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.|
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.