By Stephanie Ramage
Yesterday was the second anniversary of my mom’s death.
I didn’t talk about it. Didn’t reach out to my siblings. I always choose the coward’s way out when it comes to dealing with loss: Ignore it, and it’s almost like she’s still there, in Dudley, Ga., quietly living a life that was lonelier than it should have been.
That’s my greatest regret, that there wasn’t someway for mom and I to work out the emotional distance and awkwardness of our relationship.
We were very close when I was a kid, after my teenage brother Phillip passed away. Mom often compared me to herself and, in truth, tried to impose her beliefs, values, and aspirations on me to an extent that I found smothering.
My rejection of her was almost total.
For many years, I couldn’t be in the same house with her for more than a few hours without getting a migraine. At the first painful twinges of halo, I would excuse myself and flee for my home–not the one where I grew up, but wherever I was living.
I loved her tremendously. I still do. But I couldn’t give her the thing she wanted most–a complete capitulation to her religion, one I stopped believing in during my early 20s. She was perpetually disappointed in me and I felt that disappointment like a knife in my heart every time I was around her.
I wanted to be close to her. I wanted to be able to really talk with her. But I was like a moth craving the warmth of a BugZapper. If I got close, it would’ve destroyed me.
Still, I would make that infrequent journey home, my hopes high that this time could be different, usually with a gift of some kind for Mom, a necklace, a pin, flowers, perfume, anything nice that I could manage on my starvation wages. It was a personal tradition I had begun when I was still in grade school. When I was nine, I went without lunch for two weeks so I could use the money to buy her a cameo pin she had admired at Belk’s for her birthday.
But my sacrifices were insignificant compared to hers and always would be. She was a woman of sorrow, acquainted with grief to a degree that most of us would only see in some sweeping epic film: She lost two of her sons before they were men, one a baby, the other a smart deaf kid who died in her arms.
She married exactly the wrong man and constantly reminded her children that she only stayed with him for their sakes. She endured horrible poverty in her marriage to my Dad–the kind in “Ol’ Yeller” and “Where the Lilies Bloom.” It would be many years before her work in a pants factory and his at a pulpwood mill would hoist them and their six kids into the lower middle class.
She also endured violence that I now consider the hallmark of my upbringing.
My father was a brute who abused her and his children, and no amount of whitewashing or wishing it wasn’t so will ever change that. The real pain of being a survivor of child abuse is the confusion of loving someone who is sometimes okay and sometimes terrifying. Those raging parents are rarely total monsters, and my Dad was not; he could be the most generous, charming person you could ever meet, and outside our family he apparently usually was. But the man the outside world knew was rarely the one I saw at home.
So given what my mom had suffered for all those years, what right did I have to expect any kind of concessions from her at all? Why should she give a little ground when she had already lost so much, hurt so much, and in large part because of me, because of her children?
My Dad I could sometimes talk with as we got older, but talking with Mom became more and more difficult.
On his death bed, my Dad told me he was sorry and asked my forgiveness. I gave it unreservedly. That apology was like medicine, it put the world right and knitted up my broken heart.
I was holding my mom’s hand when she died. I remember a great wave of relief, first because I knew her suffering had stopped, and then because I hoped that in the afterlife she would be freed from her disappointment in me. At least I wouldn’t have to face it anymore.
I wish our relationship had not been that way. Worse, I look at my relationship with my son and I see, with horror, that in some ways it is a mirror of my relationship with Mom. I smother. I give too much and expect too much in return. I see what he can be, and in my mind what I see is so much more glorious and desirable than what he wants for himself.
My disappointment in him has been sharp and I haven’t skimped on the guilt, generously employing my mother’s tactic: “Do you know why I didn’t take that job in DC? Because of you! Because I wanted you to be close to your dad!” I suffered for him and, my god, how I have reminded him of my suffering.
And now, it’s hard for him to be around me, because martyrs are not fun to be around, not easy to talk to; there is no way you can be honest with them.
That’s frightening considering how much trouble a teenager can get into, how important it is that they be able to tell their parents what they’re up to.
My final gift to my mom will be learning, perhaps too late, the lessons of her cautionary tale. Acceptance of my son as he is will trump the shining vision I’ve pushed him toward, never realizing until now that I was pushing him away.
It may be too late for us to transcend the template my mother gave me, but if ever there were something worth the effort, it’s his love for me.