What was wonderful about my mother

On grappling with forgiveness

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Photo by Samuel Ramos on Unsplash

I sometimes think I have forgiven my mother.

But that’s just because I don’t know what forgiveness means. What it is, what it does, how it feels.

Kind of like I don’t know how love with a man is, feels, or does. How you know it’s love and not pity, or guilt, or responsibility, or just a kind of general tenderness, the same you’d feel for the mama skunk you glimpse out your living room window, with a line of six or seven baby skunks following her spectacular tail?

Is that love?

I thought sitting at my mother’s bedside for a full 30 days while she did her dying was forgiveness. I mean, it was a kind of forgiveness, I am sure.

But, more, it was an ego trip, a pantomime of forgiveness.

The question I keep coming back to is, how do you forgive someone who won’t acknowledge there was ever anything to forgive? It’s crazy-making, that.

And yet, it’s imperative that I do.

I know this, I’ve always known this. It’s imperative for my happiness, of course. It’s imperative to grow. And it’s imperative to keep from being downright boring. I’m even bored by my self now. I can’t keep griping about growing up in an alcoholic home, as bad as it was.

It was bad. It was terrible.

But it’s past time to move on.

Today, on my walk with Daisy, my 12-year-old golden retriever, I thought, what if I wrote a blog on all of the wonderful things about my mother?

Just the idea brought a tear to my eye.

Because, although I don’t miss her and have never missed her, I was also fiercely proud of my mother at times, and I even have a weird hidden belief that she was superior to other mothers.

Isn’t that interesting?

It’s complicated.

I remember being at my friend Jane’s house in the late 70s. We’d sit at her parents’ formica counter, and her mom, wearing stretchy polyester pants, would serve canned Chef Boy R Dee Spaghettios to us for lunch. Or peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread. Then, she’d retreat to the bathroom at the end of the hall, lock the door, and read Harlequin romances.

Of course, I LOVED Spaghettios and Wonder Bread and was even jealous of my friends who got to eat this crap. But, inside myself, I knew my mother was better. I was exceedingly proud that she would never buy such “foods.” They were forbidden in our house.

Even though we begged for them every time we went to the store, she insisted on placing into the cart whole wheat bread, liverwurst (if you can believe it!), lettuce, and tomatoes.

We never got peanut butter and jelly. Wonder Bread never set food in our house. Tony Tiger’s frosted corn flakes or Lucky Charms, neither.

MY mother served pumpkin soup in hollowed-out pumpkins at Halloween.

That made my cousins laugh at her. And that laughter injured me.

I knew these things made my mother better than other mothers.

The situation with my mother is complex, to say the least.

She was the youngest society editor in the nation, and she never wanted to be a society editor. She wanted to report on the real stories.

Sometimes, I blame the world as it was for her troubles. She didn’t want to report on rich people getting drunk in fancy houses.

But, that was her job.

Her job was to be attractive and have beautiful legs, and wicked writing chops.

My dad used to accompany her to these society parties. He said after the party, the two of them would return to the newspaper offices (at this time, it was the San Francisco Chronicle), where my mother would sit down at a typewriter and type out a flawless story in one go.

My father marveled at that. It was one of the most incredible things he’d ever witnessed. And he witnessed it again and again.

But my mother wanted to interview murderous dictators like Idi Amin, and she tried. In 1979, my father had to physically restrain her in The Sands Hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Amin had ensconced himself with a good 20 or so of his wives. We saw them ourselves file in after the bloated-belly Amin and seat themselves at a long table against the wall of the restaurant at The Sands.

My mother froze. She said in a strange voice, “Oh my God, that’s Idi Amin.” She reached into her purse, grabbed notebook and pen, and stood up. My father grabbed her just as she began to make her way over. He put both arms around her body and said in a low voice, “If you do this, you will be imprisoned, and I won’t be able to help you.”

So. That.

My mom, with no regard for herself, was ready to interview Idi Amin while my friend’s mothers were reading Harlequin romances in their hall bathrooms and serving sawdust to their children.

You can forgive me, I hope, for holding on to whatever shreds of pride I could find and muster when it came to my mother. Because you see, my mother became a stark-raving-mad alcoholic who risked our lives just about daily, who crashed numerous cars, who screamed and yelled, threw furniture out of windows, who was imprisoned more than once, hospitalized more than once, who underwent DTs many times, who had her children removed from her care and placed in foster homes.

And yet.

She also had incredible taste. She was beautiful. She was modest. She was smart. She was injured, and damaged. She loved fires in the fireplace.

She was an amazing cook. At a time when American housewives were jumping with both feet into processed food, she turned to whole foods. She trained herself diligently in all of Julia Childs’ French cookbooks, but she also cooked from Japanese, Korean, and Cajun cookbooks. She made consommes and aspics and curries with an array of exotic condiments. Every year, she made fruit cakes that everyone said they hated.

I bet they were great.

When she served pumpkin soup in hollowed out pumpkin shells, my cousins laughed, made faces, and poured their soup out the window.

They actually did this.

I am still mad about it.

That means I love my mother.

My mother was awesome. She was wicked smart, beautiful, a great cook, and had excellent taste. She loved strange antiques like the green-enameled, pot-bellied stove I now have in my home. Like the ancient lion and-irons I now have in my fireplace. Like the Victorian bellows my neighbor covets. Like the glass Christmas ornaments of Mickey Mouse and Raggedy Ann and Andy now hanging on my tree.

My mother loved Irish linen. She loved Irish anything, in fact.

She hated cleaning and refused to do it. Every six months or so, my father would clean out the refrigerator, making a big deal out of it every time. My mother would sit on a nearby barstool and chuckle embarrassedly as my dad made a great show of the stinky, colorful, moldy creations he’d pull from that cold cavern.

My mother loved eating peanut butter out of the jar, in the days when she was still eating.

She loved good ice cream, in an era when foodies did not exist, and great food was thought to be whatever instant, powdered schlock the food corporations were churning out.

She didn’t buy Safeway ice cream. Rather, she found the flamboyantly gay guy who ran the little shop called Grand Ice Cream. He had a Dali-esque handlebar mustache waxed at the ends and the richest chocolate ice cream possible. It was like a frozen truffle, and my mother loved it. My father loved the man’s rum raisin ice cream, and I can still remember the flavor — all rum — and I am still seeking it.

My mother liked little, tucked-away French restaurants.

At my house, we ate closer to 9 p.m., even on school nights, because in Europe they ate late.

My friends all ate at at 5.

I of course looked down on them for that.

I’m sure this feeling of superiority has not served me.

But it’s a way I guard my mother’s legacy. The good parts of her.

My mother was a terrible alcoholic. Alcohol got its grips into her, and she didn’t even fight it, at least as far as I or anyone else could tell. Maybe she did fight it. But that was never evident to any of us.

She was a colorful, loud, angry, and mean drunk.

My brother recently wrote me (a second time; he did this a year or two ago also), saying that the things my mother used to say to me haunt him to this day. He says it was the most terrible thing he’s ever heard.

And yes, my mother was mean when drunk, and complicated. As her first-born and eldest daughter, I was the target of her attacks when I began growing into a young woman.

When I got my period, she shrieked, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her bedroom. My father helped me find pads when he got home.

Before I even had my first kiss, my mother was calling me a whore. I’m not sure why. And when I really did start seeing boys, those attacks intensified greatly.

When I actually did sleep with my boyfriend Rick and my mother found and read my journal and confronted me with, “Was that a fantasy or real?”, I hesitated and then decided to be honest, and I said, “Real,” and she threw me out of the house. I was 16.

My dad brought me back.

My mother was a woman who was assailed by perfectionism. The birthday parties she threw for us when we were very young, before alcohol began to do its work, were epic. She just loved themes, my mother. For my Raggedy Ann and Andy party, she went all out. We had Raggedy Ann and Andy blankets spread on the lawn, Raggedy Ann and Andy hand towels, balloons, napkins, a cake… even the plastic forks and knives had Raggedy Ann and Andy affixed to their ends.

And then, she’d proceed to get drunk, terrifyingly drunk. She’d weave and slur and scare people. Sometimes, she’d fall. Sometimes bad enough to cut her head. And there would be a lot of blood. And my purported friends from school were there. I remember hiding in the bathroom, terrified to leave, terrified to face her, terrified to see my friends. I remember terror and confusion and guilt in my bones.

Birthdays and Christmas, all holidays, all were terrible. She was always worse on these days. Much worse.

The last birthday party my mother threw for me took place when I was 10. She invited some of my friends from school. The plan was to go see Disney’s Fantasia in San Francisco. I don’t remember being a part of any of this planning. I just remember a growing sense of dread as the day approached.

On that day, my mother got sauced and then more sauced. Parents were dropping their precious darlings off, and I remember thinking, What are they thinking? Can’t they see how drunk she is, already?

Apparently, they couldn’t. Or they were so speechless or embarrassed, they just didn’t do the obvious and rescue their children, snatch them back.

We left in the big yellow station wagon that day, and my mother was weaving all over the Bay Bridge. I was in the front seat, looking over my shoulder at those kids laughing and yelling and being rambunctious, and my only thought was keeping the car on the road, in the lane, on the bridge. My heart was in my throat in the worst way. My eyes were trained on my mother’s flushed, florid, melting face. I willed her eyelids to stay open.

At the theater, after the movie, I couldn’t wake my mother up.

She was passed out.

My “friends” — these kids I knew not and cared not to know — stood around uncertainly. They must have been confused. They must not have understood. How could they?

This was supposed to be an article about what was great about my mother. This was supposed to be an exploration of forgiveness of my mother.

You can see the trouble.

I want to forgive my mother so I can move on. So I can begin to use my life and what happened to me as a force for good. So I can feel fortunate. So I can feel grateful for my mother, my past, and what happened.

There were many, many blessings in my life.

As terrible my mother’s drinking was, my father managed to raise us on his merchant marine salary in a rather tony community. I had good schooling, safe streets.

At Easter, we had matching dresses.

Every Christmas, my mother made sure the four of us were dressed in matching red and green plaid taffeta or tartans or checks. Every year, we attended The Nutcracker. Every year, we had the most beautiful Christmas tree on the block, just as mine is.

Because, you see, I learned from my mother how to select the prettiest Silvertip and how to decorate her with dimensionality, just so.

When I was in my 20s, and my mother was close to succumbing to liver failure, she got on a cow kick of some sort. I told you how she loved themes. She began sending me cow-printed… everything. She thought it was cute, I guess. She was thinking of me. She wanted to show her love. Soon, I had a black-and-white cow-printed tea kettle, pot holders, plates, an apron. It was funny, and a little weird.

I’m not sure why that’s important.

As she lay dying in her hospital bed, I brought a gift from Budapest, Hungary, where I was living at the time. It was a traditional rustic tablecloth, very finely made, with red and black embroidered lines criss-crossed over with white thread. It was beautiful and fine, and I knew she would love it. Her birthday was March 14th.

I waited for her to feel better so I could give her the gift.

On May 5th, 1995, my mother died of liver failure, a terrible way to go. Her body swelled up, her skin as taut as an overblown balloon. She turned bright yellow. She was terrorized by intense itching and pain as her body filled with poisons her kidneys and liver were powerless to eliminate.

She watched the news of the Oklahoma City Bombing over and over again on the TV above her hospital bed. She always did love the news and read several papers a day until her death. Her eyes filled with tears day after day as she listened to the list of children who had been killed in that bombing. It really tore at her.

She loved her Nigerian nurse, Fola. “Fola. He is a good man,” she said.

And, he was good to her. And I love Fola for that and think of him often.

I was angry at my mother for years.

She never apologized for her drinking. She never even acknowledged it was a problem. Moreover, she never even tried to stop , as far as any of us are aware.

For years, I thought, how can that be? What kind of mother would not even try?

I don’t know the answer to that.

My mother has been dead for 25 years now, a quarter-century. She was strong in many ways. She was talented. She was a writer. She had impeccable taste. She loved to cook and was very, very good at it. She fed us incredible foods from all over the world, nightly. She loved beautiful china and clothes. She loved the song, Send in the Clowns.

When that song played on the black radio on the shelf above the chess table in the living room, she’d stop. She’d put down her book or the newspaper and get a far-off look in her eyes.

I can’t help but wonder what it did to her that she couldn’t be the journalist she wanted to be. Sure, alcohol took her down. But so did a male-oriented society that told her a woman couldn’t be a real journalist. The end of the song goes like this:

“Isn’t it rich, isn’t it queer
Losing my timing this late in my career
And where are the clowns
Quick send in the clowns
Don’t bother they’re here”

I’ve always thought those lines were interesting.

I’m not sure how to end this. Do I forgive my mother? Yes, I think I do. Do I feel ripped off? Of course I do. Am I proud of my mother? In some important ways, I am insanely proud of my mother.

It’s on me to make something of this amalgam of emotion and memory that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One thing I do know is that my mother also had an alcoholic mother. These things repeat themselves. And that she must have been in immense pain to go blotto night after night after night.

When I think about this, I can more than muster the tenderness I need to feel for my mother. And perhaps forgiveness as well. One thing I am sure of: My mother didn’t want this. She didn’t want to alienate herself from everyone who wanted to love her. Because, who would choose that?

Writer, copywriter, editor, and word lover. Subscribe to my newsletter at christywhite.substack.com

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