In the past four years, I have lost three of my remaining four elders: my father, my uncle, and my aunt. My remaining elder—my mother—has what is probably vascular dementia, and so exists in the “in-between.” Her body is alive, she eats heartily, but speech is difficult and often incoherent so it is difficult to know if she recognizes me when I visit. During the pandemic, I have not seen her for at least a year. She lives in my home state of Virginia; I live in Tennessee.
The elder of my two younger brothers lives in the same town, so he looks in on her regularly to make sure she is doing as well as can be expected. She is getting good care in a nursing home, and seems to be quite content. The younger of my two younger brothers puts it this way, when asked about our mother, “ She left us a long time ago!” That pretty much says it all.
My relationship with my mother was never an affectionate one. I was the first child and the only girl, so she may have been afraid she would not “raise me right,” and thus overcompensated by asking me to adhere to a rather strict code of behavior. Luckily for me, she was somewhat balanced by my father’s more accommodating view of childrearing, although he once told me he left the raising of us kids to Mother. Probably he kept the peace that way.
Yet my other aunt—Dad’s sister, who passed away on my birthday in 2001—once told me that while she adored her younger brother, she took him to task for letting my mother bully me. To my Aunt Janet, Mother seemed to be over zealous in trying to discipline me. I was paddled at a young age, but after a certain age, discipline was meted out by withdrawing privileges. It was one incidence of that type of punishment that seemed to stay with Aunt Janet. She and her friend Carol had stopped by from Richmond on their way to the resort in Hot Springs, Virginia called The Homestead to go ice skating. Aunt Janet knew I liked to ice skate so when she and Carol stopped by our house in Staunton, she hoped I could join them for the day. Mother was disciplining me for a rather minor infraction—at least I thought so—and wouldn’t let me go. Aunt Janet and Carol had gone somewhat out of their way to invite me, but that didn’t hold water with Mother. So they went on without me.
Even though relations between us could be strained, I still miss Mother. I wonder what she would make of me getting cancer. She would have undoubtedly had a strong opinion on the matter, and would have tried to “manage” me since she usually felt my artistic temperament needed firm guidance because I was such a dreamer and not at all, she felt, in touch with the real, practical world in which she lived as one having grown up on a small, family farm. I think it particularly ironic that I have lost my hair from the chemo because my hair was a constant source of strife between us. When I was young, she did to it what she wished; when I grew older, she tried to influence me, but finally gave up when I was in my forties. I actually can’t imagine her response to seeing me without any hair on my head!!
Recently, as we were cleaning out things from the two estates that needed dismantling, I came across a picture of my mother and her two siblings: the other aunt and the uncle mentioned in the opening sentence of this account. It showed them in their twenties, probably. What struck me was what attractive young people they were! As a child, I only heard my mother complain about herself—her legs were too short, her hips were too big, and so on. But here was photographic proof that she and her sister and brother were very good-looking people! How warped our views of ourselves can become! How sad that this could happen! And because she kept saying how I was just like her, how warped my own self-image became!
In the ensuing years, I have made peace with my mother. I have recovered much of my own self-image and recognized the terrible psychological burden under which she labored. Her generation generally did not get help for psychological issues. To them, it meant admitting that you might be “crazy” or somehow mentally deficient. Thank goodness my generation seems to have shed this belief. At least I can speak for myself and say that I have spent thousands of dollars on psychotherapy and felt that every penny of it was worth it!
My father passed away first, leaving Mother with the wherewithal to be kept in a facility that can care for her. He tried to care for her at home until it just became impossible. He once said that the hardest decision he ever had to make was to put her into an institution. He visited her faithfully, possibly going to see her on the Mother’s Day on which he died, although we have no record of that.
If I were able to speak to my mother right now, I would say this:
Mom, I love you and always have, even when we were at odds over my not wanting to have children or the way I wore my hair. I have learned much since I was living under your roof, and I have gradually learned to see what was invisible to me then. I can empathize with your anxiety about doing everything right. Indeed, I got that from you, I suspect. It is a terrible taskmaster, and I’m sure it interfered with your ability to be affectionate. After all, affection was seen as “weakness” in the culture in which you grew up, and one had to be tough to survive in the hills of Appalachia. Even when you moved away and were living a relatively comfortable life, that attitude held sway.
I get that now. I saw how affectionate you were with your grandchildren when they were infants and was jealous, but it taught me that you had it in you, even though I wasn’t the recipient.
And that day on the phone, when I heard Dad prompt you (because the dementia was already beginning to show) and you said with genuine affection, “ I love you!” I cried. I am crying now. It took a long time for me to receive that gift, but I’m glad it came.
I love you, Mom. I always have and I always will.