Recently when I showed up to writing group, half the attendees were absent for various reasons. On that day, I sat with three others who were the oldest members of our assembly – two gals barely into their seventies, and another who will soon be eighty.
These women bring many years and unique generational perspectives to everything we read, edit, and discuss. They are brilliant, treasure troves of wisdom and wit. But on that day, the feedback I received from them took a resounding leap beyond our regular talks.
As always, I read a story about my childhood. It was a tale that featured some questionable behavior and discipline tactics my mom invoked when my brother and I were small.
I’ve known for years that my childhood was odd. Mom sought to break out of her narrow, fundamentalist upbringing, the Southern belle culture, and the general craziness that is her side of the family. She brought to parenting an obsession with looking pretty, putting on a good face for the neighbors and the folks at church, and strict religious guidelines. Yet her trip through the late sixties as a traditional mom and housewife left her panting for nonconformity, so she also brought a bit of a “fuck you” to the strict religious component.
Mom wanted my brother and me to have a solid handle on Jesus and to avoid the fires of hell, but at the same time, she hoped to free us of taboos like alcohol and nudity. Sex was still forbidden outside the confines of holy matrimony, but going a little crazy in other ways was maybe a little bit okay. Rather, she wanted it all to be okay, but her own demons made her changing moods about it all inconsistent and mystifying to us.
Like most kids, my family was my normal, and much as I’ve learned in hindsight about the problematic nature of my upbringing, decades later I still sometimes wonder if it was really as strange as all that.
Enter my writing group ladies. As I read my latest chapter aloud, I realized just a paragraph in that it wasn’t ready to be heard. Not the subject matter, but the writing style. It still needed honing and editing. I finished reading, displeased with my efforts, and said as much.
But then one of the ladies spoke up.
“That is upsetting,” she said.
“Yes,” said another.
“Well, it still needs work,” I shrugged.
“Aside from that, the subject matter is troubling.”
“I have something to say,” said the lady who will soon be eighty. We all looked at her as she gathered her thoughts. “I am a mother,” she said. “We all here are mothers. And we all here have daughters.” She looked at the others and they nodded before she went on. “I want you to know,” she said, looking kindly but penetratingly into my eyes, “the things your mother did were inappropriate.”
“Yes,” said another, gently. “I never experienced such inappropriate behavior or discipline from my mother, nor would I have ever treated my own daughter that way.”
The third lady nodded and expressed agreement as well. They were concerned and I felt protected and loved.
I was also a bit stunned. I know my stories. They’ve been with me all these fifty years and though they have angered me at times, I’ve mostly come to terms with them. I know that in spite of my mom’s odd and unpredictable parenting skills, she did the best she could. She loved us and she came from a strange and erratic family, so she brought broken skills to the table. My dad didn’t help her. He was the cowardly lion who stood back and said nothing, avoiding his own conflicts with her. So she winged it and tried to do right by us in often senseless ways.
Today she grieves at the parts she recognizes as wrong, claiming she was a bad mother. I’m not sure I agree. She tried; oh, did she try. She smothered us with her version of love and bent over backward trying to cram us into molds she envisioned would make us into the people she thought we ought to be. Today she loves us in spite of our resistance to her molds – we are our own people, broken a little like everyone else, and nothing like she hoped we’d turn out. We’re better than she hoped. She says so.
Years of self help books and a smattering of therapy has given me squinting clarity on my past. Thought it took longer than I’d have liked, I shed the skins of my crazy childhood. I mostly didn’t pass it on to my own kids, though some of it eked through in spite of my best efforts (I’ve encouraged them to pursue their own therapy, if need be). Like my own mom, I tried to do things differently. Maybe I didn’t have as far to climb out of the madness as she did. Plus, I grew up in a time and place where I had the freedom to be whoever I wanted. The Colorado culture of the 70s and 80s was a far cry from Mom’s Texas in the 50s and 60s.
In my writing group that afternoon, tears stung my eyes as I listened to the words of love from those three women – those other mothers, daughters, sisters, love warriors. They offered me a gift that day, one I didn’t realize I still needed. The gift of affirmation – that yes, things happened to me that were odd and wrong and inappropriate. And to have women of my mom’s generation surround me with that affirmation… Well, Merry Christmas to me.
Copyright © 2017 – Paulla Estes