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06 February 2009 @ 11:48 pm
February 6  
My own mother died six years ago today.  I've decided to post a piece of writing I did about her in September of 2004.

A therapist friend tells me children are destined to work out their parents’ unresolved conflicts, and that many families have one child who is targeted as the receiver of a parent’s woe. I played that role for my mother. I used to think she resented me because we were so different, but I have come to understand that she probably feared me because she sensed our similarities held an important key to her heart, and my mother feared her heart. 

When I was growing up, the social atmosphere of our home was based on my mother’s reality, its ethos modulated by her moods.  Even as a child, I sensed something perversely innocent in all this. I saw my mother’s expectation that the family conform to her needs as due more to an unripe personality than to calculated tyranny. She had just never entirely grown up and still felt that she deserved to have things go her way most of the time.

But my sage comprehension of her emotional knots went just so far. She was doing the very best she could and had no malicious intent. I could sense this even as a young child; I could feel her genuine love for us. Still, I was filled with rage at having my best shot at growing into a confident adult ravaged by her neuroses. Of course, I did not understand it that way as a child. I just grew tired of not being seen and learned to retreat to an interior mental landscape. During these mental safaris, I must have had something of a dreamy, closed aspect to me, for my mother told me at least once how exasperated she felt at not being able to decipher me. At these moments, my face appeared as a blank wall to her, my eyes as impenetrable one-way mirrors. “What are you thinking?” She would fling this at me in a rage. I wondered if I should I be thinking what she wanted me to think, or what I really thought, and if I would ever learn to tell one from the other.

When my facial expression seemed to irritate her so deeply, I would try to do a better job of being me, but it was never any use. Her anger threw me into a state of anxiety and perplexity so intense that I went truly blank and no longer felt able to read myself.  At this point, the energy between us came full circle as I found myself in the very state that my mother perceived in me: blank. As the interior landscape evaporated, I felt fragmented and confused.

It was about this time, at the age of seven or so, that someone suggested – and in fairness, maybe it was my mother – that we kids put the piles of loose pictures we had hanging around into photo albums. I enjoyed tacking the pictures on the pages with little black corner pockets, but the pictures seemed too bare. I felt compelled to add captions. It was then that I discovered the power of writing. As the motion of my hand left its traces on the page, I gave meaning to what I saw. As I wrote, it occurred to me that more than one interpretation was possible, and that mine was as good as anyone else’s. The photo album project itself was short-lived, but its lesson was clear. From there, I moved on to poetry, and soon after, to journals. Writing allowed me to feel whole.  The evidence of my wholeness was always there on the page, in the beautiful rhythms, curves and arcs of my handwriting – my words, my language, myself.  I gradually learned to rely on those rhythms to guide me back to myself.

Much later, when I was in graduate school, my mother would call a few times a month, and ask now and then how the research was going. I would always gladly explain, but after awhile, it became a joke between us because she could never seem to wrap her mind around my project. “Mom, for the tenth time, I am looking at how metaphor works in word sense extensions…” Each time, she would apply her mind to this strange undertaking as vigorously as she could, listen to the examples, and reach an epiphany. “Oh, OK, OK, I see it now…” She wanted so much to understand.

December 14, 2002: In the picture, my mother sits cross-legged in the folding seats of the bleachers, holding the reading glasses she has just removed to look into the camera for my husband. Her very presence in the bleachers bespeaks her pride and happiness, but she appears thin and tired, and fear seeps through the left side of her face. This curious mix of emotions puts a vague and dreamy look in her eyes. I look at the photograph and wonder what she was thinking, but I have an idea: the program for my graduation ceremony is opened on her lap, and her hands rest there as if to say, “My daughter did this.”

Less than two months later, my mother died, overtaken by a failing heart, failing lungs, and a cancer of the jaw that no one else knew about until the end.  Her angry question all those years ago was more pivotal to my happiness than the endless years of school to which I subjected myself; I hope she somehow understood this. Even after years of journal writing, the blank page asks each time, "What are you thinking?" and offers boundless space for my answers. I let them all spill out, knowing each will find ample territory to emerge, unfold, and eventually assume its place in the evolving landscape of my heart.

Current Mood: not blank
dads_skrink on April 8th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC)
Your writing
I randomly clicked on your journal page by first clicking on Julia Cameron in my profile (interests) then seeing your picture come up as someone who also has Julia Cameron in her profile.
I read this post about your Mother. It was very helpful to me, because my ex-daughter-in-law seems to have some of the same tendencies. Sometimes I need to open myself to thinking about a persons behavior from a different perspective and you helped me do that.
I am a 58 year old mother of 3 and grandmother of 7 who lives in Ohio.
Hope you had a great trip to Argentina.
pbramante on April 9th, 2009 04:36 am (UTC)
Re: Your writing
Thanks very much for your message. I'm happy that the piece about my mom helped you to see/think about your ex-daughter-in-law in a new way.

I too am an ex-daughter-in-law, and find my ex-mother-in-law to be one of the coolest, most amazing people in the world.

Argentina was GREAT.