I wanted to go back and write a full chapter about my mother and try to explain who she was in a more sympathetic light. It’s important to show these characters in my life in a balanced way, and if only show one side, the reader is going to think that my parents were 100% evil. They were not. We’re all a mix of good and bad and so much of the time we are victims of our upbringing and everything that happens to us along the way to break us.
The key to overcoming victimhood is to take responsibility for life and to make good, loving choices. Mom didn’t do that and her life ended tragically and not before she had badly damaged the people who should have been closest to her. But she was full of potential; gifted, creative, beautiful, and there was compassion somewhere in that heart of hers. It had just been muted, blunted, and eventually killed.
I started that chapter today and I decided I would share what I wrote this morning. There’s much more to say, this is just the beginning of my thoughts about mom.
My mother was an only child; she wasn’t supposed to be an only child. There was another baby named Janet. I don’t know if Janet was stillborn or if she lived for a time before she passed. Much later in life when I was researching family history, I saw her name scrawled on a handwritten genealogy document. Just “Janet”. It was written on a line underneath another line that had the name “Geraldine Gertrude” written on it, so I assumed Janet had been born after mom. No one ever spoke of it and by the time I discovered it I was over fifty years old and I couldn’t ask; everyone who would have known was dead.
Either way, Janet was not in the picture and Mom was raised as an only child. Her parents, her mother Lillian especially, were demanding and exacting. Lillian expected everything to be done in the proper way, or there would be hell to pay. Lillian could be harsh and she was harsh with my mother, who was not an exacting person at all. Mom was creative, scattered, a dreamer with a soft spot for animals. Since I wasn’t there when Mom was growing up, I can only guess that because of these differences, things didn’t go perfectly between her and Lillian, and that guess is fortified by examining the difficulties Mom had in relating to me.
It might have gone better if I’d been born more like Lillian. If I’d been able to manage my own affairs, keep my own life perfectly organized, and stayed out of Mom’s hair, there might have been more peace. But as it happened, I was very much like Mom. I was creative, non-conformist, given to day-dreaming, not fond of cleaning up after myself, and emotionally expressive. It’s not easy to have a child who mirrors back to you not only your best qualities, but your worst. The things we see in others that irritate us the most are the things we dislike about ourselves. I imagine that was one of the downfalls of my relationship with Gerri, my mother. She saw herself in me, and she hated that.
When I was six or seven and we were still living in New Jersey, Mom kept a trunk of art and craft supplies; the usual colored pencils and paper and scissors and tape, but also other objects to inspire creativity like wooden popsicle sticks and cotton balls and glitter, and as a reward for good behavior or just because she was in the mood, we would open the trunk and start a new craft project. As I grew, she passed on to me more of the things she knew about being creative. Chief among those skills was sewing. It was important to Mom that I learned to be a seamstress like she was, and she sat me down first with a large plastic needle and stiff fabric with lines of holes and showed me how to make stitches, up and down, all around the edges.
Later, after we’d moved to Florida and I was around 10, she put me in front of her sewing machine with scraps of fabric (she had trunks and suitcases and dresser drawers and closet shelves full of fabric), and taught me how to sew a straight line while keeping my fingers out of the way of the speeding needle. Then she gave me a simple pattern. You took the fabric, spread it out on a flat surface like the dining room table, and laid the pattern pieces on top in the way that the pattern directions said. Then you used the little pins with the colored balls on top to pin the pattern piece securely onto the fabric. The pattern piece had to be pointed in the right direction to line up with the thread of the fabric. Once all the pattern pieces were pinned onto the fabric, you took the big, sharp, silver sewing scissors and cut each piece out, following the lines on the edges of the pattern pieces, a laborious and danger-fraught process in which one wrong move could have you adding to the fabric scrap pile and starting over with the pattern pinning process. Over time I learned that “cutting out”, as I called it, was not the most enjoyable task, but it was required in order to get to the fun part: actually sewing.
Gerri did not hover over me during these lessons. She showed me the concept and then left me to figure it out for myself. I was determined to get to the part where I could put the pieces of cut out fabric together, sew them, and magically end up with a garment to wear. I didn’t need to be goaded, managed, or persuaded to learn how to sew. It was a burning desire. Just another way that I was truly my mother’s daughter.
As I got a little older and had sewn a few purses and pillowcases and even a skirt or two, Mom signed me up for a sewing class at the local fabric store. I was 12, and it wasn’t that I knew so much about sewing that Mom couldn’t teach me anymore. Looking back, I think she just didn’t want to. Life was taking an unpleasant turn for her; my father Skeet was on the road more and more and, unbeknownst to me, Mom was turning more and more to alcohol to escape the harsh reality that Dad was losing interest in her.