RUTH AND HER MOTHER, ALICE
I got a phone call from my father. We didn’t know it was cancer. She had had diabetes for three years. She would sit down and eat a chocolate pie by herself. She lived frivolously with her diet, but she was grasping at what that doctor said, that diabetes skips a generation. One night she had to be rushed to the hospital with what they thought was a heart attack. She was 49 years old, weighed 250 pounds, was diagnosed as a diabetic and refused insulin. She said she’d do it with her diet.
From what I understand, she’d get so angry at having to measure things she’d go down cellar and smash measuring spoons and cups with a hammer. Then she’d come upstairs and start with new measuring cups and spoons. She lost the weight rapidly. She’d gone from a 200+ frame to 110 pounds in six months which, from what I understand, is a symptom of diabetes.
I remember her giving to the dog her portion of the healthy meal that she insisted we eat. She’d buy bags of candy bars — her favorite was Clark Bars — and hide them from us. One time she couldn’t find her stash. She burst into our room and accused me of taking them and sent me to find them when I said I hadn’t taken them. I couldn’t find them so she beat me. I heard later that she found them, and I found out later that my sister said, “Don’t you think you should apologize to Ruth?” “No!” She was a junkie! She was a junkie! It seemed she smoked twice as much and drank twice as much coffee — it was her lifeblood — when she lost the weight.
When my father called from the hospital to tell me they thought they’d have to take her pancreas, she said okay, she’d take the insulin. They found that her pancreas was practically gone and her liver was practically gone. I was calling all day. Later that evening my father called. I could tell by his voice that he’d been crying. He had bad news. She had cancer of the pancreas and the liver and there was nothing they could do for her. They said she had three to six months. That was probably in May, just after [my son] John’s birthday. It seemed my father had mustered some strength. He said he was going to do everything he could for her. In the beginning she was having chemotherapy. I remember my father saying she was so proud that her hair didn’t fall out.
I was very upset. I reacted because that’s what you’re supposed to do when your mother gets sick. I continued to bum myself out. I read up on cancer and spoke with some people who saw no particular connection between cigarettes and that type of cancer. I vegetated for a while because I was separated from it. I didn’t call but I did continue to write.
My father called and said, “It doesn’t look good.”
“Maybe I should come down?”
“No. Maybe down the road. I don’t want people around taxing her.” My sister Suzanne said she was going down no matter what my father said. She did and she cooked and cleaned. My father called in August and said, “You’d better come down.” [My son] Michael was just an infant at the time and he, John and I went down. My sister Louanne was there. She hadn’t been around for three or four years. My brother Stephen went down and sought out her and her four kids. Mom resented Louanne’s coming because she thought it was only because she was dying.Was there reconciliation? Yes and no. There was no visible conflict, but you could read my mother like a book. Just because there was no exchange of battle words doesn’t mean there aren’t thoughts darting back and forth across the room.
Their anniversary was September 20, and this was mid-August. My mother always wanted a bird bath. My brother Paul collected donations from all us kids. She was so surprised. It lost its value, although she enjoyed it, because it didn’t come from my father. It was from the wrong person.
She could still get up and shuffle around, but she was very, very weak. She had pain for which my father would administer the morphine. When I was down there she was having a hard time moving her bowels. Because she had cancer, I thought everything in her body was affected. My father wanted to give her a laxative. The pharmacist said to ask her doctor. My father called and the doctor said, if she’s uncomfortable, do what you have to do. He bought Fleet enemas. He had to talk her into it. Who wants to go through that. I thought my father was going to administer the Fleets and my mother would go to the bathroom. I heard them whispering in the other room. He said, “Well, you gave them enemas when they were small.”
The last earthly thing I did for my mother was to give her enemas. I knew her embarrassment and humiliation and tried to be as loving as I could. She laid over the bed. “I don’t want you to see me. I’m all bones.” I had taken two sheets from the linen closet and draped them over her so I didn’t see anything I didn’t have to. I sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed her back and asked if she could lie for a little while. But she lay for ten minutes. I helped her to the bathroom and waited in the hallway to give her privacy.
My father was drinking a lot then. He’d go into the motor home in the driveway and get drunk. The sicker my mother got, the weaker my father got. Then he’d go to the VFW lodge and drink and drink and drink, which is where he was when my mother died.
Back home in Maine we were watching a family movie one night. The phone rang. [My husband] Charlie got up and answered it. He was there for a few minutes. I asked, “Who was on the phone?” He lied. I knew he was lying. I said, “It couldn’t be them because … My mother’s dead, isn’t she?”
I went upstairs, laid on my bed and cried because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Then Charlie came up, laid his hand on my back and I felt very strong. Then I cried because she had ruined my Christmas. I was banging the headboard and saying, “Why couldn’t she wait to die until after Christmas? She ruined my Christmas!” Charlie was surprised by my reaction. He had expected me to react more mournfully at my mother’s death instead of being angry and violent.
I think, to be honest, anger is part of my personality. It seems I can recognize my feeling when I’m angry. When you’re feeling good and happy, it’s such a light feeling. You’re separated from yourself and reality. But when you’re angry, when I’m angry, that’s reality. I’m in touch with what’s really going on. What happened, I kicked into that angry mode. My mother died. That was real. The reality of it as there and I was angry.
I was upstairs for 45 minutes, tops. I came down, sat down and said to John, “What did I miss?”
“Mom, I’m really sorry to hear about Grandmom.”
“I know, but what did I miss?”
He came over, sat down and held my hand. “I’m really sorry. Am I supposed to cry now?”
“No. You may never cry. You may cry later and then you may not.” And I had to have him re-wind the movie because I wanted our lives to continue. If I do feel anger now, it may be directed to myself. The only advice I’d give to any woman, be she 12 or 42, if you have anything of importance to say to your mother, say it now while she’s alive when she can respond. The reason I say that is it gives you the opportunity to vent, her to respond, her the opportunity to vent and you the opportunity to respond.
When John was under a year, I went down for a visit. I was in the kitchen feeding him. Both my parents were in the kitchen with me. My mother said, “I’m so sorry you didn’t have a childhood. And look at you now — you’re still taking care of babies.” I knew my mother felt bad. I knew what she was saying was true. I wanted to spare her feelings. I was still trying to protect her. I wasn’t nurtured as a child. Probably when there were two or three of us [I was], but when the population increased, they went to the ones with the greatest needs, the physical needs. They’d take care of those needs first. If there was time, they’d take care of our emotional needs. I was the eldest of eight.
The August before her death, I remember her talking to me again, which is why I say talk to your mother before she dies. She wanted to talk to me. She wanted to dump on me. She had to get rid of it. I’m sure she lay in her bed and went over her life many, many times. At those times you don’t pat yourself on the back. There were many regrets. She talked about my childhood again. It was obvious to me her guilt feelings. That summer I didn’t protect her because she was saying things I needed to hear her say.
She was preparing to die. We should all have that opportunity to prepare emotionally. She wanted to die. She wanted to die for a long time. You know that spark you see in people? It was faint for a long time. I felt the next time I saw my mother it would be at her funeral. She requested a closed casket because she looked so ghastly.
There was a Catholic Mass and graveside services. The frost in New Jersey isn’t as deep as it is up here. I didn’t cry at the funeral. I didn’t cry at the Mass. I was so busy at the reception I didn’t cry until I got home and then I cried a lot. I didn’t want to cry because my father cried so much. I had to escort my father away from the graveside services because he was falling apart emotionally. He just kept sobbing. I think he did it for me. I think he did it for show. I remember smelling him to see if he was drunk or not. He always had an air because he was an alcoholic, but he didn’t smell of fresh booze.
At the reception after the funeral, I observed my father being the host of the party. He was at the head table. He got up, gave a little speech, introduced the kids and their spouses and said what their occupations were. I chose to sit at my mother’s family’s table because I was told to sit at my father’s family’s table. My father wouldn’t allow my mother’s sisters to visit when she was dying. They should have been allowed. I stayed away from my father because I was really angry at him because he was a weeping mess at the funeral and here he was, party guy.
My father called me often after I went home. My mother was gone about three months. What a coincidence: a woman named Alice with eight children. I wasn’t ready for that. My mother was dead two years when my father remarried.
The day my mother died, my father died too. I don’t hate my mother. I did hate my mother. But I don’t hate my mother now. I hate my father. I’m directing my anger to the living. The survivor of the hell I lived is my father, so let him carry the whole bag of shit now instead of sharing it with my mother.
I bury my mother many times in dream. The funeral is always a little different, but the casket is always open. I think I have to know it’s her and they didn’t stick somebody else’s body in there. Mum’s in heaven. She’s in her own heaven. She was done. She was tired. She’s found her peace. Heaven is her peace.
The older I get, the younger I realize she was when she died: 53. I go into the bathroom to brush my teeth. You don’t look at yourself in the mirror the way you used to. You just grab a toothbrush and the paste and start brushing and look up and think, Damn! You look like your mother! Her presence is here because I’m here.
What makes me think of her? Bone marrow sandwiches — taking out the inside of a soup bone and spreading it on bread. A real symbol of my mother would be crossed lit cigarettes over a cup of coffee. I can’t see her without a cigarette in her mouth or in her hand. She would iron with a cigarette in her hand, if you can imagine it. She burned more clothes that way. Macaroni salad. Yes, that’s it, macaroni salad. When she died, she took her recipe with her. I mean we’re talking blue ribbon macaroni here. Whenever the kids get together, macaroni salad will come up. Oh, and my mother loved yard sales. My brother Stephen would say, “Alice Morrissey can pour South Jersey a cup of coffee” because she’d buy so many coffee cups and coffee pots. She’d have 20 of something but she’d bring another one home and have to put it in the cellar because she already had three of them upstairs. My father was overwhelmed with all the junk when she died.
I used to call her with affection Olive Oyl. I saw a cartoon when I was a pre-teen where Olive Oyl went over to her closet and opened it to find all the dresses the same. My mother had one pattern, an A-line skirt. Whenever she would make them, she would cut three or four skirts out of the same pattern. When she died she had over 200 skirts she had bought or made, all the same. What a character.
Ruth was 33 when her mother died and 39 at the time of this interview.