I started to write that my relationship with my mom was complicated. But it’s not even true.
It was a simple relationship: I was here to love her and take care of her.
Yes, she took care of me physically for a long time, and she taught me a lot about how to be mentally smart, but that’s about it.
She turned seventeen exactly thirty-six days before I was born.
Her mother was there and passed out in the delivery room when they gave my mom a local anesthetic, so the story goes.
She always described me as “a miracle,” “a perfect little girl.” But as you will soon see, I was not perfect. Quiet, yes. I had my mom fooled!
Looking back, she needed me. She needed me to love her and give her life purpose.
And I did my job well. In fact, I’m still doing it well. It’s still difficult for me to feel any kind of anger toward her.
She was my safe place from birth. When I was afraid of my own dad, I would run to her and she protected me. When I was shy, she sheltered me. When I was hurt, she soothed me.
We had a disc rope swing in our front yard in kindergarten. My dad would park his motorcycle pretty close to it. One day, I was trying to knock over my dad’s motorcycle by kicking it with my sandaled feet as I swung at it. But at the last second the swing turned and my thigh pressed up against the side of the motorcycle and burnt me. Feeling guilty about my motives, I went in the house and snuck to my bed. I sat on my bed with my hand on the burn and cried silently. Even at this young age I had learned to cry without making a fuss. My mom noticed and asked me what was wrong. I remember I didn’t want to tell her, but she noticed the burn on my leg. I felt better after she applied some aloe vera straight from the plant.
My mom taught me to survive the chaos of life by escaping through reading. Later this would translate into escaping into good-student-hood.
I can remember the moment I learned to read. The book was the classic Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. My mom must have read that book to me a million times! I was “reading” by myself in this moment, having memorized the words. As I pretended to read, and my eyes scanned the words, I suddenly could see the connection between the letters on the page and the sounds from my mouth. I was 4 years old.
I am actually really grateful for that. I could have turned to drugs, alcohol, and sex like my parents. But I saw myself as smart, so I turned to books and academic success as my drug of choice. Later it would get me out of small town life and perpetuating the patterns of my parents.
As I’ve written before, when I got older I saw my mother in a different light and lost respect for her, but the love always remained. Without knowing it, but maintaining my role of loving her, I become the mother to her.
When I was twelve and my parents were going through a particularly difficult time in their relationship, she asked me if I thought she should leave my dad.
Fear came up in me as I considered her question. What would happen to us? Would we see both parents regularly if she left? Then the disappointment of considering what would happen if she stayed: more fighting, more unhappiness, fear in a different way. Both fear of the known and unknown operated in me in that moment.
“Mom, you should do what you feel is right and what makes you happy. We will figure it out whatever you choose.”
And that was the truth I would tell her today if she could ask again.
Eventually she did leave, and we did figure it out.
I can see now that I was becoming her parent much earlier than the moment I grew up.
When I was seven, I was already doing many of the household dishes. We had the kind of house that you used every last dish and then did the dishes all at once.
Standing on a stool, washing dish after dish, I stacked them the best I could for drying and ran out of space. I told my mom that there was no more space for dishes to dry, and huffing and puffing she came out from her bedroom where she was reading (always reading), worked her mother magic and created more space for dishes to stack. So I was back at it.
Finally, the last dish was a glass pan. Wash, rinse, stack. I turned and walked away with a giant sigh when the entire stack of dishes came crashing down.
My mom came stomping out of her room with her bare feet and went into a rage.
I only really remember crying, frozen to that same spot on the floor.
I thought it was all my fault. My fault that the dishes fell, my fault that my mom was angry. My fault that her feet got cut from all the shards of glass she stepped on to clean it up.
Now I know that I was too young to be doing dishes by myself in the first place. It would take me almost 40 years to realize that.
Still to this day I have a thing about doing all the dishes. I’ve never really allowed my kids to do dishes. Sure they can help (and we have a dishwasher), but all the dishes done by hand are done by me. I think it’s my way of protecting my kids from that raging mother the day the dishes fell and I thought it was all my fault.
If any part of this story resonates with you, I’d love to connect. Xo, Denita