My mom and I, like many mothers and daughters, had a difficult and complicated relationship. The difficulty began, as I remember it, when I was 9, and it continued until she died. For years, we both held on to the hope that someday the other one of us would finally see the light and we would, at last, be friends. But that hope died seven years ago, long before she did.
We are all indelibly shaped by our upbringing, scarred in some way by our childhoods. My mother, who grew up during the Depression, was molded by what she described as merciless teasing by her father and the presence – or absence – of a mother who wore the pants in the family.
My grandmother, born in 1897, was a force of nature – the first female president of the Indiana State Farm Bureau who once gave a speech to a convention in Faneuil Hall. In a different speech, to an audience of one, she told my mother that she wished her only daughter had been a boy.
Whatever my grandmother meant by that, my mom felt herself judged unworthy, and spent the rest of her life trying to win the unconditional love she never knew. It was, of course, an impossible quest, and it marked those of us who failed her. I have also come to believe that it was the root cause of tremendous physical and emotional pain in her last years.
Today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. But to me, my mother died five years earlier, along with that long-held hope. In the middle of a massive upheaval in my life, I learned that I could count only on her disapproval and her judgment, not her support. Today, I understand that she must have looked at me – choosing a path that so firmly repudiated her own choices – and relived the rejection she felt from her mother. On that devastating day, a lifetime of unspeakable hurt assaulted me through a phone line stretched not between miles, but between generations.
I know now that my mother probably did the best she could with the inadequate tools she was handed. Still, the compassion I feel for her is tinged with questions and uncertainty. Death ended her suffering. I mourn instead for the pain that caused it.