Powerful, strong, unpredictable, variable, stormy, sunny, brutal, torrential, fair; it is hard to describe my mother without sounding like a weather forecast. She was not unlike Cincinnati weather; if you don’t like it, just wait a bit and it will change. My mom was fiercely intelligent, creative, charismatic, inspiring and intensely protective. She was also a frightening, abusive, controlling and selfish alcoholic, although sober from the time I was 7. She was a force to be reckoned with, to be sure, and reckon with each other we did.
As a child, I was largely overlooked, as my teenage brothers required much of her attention. But when they left for college, her focus turned to me. We fought, but our battles had a lethal twist: my mom held the ultimate power – to approve or disapprove, to be present or absent, and mostly, to love or not. She held this over my head as collateral,” and I believed her when she told me that she was all I had, and could be taken away at any time. Ultimately, I think she loved me deeply and did the best she could with the tools she was given, but her mothering has taught me in many ways a very important lesson: how NOT to mother my own children.
I took the Motherless Daughters (MD) class in the fall of 2011. It was there I learned that I was motherless twice – not only upon her death in 2004 at age 65 from emphysema, but much earlier in my life, when she was not there for me as a mother. It was her decision to send me from our home in California to boarding school in Massachusetts beginning in grade 5, when I was 10 years old. The argument was that I would receive a much better education than at a public school. My new school only took boarders from grade 7 and up, but made a special exception for me because I was mature.” I don’t like talking about this time in my life because it makes me appear such the victim, but I truly was a child with no choice. I was sad much of the time, missing my mom, who could only afford to bring me home at Christmas and summer. Other holidays were spent with my brothers, who were in college nearby and filled in as de facto parents, or with friends’ or teachers’ families. I learned to acquire love, approval, guidance – parenting – from wherever I could a la carte” style.
For many MDs, their mother left or passed away or drank or withdrew. In my case, she removed me from her and left me to my own devices. I learned through this incredible group that, in many ways, we become emotionally frozen at the age we first experienced motherloss. Mary Ellen, my facilitators and fellow MDs helped me work through many of the steps to growing up emotionally. I lost my Dad during the MD class, ironically the week we read about becoming orphaned. I debated not coming to class that week, but knew it was right where I needed to be.
The class, however, has been only the beginning. I remember thinking that without it, I never would have done the homework involved in starting this grueling journey. Attempting it solo, I envisioned myself reading the first chapter of the book, agreeing that it could change my life, then placing it aside in favor of a nice piece of fiction. The workbook forced me to sit down each week, delve deep, get it out and promptly fall exhausted into bed; it was genuinely that bone tiring for me! But each time I set foot in class, I was received with hugs,love, understanding and a feeling that I was not alone. Our stories were so very different, but we found common ground in mother loss. I felt like a survivor, surrounded by warriors who were nothing less than miracles. I felt like a miracle for the first time in my life.
One of the greatest moments during my MD experience was being told that a total stranger was going to be praying for me specifically. Those who accompanied me on the journey know that, of all the facets of the program, I was least comfortable with the religious aspect of it. I am private about my faith, yet pray all the time inside my head, for those I know and many I don’t, but am not one to shout about God’s love from the rooftops. I remember feeling an immense blanket of love surround me whenever I thought of that someone, chosen especially for me, who was out there praying for me. Meeting her was an even greater joy, as we found so many similarities, despite our outward differences.
Since then, I’ve been a prayer partner for others. It has helped me grow more comfortable in my faith, remember the connection I have to these women, and it’s been a way to give back to an organization that has given me so much. I also volunteer for the newsletter, sharing my writing as needed.
I feel lucky that I was able to experience a closeness with my mom later in life that was never possible growing up. The last 15 years of her life were filled with many visits, phone calls, letters and functions spent together. While I’d love to attribute this shift to her mellowing with age, that’s only partly true. I realized at one point that, despite all, I wanted her in my life. I knew from vast experience that it was fruitless to try to change her, so I decided to accept her. Beyond a few carefully-chosen boundaries, I recall wanting to just soak up all of her good. I now believe this was God working in my life, guiding me toward the understanding that the time to love unconditionally is now, because we truly don’t know how much longer we will have to enjoy the ones we love.