43. Mothers

You could say I’ve had two mothers in my life, but it wouldn’t quite be true. A psychologist might have a name for this, but I don’t need to know, because honestly, I believe life is too complicated to pin down so neatly.

Of the two, the first one, my biological mother whom I have finally grown strong enough to call any m-name out loud, I now refer to respectfully as my birthmother. When she was my familial mother, she was called Mama. She was not able to love me the way I needed and probably deserved to be loved, and she loved my brother more than was healthy for him or for herself. I never really knew her, and that was my wound, I knew that she never really wanted to know me.

My true Mother did, and I love her so much that I get sweet grateful tears every time I think of her, and I can feel her spirit beside me now, here in the room.

People would probably say I had a terrible mother until I was thirteen. That was not true. “Unfit,” they said.  That was true I guess, but it wasn’t all her fault.

After the divorce, my birthmother’s alcoholism kept getting worse, and she sank deeper and faster. I think the divorce had shattered her, but I was a kid, I didn’t understand. Looking back now, I think she turned to alcohol the way most people do, to escape her pain. She was alone and broke with two kids to feed.  When she fell down drunk and broke her arm, she lost her waitress job. We moved three times in two years to smaller and worse apartments, and finally to a cold abandoned boarded-up house. It was October and the only heat was one small open-flame gas heater, the kind that even then, the 1950s, were illegal and unsafe. Most of the plywood-boarded windows were broken out. The wind howled through the boards, and the cold seeped and flowed over the casements and under the door jamb like invisible slow icy blood.

It was November, about a year and a half after the divorce, and I was just starting junior high school. One morning I walked out the sheet-ice sidewalk to go to school, and I saw Daddy’s car parked on the street. He and Helen were in it. They called to me. They asked if they could come into the house. No one was there, so I took them in. When they saw the way I lived, the dusty barren silent house, and the empty refrigerator, Helen was visibly shaken. She and Daddy stood together talking very quietly. She had tears in the corners of her blue eyes.

They packed up my clothes and belongings in a paper grocery bag and “kidnapped” me, technically. Yes, that was illegal. In total surprise and bafflement, I did not resist. In an hour, I got transferred to a new school and I had an unimaginable new life and a new mother.

She wanted me. And she wanted to know me. She loved to do things for me, teach me things, like how to make baking powder biscuits from scratch that were like big delicious clouds of wonderfulness. How to sew, how to look nice and to walk proudly. She showed me how to have a modest dignity and  a genuine personal style. I don’t know exactly when I began to call her Mother, but it came soon, and laster forever.

She had rescued me from a lonely and desolate life in that condemned house, yet she never would have even met me, except that by some inexplicable link in the cogs and wheels of the universe, she met my dad and they fell in love, a love so deep and cherished and beautiful that it lasted all the rest of their lives, and beyond

Daddy had taken me to see her on weekends, to play with her two daughters. The first time we met, she liked me and I liked her. I was very shy but she respected that, and she was gentle and patient. She let me help her prepare the marvelous hot meals she made for all of us to have together when Daddy came, after work. Then he would bring me back to where I lived, to an empty house or apartment, where there were no hot meals, no meals at all except school lunch. During the week I stole Twinkies and meat from the big Safeway store, and fruit and vegetables from the baskets of wilted or spotted produce they set out back for the garbage truck.

It was the heart of my true mother that rescued me from a desolate marginal life with no future. Suddenly I had the most beautiful, generous,kind, smart, loving, mother on earth, and she wanted me. She loved me from then on, to the very last moment of her life.

She and Daddy got married and filed for custody of my brother and me. Helen encouraged us to keep in touch with our birthmother and arranged visits with her for us. The first visit was painfully awkward for my brother and me, and for our birthmother most of all. She was ashamed I think, and must have felt defeated and lost and sad. My brother never went back. I did a few times, and then I went off to college.

The next time I saw her was my wedding day. So much was happening that I did not actually speak to her, or she to me, but she was clean and sober and she looked healthy and prettier than I had ever seen her. I was glad for that.

The last time I saw her was after my own divorce. She got on a plane for the first time in her life and flew to Minneapolis to see me. She was seeking some sort of reunion, and that must have taken enormous courage, but it failed miserably. We were both strangers, and the encounter ripped open old wounds I had hidden from myself all those years. She left, but after that, we wrote letters, and for the next ten years we shared a fraction of ourselves as adult friends. Most of what I know about my birthmother, I learned from those letters.

She died at age 76, in Dallas where she and my brother both still lived, though he had refused to ever speak to her again for 50 years. He buried her immediately, I don’t know where, before I could get there from California.

The path to divorce between my parents was unknown to me as a child, but now that I’m grown, I can guess. Life is complicated, not easily analyzed, and often wrongly judged. She was a good and decent woman who had wounds of her own from childhood, and she taught them to me unknowingly. She never knew that she deserved better, and her life taught me that I didn’t either. It wasn’t rue, about either of us.

She never meant to hurt me, or anyone, and I never meant to hurt her. But her inability to love me had cut deep permanent wounds into my sense of self, and this must have been her experience as a child too.

Even though my true Mother’s total and unequivocal love healed the wounds, it could not take away the scars, which still are too easily torn open again. I am no longer ashamed of them, but some days are harder than others.

The truth is, everyone has hidden wounds. My catharsis- and I recommend it- was to write a book about my own rocky path of healing from the inside out.

I wish the healing for you too, and for all of us in the family of humanity. Not one of us is without wounds and scars and flaws. Please accept, respect, and love this in yourself, as I do in myself and in you.

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