How It Was When My Mother Died: Chapter 4

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ALLISON AND HER MOTHER, DOROTHY

Allison speaking…

My mother had lost her brother Bob [in World War II], her mother and her first baby within three or four years of each other. She likened me to her dead brother physically––and I took it to be more than that––and that was a factor in my childhood development. My mother was actually grieving a lot, but she didn’t express some emotions. Jolly laughter was expressed but anything negative was repressed. She also was not physically affectionate with me and my sister when we were children. We were more likely to be touched by my father; we’d sit on his lap.

I processed all that when I was doing some of my own grieving work during Hospice training six or seven years after my mother’s death. When a friend died, I realized there was more I needed to do around grieving a death and continuing to process the death of my mother. I realized I hadn’t dealt with the feelings around the death; it was not a resolved thing for me.

A big function of Hospice is to help trainees with their own grieving process. In an intensive all-day session that included imaging, I had a breakthrough into forgiveness toward my mother. Her grieving her mother, brother and baby had put a burden on me as a child, and understanding this helped me to forgive her and get an understanding of our relationship.

She had always had chronic health problems––respiratory things: hay fever, severe asthma attacks that caused a lot of frightening moments in my childhood, sinus infections. When she was in bed with sinus headaches, we’d bring her ice packs and try to be quiet because she would have these terrific headaches. My younger sister doesn’t have much memory of my mother suffering with her sinus condition, but she does remember the ice packs. I remember she had a sinus operation when I was seven or eight. They cut between her gum and lip and scraped the sinuses on both sides. She was in a hospital ward, not a semi-private room, for three or four days. It made an impression.

In our early teenage years we were being cautioned by our father to be mindful of my mother’s health and to know that her medication made her cross, which she wouldn’t have been otherwise, he said. My mother was on cortisone drugs for 15 years and she developed high blood pressure, which she’d never had before the drugs. Gradually the sinus condition
abated and the asthma worsened. By the time I was in high school, she’d be sitting up most of the night because she couldn’t lie down.

Our parents treated us as intellectually viable people from an early age and never underestimated our capacity to understand things.
Sometimes I would sit up with my mother at the kitchen table on those nights when she couldn’t lie down and we’d talk for most of the night about religious things. My first lover, C., was from the youth group at church. She and I read Bishop Robbins’ book Honest to God that questioned the biblical bases of popular theology, and we decided that we were going to give a teaching to the youth group. We were ready to make a big impression that the God we’d known was dead. C. and I went in to the associate minister and said that we didn’t believe in God anymore. This got back to my mother and I remember sitting up with her and talking that night for hours and hours. I don’t understand the contradiction: I didn’t talk with her about coming out as a lesbian but I could talk to her about these religious things.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sensing that I was a lesbian and I knew that was a real problem with the church. I didn’t have a sense of rightness or wrongness but difficulty in me accepting myself and also others. The thought that I was a lesbian didn’t
originate with the word but came to me as a set of feelings. I’ve always loved doing research and had a tendency to read about things, rather than discuss in conversation. I always started with the dictionary, then the encyclopedia, then the library. I was coming across words like “inversion,” dead-end words whose definitions themselves were repressed.

My first lover, as I mentioned, was also in the youth group at the church, and at my high school she and I were discovering gay novels. The easiest way was cheap, smutty paperback novels and we found some sensational ones––La Batarde about girls in girls’ schools in France and their lesbian experiences and Violette Leduc. Then in a public library I stumbled across a critical book about lesbianism in literature by Jane Puell. That really enlightened me a lot about reading what was available about the issue and I came across legitimate authors like James Baldwin writing about the experience.

When I was in high school we lived in a house with a basement apartment built for my father’s sister, who was unmarried until her late 30’s. I finagled to get my parents to let me live in that apartment in the latter part of my junior year in high school. I did some of my own cooking down there. By that time I was a free-thinking youngster who would read things my parents didn’t necessarily like. Once I was writing a story, an allegory that had to do with God and St. Peter, and it was pornographic. It wasn’t something I intended to do anything with and I was mortified when my mother, who was a Fundamentalist, found it.

Going through mail and finding that story in a desk drawer was the only really bad parenting my parents ever did. They were very invasive of our privacy, but in my late teens, I saw that they were trying to back off after they’d been very conscientious parents. It was an emotionally difficult time [for them], after it having been that way for so long, and then to see that they were trying to detach. But in college there was still the struggle. I was datinga boy and he and I went off to a hotel in Washington for the weekend. She was very upset at that; I was breaking ground for my sister who was really outrageous. Both of us were really enmeshed with my mother, partly due to that health business.

That same boy, later my ex-boyfriend, flipped out when he found out I was a lesbian. We were both living in Lynn, Massachusetts. I was out of college and working as a manager trainee in the post office in Boston and he was working on an MBA at Boston University and I was still having a relationship with a woman from high school. That was my real self, but I was still trying to change myself to be with my then-boyfriend, an easy-going, big Teddy bear of a guy. He went off to a job in Washington and we were unofficially engaged and then it became clear he would expect me to live where he lived and I realized this wasn’t the life I wanted. My parents would have settled for that first man; my mother had always been suspicious of C.

Meanwhile I had met L. at a lesbian group in Boston. I had thrown over my job. My ex-boyfriend came back for Christmas and I had to tell him. At first he seemed fine about it. He wanted me to be happy and have what I wanted, but in the middle of the night he came beating on the door of our house in Nahant. We thought he was following us, so we took off for western Massachusetts and he went back to his job and then went to Charlottesville, Virginia, and told my parents I was living with a woman on welfare.

Then I got a letter from my father who suggested I have an operation. “What was I doing to my mother?” he wanted to know. I wrote back, took a strong position and said all the right things: “I love you the same as I always have and I’m the same person that you always loved. I’ve tried to be conventional but it’s not the way I can be. I’m happy with the way I am now.”

A psychiatrist in my church helped my mother and alleviated her fears. He told her probably I wouldn’t have to be changed if I was happy. Then they began to tell relatives. My cousin found out through the family chain and I went to see her. She already knew about me and she came out to me. We’re both very musical.

My lover and I went down with her two children to do some hiking on the Appalachian Trail. We stopped in Charlottesville. Here we saunter across the front yard in hiking boots, flannel shirts, felt hats, jeans and bandanas, perfectly outfitted backwoods hikers. I was in a new
world in the honeymoon stage of coming out and being non-conforming and it didn’t go over well. My mother about had apoplexy when she saw us and I could tell she started to wheeze. You need to understand my mother’s background is white gloves, and I was going outside the conventional Southern young lady behavior. We didn’t mesh well for a couple of years after that.

When I got into a relationship with D., both of us fell on a time of unemployment and were struggling to get by financially. I got so few hours working at a fish-processing plant in Portland that I barely made enough money to pay for the clothes I’d destroy working there. They wouldn’t even let me off to vote! I was at the point of looking in gutters for the change people might drop. My parents knew I was not finding work. They said the other house was vacant and needed some work and suggested maybe I could come down, live there and go back to work for the architect I had worked for before. D. and I were able to hitch a ride with a dyke down to Washington, D.C. She was the manager of a rock band and had a station wagon that shouldn’t have made the trip at all. It was hot, August, and the further south we got, the hotter it got, and the car had radiator problems. My sister was living in northern Virginia, and my parents came to get us there. They hadn’t met D. and that was awkward. We ended up moving down and living in and fixing up that basement apartment. I got a job with the architect I used to work for and D. got a job. It was at this point that my parents began to accept that I was in a real relationship.

D. began to think that my parents didn’t really like her. She was reluctant to have me spend time with them. She wanted to have me to herself. I was feeling a real pull. My parents wanted us to go out to dinner, but my mother was having a hard time with infections that the
medicine couldn’t treat. I knew the chronic problems were getting worse, but I didn’t know she was that close to dying. The last time I went over was within three days of her death. I had been taking a course in wood identification and I thought my mother would like to know the history of some of their old family pieces. She had been lying down when I got there, but she got up and came in and was very interested in what I was doing. She didn’t seem unusually ill, although she wasn’t dressed.

A few nights later, in the middle of the night, the phone rang. D. answered it. She woke me up. I took the phone and my father said, “Mother’s gone.” I couldn’t take this in. I said, “Oh, that’s terrible. I’ll call you back in the morning,” and I just hung up. D. said, “You
said what !? You can’t do that!” I called him back and said I’d be over. I did go over. I think it was about 3:30 when he called me. I don’t have a very clear memory of those wee hours. I do know when I got there the body was gone, and I remember that I did not want to see her
body. The student who was living with my parents had called the rescue squad and for weeks after my father blamed them for not doing something for her. She had gone into the bathroom and had a spell of wheezing, but the official cause of death was heart failure.

I basically hooked myself onto the telephone because there were a lot of relatives to notify and that’s what I was comfortable doing. Probably my sister was more comforting to my father. By being on the telephone I was trying to stiff-arm my feelings. I was avoiding
face-to-face contact and avoiding letting down. I kept active. With all the busy-ness I tried to busy myself. There was tons of food being brought in and I was trying to keep track of that. It was kind of compulsive.

The whole thing was so intense and so unexpected. I don’t remember if it was the night before the funeral — the sequence is all mixed up — my father’s family came over, people we almost never saw. They were laughing and carrying on. My sister and I were waiting on them and we wanted to let down and feel our feelings. We thought, they act like they don’t know what’s happened; they’re out there laughing. My sister and I had a hard time with that because they were people we hardly knew. My father’s side of the family was much more of the worldly,
social, country club, small talk type. My mother’s were more religious, down home, let go and be real. We weren’t as comfortable with the socialites. It could have been some of my mother’s strictness about alcohol. My parents were both teetotallers, except for a bottle of brandy — the same one for years — that was kept for colds.

The minister who did the funeral didn’t know her. She’d been such a shut-in during the few years before her death that she hadn’t been going to church. He did come to the house and we gave him some of her scriptures. He pulled it together. I’d been involved in the music, but the service itself was just something I had to get through. The content wasn’t helpful to me. We went to the grave afterwards and it was an ordeal.

The first feeling I had after she died was relief. I didn’t have this criticism hanging over me. Of course I felt guilty about that! She had been a highly, highly critical parent, and until she died, I always felt very criticized and that I would never attain her expectations.
The criticism didn’t discourage me from trying new things. On the contrary, I always had a feeling I was special. The criticism was connected with perfectionism. “You’re brilliant! You’re perfect! You can do anything!” But you can never be perfect. There was not constant
fault finding, just a pervasive mindset, the kind of criticism that doesn’t beat you down but makes you neurotic as hell.

Within a few weeks before she died, I was sitting on my bed and called her on the phone. I asked her why she hadn’t become a professional woman, even though I knew it wasn’t much done by people of her generation. I was sure she could have been a CPA without much of an effort. Her response to me was, “I just wasn’t very ambitious, I guess.” She was comfortable with that. It was a revelation to me that she would say that. I’ve felt since then that she gave me a kind of gift when she said that. It’s okay not to be entirely competitive and ambitious. There are other things to value.

Another story connected with how critical my mother was when we were children, she would play the piano for pleasure. She had books with waltzes and songs that she would play on the piano. I started to get up on the piano bench at three, and at four, they decided I needed lessons. At some point my mother decided she would take lessons from that same person. She quit because she couldn’t stand the criticism.

I also took from the death an anger with the medical establishment. My sister agrees with me about this: Over-medication shortened my mother’s life, and the wrong combinations of drugs she was given contributed as well. The long-term cortisone use didn’t help her heart either. It was easy for those doctors to keep prescribing things and she didn’t question. Also, the overuse of antibiotics for her lung infections precluded effectiveness of antibiotic drugs for her later. She got a low-grade infection that the drugs couldn’t treat.

I felt cheated. I really thought we’d have her into old age. My sister and I talked about an expectation we had that Mother would get old and outlive Daddy. We were closer to her. We had a problem with our dad because of his bigotry, which he would express at the dinner table when we were children. Integration in the schools was just starting at that time, and they put us in private schools. We had developed a relationship with him at arms’ length.

Since then he has changed so much and unexpectedly. He’s quite a dear. He’s so caring. But at the time of the death, for me, I wanted to share things more with Mother rather than with Daddy. I felt really wronged and cheated that she was gone, a helpless anger and sadness.
There were things we never got to communicate that we might have. We were just approaching the place that we could have shared. There are still times I miss the opportunity of having her present to share things, like when I had my composition performed. She more than anyone else supported and encouraged me in my music. I grew up hearing her play “Largo” from Xerxes and I’ve been playing that at funerals. I’m giving something that passed through my mother and me and I’m giving it to these grieving people. I like that sense of continuity. It’s a beautiful piece that sustains the human spirit. It’s that kind of strength that helps you to bear up. It helps me to bear up.

Besides connecting with my mother through music, I connect with her through genealogy. Genealogy had been important for Mother during those last few years, and I continue to work on her genealogical research, bringing it into a more completed form. We have a tape that a friend had made with my mother on a genealogical field trip. I listened to her voice quite a lot in the early part of the bereavement period. It was very comforting and it was strange.

After my mother passed over, I sensed mutual forgiveness. I felt we healed mutually and forgave each other things. She knows and accepts who I am and what I do. I have a sense of her understanding that’s helped me a lot. So when I go back and remember things, it’s in a different context. Sometimes I still break down because being a motherless child isn’t easy.

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