Who is my Mother?

by Elouise

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.

Year 1
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.

Age 5
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.

Age 6
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.

Age 11
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.

Post-High School
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.

Age 21
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