Summer is upon us, and I’m not looking forward to it, entirely. The thought of another summer spent with my mother is bringing Christmas to mind.
My mother spent this past Christmas in the hospital. “You and Prince Philip,” I tell her with a chuckle over the phone, because we’re Protestant and that’s how we deal with uncomfortable situations: via flippant comments, frequently regarding royalty. The reason for her hospitalization is a gathering cloud over the phone line, heavy with fear but unacknowledged, and only guessed at since it’s Christmas and all the lab people are on holiday. But inevitable, dreaded for years, she’s been sick twice before so it’s going to happen again, that’s just guaranteed. It’s the timing that’s the kicker, the news coming during a flying visit to the city to see her granddaughter and help her other daughter pick a wedding dress, delivered to her over cell phone at a party as she helped take Cookie’s coat and boots off, just a week before Christmas. (Why the sudden rush? She’s been complaining to the doctors since last February and they’ve been waving off her suspicions, so they must be seen to be responsive when it counts, I suppose.)
The other cloud hanging over our conversation is the fact that I can’t tell her that I love her and am terrified for her and for our family. It’s just not who we are with each other. My dad’s a different story: “I love you” comes easily to him, and aware that it’s not easy for us he says, offhandedly but significantly, “Yep, I’ll tell her you love her” after I say “Tell her we’re thinking of her” when she’s in surgery. So why can’t I tell my mother I love her?
This is a question I’ve been grappling with for months. For the past two summers I’ve spent several months with Cookie and my mother at our family retreat, our farm, and am about to do the same again, against my better judgment. The first summer, Cookie was brand new and I was glad for the guidance and support and my mom was glad to provide it. This past summer, my mother forgot the number one rule from the previous summer — only give advice when asked — and resented the couple nights I asked her to watch Cookie so I could go back to the city and try to reconnect with Cookie’s dad. Bitter comments followed my return each time, and the resentment on both sides grew over the course of the summer. By the end, anything she said to me in front of others was rude or critical (strangely, she was almost nice when we were alone), so I was ecstatic when she left. I now know that she was frightened and in pain the whole time (and why couldn’t she just tell me this?), but I’m still completely confused by how our relationship deteriorated, although not entirely surprised. To be honest, I was more surprised the previous summer when it did not deteriorate, since historically our limit seems to be two weeks’ uninterrupted time together. And that’s the extreme limit, the point at which silent treatments start. I’ve always speculated that the problem lies in how alike we are, and of course swore up and down after some particularly cruel comments that I would never treat my daughter the way she treats me. But, as inevitable as illness itself, we are destined to become just like our moms.
I am profuse and exhibitive with my affection for Cookie. I tell her several times a day I love her; I hug and kiss her every chance I get; I smile at her frequently and for no reason. And yet, I find myself at times shutting down in front of her or giving her mini versions of the silent treatment I’ve inherited from generations of women in my mother’s family, and it scares me. Was this how my mother was with me? Did she lavish me with love and attention when I was little? I can’t remember, but it’s quite possible. I was her first, and new, and adorable (weren’t we all?), so how could she resist? And if that’s the case, at what point did our current pattern develop? When my sister was born? When I became considerably less adorable, with glasses and braces? Or when I became a teenager and shut myself off from her? Whatever the cause, I’m determined to avoid it, but am terrified that I can’t. Much like the illness we’re faced with.
I recently worked on a project that had to do with this illness and alternative ways to treat it, and was inspired to tackle it myself in such a way, if it comes down to it. But I have a hard time sharing this knowledge with my mother, even though it could save her life. She’s skeptical; she’s been down the other road before (and look how that turned out, I argue); she’s more comfortable within the conventional system; and although she’s not afraid of change and newness, she’s not going to radically alter how she lives her life. These are my arguments to myself. I casually mention a woman in Owen Sound who has done phenomenal things; I consider my work done. But I swear to myself that I will change. I will look for a naturopath and take preventive measures. I will be strong enough to extricate myself from the system and visit the woman in Owen Sound if this ever happens to me. I will live a long, healthy life free of pain and fear and negativity and withheld affection. I will not be like my mom. Ironically, I feel that I owe her that.
-East End Mama
[image source: Andy Warhol Prints]