. . . Forgiveness, where there is love, is not a very difficult thing. A child comes before his mother, having offended her a thousand times, and asks her forgiveness. There is no other to go to. It does not take a moment for the heart of the mother to forgive. Forgiveness was waiting there to be manifested. One cannot help being kind when there is feeling. A person whose feeling goes out to another strikes a note of sympathy in every person; the person finds the point of contact in every soul they meet, because they have love. There are people who say, “But is it not unwise to give oneself in outgoing tenderness to everyone, because people are not trustworthy ?” I should say, “If a person is good and kind, this goodness ought to be manifested to everyone, the doors of the heart should not be closed.”
–Hazrat Inayat Khan
I was just looking into my bathroom mirror while blowing my hair dry after a shower, and it occurred to me that even though I never wanted it to, it has, especially in recent years, come to look very much like my mother’s hair, with which she struggled endlessly, trying to get it to do what she wanted it to. She visited the hairdresser at least once a week, as reasonably affluent ladies did in those days, but she basically had the same hairstyle throughout my life, no matter what she did, and I’m fairly sure she wasn’t all that thrilled with it. And this has become true of me, when I reached the age where I left behind my hippie persona and stopped having waist-long hair that I usually bent over from the waist and wound into a knot on the top of my head, at least on humid days. Finally, in my late thirties, I went along with that Southern mandate that says women of a certain age should not have long hair; and now it is short and perky, except that….it is a hell of a lot of trouble to keep it that way (at least on humid days). Did I mention that I live in Piedmont NC?
Anyway, as I stood there trying to get my hair to go in the direction I wanted it to, I thought of all this, and was reminded of a story told by the folksinger Greg Brown. He said that at a certain point in his life, he found a hat he really, really liked, and although he wasn’t a “hat person,” he just liked that hat. He then spoke of his father, who had been quite a conservative fellow when he was young, and then embraced Bahai in his later years, and his life kind of began to open out. One day, he went to meet his father at the airport wearing his cool new hat, and lo and behold! his father had a hat on too, and “It was the same damned hat!” The moral of the story was, of course, you can spend your whole life trying not to be like your parents, but “it’s gonna happen eventually.” And, of course, it has. In more ways than I care to name, I have become my mother. Damn.
Now, this reminds me of another story, one from that wonderful old sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Remember Venus Flytrap? One day, he met the station owner, the mother of the station manager, one of those controlling sorts of mothers, who browbeat her son endlessly. Venus, upon meeting her, remarked, “That was a mean little mama.” Well, I’m afraid that was true of my mother, too. I happen to be a mental health professional, and I can say with some authority that she probably had what is called Narcississtic Personality Disorder, and she was, indeed, mean-spirited and self-centered. She was also a severe alcoholic. When I was younger, I was vaguely aware that all this probably had to do with what I was sure had been both sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her father, a “mean little man” if there ever was one, and now that she’s moved on, I can feel more empathy for her, but while she was alive, I was never quite able to forgive her for values I considered to be basically lacking in humanity and her emotional and physical neglect of her children when they were too young to know that “mother’s moods” meant Mother had probably been consuming that bottle of Jim Beam I had recently found hidden in a shoebox in the basement. I grew up to become an addictions therapist (what a surprise!), and I heard many stories from children of alcoholics about coming home and finding their parent passed out somewhere (usually on the couch in her case, where she spent most of her time) and cleaned up the vomit and tried to help their parent…endlessly. Not me, folks. I left her there when I came home from school and found her passed out in the side yard. Truth to tell, I hated her, because when she was trying to be sober, she was mean, and when she was drunk, she was a complete, ineffectual fool. In between times, she wore designer clothes and craved whatever Vogue told her she should crave, but complained about every penny spent on her children, except the expense of making us look like the upscale Presbyterian Republicans we were supposed to style ourselves as. No wonder I grew up to become a hard-line Liberal who leans toward Eastern religions! In fact, I suppose I should thank her for that. What doesn’t kill us will cure us, as the saying goes . . .
Of course, what goes around, comes around. I actively pursued the “geographical cure” for most of my adult life, running around the world and going in and out of relationships, and my first husband was eventually diagnosed with the features that have plagued the child we had, and my first marriage was a disaster. But I learned from that, and there are numerous posts here about these topics (“Always Endings,” “Living Forgiveness,” etc.), and the painful relationship I had with that first child, a relationship which has culminated in the loss of two grandchildren so far, to say nothing of the necessity I finally accepted, that of unconditionally loving my daughter from afar, a stage it took me nearly 40 years to reach. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I get it. I did a few things right, though: after one disastrous marriage and a string of semi-disastrous relationships, I met the wonderful soul I’ve been married to for 25+ years now, and we had a second daughter, one who seems to inherited sufficient of her father’s genes to be a sweet, clear, bright and calm soul who goes from success to success. We packed her off to grad school a week or two ago, and my husband I are going back and forth between “empty-nest syndrome” and “oh, how good it is to be on our own for the first time.” Life is, overall, good, and I may be a slow learner, but I’m starting to get at least a few things.
But about this business of inheriting more of our parents than we’d really like to. I’d like to think that although I’m more like my mother than I ever wanted to be, perhaps the ways I’m like her are not so important as the ways I’m not like her. One can only hope. As to my daughters, I notice that the daughter I’ve found myself unable to be with personally inherited her own interpretations of many of the painful wounds I carried during her early childhood. I’m sorry for that, and I did my best to keep it from happening. It would be tempting to think that there is some element of decision in what we choose to carry throughout life as the burdens that bring both growth and pain, but I don’t know that for sure. And I do think that not all of us have the same degree of decision-making ability as others. Thus, I don’t know what to do except try my best to keep a physical distance but a heart-closeness in prayerful well-wishing for that daughter and her little family.
Two different fathers. Two different daughters. My younger daughter is whole. She can give and receive love. She is kind to a fault and smart and funny and is, generally, an “old soul.” When she was small, I often called her my “Baby Buddha.” She had a lot to deal with, but instead of letting it break her, she is letting it make her great. She is my dearest friend and will always be my divine child.
It occurs to me that where I am going with this is into the “nature vs. nurture” realm. I was the “real” child of two parents who supposedly could not have a baby for nine years, adopted one and then had me. Like my own daughter’s big sister, that adopted big sister never let me forget it, and had severe antisocial mental health issues throughout her life, although she died a number of years ago.
What goes around . . . well, you know the rest.
Life, as I’ve said here before, is about accepting the unacceptable. I’ve learned that while I can’t “fix’ everything I’d like to fix, I can learn to stop doing the things that perpetuate my problems. If there is anything I will have to regret when this particular phase is over, it will be that I was not able to be kind enough to my own mother. At the time, I thought it was because if I gave her a single inch of compassion, she would swallow me whole, and with her problems, there was probably some truth in that. But I can’t help wishing I had had more generosity toward both my parents.
Shortly after my mother died, we were driving to the beach she loved one day, and I “saw” her, somehow, coming through a flowery, arched gate. She was “dressed to the nines,” of course, and she looked terrified. I had the sense that she was in good hands and heavily supervised, whatever that might mean.
All blessings to you, Mom. I’m sorry I wasn’t great enough to help you.