Contradictions: a daughter’s unvarnished rememberance

Over the last few days, so many people have talked about my mother’s generosity, her kindness, how much she enjoyed helping people. All of this is true. Even as she was getting sicker, she helped some elderly residents in her building with their cooking and cleaning. She loved to cook and have people in for dinner, and in her younger days often invited people who were almost total strangers to meals if she thought they needed a place to spend a holiday or were far from home and missed their mother’s home cooking (this was how we came to be friends with a bunch of professional football players who were renting a house down the street). Sometime in the early 70’s she invited a bunch of foreign exchange graduate students whom she’d met through a friend’s Rotary Club to Christmas dinner. That night we had an Egyptian, an Israeli, a German, and Brit all sitting around the dinner table. Peace on Earth. She was generous with what money she had, often to a fault and would come up short in her own finances after having given a friend or acquaintance some money because she thought they needed it more. She was fun-loving and an excellent teller of jokes (most off-color). She came from very humble beginnings (her father was a coal miner) and though she always wanted to better herself, she also taught us not to look down on anyone, that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Despite some of the ethnic jokes she told, she was a fervent supporter of the Civil Rights movement, and cried for days when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. “He was a hero, a real hero,” she said over and over. She held firmly to the idea that we should always try to help out those who were worse off, rather than blame them for their circumstances.

The image, though, that kept flooding my mind on the flight home from Ohio was the time she tried to drown our dog in the swimming pool, laughing maniacally while she held the struggling animal’s head under water. She was drunk at the time, and mad at her boyfriend and hence the world. When she got into one of those moods, it was frequently taken out on those who were smaller and more helpless. My sister was able to push her away and we rescued the dog, but the next morning we took our pet to the animal shelter, hoping it might be adopted but figuring even if not the end would be more humane, as we could not be there all the time to protect it.

Though they knew her as a mercurial and at times stubborn and difficult woman, most people outside our immediate family did not see the very dark side of my mom’s personality. Yes, they knew she drank, but they saw the good-time party girl who bought rounds for the bar and then brought everyone home at 2am to cook them breakfast. They usually didn’t experience the anger and the meanness that came out once she passed a certain level of intoxication, though eventually a few friends were on the receiving end of one of her tirades which ended with being abruptly and inexplicably cut out of her life. She had the capacity to be downright cruel at times. As children, we were often on the receiving end of her anger and frustration which when we were young she expressed with physical abuse, and later verbally. I walked on eggshells around her, never knowing when what seemed to me to be an innocent and neutral remark would set her off.

In my twenties, I went to Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings for several months, which turned out to be one of the best things I ever did for myself. I came away understanding her better, as well as myself. Mostly, I realized that to have a relationship with her that I would have to distance myself emotionally. In the decades since, she’d picked fights and cut off communication with me a few times, sometimes for as long as a few years’ duration. Then out of the blue she’d call, acting as if nothing had happened and we’d just been chatting the week prior. Each time we’d reconnect, the relationship was more at arm’s length, though more cordial and sustainable. To someone who is/was close to their mother, that may sound cold, but it was absolutely necessary for my own sanity and self-preservation. Mom never acknowledged her alcoholism, despite having been put in detox at one point by several of her oldest friends. She continued to drink, sometimes heavily and at other times more moderately. Maintaining a relationship with her required that her drinking was never addressed, that anything which she could possibly construe as negative about her was never broached.

Sometimes I wonder if she had been born in a different time, whether she might have found fulfillment in a career or creative endeavors. She was certainly quite intelligent and energetic, though she had embraced being a housewife and mother until my parents’ divorce eventually forced her to go back to work, where she enjoyed most of the many jobs she held. She was never an introspective person, and acknowledged the old joke that her favorite form of exercise was jumping to conclusions. She could be extremely judgemental and critical, though she often did look for the best in people. She taught us from a very early age the importance of proper grammar, for which I am grateful. I know that she loved us, though I don’t remember her being physically affectionate. Maybe that was the time, maybe that was how she was raised. She told me I was smart, and expected me to get good grades, but also stressed that I should never let “the boys” know how smart I was or I’d end up “an old maid.” She did feel that her children were a reflection on her, and could be harshly critical, especially of appearances and worried about “what people will think.” She was relentless about my weight (I can’t count the number of times I heard, “nobody loves a fat girl,”) but at the same time made sure we had beautiful clothes to wear. She often had fallings out with her siblings, all of whom had passed away before her, but held family in high esteem. Among her things we found hundreds of old pictures, many of her family that I never had seen before, but that she had hung onto though many moves and several very tumultuous decades.

As I told someone recently, this loss is tempered by the fact that I felt like I lost my mom a long time ago to alcohol, and to the rampaging part of her personality. Ultimately, I came to see her as someone with a basically good heart who at times could not control her destructive impulses, or face the devastation they had caused.

I would like to thank everyone who offered condolences in the thread below; they are very much appreciated.

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  1. Miss Pseu, Again Miss J is sorry for your loss. And even more so for the pain endured living with an alcoholic. Miss J really appreciates this lovely remembrance.

  2. This is utterly how it is. Thank you for sharing it and for hanging in during her worst phases. I hope you take comfort and strength knowing that you worked to preserve the tenuous relationship from your end (even by invoking a safe distance).

  3. Great post. It sounds like Adult Children of Alcoholics was very helpful. Thanks for reminding me that some people can’t be changed and it has nothing to do with anyone else.

  4. I can’t thank you enough for being so forthright and sharing the multiple aspects of your relationship with your mother and painting as complete a picture as you could. Like others who have posted here, I also had a difficult relationship with my mother. I thought I’d resolved it all years ago, but my mother’s worsening dementia forced me into closer relationship with her and I had to do all of that work all over again! I’ve learned to accept that I’m doing the best I can do in a difficult situation…We will never have the close relationship that I have with my own daughter, but I take good care of my mother and make sure that she is safe and happy. I feel sad for my mom – she was never able to be genuinely close to other people – and I am very happy that I didn’t repeat her mistakes.

  5. Thank you for being so honest. After the first paragraph, I was prepared to read a high praise for your mother and was somewhat chocked when I read onwards. Mothers do have faults too. My mother passed away suddenly about 3 months ago. Our relationship was a bad one. I just was never good enough for her. I came to know that she was never mentally healthy, but in the very end we managed to build some kind of a relationship. I lost a mother whom I never had.

  6. Man oh man. I’m not going to go into details here, but this post really hits home with me. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that my parents were very flawed, and in spite of that, they did the best they could. And there are still scars around surviving life with Mom and Dad.

    Take care, Pseu, and try to be at peace. Life is hard, and hopefully you’ve learned from your experience with your mom.

  7. Your post really struck home with me. I was never close with my mother. I was an unplanned, unwanted child that she ignored most of the time. It wasn’t until she started battling cancer that she started reaching out to me. She lost her battle two years ago and I’ve come to realize that she did the best that she was capable of doing. I do still get angry now and then but that’s such a waste of time.

  8. I have a mother much like yours. Unfortunately, there was, and is, no organization for the Children of the Mentally Ill. She is no longer a part of my life, and that was a hard choice, but the right one. I’m glad you have good memories and a wise understanding. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Mothers are people too. This was an amazing post. For most of us, our mothers are our first love. As we emerge into adults we can often be judgmental at what we perceive to be a “fall from grace” by our once perfect mothers. You have, very eloquently, shared your journey and it is lovely to read that you had already developed some “distance” from your mother because of her illness. You are objective enough to see the many facets of her personality. In a long life, there are bound to be horrible mistakes and errors in judgment. The point at which the “child” becomes the “grown-up” is a conflicted intersection.

  10. Thank you for such an honest post. In ways that I will never be able to explain to most people, I understand the tumultuous-ness of such a relationship. And this post came at a time when I really needed to hear I am not the only daughter on the planet with mother problems. Thank you.

  11. Deja – I’m so sorry to hear about your difficult relationship with your mother. It sounds like it was emotionally draining. It makes me realise how lucky I’ve been with my step-mother (my mother died when I was 5 and I don’t remember her), who was always affectionate and loving.

    My sincere condolences for your loss.

  12. Hi Deja: thank you for your honesty about your mother. I attend 12-step meetings for relatives of alcoholics and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself. I’m glad you found that and that it was helpful to you. And a loss is a loss, and I’ve been thinking of you since you shared last week that your mom had passed. Glad you’re back.

  13. It is obvious that you have done a lot of “work” to have to so much clarity. I admire and applaud you. Many things hit home with me while reading your post. Thank you.

  14. That was quite beautiful and clear-eyed, as well as generous. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if your mom was self-medicating a mental illness (though of course alcoholism can be its own illness). Good for you for working through it.

  15. Oh my, I hear you, Deja – loud and clear. Oy, more than I wish I did. Without boring all with my details I’ll just say that frustration, anger, and alcohol played large roles in many of my older relations’ lives, and this week I was thinking for other reasons about the oddness of it all – how can one phone call be lovely, and the next full of rage and hate? How can you hear that you are loved on Monday and finally have made them proud, but on Wednesday that you are at risk of making the wrong move and being a “loser” or “failure” and since that upsets you so, maybe the caller should just kill herself, because you would like that, wouldn’t you?

    Your other commenters get it too – these are flawed people who tried and ultimately didn’t know what they were doing.

    Thank goodness that we have the awareness to NOT make the same mistakes – we may not be perfect but we see more clearly.

  16. Whew. Words fail me, as they often do when I read your stuff. Just one of the things I love so much here is that you’re doing your best to see what’s good and true. And to have a little fun. That’s what clothes are, to me anyway: entertainment. Keeping it light. Respecting myself, others, and enjoying color and texture. Trying to make the best of the current situation, whatever it is. And how you’ve done that in your own life! You’re my role model, and as of today, heroine. Best wishes and love.

  17. Deja your post resonated with me very strongly. My father was a charismatic superintelligent person who also could be very mean and cruel. He self-medicated with alcohol and ended up taking his own life. Without knowing more, I probably should just leave it there, but I can imagine that your mother had a mental illness that she struggled to manage through alcohol.
    Parents like this loom so fiercely in our internal worlds, both the good and the bad. I am sorry for your loss, but imagine there is some relief too. Both feelings are okay.

  18. Pseu, your post saddens me, both for you, and for me. Because of you, I can see me now at the end of my own mother’s life. I’m going to be saying EXACTLY the same things.

    It’s so healthy for you to acknowledge her darker side, even as others are sanctifying her in their own eulogies.

    I am so determined not to alienate my own daughter from my life.

    I am really sorry you didn’t have a mother through your adult life. Now that she’s gone, you can really move on and heal…

  19. Such a powerful post. I thought about the dog all day since I read it. What a horrifying experience to go through with your mother. My dad is an alcoholic and I’ve been to the Adult Children meetings too, they really helped. My dad was more of an ‘absent from the home’ kind of alcoholic..he didn’t rage, he just wasn’t there much, physically or emotionally. Now at 73, he’s been divorced from my mom for years and has little to no relationship with my brother and me. It’s sad, but all I feel really is a detachment towards him.
    Funny how so many of us growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s went through a lot of similar things with alchoholic parents.
    Thank you for your honest and brave post about your mother.

  20. metscan – I’m sorry that your mother couldn’t give you the acknowledgement you deserved. It’s tough to lose someone when there’s so much unresolved.

    Mindy – I’m going to offer up my opinion that it’s not a waste of time to get angry sometimes as long as you don’t get stuck in the anger. I’m glad you were able to build a relationship with your mother.

  21. Rhiannon – thank you.

    Miss Janey – thank you. The hardest part of living with an alcoholic is that you’re not allowed to tell the truth, and so you learn to doubt your own reality and perceptions. It’s a relief now to be able to tell the truth.

  22. Duchesse – thanks, and yes, the only way to have a relationship was to maintain distance. It took a while to get there.

    Tessa-Scoffs – yes, I wish our whole culture could get past the whole concept of mothers as these perfect, infallible beings. I think my mom felt under a lot of pressure to live up to the 1950’s wife-mother ideal, and that was part of the reason that she could never tolerate any insinuation that she had fallen short. Her self-image was actually very fragile.

  23. WendyB – that’s so true. Once I stopped expecting her to sober up or change, I was able to make the decisions about what *I* needed to do.

    Kalee – judging from the comments here, there are a lot of us.

  24. Anon – I’m sorry you’re having to deal with your mother’s dementia. That must make it tough indeed. I’m glad you’ve been able to forge a close relationship with your own daughter.

    Nancy – I’m sorry this is hitting familiar notes for you. I start to wonder if most parents of our generation had substance or undiagnosed mental health issues. It seems to be so common.

  25. sallymandy – I’m glad you’ve found some support for dealing with the alcoholics in your life. At the time I was going to the meetings, the “Adult Children” concept was fairly new in the 12-step arena, so our group stalled after a while as we didn’t have people who felt comfortable enough to be sponsors or help people move forward. But just hearing other people share their stories and recognizing my own life in them was the most theraputic part.

    Carmen – it’s so hard to make the decision to let the relationship go, but I agree that sometimes it’s necessary for our own survival. I went for several years at one point without having contact with my mom, and it was what I needed to do at the time.

  26. Imogen – I’m so glad that you had the kind of love and support that all children deserve.

    L – thank you very much. I probably have some more work yet to do.

    Rita – thank you. It’s been, and continues to be quite a journey.

  27. Narya – I’m pretty certain that’s true. I did some therapy for a while, and at one point the therapist told me based on my descriptions of my mom’s behavior that she sounded like someone suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (with a side of Narcissism). It actually helped to know that.

    Anon @ 8:07a – I’m sorry that you had to go through that as well. Trying to make sense of it would drive us insane as well. None of us are perfect, but I think our parents didn’t have the resources or social support for dealing with mental health issues that we do.

  28. Karen – thanks and I’m realizing that it was a good thing that I’d accepted and worked out the limitations of what our relationship could be, so now I’m not left with any of those “if only I’d…” feelings. I have closure.

    dana – you’re very kind. And yes, without the fun, frivolous stuff, life would be very dreary indeed.

  29. spacegeek – I’m so sorry you went through that with your father, and yes, with hindsight I’m pretty certain my mother had some underlying mental illness. Yes, there is some relief too.

    LBR – I’m sorry that you too have a mother who isn’t capable of giving you the love and support you need. I know you deserve so much more.

  30. Kelly – I’m sorry that your dad wasn’t there for you. It sure does seem to be epidemic with our parents’ generation, doesn’t it? Sometimes I think that detachment is how we survive it.

    maria – thank you for your kind comment.

    Katriona – thank you for your kind comments. Yes, that description sounds like my mom to a T. And it’s true that the hardest part was the lack of trust. I learned to hide who I was because I knew that opening myself up was asking for more pain. I’m glad you were able to gain some understanding of your mother’s illness as well.

  31. I sincerely appreciate the honesty of your great post.Thank you for it. It is rare that mother/daughter relationships are without difficulty and filed with contradictions. My mother is still alive but I feel like I have been actively grieving her for years as I never really had a mother. I am sure that when she dies that the grief I feel will again be for not having a mother who was capable of mothering.

  32. Dear Deja, Your post brought tears to my eyes—my mother was not an alcoholic, but had two very different sides, one kind and loving and another that was very angry and at times insanely cruel. It was as though under a certain amount of stress, she underwent a catalytic conversion of character; aftershe would revert back to her better self, and never seem to consider her former behavior, or admit to any wrongdoing. When I was finally in therapy my shrink described her as a borderline personality. I recognize the love and sorrow in your words as if they were my own. It’s very hard to love someone you can’t trust. I think you honoured her struggle for harmony in her life by telling her whole story, and I think you can be assured that the very best of her lives on in you. All the best, Katriona

  33. Wow, “worked out the limitations of our relationship.” That just stabs at me. I have to face things as they are. I keep wanting my mommy and I’m not going to get her.

    Thanks for stirring this up in me.

  34. Dear Deja and LBR: I have had psychoanalysis for 8 years and my mother has been `present´during the sessions all the time. Being unable to talk to her, I have had the chance to process our relationship with an outsider. I have been able to feel and express my feelings towards my mother in the therapy, feelings, that were not allowed and impossible to express in her presence. Like I said, in the very end, things changed; I came to realize that she was mentally ill ,that she always had been, and that she actually believed that she did her best as a mother. She was unable to do more. Believing and realizing this, has helped me much, especially now that she´s gone. I´m not burdened with anger towards her. I feel so relieved. Thank you so much Deja for your words. I hope that my experience might give you some relief facing your future, LBR.

  35. Deja — I hope you know what a good daughter you were, to work so hard to come to a place where you could have a relationship with your mother, even if it wasn’t a picture-perfect one.

  36. I am sorry for your loss. No matter what the circumstances, losing your mother is a difficult passage of life. Like your other readers who have commented here, I also thank you for your honesty. My mother passed away a few years ago & our relationship was very strained. Many people spoke kindly of her when she passed away, but, like you, I remembered so many harsh words and damaging comments. No matter what I did, I did not measure up as a daughter. I am sad to think that she never really knew me as an adult, as others see me. Her view was narrow and bitter. The lesson learned, and it was a very important one, was how to love and respect my own daughter and son. My relationship with both of my adult children is wonderful…everything I did not have with my own mother. If I had to go through my childhood to get to this point, then I’m okay with that.

  37. I really appreciate the honesty of your post. I am sad for you, I know how the loss of a parent feels. I guess your mother had her demons that she just couldn’t rid herself of. I hope that you are good to yourself and remember the good. I do think most mothers do the best they can. I will keep you in my prayers.

  38. This is a very eloquent and touching post in memory and loss of your mother. The statement that you felt you had lost your mother long ago to alcohol really touched a chord as it speaks to the continuing tie that remained there. How wise and strong of you to continue the bond when possible even at a necessary distance. The actual loss of that tenuous bond I am sure reveals more aspects of your mother than you previously knew and also the loss of the ever fragile “could have been” that was long a part of your relationship with your mother.

  39. I read somewhere once that the people whom you see as ‘normal’ are the people you don’t know very well. Family relationships are always complex, and the richer for being so.

  40. metscan – it’s good to know you were able to do the processing and come to some peace with it.

    Karen – maybe this sounds crazy, but there’s a certain amount of relief in giving up the idea that person will ever be able to provide the kind of relationship you want. You can then start to set those boundaries based on your own needs.

  41. StyleSpy – most of the time I didn’t *feel* like a good daughter. I felt selfish. But I got to the point that I was OK with being selfish if it meant being sane.

    lvetopaint – I’m sorry you went through this with your mom, but am glad you seem to have gained some insight and applied the lessons learned to your own children. I think these experiences *can* make us more aware of how we interract with our own kids.

  42. Belle – thank you.

    Julianne – thanks for your kind thoughts. I do believe she was well intentioned most of the time, but just couldn’t recognize and fight back against her demons.

  43. Mardel – I’ll admit, there were times when I thought it would be easier to just let the relationship go. In the last few years, I kept contact mostly so she could know her grandson.

    greying pixie – generally that’s true, but as far as “more complex = richer” goes, there’s definitely a point of diminishing returns.

  44. Deja Pseu,

    Wow. It took a lot of courage, love, and wisdom to write this post.

    Thank you for sharing something that clearly resonates with so many.