Mother and Me~
Not long ago I read a comment that expressed how I felt about my mother, “ I did not grieve for her death rather I grieved for the life she so desperately wanted and never achieved”.
My mother, Thelma, was beautiful, elegant, glamorous, curious,
intelligent, and loved to laugh. She set aside her dreams of going to college when told by her adoring parents there was only enough money to send their firstborn son. Thus, after graduating from high school, she worked as a dental assistant. Although she dated many attractive and successful men, she married my father, Sidney, because she fell in love with his mother, Minnie.
Minnie, was tiny in stature, but a tour de force. She was widowed twice over and left with three sons to bring up. Both husbands had died young but left her with two thriving businesses, valuable real estate, antiques, jewels and furs. Minnie kept the businesses thriving. She and her sons wanted for nothing. The boys were college educated and each had a business waiting for them when they graduated.
When Thelma meets Sidney, he is a recent graduate from Boston University and in charge of running the family junk business. Elegant, funny, and thought of as a ‘catch’, Sidney also has a secret: He is a diabetic, and only the very recent development of insulin saves his life. When Thelma experiences Sidney’s diabetic seizures, she wants to run for her life. But Minnie, whom she had come to love, extracted a promise from her; to marry Sidney. When Minnie, dies unexpectedly, at 48, of an asthma attack, Thelma sets her fears aside, and marries Minnie’s son.
Within six months Mother know this life is not for her and returns to her parent’s home, not knowing she is pregnant with me. Terminating the pregnancy is not a consideration. She returns to her marriage and her carefree life is replaced with one increasingly filled with a loneliness and disappointment no amount of beauty can fix.
When World War II is declared, Sidney’s diabetes leaves him exempt from the draft. But his business thrives: Junk metal is vital for making war machinery. When the stress of fulfilling contracts affects his already frail health, he decides to sell his business. Although he has some cash he has trouble finding work that will suit him. Mother knows of a neighbor in their apartment building who works as a watchmaker, and implores him to take Sidney as an apprentice. He agrees. Sidney will be a self-employed watchmaker, working alone in a small office, until he retires.
Because of their vastly reduced circumstances, and the imminent birth of my brother, when I am five, mother moves us back to the second floor apartment of her parents house, a place she thought she’d left forever.
When I am nine, we spend the summer at The Nautilus Inn, a Nantasket Beach family resort. It is here Mother and someone else’s husband fall in love. When we return home Mother goes downstairs to beg grandpa to sanction a divorce, something he will not do during his lifetime. My father will not leave of his own free will. Upstairs silence fills the rooms of our apartment, except for those nights when the sound of my mother’s rage interrupts my dreams.
Three years later, over my grandfather’s objections, my mother asks my father to move out of the house. Two years later my grandfather dies and mother begins divorce proceedings. Her lover has been waiting in the wings. Legally, they must wait six months after the divorce, before marrying. The wedding happens in August.
During this time my grandparent’s house is sold. Mother and her lover purchase the house of her dreams, an English Tudor with a stone tower entryway, in Newton, a neighborhood of upwardly mobile Jews. One steamy August afternoon we pass into the future through our new front door. Little do any of us suspect this marriage will soon be over.
By September it is apparent Thelma’s new husband, who is in the discount furniture business, is unable to furnish our house. For family occasions he delivers furniture from his store the morning of the event and returns it a few days later. He also has other problems. He doesn’t get along with my grandmother or the dog. My brother and I are required to ask his permission before we invite friends over. And he is not subtle in his desire to have mother all to himself. They spend most evenings in their bedroom, door locked. Thus, we are all contained, unhappily, under one roof, in this beautiful unfurnished house.
My brother and I enter school. He is in elementary school and soon his friends Mother’s call saying my brother is stealing things from their houses. I am a senior in a high school where I know no one. My survival instincts rise up and by October I am the girlfriend of the quarterback of the football team. When football season is over so is our relationship. I have a new boyfriend. He is twenty-two and a semi pro football player. He isn’t working ,so I often I play ‘hookey’, and end up at his house instead of school. At night I tell my mother I am going to the library but, more often than not, my boyfriend and I are at the Band Box, a boozy dance club in Boston.
Of course I am found out, and my relationship with my mother, which has always been a struggle of wills, intensifies. She has taken to following me in her car, hoping to discover my whereabouts. One night, while my boyfriend and I are parked in the neighborhood “making out” place, the passenger door, on which I am leaning, flies open. I fall backward and look upside down at my mother. In a voice filled with rage, she demands I get into her car. I do. It is the last I see of this boyfriend. Not only am I under house arrest, I must spend two hours, for fifteen days, in detention hall, in order to graduate. All this happens within the first six months of my senior year in high school.
The good news is, as spring arrives, the new husband goes. When a few month’s later my mother asks if me I think my father might leave his girlfriend and come home, I wonder, what is she thinking? She could barely stand living with him and now she wants him back? Of course my father abandons his new girlfriend. My parents re-marry when her divorce is final. Mother finds a position selling Revlon cosmetics at
Filene’s department store where she works for forty years. She develops a
fan base of customers who will only buy what she suggests. Men and women friends tell me they often drop by Filene’s simply to see what she is wearing, or admire her beauty. Mother tells me this job was her salvation. It allowed her to maintain her sanity.
I learn later Thelma’s motivation for re-marrying Sidney was based on my brother’s dual diagnosis at the Mass. General Hospital. He is dyslectic, something that can be helped, and he has a sociopathic personality, something nothing will ever be able to alter. My mother is devastated and frightened by this diagnosis. She hopes restoring the family might help my brother. Fortunately my brother is not violent but he will damage everyone within his reach. Thelma will buy a house and live with my brother, his wife, who is also disturbed, to take care of her new grandson. Mother will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, right up until she dies, trying to keep her son out of jail. But in the end, she cannot save her son or keep his behavior from destroying his family.
In the midst of all this, during the winter of my senior year in high school, I meet a college boy. It is love at first sight for both of us. He is handsome, smart, funny and heir to a prosperous family business. When I am nineteen and he twenty-one we marry over our college Christmas break. My mother finally breaths easy as I am now on the path of meeting not only her unfulfilled expectations for herself, but what she dreamt of for me. Five days after our first wedding anniversary our daughter is born and we acquire new titles: Added to Mr. and Mrs. is Mom and Dad.
Sixteen years and three children later our marriage is in trouble. And so am I. My mother and husband often fight over what I am allowed to buy or wear, over who has control of me, and I feel like a tennis ball being whacked back and forth over the net. Then, unexpectedly, my Father dies, leaving me, daddy’s girl, shaken to the core. I awaken one day, as if emerging from a dream, weighing eighty-nine pounds. My family doctor suggests I seek out a therapist. The therapist suggests my husband join me in therapy. He declines because, as he sees it, it is my problem.
I enter therapy twice weekly for three years, yet my eating disorder remains. I return to school to attain my Bachelor’s degree. And then, one winter weekend, I fall in love with a young man who works at the mountain where we ski. As our affair takes hold, my eating issues loosen their hold on me. Believing the cause of my food addiction is I have been starved for love, I find the courage to ask for a divorce.
Mother is furious. As she sees it I am leaving a life many women yearn for, and our mother-daughter struggle intensifies. We are estranged for years. But I do not care. I am finally free of him and of her.
When my divorce is final, I make plans to move to Holderness, NH, my lover’s territory. I buy an old partially restored barn to renovate with my lover’s help. We move in after the kids get out of summer camp. We spend the next few months adjusting to our new world, and I discover my lover has quite a temper, something that was not apparent before we lived together. Within a year he is gone. While he was an essential piece in changing my life I discovered living with him was out of the question. We all exhale when he is gone from our lives. The kids assimilate into our new lifestyle, however my issues with food return with vengeance. I am both frightened and mystified by its hold on me. Luckily I find a therapist who helps me understand the basis of my addiction. With her support I return to school and earn an MA in the Psychology of Women, which gives me insight into the locus of being a woman. Both therapy and the work for my Master’s allow me to put fifteen years of food addiction behind me. Over time I make friends, join organizations, find meaningful work, and a place in the community, where I feel at home.
Time, distance, and new insights overcome the discord with my mother.
I better understand many of her remarks came from wanting me to live a better life than she. And her criticisms, once embedded in most of our conversations, are replaced by her now oft said and famous remark, “Marjorie, “you are not the usual.”
The last days of Thelma’s life are spent in my home. My children visit daily. On the last morning of her life, I enter her room and find she is half awake. I ask, are you ready for coffee? She nods her head dreamily, smiles, and then says, Midgie, you know I always loved you!
I love you too, I reply, and leave to get her coffee. My daughter Jamie arrives to sit with her grandmother. A few moments later Jamie cries out, Grandma isn’t breathing. I walk towards the bedroom, knowing she is gone. We dress Thelma in her favorite clothes, put on her Revlon Red lipstick, and open the windows, letting her spirit fly free.