some of the other relationships I dabbled in that would threaten to go in a similar manner or worse, I’m still baffled that I’m sitting where I am today. I almost feel guilty, guilty at the lack of horror in my life now as I remember what her life was when she was at the age I am today.
I pick up a food storage container that was sitting near the sink and say, “Here you go mom. This. This is what I have to deal with.”
She looks at the container I’m waving in her face, and then back to me with total confusion, and I explain.
“My husband will occasionally take leftovers to work in these tubs and he doesn’t always rinse them out. This is literally the only thing that I can think of right now. Can you fucking believe that?”
She shakes her head, “Oh dear. Well, I’d divorce him. He’s a monster.”
“Clearly,” I nod as she picks up an egg from the carton on the counter and asks if I have any idea what kind of duck laid it