THERESA AND HER MOTHER
I don’t really remember the date she died. I tried to chronologically put in a notebook dates of crisis so I could see how they somehow fit together. I have in my mind October or August when she died, but I know it was after I started working with F. in December. I guess I really don’t have a very good sense of time. I guess that’s part of the trauma of the whole thing.
I know that everything I do echoes. It’s a little echo in my head. Am I doing what my mother did when I gave the boys to James [ex-husband]? Am I doing that too? When I leave David [son] home alone and go out…I feel like other mothers after a divorce go out dancing. Should I stay at home and just be a mother and a housewife and not a woman feeling her sexuality? That role of being a daughter, being a mother yourself––worrying about being like my mother, doing things my mother would do. A friend loaned me Me, My Mother and I. She said that bond was so strong and [you’re] needing to separate yourself. You are not your mother.
I don’t judge her so much anymore. I used to judge that she had selfish reasons for doing things. To be divorced and to have her kids taken away from her and put on the state; to have to go out and find a job and then make money; to come home on a Friday night after a week at work; to come home and shed that responsibility for a while… Sometimes when I’m out there having fun I have an echo of my mother. I have a picture of my mother with a fur wrapped around her neck. There we were with furniture from the dump and two-dollar sneakers… She was really a pretty woman––full, bouncy hair, long eyelashes, a perpetual smile on her face. She was having fun like a kid, even though it was seldom. As an adult child, you have to strike a balance between your family commitments and having fun.
I felt an ache after she died. I couldn’t quite figure that out. I certainly had worked at detaching from her while she was still alive. When I went to her apartment, she wanted money for cigarettes and gambling. I checked to see if she had any food. I was the parent. I hate this manipulation: If you don’t have cigarettes, you’re going to do yourself in. Well, so be it. And to go and to leave her and for her to pull that last thing…
The fact that she had that bell she could ring to summon for help…She was found between the bathroom and her bed. We’ll never know. Some thought was maybe because she had such a variety of prescriptions she could have accidentally overdosed. Instead of getting pills from one doctor, she went to several. Basically they didn’t know that she had so much medication. I confronted the doctors who all said they had no way of telling she was feeling that way. She was feeling fine except for her old paranoia. Part of me wants to go back and look up her record. When she first died, I really wanted to scream at the system. In fact I did. I went to the state hospital and demanded her records and told them she had committed suicide. I think it’s scary for me to have her records. Part of me wants to know and part of me doesn’t want to know what was true and what wasn’t because of a fear of tying it in to the present rather than the past. Like that old adage, if it’s dead, let it lie there.
But for families, that isn’t done. I think of us kids trying to put our lives together, but you can’t do that in a vacuum because some things are passed on genetically, some are learned behavior, and some by, “I’ll never do what she did.”And even though we say we won’t do what they did, we still do. The old tapes play and we find ourselves doing things we said we’d never do. Some of that is fear. Am I having fun the way my mother did? I have to sort that out. I think the sins of the fathers are visited on the next generation.
I read something about victim roles. My mother was certainly a victim. She talked about abuse. She’d tell tales about how she was beat up at school by other girls. I wonder when I see myself or the other two girls as victims how much of that is perpetuated from generation to generation. That’s why I think it’s so important to sort out your parents. If my mother was an incest victim and then went on in turn to accuse my father…
My mother was a confusing person to me. She could be pretty and fun to be with, but she could change and be very difficult and manipulative. If you took her at face value, where she said what she was and what she wanted, she was like a little kid. If you gave her what she wanted, she’d be happy and smiling and she’d hug you. If you didn’t give her what she wanted, she’d be tearful, hysterical, verbally abusive. She was an emotional person, unavailable in a lot of ways.
For me “mother” is a confusing thing, having had a mother, three foster mothers and two stepmothers. It’s like if you have a mother all your life, you get your picture of your mother from that person. My parents got divorced when I was nine. Even before that I don’t remember her doing things for us like cooking or putting little outfits on us. There was a grandmother and aunts. I can’t figure out what my mother was doing all that time. We were all out doing our own thing. We were all over Augusta. I asked my father what she did all day; he didn’t know. She was there physically. I have never figured out what she did all day. That whole confusing thing: This is my mother and I have no recollection of her being a mother. I have more recollection of Dad taking us swimming. Like you have a picture of the family and somebody’s missing? She’s a vacant. It’s like when you see pictures and they put in a shadow. It’s like saying I had a mother, and I love my mother because you’re supposed to love your mother.
What I remember standing out about her––I had done something. She was chasing me and she fell or I fell and we ended up laughing together. I have a memory of a scene of her putting her hand through a glass door because she was angry with my father.
I have pieces of mothers. I have a piece of a mother here, a piece of a mother there. I don’t really have a mother. I suppose it’s different for me. If I had a mother all that time and she died, it would be different. Instead I feel like I have these people I connect with and am disconnected from. That’s why from day one you go into foster care and call somebody Momma. I think that’s a lot to ask of a kid. There’s something special and there should be something special. You’re plumped down in a house and someone says, “Call me Momma.” I think it devalues Momma.
Mother’s Day used to be a procrastinating day for me. What to do. I had so many mothers and yet I have no mother. In a way it put an end to some of the mother confusion when she died. I can say, “My mother died.”
On the day she died, my brother-in-law Wes came down to see me at work. One of the neighbors went over to visit and the door was locked. Because she had fallen on her face, there was extensive bruising. She was discolored and bloated and she looked really awful. Even after embalming she wasn’t presentable, so we had a closed casket. That makes it a little easier. I almost think making the arrangements is a busy experience. You have to focus on getting all those details together. You don’t have time to focus so much on feeling. Everyone kind of looked to me to do everything.
I remember being really angry at the guy conducting it. We’d gone in and asked about arrangements. He was short and rushed us through and didn’t want to answer the questions. It wasn’t dissension among us, but after we first got out of there, we wanted to find someone else. By being mad at him, it drew us all together. And we did things around the funeral the same way we did other ceremonies in our lives, under-prepared and understated.
There were times I wished she would just die, that God would take care of that. That the agony of the sickness that she had would be done. That would make me feel real guilty. What a thing to think about your mother. But she was an embarrassment. She would talk loud, she would click her teeth in and out and would talk to anyone on the street. But she had a good heart. She had a neighbor down the hall who was all alone on Thanksgiving, so she and A. cooked a ham and a pie and invited her down.
She had a fear of being alone when she was sick. I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for her. I never gave much thought to her being lonely, being alone, or her panic if she had a coughing spell. She had emphysema and she smoked two-and-a-half packs a day, and she had a weak heart and phlebitis. No one would be there and we weren’t there. Even just being lonely. I have to really look at loneliness and think about it.
I remember thinking she’d actually done it. She said she’d do it the night before, and by God, she did it. I felt a kind of despair. I had asked my counselor if it was a good thing not to give her the money. I was very angry with her partly for the stupidity of it. If she had an awesome problem, that was one thing, but to kill herself because she didn’t have any cigarettes? I was very upset with my mother and was angry with her.
Since a while ago, I think people don’t put you through things. You put yourself through things in relationships. But I couldn’t separate then. She was an embarrassment sometimes and I didn’t feel good being with her. I’d get sucked in. She would get emotional. I would get emotional. I felt like this was something else she had done to us, that our mother had killed herself. How could she? I had expected everyone to blame me because I had said she wouldn’t kill herself. But [my sister] Denise had said, “Momma has died. There’s no one to blame. Just go forward.” It was confusing to me. I think I felt really guilty and I would remember how she looked. I would sometimes see her in passing and would avoid her. I was running away from her. I hadn’t taken time to be with her. Maybe if I had been further into recovery…
To have [my brother] Travis come and say that he’d known for years that she’d done this sort of thing––If you don’t give me money, I’ll kill myself––was a real surprise. To have him be really honest. It’s a different place to have your younger baby brother holding and comforting you. I wouldn’t have thought of him in that light. That was something I really needed. It was like a role reversal. That opened up a time for us that may have sealed off since then.
There are things I regret, like people who didn’t visit their parents in nursing homes must feel.We don’t usually realize where our parents are coming from. I think of her when I’m happy and I catch myself smiling. She could be a very happy, childlike person. When I catch myself enjoying myself, I think of her.
The following are Teresa’s thoughts which she wrote down after solitary reflection.
There are still days when I mourn the passing of my mother. When I shop in the store next door to where she last lived on Mother’s Day, her birthday and Christmas, when I come across old pictures, old letters she wrote me. I think it is more a gentle mourning of her life rather than of her death. I never really knew her or had her as a mother in life, which as I write it, still brings tears and a sense of loss. But with her death and my reconciling myself to it, I can also reconcile with her life as she lived it.
When I think of her, I find myself sighing and saying to myself, ‘Oh, Momma,’ gently and wishing things could have been different. But at least with her death, my “mother confusion” has cleared up some. My mother is dead and all the other surrogate mothers have been relegated to different roles, those of friend, ex-wife of my father, current wife of my father and friend. I have feelings for these women and for the part they played in my life, but they are not my mother.
I still weigh and balance decisions on the scale forged by my parental experience and history so far, but the weight that you move to come to a measure is forged by self-knowledge brought on by much mothering by friends who loved and nurtured my growth, by counselors whom I grew to love and trust, by experiences in recovery and by the way those experiences resonated in my innermost being.
Teresa was 37 when her mother died and 39 at the time of this interview.