A few years ago, actually it was quite a long time ago come to think of it, as I watched the movie about Ghandi, I realized the root of the word “courage” was “coeur,” which means heart in French. I saw the movie on the airplane on the way to Chicago to visit my mother, trying to find some of that courage. Those of you who have read my book or have heard me talk about my mother know that visiting her was one of the most difficult things I would do. I had to gear myself up to be criticized about everything–what I wore, what I said, opinions she might not agree with. And worse, I was her “secret,” as she wanted no one to know I was her daughter–which is one of the themes of my book Don’t Call Me Mother.
People have asked me why I would visit her, why not just never see her again? Good question–but I had a belief, an ethic that I was determined to live out. My mother and her mother broke their relationship about 10 years before my grandmother died, and never made up. I was the witness to this sorrowful outcome of the lives of a mother and daughter. In the room where my grandmother lay dying, fully aware even then how challenging this promise I was making to myself might be, I silently promised to never allow this to happen to me and my mother, no matter what she might do.
I tell this story not to brag about anything, because the relationship with my mother and grandmother caused me a great deal of shame and pain. They were physically beautiful women, but they were broken in some way, and embarrassed me with their tempers and lack of empathy for others. On my mother’s deathbed, a psychiatrist gave a name to what was wrong: mother had a form of bi-polar disorder, which helped to explain her sudden rages, her barbed criticisms. Perhaps it even helped to explain her impulsive arrivals and departures when I was young, leaving me aching and feeling that I’d done something wrong. He said that my grandmother probably had some form of the disease as well.
So where does courage come in this story? As I look back, I see that I was simply unwilling to accept my mother’s terms for our relationship. I believed if I kept visiting her, no matter what it did to me, that she would be won over by the force of love and my continued efforts to try to understand and forgive her. Though she continued to deny I was her daughter even as she was in the hospital with lung and brain cancer, I kept showing up. I would not exit our relationship. Yes, it hurt to do this, but I had watched my mother and grandmother’s mutual infliction of pain and blame for so many years, and saw that nothing good came of it. Misery begat misery, and neither was ever released from it.
One evening, as I tucked her into bed before the biopsy scheduled the next day, she was soft and quiet. She looked up at me and said, “How do you know how to do this, you do it well.” I answered, “I have children. I learned by taking care of them.”
My mother didn’t raise me, leaving when I was four, but I knew she was always a lost child as I was. She lived with her mother, my grandmother, until she was six, and then was abandoned to whatever relatives would take her. That, and whatever genetic seed was planted, I have always believed marked her irrevocably. In the later years, she was a scary person to be around. In the end, she was just human, and still so lost.
I am glad that I went to be with her at the very end of her life. She couldn’t speak, and no longer could attack me. All she could do was cry and look terrified. I got to be her daughter by holding her hand, and crying with her.
As mother’s day approaches, I think of the mothers I had; my great-grandmother, my grandmother who raised me, and my mother. And now I’m a grandmother to three, and I have three children. We are all human too, imperfect. Yet courageous each in our own way as we walk this journey together.
Happy Mother’s day to you all–child, father, mother. We all have a mother…somewhere, and she has a story, her own, perhaps untold and unsung. Perhaps you will write it for her.
Today I’m celebrating the official release of the new edition of my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother! There are few second chances in life, but in the world of artistic creation, you can rebirth a book, revisioning it as artists do when they paint. That’s what I have done with the new edition of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.
My first step in the process of re-visioning, based on all the comments, feedback and reviews from the last few years, was to ask myself: what is this book really about? What is the message of the book, the arc of meaning and how does it appear to others? What is the beating heart of this book, and how does it reach beyond me and my story?
Yes, it’s my story, but according to the feedback I’ve received, the book connects emotionally with others–and not just women who have been literally abandoned by their mothers. Women and men who have suffered loss of family connection, those who know the loneliness of being a foster child, or people who have yearned for the kind eyes and soft touch of a parent, only to get a slap or criticism can relate to the themes in my memoir.
Yet Don’t Call Me Mother is not a bleak story. It’s a story about hope and forgiveness, and it celebrates music, wheat fields in spring, and the idea that change is possible. It’s a story about finding the best in people, perhaps to my own detriment, and being stubborn enough to pursue my mother all the way to her death bed to try to understand why for decades she denied I was her daughter—and to try to get her to change.
Even after I completed the first edition, appeared as a guest on radio interviews, posted on blogs, gave book events, I was still living with the issues I raised in the book—the lost girl who was trying to be a full woman, a mother who had her own regrets about raising my children, and irrational though it was, at times I feared becoming a grandmother—that’s how deeply my grandmother’s depression and rage had etched me. As the years passed after completing the book, I realized that the ghosts of the past were no longer whistling around me the way they did before I finished the book. I saw that capturing the story and setting it down—had allowed me to in effect and in real life, to put the past behind me.
Two more grandchildren were born, and I saw that I was not and never would be my judgmental grandmother. For a while, I continued to connect with what was left of my Iowa family, only to find that the past grudges, judgments and gritty jealousies trumped the healing I needed to do—in order to get along with them, I’d have to lie, pretend, and put up with abuse that I could no longer do. The only thing possible then was to let them go—they were really more of an illusion of family that had filled some of the emptiness of not having my mother or father in my life. I write about what happened in the afterword of the new edition.
The best part of spending several years with the first edition of my memoir was that new sparks began to light about what I’d learned in the intervening years. I’ve discussed in my two books on memoir writing Becoming Whole and The Power of Memoir how powerful writing memoir is to heal the issues of the past—for myself and for those with whom I work. In my work with people during these years, I have seen amazing transformations. Writing a long memoir is a journey that takes years of work and research—both inner and outer; it takes skill to sort through all the threads, and courage to face up to the stories that sometimes break our hearts.
Through the writing and the living during the last seven years since this book was published, I’m stronger and clearer about the roles of everyone in the story. I’ve experienced the power of memoir to offer new hope, new patterns, and entirely new moments that allow the old histories to fly away like a feather in the wind. My daughter and I are blessed with an honest, fresh, and real relationship—which continues to be a miracle to me, having seen decades of destruction between mothers and daughters. My six year old grand-daughter, Zoe Joy, shows me in her strength and innocence, that the pattern of lost daughters and tragic mothers has indeed been broken. This I celebrate in the last story in the new edition, “Flowering.”
Through reading my memoir, it’s my hope that mothers and daughters, and all families who struggle with the wounds of the past can see that though it may take decades, change is possible. Forgiveness comes when it is time, leaving us free to love as we should love, leaving us closer to each other, as it should be.