“Just once before I die, I’d like to sit you in a chair so you could tell me why you were such a lousy daughter from the day you were born.”
With those words, my mother sealed her vaunted place in history as a truly narcissistic woman who lived her days casting aspersions on others’ character, but who never once looked in the mirror and asked herself what her part was in the unraveling of family relationships, her friendships and her life.
She kept her face in a Bible for most of her adult life. I don’t know what she hoped to gain from that exercise in futility because she never learned anything from it. This was the woman who would attend a prayer meeting service at her church and then drive home and call the preacher to correct him on the merits of his sermon.
I knew her as the mother with fists of fury, pounding the life out of me until I turned 27 when I finally fought back, hitting her so hard she landed on the floor. She looked up at me and said, “You hit me, you hit me!” This from a woman who spent her life slamming my head into the tile wall in the kitchen or straddling me on the floor as she beat me mercilessly and banged my head on the floor. She never laid another hand on me after that — the brutish bully had been physically overcome by her eldest daughter. Finally!
She had her moments of equilibrium and humanity — so few that I can count them on the fingers of my hands — less than 10 but more than 4.
She made herself feel better by tearing other people apart with her vitriol and meanness, harping on my father: berating him at every turn; embarrassing him at every opportunity — her shrill, gravelly voice screaming at him in the house, in public or on the phone. She was the most critical person I’ve ever known. From the moment my Dad walked into the hallway from the garage, after working the night shift at the local steel mill, she’d greet him by yelling at him over whatever she could manufacture that he had done wrong, or merely done. He found a way to ignore her. Her screaming was my 7 AM wake-up call. No need to set the alarm; the ugly that was her voice jolted me out of a sound sleep without fail every morning.
My father and I were close. For this, she punished me mercilessly. When I was 3 1/2 years of age, she handed me over to the garbage man. I remember this incident as though it happened yesterday. She was angry that I took so long to eat every meal. She looked at me and told me, “I’m tired of you; it’s time for you to go.” For some reason, I thought she meant we were going to the store, so when I put on my coat that she’d handed me, and she put on my knit hat and we walked out the back door — I was ready to go Krogering. We took the small path to the back alley, just as the garbage man was getting out of the truck to manually empty the garbage cans into the back of his truck (this was 1955 — before the age of automation). As he laid the can on the ground with a nod to my mother — she picked me up and tossed me at him, saying, “Here, you forgot something.” And there I was, secure in the arms of the black garbage man, whose astonished face spoke volumes.
“Oh Mam, you don’t want to do that; she’s a pretty little girl,” he said, his voice shaking.
“Yes, I do, she plays with her food and she doesn’t listen to me. I don’t like her.”
It was at this exact moment that I started to imagine what life might be like with the gentle soul who held me: Maybe he has a nice wife and some kids I can play with. This might not be so bad. I was mapping out my future with the garbage man and his family, certain that things would be better at his house than there were at mine.
As we both watched my insistent mother plead for him to take me away, the nice man gently set me down in front of her. I had the sinking feeling that this was not going to end well. He walked back to his truck, but not before looking at me and softly saying, “I’m sorry.” He wasn’t the only one.
My mother shoved me toward the house, and as I walked through the yard, I remember feeling so dejected and sad. What would happen to me now? Would she beat me? Would she start yelling at me for not being able to convince the garbage man to take me away?
What had I done to deserve this? I’d ask myself that same question for the next several decades.
When I’d make my mother gifts in grade school for Mother’s Day, she’d criticize them and point out where I wasn’t as neat as I could have been while crafting construction paper hearts or while memorializing my hand print in a Papier-mâché mold. We made valentines for our mothers in my Brownie Scout troop one year. I copied the verse that my friend, Vicki, wrote for her mother because I had no idea what I could say to my own.
Her meanness and anger was toxic and served as armor for a tortured, miserable, bi-polar soul who thought if she read the Bible every day and dragged her children to church 5 times per week that God would deliver her from this life and turn her children into saints, since every narcissistic mother knows it’s never she who has the problem, but EVERYONE around her.
When I left home at 18, her parting words to me were, “If they find you in a gutter, don’t give them this address.”
She would write me letters throughout the summer, telling me what she was doing and how things were going, pretending like I was her beloved daughter. I fell for this ploy throughout my adult life, eager for anything that made me feel loved. Then I’d come home for visits and she’d revert to form: screaming, beating me and telling me I’d never amount to anything. When I moved half-way across the country, she’d write me what my friends coined poisoned pen letters. They always started with something like, “I go to bed at night and think of you and I’m so angry that I can’t fall asleep.” I finally wised up and just wrote return to sender on the unopened letters and sent them back to her.
I graduated with honors from a great university, had my share of ups and downs and have experienced extraordinary highs and devastating lows, but I’m still here. Through the years, my parents helped me financially when things got rough. I struggled on many fronts at times, trying to assimilate into the workplace; always searching for who I was and dating guys who I thought might be able to rescue me from myself or my mother, and finally found the love of my life while on a trip halfway around the world. I have extraordinary friends who have supported me through the years and loved me through deep bouts of depression and cheered me on when I reached the pinnacle of success in my chosen field.
When I had a devastating health diagnosis 9 years ago and was told I only had a 25% chance of survival after the operation, I called my parents the night before the operation. When my mother answered, I said, “I just called to say good-bye in case things go south, tomorrow,” and my mother’s response was typical: “Your cousin is here. She just came back from visiting her daughter in Texas. She helped to deliver her daughter’s baby and tomorrow she and her husband are going to Hawaii. Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah, great, can I talk to Dad?” She handed the phone to my father. When I said hello, he began to sob, as if on cue, uncontrollably. I thanked him for everything he had done for me and let him know how much I loved him. He said nothing — his tears got in the way, but I knew how much I meant to him. I said good-bye and the next day, survived the surgery and went on with my life.
In the years that followed, I offered to come home to tend to my elderly parents when they were sick or under the weather, frail or weak. Every time I offered, my mother told me some version of the following: “No, it’s not necessary,” “No, we’re fine.” “No, I don’t want you to come home,” or my favorite, “If you come home, we’ll argue.”
In years past, when I’d call before Christmas to say I wanted to come home, she’d tell me, “Don’t bother, it’s not necessary.”
Whenever I experienced a small windfall of cash, I’d send them money to pay them back for what they’d sent me over the years. Knowing I was trying to do the right thing as time and circumstances permitted made me feel better. They never asked me for a cent to be paid back. I’d always send the money to my Dad, no matter how small the amount. The last time I sent money, after my Father’s passing, I called to see if FedEx had delivered the letter with the check in it. My mother reverted to form — screaming and yelling at me for 5 minutes because she was so angry that I sent her money. “I don’t WANT your money!” She never said thank you, never acknowledged I’d sent her a check — she referred to it as, “something the FedEx man delivered” and ranted for so long, I finally hung up and put a stop payment on the check, I was beginning to see there would never be an end to her madness.
You may wonder, as have all my friends, why I kept trying to reach out to her and have a relationship with her. I’ve thought about it for a long time and I think that you never stop wanting to have the mother/daughter relationship that society tells us we should have. I kept trying to reach out, forgive her and keep moving forward because I thought that is what a good daughter would do. There were times when she’d be almost delightful on the phone and I’d think maybe she’s turned the corner; maybe she’s going to be a good mother from this point forward, but always I was jolted back to reality in the next conversation I’d have with her. She was nothing if not relentless. When a friend once asked me what it was like dealing with my mother, I said I needed to wear a neck brace to guard against the emotional segue that took place every time we interacted.
By 2017, my Mother and Father were in an assisted living facility. When I wanted to come home to see my parents, my mother told me I could not stay in the family home because she didn’t want anyone staying there when she wasn’t there. She made me stay in a hotel, instead. I rented a car at the airport and went to the nursing home during the day and then retreated to the hotel in the evenings.
Years ago, both my sister and my mother had asked me at different times what I wanted from the house when my parents were gone. My answer was the same: I want the Lladro figurine I bought for Mom in Madrid. We didn’t have the same taste in furnishings so there was nothing I wanted from the house. Also, it was awkward for me to engage in conversations about taking anything from my parents’ home once they were no longer there. I never wanted to think about that inevitable time to come. Walking into that house and not seeing my Father in his favorite chair - watching a plethora of sporting events and games — was not something I ever wanted to experience.
My father died two days after his 99th birthday in January of 2018 and my mother returned to the family home for a while until she moved into another assisted living facility that was near my sister.
Two days after Thanksgiving of 2018, I called my mother after my brother told me that the family house was on the market and had been cleaned out.
I asked my mother why she didn’t tell me she was selling the house and why she lied to me and said she didn’t want anyone at the house when she wasn’t there, when I knew my sister and her husband had taken turns staying there in her absence and this is what she said: “You always thought you were better than us; you said you were so above us and we were so below you.” I was stunned to hear this, because I’ve never said anything like that and never would say something like that, especially to my parents. I realized in that moment that she had to tell herself this story to justify her lies and her treatment of me over the years. I’ve known for years she was jealous of me: the way I looked, my closeness to my Father, what I’d accomplished and how I’d managed to move forward in spite of the obstacles set in my path. But there was more to come:
“You were a lousy daughter from the day you were born. I never liked you from the time you were a little girl.” Yeah, mom, I kind of figured that out at the age of 3 ½. Then she unloaded with the greatest gift she could have ever given me: “I never cared for you. You never liked us or cared for us. You never offered to do anything for us, and you were lousy from the day you were born. I hope when you are old that you will be sitting somewhere by yourself in a chair with no one around and God (always injecting religion wherever she could) will show you what a horrible person you were.”
When I reminded her of the times I offered to come home as my parents grew older, offered to fly her to my home for a visit, and when I mentioned the things I asked to do for her over the years and which she denied me the opportunity to do, it only made her rage more intense. She went on a rant about my successful and talented gay nephew, angry because she always knew something was wrong with him from the day he was born; she took the opportunity to throw in a few jabs at my father — she only married him because her mother told her to give him another chance — and ended the conversation with a volley of insults and fabrications directed at me.
And that was that! With those last words, she gave me the gift that keeps on giving — 3 months after her death. She had owned up to what I’d known my entire life: She’d never really loved me or liked me. And who finally, in the vortex of anger and hatred spewing out of her mouth, had owned up to her not-so-hidden secret. And like every narcissistic mother, whatever had happened in our relationship over the years was always my fault; apparently, she never had a hand in the terms of the relationship or how it evolved over the years. Go figure.
The next few days after that November conversation I was in a dazed sort of reckoning at her stunning verbal admission, and then as quickly as the onset, that feeling abated. My friends were horrified and couldn’t understand how accepting I was of this new understanding between my mother and me. They, who were close to their mothers, found it unfathomable that a mother could say these things to a daughter. My friends, who have known me for decades and, in truth, know me better than anyone in my extended family circle, could not reconcile the fact that my mother had no idea who I was and what I was all about.
“She really didn’t know who you were or what makes you so exceptional,” my friend, Rebecca, said to me on the phone the day after my mother died. The truth of the matter was simple; she never wanted to know me for who I was. She didn’t care what I thought, what I felt or what I believed in. Her only vested interest in me was trying to get me to be the person she thought I should be — not the person I was born to be.
I did not bother to send my mother a Christmas card or gift this past Christmas; I could not (as my friend Toni likes to say) fake the funk, but I did get a card from my mother that read, “I hope you have the Christmas you want and the Christmas you NEED,” no doubt another religious dig.
I never spoke to her after that November conversation when her shrill, agonizingly vicious and gravelly voice was shouting at me as only she could. I did, however, have a dream about her: My brother had phoned me and told me to come home because my mother was circling the drain. I flew home and met my brother in the basement of the house we used to live in when we were young. He told me she was very ill and I needed to see her. I walked up the steps and opened the door that led into the living room where my astonished mother was standing, surprised that I was there and in seemingly good health and spirits. I looked at her and said, “Good-bye,” rather forcefully and walked out the door and drove back to the airport. She died two days after I had this dream.
I did not attend my mother’s funeral in March and do not regret it. I remember mentioning to one of my friends, weeks after she died, that I hadn’t shed a tear and was surprised by that, being a sentimental person at heart and one who is able to elicit a tear at the most mundane of sappy commercials during the holidays. Here is what she said:
“You’ve been mourning her for the entire time I’ve known you. I’ve lost track of the phone calls where you related to me what she’d said — sometimes in disbelief, many times in tears and always in frustration and pain. You’ve been mourning not having a mother for decades. Your mourning is complete. She’s gone and she cannot hurt you anymore.”
A few weeks after I heard those words, I realized that I was finally free. I don’t have to hear that voice that was terminally locked on the volatility and anger scale at Mach 10, hurling her special brand of ugly toward me at warp speed. I no longer have to think about calling her because that is what a daughter should do — reach out to her mom — and listen to her put me on blast for something, anything, all things, because she was enamored with the sound of her strident voice: preaching to people, commanding people and putting people in their rightful places as only she deemed fit. Her anger was always someone else’s fault. Her misery was attributed to everyone else in her life; whoever was the most convenient, nearby target received the brunt of her wrath.
So, I’m thanking her today, a month after Mother’s Day, for finally giving me the gift of truth. There is an enormous freedom that comes with finally knowing the truth after sixty-seven years of not knowing with certainty what I always knew in my heart.
Instead, I shall choose to remember the last decent conversation I had with her. I’d called her in September when I told her about the work I was doing for a firm I work for, and to be honest, she sounded genuinely happy for me. She ended that conversation with these words: “You may not believe me, but I do love you and want what is best for you.” She was right; I didn’t believe her, but I do wonder sometimes.