Who is my Mother?
I wish I knew. As a child I asked her to tell me her story. Sometimes she gave me bits and pieces, but she didn’t seem to think her story was very important. Especially if that meant talking about how she felt when she was growing up. Besides, there was always another baby in her arms needing attention.
How Things Felt to Me
- She wants me to talk, say something, anything. I want her to stop talking, stop interrupting me, stop commenting on everything and anything that comes into her head.
- She wants conversation. I want peace, quiet, solitude.
- She wants people around me; she thinks I don’t have enough friends. I want just one quiet friend, or solitude.
- She cares deeply about how things look. I care deeply about how things feel.
- She’s socially skilled. I feel like a klutz; tongue-tied; self-conscious.
- She has gorgeous wavy hair. I have straight hair that she keeps trying to “fix” with permanents.
- She makes constant comments about how I could better wash a dish, dry a dish, put a dish away, cook a cut of meat, fold a towel or diaper, iron a shirt or ruffles. I just want her to leave me alone.
As a teenager I sometimes feel emotionally and psychically exhausted. Exhausted from trying to avoid her, or from resisting what feel like prying questions about me or my classmates. Exhausted from withholding things about myself because I don’t want to hear her comments about them or give her access to my thoughts or feelings. Exhausted from maneuvering to avoid what feel like intrusive, manipulative behaviors. Exhausted from her assumption that if I don’t respond to her, I am the problem.
Every choice I make seems fraught with emotional baggage. It sometimes seems that I hold the key to her happiness. She doesn’t say the words, but I think she wants answers to questions such as these: Do you love me? Am I making a difference in your life? Do you need me? Why don’t you talk to me more or confide in me?
I wish I had known then what I know now. Not just in terms of “facts” about her, but what it took to survive in her family of origin, as the wife of my father, and the mother of four daughters. When I was an adult she finally agreed to tell us her story. As requested, she focused on what it was like for her to grow up without a mother.
My Mother’s Early Years
This overview draws on her written words and on notes I made during interviews and conversations with her in the late 1990s. My mother died in 1999, without adding anything to her written story beyond her 11th year.
Born in 1921, female, first child, only daughter; born with congenital scoliosis.
Age 2 ½
Only brother born in 1923; few memories of her mother taking direct care of her, especially after her brother’s birth.
Age 3 ½
Swimming lessons; followed by pre-kindergarten ballet lessons that ended following her first “embarrassing” performance.
Already “the apple of my father’s eye” – her brother is her mother’s favorite. Doesn’t remember witnessing arguments between parents, though she knows they had begun.
Enters 1st grade; a few weeks later she’s taken by her father to stay for a while with his mother and her aunts; changes schools; brother soon joins them and they go to stay with friends for about a week. No explanation; fear expressed that they might be picked up and taken back home to their mother. Father becomes her primary caregiver for the rest of her childhood and teenage years. She says, “I do not remember being given any type of responsibility, and even the clothes I wore were always picked for me day by day so that independent choices were quite an unknown quantity to me.” Her father was also her only disciplinarian which often happened after he got home from work.
Age 7 and beyond
Enters grade 2, finishes grades 2 and 3 in one year and later skips 6th grade. Back to grade 2—she moves with her father and brother into a new home. Her mother files for divorce in 1928. She has found a man with more money. Divorce proceedings are bitter and costly. Her father gets sole custody of the children, after the children tell the judge privately in chambers that they want to stay with their father. Her mother gets the house, and is forbidden to visit the children at their present home. The divorce becomes final in 1931.
Her mother shows up unannounced from time to time to “visit” her at school, always with a gift in hand; experienced by my mother as intrusion and an embarrassing humiliation due to her mother’s loud, flashy ways of dressing, behaving, and making a big fuss about her daughter—after having her called out of her classroom by the principal for a “visit” with her mother. She is deeply embarrassed by the stigma of having a divorced mother who is not allowed to take care of her own children, and who filed for divorce. Sometimes my mother feels life would be easier to face if her mother were dead, “…so deep was my sense of frustration before my schoolmates with total inability to say how I felt.”
Some time later
Her mother shows up unannounced at her father’s home in the evening, accompanied by two men with badges. They say they’re court clerks. The men push their way in and handcuff her father; her mother and one of the men begin to search the house. My mother and Brother hide in a bedroom closet, but her mother finds them and picks up Brother saying, “You’re coming with me!” She looks at my mother but doesn’t speak to her at all. She and the men leave the house with distressed Brother and her handcuffed father. The men let her father go several blocks away after warning him not to call the police or they’ll be back to hurt him. Her mother boards a train that night with Brother and takes him across the country. No communication. About two years later she knocks at the front door and deposits Brother—too much trouble.
Her father files for bankruptcy; he loses the house to foreclosure; the long, expensive court battle takes its toll. Her father tells them they’re leaving town for another state. They’re to tell no one at school or at church. Without saying goodbye to anyone, they leave on New Year’s Day by bus with what they can carry in suitcases. My mother writes, “This whole chapter of my life was shut completely and with finality.” In a new state and city, far away from their old home, they rent an apartment in a downtown hotel; later they move into an efficiency apartment. A family member brings some personal belongings by car. School starts immediately after the holidays; my mother enrolls and completes the second half of 7th grade.
Age Unknown – High School?
A group of young men/boys do something to my mother that clearly shames and humiliates her. After she marries she tells my father; he is the only person she ever tells. Every attempt by me or my sisters to find out what happened fails. Always with the same reasoning: It’s better to just let the past be the past; besides, it’s of no help and no importance now. Yet it is clearly alluded to multiple times when we are teenagers and later married adults.
Attends and completes a 3-year Bible institute in Canada; already an accomplished pianist. Strict division is maintained between women and men: separate seating areas for chapel, different rules, and different treatment. But she is privileged: she works regularly with the male quartet, accompanying them on the piano during practice time and performances, and arranging some of their songs. Well-liked by classmates and professors, popular, happy, and an outstanding student. The good old days for her.
September 1942: Marries my father following a brief courtship and engagement. Brief video of their wedding shows a vibrant, beautiful, happy young woman. Their life plan: Go to Africa as missionaries. They are already candidates with a mission organization; her new husband travels for speaking engagements; she lives in a mission home with a married couple and their 8-yr old daughter.
My Mother, Myself
These words are painful. Despite my determination to be different from my mother, we share at least this:
- First-born daughters
- Grow up feeling shame, humiliation, and doubt about ourselves
- Are virtually “motherless,” even though we have biological mothers
- Disciplined primarily by our fathers
- Abandoned when we most need mothering
- Not ready for marriage or for children
- Haunted by the same question: Where is my mother?
- Starving for attention from our mothers
- Musically gifted pianists
- Intelligent, bright, creative and industrious
- Not ready to take care of ourselves
- Believe that our mothers don’t love us just the way we are
©Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 February 2014
This makes me want to cry. So very sad that one life cycles into another. I’m hoping and think your mother did in the end find peace and hope these expressions are bringing peace to you too. How little we know our own families.
Ruth, Thanks for your comment about how little we know our own families. Especially, I think, our mothers. At least in my case that was true, especially about her inner world.
I read, I cry, I pray. God’s comfort fill you.
Eloise as I read your story about your mother, I sense my own mother’s story and the many similarities. I see this as a drama being played out on a movie screen somewhere in black and white film. Anyway, all I keep hearing is “change the ending”. Thanks for allowing me to be a part of your journey toward …”changing the ending.” Much love and admiration. LaVerne
Thanks for this comment–especially about “changing the ending!” A great way of stating what we long and hope to do.
I was struck by similarities to my mother, particularly her concern with how things look and the permanents! However, I think I was a willing participant in the permanents! In some ways we were opposites; she wanting silence, me wanting music and noise. But I remember feeling like I was to be a positive reflection on her which could leave me feeling more like an object than a person. I think overall I had more challenges with our relationship as an adult than as a child. As long as I slipped back into the daughter role as an adult, she was easier to get along with. But if I were to try to be an adult in our relationship, it was much more difficult. That was true even the week that she died. She was so insecure. To think of her wrapped in Jesus’ unconditional love brings me peace.
Penny, Thanks so much for sharing this! I can picture it happening just as you describe, especially after you became an adult. That’s the role my father seemed to want me to play all my life–his little girl instead of the adult woman I’d become, with a voice and perspectives of my own.
Reading the comments of others and contemplating my own reaction to what you’ve written make me ever more thankful for your generosity in sharing all this with us. Dear Elouise, you are honoring us by letting us inside your very intimate memories, trusting us with your very intimate thoughts and feelings, but you are also giving many of us (me included) the impetus to air our own dirty secrets. We air them via your courage and with your goal of freedom from them. Accepting this gift from you when it costs you so much seems wrong, too selfish, too insensitive. You are a treasured gift.
Marilyn, Thanks for putting yourself in the picture. That’s the best gift of all!
Eloise, my mother in law just passed away. Her Memorial service was Friday. I was so grateful for all the wonderful things that people shared about her. My husband didn’t experience very much of that.
Life journeys are so filled with sadness, its amazing that we survive at all. I cling to Grace. I hope our shared stories will make each of us feel significant and NOT ALONE. God Herself/Himself is amongst us.
Kathie, Thanks so much for sharing this about your mother in law. It’s sad that others experience our parents in ways we wish we had. I empathize with your husband. He has lots of company–as do you. Thanks for joining this conversation.
There are similarities here with my relationship to my mother, who died in 2009. She was terribly, terribly insecure all her life, and I didn’t realize for many years that that was where her anger came from. She was very easily hurt and emotionally fragile, and her love was more invested in her children–me and my sister–than in our father, so anything we did that she perceived as rejection or hurt made her lash out.
Your remark about your mother wanting conversation and you wanting quiet hits home. That was very much the way it was with us, too.
On the other hand, she told us often how much she loved us and tried to express that in many ways. I grew up with a muddled sense of feeling self-confident from that but at the same time terribly insecure because when she was angry (i.e., very hurt), she could say very hurtful things. She spanked me once when I was five (something I have no memory of), but realized afterwards that her action came from out-of-control emotion (fear for my safety) and never raised a hand against me again. She was a difficult and complicated person, and her last years of life were not easy. I often wish that I’d shown more patience and compassion during the last months of her life, but I was physically worn to the bone by long-distance caregiving and psychically exhausted by her demands. An ending I wish indeed that I could change.
Thank you for speaking out and thereby encouraging others to do the same. Your mother lived through some very tough experiences, and your interest in making sense of her life and of her as a person shows such wisdom and compassion. Blessings on you and your continuing journey
Nancy, Thanks for sharing these memories of your relationship to your mother. To use your own phrase, I find my relationship with my mother was “difficult and complicated,” more so than the relationship with my father. Neither was easy.
Elouise, I am struck that already there are 14 comments to your post. Maybe it’s because we have had a snow day. More likely, I think, because elements of your experience being raised by a mother born in 1921 resonate with many of ours. One anecdote: I was not allowed to read when I was growing up. Children are to be outside playing. You play until it is dark, practice the piano, do homework, go to bed. I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight. It was hard to get books, however, because I didn’t really know how to find them. We didn’t go to the library and there was no Barnes and Noble. Much, much later in life, after listening more than a few times to my mother say how angry and regretful she was that she was not allowed to sit on the porch and read as a child, she was always told to go play, I asked her why then she did not let me read. She just shrugged her shoulders and said something like, “that’s the way it was. I didn’t know any better.” I don’t think my mother has any idea who she is, just that she is determined as hell. And she is. And I guess she gave that to me.
Thanks for your story and for your comment at the very end. Strange how things that weren’t fun or even good for us somehow gave us a survival skill or two.