Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Mother's Thick Love: A Daughter's Confession

Of course I love my mother but there are days when I mourn the mother she could have been.

My mother left me when I was six weeks old while she went off to quietly have her nervous breakdown. My first memories are filled with whispers passed through the cupped hands of the women in my family. When they spoke of her, of her illness, it always sounded as if she was on vacation, off somewhere doing something restorative.
 
I would be nearly an adult before I realized that my mother's journey through mental illness was a harrowing one. Those early years while I toddled behind my grandmother captivated by the magic of earthworms and butterflies and leaves, my mother was in a mental institution enduring  a battery of treatments for her paranoid schizophrenia. In the the 60s this included shock therapy which left  huge gouges in her long-term memory. She still can't remember important milestones in her early years. Now, more than fifty years of psychotropic drugs have left her body ravaged with kidney failure, hypertension and dexterity issues all exacerbated by the drugs that has kept her sane.

Though I always felt abandoned by her as a child, I still think of my mother as a regal vision in her black high heels, form fitting dresses, her hair pulled elegantly back from her face and her lips dark red when she would return to the farm to visit me for holidays. She would kiss me on the lips and hug me so tightly that sometimes I feared her. She always looked like she was about to cry when she saw me. I always knew she loved me and I knew it was a mighty love. My grandmother would watch her as though she was afraid that something awful might happen.


One of the few earlier photos of us together. Surprised that she is not dressed up. 
Sometimes I felt as though I had lost my real mother, that she had been replaced with this woman who was whispered about, a woman who I barely knew.  But even as she was (the woman who sometimes saw things, sometimes said things that made others uncomfortable) my mother was a beauty, a magnificent artistic talent who played piano by ear, produced beautiful art with pencil and paint.

In my other life, the one I imagined for us back then,  she held my hand everywhere we went, she took me for swim lessons (I never learned to swim.), taught me to play the piano like her, and  told me of the days after she was released from the hospital and  moved to Louisville to become a beautician. I imagined myself at her feet, my head in her lap, the awe of her washing over me.

The reality was that even though I knew she had given birth to me I spent most of my youth thinking of my mother as a sister of sorts. My grandmother was the one I counted on. She was sturdy as a rock and could solve any problem, answer any question. My mother was beautiful and strange and fragile. There was always a look in her eye that I couldn't quite identify. She told me she loved me all the time.  I came to think that she loved me too much. At some point I decided that it was her love for me that had driven her crazy.

When I was in my late teens, my mother lived in Lexington and I had moved from my grandparents farm to nearby Richmond where I attended college. I drove thirty minutes to her little apartment that always reeked of cigarettes and the smell of fried meat to visit. Her apartment was on the second floor and had an bright orange door that stood out from the lime green doors of the other apartments. She wore an Afro sometimes back then and worked in a hotel.  She always invited me to look through her jewelry box for a trinket to take back to school with me. I always felt as though she was still trying to coax some greater love from me than I had to give. I would take something small from the yellow velvet jewelry box to make her happy. A pin, a cheap piece of costume jewelry, earrings that I kept but never wore.

These visits were awkward and often we would sit in her living room or at her kitchen table just staring at each other then at the wall or floor. Sometimes she would fix me something to eat but didn't know any of my eating habits the way a mother would. Once she had made salmon croquettes. She was embarrassed when I said "Oh, I'm allergic to fish." By this time, her illness was controlled with the medication but still I felt as though we were both learning the ways of  strangers. But during  those college years my mother and I grew close. My mother was the first person I called when I became pregnant instead of my grandmother. My mother saw my son shortly after he was born and came to stay with me in Richmond a few days after he was born. I drove to Lexington often to see her and when I graduated from college I moved to Lexington. In the years that followed she and I and my children would travel back to the farm to see my grandparents as a fully-realized family.

My mother and I have been close for more than thirty years now. Sometimes when she talks of my childhood she tries to reassure me "Your grandmother wouldn't let me have you," she says "because..." And  I feel it again that smothering mother love that she has for me rising up in her, a powerful kind of love that she never got to act out. And it is in these moments that I try not to overreact, try not cry, try not recreate myself a girlhood with her as some other mother. I allow her to love me with as thick a love as she can stand and I just love her back.

15 comments:

  1. This is beautiful writing - so blatantly honest it brings a sharp pain to the gut. I was sitting at the computer, TRYING to write my own Mother's Day tribute, and the feeling I was trying to communicate (and failing to) was exactly the kind of honesty you present here. Very moving piece...

    ReplyDelete
  2. My mother had a breakdown when she hit menopause. Back then women went to the mental hospital for that. She was admitted twice. The first time was in the summer and I never remembered that. It all ran together in my mind because I didn't have to leave home. The second time was during the school year and my older sister and brother were busy with school. And my dad worked. They couldn't take care of me so I was shipped off to some older cousins on the other side of town. And I went to a different school. I thought for years that I was punished for making my mother sick. I was the only one sent away after all. We visited my mother in the hospital once. She offered me an apple, and when I said yes, she reached into her underwear drawer and took and apple out. I knew then that my mother really must be crazy because who would keep fruit in their underwear drawer? I didn't understand that if it was in plain sight, the other patients might wander in and take it. I was seven years old.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mournful, touching and uplifting, all at the same time. Thank you, Crystal. Happy Mother's Day to you -

    ReplyDelete
  4. This broke my heart. In a really good way.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I can't come up with the property words to express how this narrative had moved me. It's so beautiful, sad, loving and warm. A wonderful tribute to you moyher and the relationship the two of you have formed.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have known you for twenty years. We have shared stories of our mamas many times and I have been around, and with, you and your mama, but I have never seen these early pictures of her before. I am reduced to a shiver and a deep inhale, by how physically deep you are in her face and body, and how deep your son and girls are too -- in the face and body of you, and she. Your beautiful eyes, your very particular jaw line, are all there in that first precious image of her that you share. Adrienne Rich has that poem about turning 45, that I adore, where she says, and I am paraphrasing, a daughter puts her hand in her sleeve and (surprise) her mama's hand comes out! This happened to me precisely in my 45th year. For most of her life my grandmother mostly refused to talk about being a Black woman in the world. Too much pain to stir up. She was a Black woman born in 1900 -- who died in 1999. She had seen a hundred years of sorrow. But I do remember that she did have this one line she would say when some memory crept across her mind -- there she would be-- on her porch -- at the end of the day -- trying to get her quiet determined upright self back, "Black women," she would say," make up the walls of the hospitals and Black men make up the floors of the jails..." She would rock to the melody of this truth for hours and we knew to leave her be while she did. I love how much love you have for your mother in every alphabet scribbled here. So very much love. Happy Mother's Day dear friend.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This article meant a lot to me. My mother also suffers from mental illness. It is hard for me to talk about with others. It is hard for me to put words to something that when I am able to catch it - explain it just right - no one understands. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you everyone. This was a very hard piece to write.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  10. Your writing is beautiful and so are you. Thank you for sharing this part of you. You touched my soul.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Honest writing that is awesome & powerful.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Crystal,
    This is so beautiful and so strong.

    www.totsymae.com

    ReplyDelete
  13. I just read this now (in August) for the first time. Thank you. Don't have the words for what it meant to me and how much I admire it. Much love, Neela

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thank you for this. The words are coming, the tears, too, but I can't translate them yet. But thank you for feeling this and honoring us with your sharing.

    ReplyDelete