Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Mothering, Forgiveness, and Thankfulness

As much as I want to be a parent, I am inherently frightened by the enormity of the responsibility. My parents married exceedingly young (they were only 17 and 18 respectively) and had me two months before my mother turned 20). As they were merely children themselves when they got married, it was no surprise that their union dissolved when I was just an infant. I have no memories at all of my parents together. My mother never treated me as a "child", and when other children were first printing out letters in crayon, she had already taught me to write in cursive. When others were struggling to count to ten, by the first day of kindergarden, I could easily go beyond 1,000. She taught me at least a new word every day from the dictionary, and we did puzzles together in our one room apartment. My mother has only a high school education, but she instilled in me the desire to learn more - to experiment, to strive to be the best. She was funny, beautiful and vibrant.

And then, she began unravelling. Slowly - as if a part of her soul had been snagged, and then more quickly and violently. At about age two my father remarried. My mother was desperately afraid that he would get custody of me (as she was a single parent) so she married - literally within a week - to her boyfriend at the time. It was not a good move on her part. She was so afraid of losing me that she did the only thing that she thought would save "us". To be honest, it was really the beginning of the end. They fought - horribly. I remember after my brother Michael was born, my stepfather beating her in the face, holding her down and spraying windex in her eyes. I remember cowering over my baby brother protecting him from the shards of glass that exploded off the wall when he threw an ashtray at her. I remember him sugaring her gas tank, breaking into the apartment when we moved out. I remember him kicking in our apartment door and taking my brother (then age 3 or so) away. We were watching Circus of the Stars, and it was so cold that night. We were curled up on the couch beneath a scratchy blue blanket with satin edging.

My mother was struggling to support us, and I know two children on her minimum wage salary must have made it nearly impossible to make ends meet. During their divorce, when he requested custody - she was penniless. She was working two jobs and to be honest, I think in a way she was just too tired to fight anymore. My brother never really knew his mother. He didn't know how funny she could be... how the sun made her skin the color of bronze. He didn't know how comforting it was to curl into her arms - or how green her thumb was - she could make anything grow. He didn't know how creative she was, how much she loved to read. He didn't know how much she loved spicy food. He didn't know how tender she was - or what a skilled artist she was. He just didn't know her at all.

But, after about third grade I didn't really know her anymore myself. She remarried (round three if you're counting). She met him at work, and was forced to resign her job because of a nepotism policy. Her marriage lasted only a few months before he started hitting her. She was madly in love with him, and stayed - hoping that he would love her the way she loved him. I remember coming home from my dad's house one Sunday and all the furniture in the house was gone. He had gotten drunk and literally smashed it all to pieces with an aluminum bat. When he was done with the furniture, he turned to her and used the bat on her face shattering her cheekbone, and then he broke her arm. They never told me what happened. She lied and said they had decided to sell the furniture. The furniture we had just gotten not a month or two before. There were still shards of glass from the curio cabinets sunk deep into the plush carpet. I knew. The entire side of her face was black. I knew she didn't just fall. If there's one thing I didn't get from my mother it is my klutziness.

Her husband started having an affair with another woman - with the same name as my mother. He broke her down, and made her believe she was worthless. He flaunted the affair. He pointed out her failings. He made fun of her in public. In order to deal with the broken bones [literally] she turned to other outlets for her pain. She started having an affair with alcohol.

I would find empty vodka bottles hidden in my closet amongst my sweaters. He moved out, and she moved on to prescription painkillers and alcohol together. Then it got worse. She started blacking out. We had to move out of our house and were forced to jump around from apt. to apt. I became the parent. I walked to the store and bought groceries. I walked to school. I think we lived on cheetos, pickles and bologna for about a month one time. I did the laundry. I wrote the checks for the rent (I didn't realize you had to have money in the bank for them to clear). I forged her name on my report cards. She was usually drunk by 10:30 in the morning. If she didn't drink she would have horrible seizures and hallucinate.

My father tried to get custody of me. I was afraid to go live with him, afraid of what would happen if she didn't have anyone to take care of her. She checked into detox. We had to go to family meetings and the therapist told me it was my fault. Me. The chubby little ten year old. It was my fault.

She got out, and I went back to live with her. She was sober maybe two or three days. We were living in a run down apartment across the street from the hospital. She started hallucinating, and woke me up in the middle of the night and threw me out of the house, locking the deadbolt behind me. I was barefoot in my nightgown, and it was starting to snow. I begged and pleaded with her to let me in. She thought I was the police -coming to arrest her. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid to walk through the ghetto to find a phone and it was so icy. I fell asleep on the porch, exhausted from shaking. She let me back in the next morning. She thought God was talking to her. She drove me to school shaking so bad from d.t.s that she could barely keep in the lane and dropped me off and started driving to a mental institution. They wouldn't admit her. Over the next several months, she went back into treatment, and then out, and back in. This "program" was the most dysfunctional place she could have been. It's no wonder she didn't stop.

On her last stint in the treatment facility, she met a man there who was in trying to recover from a heavy duty narcotics addiction. They started up a flaming romatic relationship while still hospitalized. When they got out, he moved in with us. And so did another addiction - cocaine. His brother was a dealer, and soon she was selling everything we had to feed the desperate need she had for more.

Finally - I had enough. She was passed out, and I went through the house and took every vodka bottle she had and stacked them on the coffee table. They were hidden in the plants, the dishwasher, in the couch cushions, everywhere. I left a note - "this has to stop." When she finally came to, she was infuriated. She was screaming at me - and I snapped. I slapped her hard across the face. So hard that it knocked her down. I was so full of rage - her addiction had stolen my childhood. She retailiated. It's the only time in my life that my mother ever struck me. She never even spanked me as a child. My meager belongings had been packed for weeks in my closet. I told her I was moving in with my grandparents. She started throwing my boxes over the balcony into the parking lot below. She told me she didn't love me. That she never had.

I didn't talk to her for a long time. Without me to pay the bills on time, she was evicted. She lost her job, and bounced around sleeping on friend's couches, and then soon she had no one left to go to. Then she lived in her car. I didn't know if she was dead or alive. She finally cleaned up. She stopped using on my 13th birthday. She stopped drinking soon after that - and has been clean and sober ever since. Our relationship is still extremely strained. I love her - she is my mother after all. She honestly doesn't remember about three years of what we went through. I do. I remember - but I forgive her. In a lot of ways, I think it's made me stronger.

We rarely talk - at times it's just too painful for both of us, our conversations often peppered with awkward moments of silence. But I'm trying. And she's trying. It's just hard.

My mother has been sober for ten years, and given what she's gone through - to be honest, I'm not sure that I could have been that strong. She's now caring for my grandmother, also an alcoholic, and she broke down on the phone last night and told me that she was so sorry. So incredibly sorry for all she put me through. That she understood now, caring for my grandmother, how difficult it must have been for me.

We talked about my shots, about our failed dreams. About growth, and love, and forgiveness.

This morning, I had an e-mail waiting for me, and she said in part:

I am going to pray hard that your new round of shots work without causing you discomfort or worse, danger to your health. I know how desperately you must want a child to try this route again and as much as I would love to be a Grandmother, your health MUST come first. DO NOT put yourself in jeopardy for the sake of anything. You are everything to me, and no baby or anything else is worth the thought of harm coming to you. I also realize you are a grown, intellligent woman who has thought long and hard about this decision so I am, as always, in your corner and will be here in anyway for anything I can ever offer if you need me. I'm still your Mother and will always be here when needed. I love you more than I can describe and could never be prouder of you. Please be safe, happy, never give up on your true dreams and remember I love you.

She's far from perfect, but she is my mother - and I love her. I'm proud that she's tried so hard to stay sober, when it would have been so much easier not to. At times I'm still angry with her, but I'm learning to open my heart to forgiveness and let go of the hurt.

For a long time, I didn't want children. I was petrified I would make the same mistakes she did. And then I found Michael and he made me realize I had this longing ache in my heart for a child. Occasionally, I wonder if perhaps I want children to somehow make up for my own flawed childhood. I don't know.

What I do know is that I'm thankful that I believe things can be different. I'm thankful she's bee so strong. I'm thankful she and I are working to repair our relationship, and hopeful that my children will have the opportunity to see a grandmother who is the mother I remember from my early childhood. The one with the deep body shaking laugh, who can always be counted on to color and play dress up. The one that read stories and flew kites, made beautiful quilts and halloween costumes by hand, who gave fierce "horsey bites" on my knees and gentle butterfly kisses. This is the woman I want them to remember. This is the woman I want them to love.

I'm just thankful that I'm starting to get her back.

I hope that they learn to love her as much as I do.


At 9:56 AM, Anonymous wessel said...

April, this post brought me to tears. Much of it sounds so familiar, (I just blogged about my own family dysfunctions) but minus the male violence aspect. When I hear about men abusing a gentle girl and making her hard or broken or both, I have to remind myself not to hate men, that not all men are like that. My father was not physically abusive, but he was extremely emotionally abusive. She had such terror of him trying to get custody of her children that it led her to do all sorts of crazy and desperate things--however, she seemed to learn early on that men were not a solution, but were only different faces representing the same threat, so thankfully we never had to contend with evil stepfathers.

I hope that your mother meets with only joy and success on the road to recovering her former beautiful, vibrant self, and that your relationship will continue to heal.

I'm so sorry for your painful memories. I have them to, and am not sure what to do with them. I also paid the bills at age 11, also forged signatures on report cards, also became expert at constructing cover stories to hide her alcoholic stupors from society. My mother also had a lot of charm--a quick wit and an eye for beauty and the gift of eloquence. Like your mother, she taught me so much that I could read well before first grade even began. She had not even a highschool diploma, but she valued education and somehow knew it was the only chance her children had to climb out. Sadly, her mental illness prevented any sort of relationship repair between us. And now it is too late. Sigh.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Molly said...

I was just going to write about how this post reminded me so much of Wessel's recent post, but she beat me to the punch. She also talked about having a child being a step on the road to creating a whole, healed family. You two truly do have so much in common.

You're a strong, strong woman for pulling yourself out of that dysfunction and putting yourself through the years of schooling to become a lawyer. Congrats.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Toni said...

April - what a hard life to go through. But it looks as though all of that has made you a stronger, healthier person. Not a reason to go through it - but something to be proud of. It looks as though your mother is proud of you too.

I'm going to agree with the others - this will make you a better mother - something I am looking forward to you becoming.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Mrs. T said...


As wessel said, this post sounds familiar in a lot of ways. I too have a torn relationship with my mom. We have been working on it for a couple of years now and are finally able to talk to each other more. I remember the abusive husbands, drug/alcohol problem.

It pains me to hear that other people go through these things and even worse things. They were so horrible and it's hard to imagine how far we've come from such a tramatic childhood.

Keep your head up with your mom. I know personally that you probably still have that guard up, as I do. Hopefully each day will get better.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Donna said...

April, this was just heartbreaking...how amazing is the spirit of a child that we can somehow keep going amidst chaos and end up as functioning adults. I too spent most of my life thinking I couldn't chance being a mother because I would somehow continue the family legacy. I ended up understanding what a oppoortunity it was to stop the cycle in my generation. I didn't get the chance to do that, but you will.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Cricket said...

What a difficult journey. You've come so far, as has your mother. It is wonderful to me that you're both willing to try.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Lindy said...

Your words brought tears to my eyes and I'm so touched by how strong and courageous you are to attempt to regain your relationship with her. Although I have never had to deal with anything even close to what you've described, I can relate a little to trying to find a way to rebuild a relationship with a family member who has lost your trust in such a fundamental way. Your words have made me think again about my relationship with my brother, who is now sober after dealing with a drug and alcohol problem and who was violent with me and my mother when he was only a teenager. Those relationships are precious, no matter how scarred they are, and they are certainly worth our best efforts.

You are truly an inspiration.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Blue said...

Oh what a hard life you all have lead. I am so sorry you gained your strength from such horrible experiences.
I was not directly blamed for my father's drinking, but I was part of the set of behaviors he needed to change in his quest for sobriety. I am still not completely sure how all that worked.
Thinking of you and of what an amazing mother you will be if you can show your children that fun loving artistic side of your mother both in her and in yourself.
Absolutely beautiful post.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger DeadBug said...

Your resilience is inspiring. And the fact that you can still remember the mother of your earliest days, and see in her today what you saw in her then. Most people would have given up on the relationship; I think you must have a special reservoir of forgiveness and hope.

Much love,

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Lala said...

wow, just wow. for so many reasons....

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Dee said...

Don't mind me, I'm just sitting here at my work computer, drying my eyes with a tissue. So much of what you wrote sounds like my own childhood--with the exception of one abusive husband for my mother and then a bout of promiscuity (no alcohol)--all of which combined to help me grow up quicker than I would have otherwise.

It's interesting to learn that so many people have similar experiences to this. When you're a kid and going through them, you think no one else could have possibly go through anything even remotely similar to your own whacked out dysfunctional upbringing. Then, voila, you start learning that maybe not every else's childhood was a fairytale, that maybe the good growing up experiences are the exception and not the rule.

And then maybe somewhere along the way, you also learn that it wasn't your fault at all. I'm sorry that a therapist heaped the blame on you in all of this...obviously, a quack.

As for me, my mother and I have an odd relationship. The strain is there even though I'm trying to keep in mind that she did the best she could or that she tried, really tried, at times when the best wasn't in her. It's a weird dynamic between us now though and may always be.

I know that my own childhood was the reason I swore I never wanted kids. But then I met A and realized that I shouldn't allow my own past experiences to limit my hopes for the future.

Now I'm hoping that my child will one day know her grandmother as the mother of my early childhood--the one who inspired a love of drawing and reading in me from a very young age--this despite having only a HS diploma herself. If anything I should thank her for showing me the value of an education so I'd never have to depend on a man to take care of me...that was my driving force in going to college and grad school.

My mother was once happy, once vivacious and outgoing; I have a feeling she's in there somewhere...much as she is in your own mother.

Love and luck to you as you look to heal that relationship. I've needed both along my path but sometimes, sadly, even they're not enough.

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Jenn said...

You made me cry too. My father has been sober for about ten years, but his personality sucked to begin with and it hasn't changed much. Except now when he's hurtful, we know he means it. I'm glad you are repairing the relationship with your mother.

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Susan/holdingpattern said...

Wow. I am in awe. You are so unbelievably strong and forgiving. It is not right that you had to endure so much in your childhood and still have to struggle with the Infertility beast.

At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Wavery said...


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Calliope said...

As Wessel & so many others have said, this post was very familiar. My Mom's 'vice' was undiagnosed manic depressive disorder. So instead of alchol or drugs I came home to suicide attempts.
It is incredible the things we have all gone through. Incredible to have become these tough, resilliant women. & still incredible that we even want to become parents at all.
I hate that we have these memories. But I have to hope that all this is the juice that is making us who we are today.
I didn't speak to my Mom for almost 4 years. Now we live together & she supports me as I take care of her Mother.
Thank you for writing such an eloquent post.
Thank you, thank you.

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Nico said...

You have not ceased to amaze me yet. You have gone through SO much crap, and it seems like you've come out the other end a wonderful, fabulous person.

I'm particularly impressed by the fact that your relationship with Michael sounds nothing like the relationships you witnessed in your childhood - it seems like it's so hard to break that cycle of violence.

At 5:40 PM, Blogger April said...


Finding Michael in some ways was my saving grace, as I was not so lucky in previous relationships. I too learned to explain that I fell, that I tripped down stairs that didn't exist. I wore long sleeves in the summer and learned to explain away bruises to those brave enough to ask.

In him I have found a solace, a home, a safe haven.

I got it right, it just took me awhile to find him. I shudder to think what would have happened otherwise.

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous erin said...

Well, wow. Your story is amazing. It's a great post, April. Thank you for sharing.

At 7:53 PM, Anonymous Lori said...

You are such an amazingly resilient and strong person-it's downright inspiring the way you've handled the crapiness life has tossed your way.
But how sad that it was such a familiar story for so many. I'm sorry so many others have faced such daunting challenges.
Like IF, it's just not fair that people have to deal with violence, abuse and addiction.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger JJ said...

I almost could have written this post myself. There's not much for me to say that hasn't already been said... similar childhoods, parenting the parent, lost childhoods, the strained mother daughter relationship...

I was always told that the example my mother set would make me a better mother. Small consolation, all things considered. I think this post may have given me what I needed to talk about my mother on my blog.

At 11:37 PM, Anonymous Mary Scarlet said...

Hi kiddo, thank you so much for sharing this. You are graced with a great gift for writing and I'm glad you are using it to share these stories with us. I cannot imagine what this must have been like. This helps me to understand what life may have been like for my husband at times. I was also moved to tears, mostly for you, but also for all the other children brought up this way. It's painful to read the other comments to see how many others can relate.

I am so looking forward to following what I hope is a swift journey with a happy outcome for you both.

At 1:56 AM, Blogger MC said...

Thanks for sharing your story April. I'm in awe of your strength.

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous mm said...

Oh my God you've been through so much. I'm overcome just reading your post. That need to heal your first family by having a child of your own is such a powerful thing. I wish you and your mother all the happiness that you were deprived of when you were growing up and hope that you both continue to rediscover that amazing person she was (and is). It sounds like she's a fighter. You both are. Thank you for sharing your story.

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous thalia said...

April this was amazing. To write so beautifully about so much pain shows a strength, a resilience and an ability to heal that blows me away. I'm so proud of you for having gone through this and come out the other side, having formed such a healthy relationship with Michael, and having healed (as much as you can) the relationship with your mother. Your children will be very very lucky.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger zhl said...

Wow, what an incredible life you've led already. Your ability to forgive your mother after all that inspires me.

You'll be a great mom.


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