My mother taught my siblings and I how to sew. It was required--and on my part, unappreciated. However, it became a means to an end for me. My mother taught us to sew with such perfection that, when entered in competitions, our finished products won prizes, and that meant money. I liked that part. I didn't love the part where we had to do live modeling of the clothing we made--walking, pivoting, posing, smiling...being graceful...but that brought more money and I was definitely willing to make more money.
My sisters and I began modeling when I was five or six years old. My mother was an amazing seamstress. She designed clothing and lingerie, then held sales parties to vend her wares. We modeled the designs while she talked about the details of each item, and then took orders and measurements. I didn't love it, but I did it anyway.
When I was nine, my mother decided it was time I made my own clothes. The sewing lessons usually ended in a power struggle and I remember doing things wrong just to spite my teacher, but in the end it suited my purposes to learn, enter the competitions, and pocket the prize money. I was very good at what I did--because my teacher, my mother, was, as well.
I suppose I'm walking down memory lane tonight because yesterday I went to my parents' home to do some work in my dad's office. I stopped in the living room. My mother had finished a quilt top. It was stretched between frames, waiting to be tied. I couldn't stop looking at it. The corners didn't match--some were lamentably mismatched. There were puckers and places where the bias was overstretched. The quilt top looked ungainly and amateurish.
My father stood next to me. "It's not her best work," he said. Silently I nodded. He added, "A year ago, she would never allow those mistakes to be made." Again I nodded. Then he said, "I suppose it's tangible evidence of her condition..."
My mother's brain is deteriorating. It's not a disease. It's not senility. In her early sixties, she is still suffering the effects of physical trauma from childhood abuse. The abuse caused tiny spots of brain damage which interfere with her memory, her emotional control, her judgement and logic, and now her ability to create. The dead spots in her brain are expanding.
For a very long time I hated her. I hated the way she physically abused my siblings and me. I hated her encouragement and approval as I was devoured by anorexia. I hated her inability to go through one day without screaming in anger at her children. I hated the names she called us, the ways she undermined our self-esteem, the sarcasm and negativity.
I remember, as an angry teen, fantasizing about my mother's death and wanting desperately for the things I imagined to come true.
And then one day I decided that I would not live with her anymore, and I left. I was seventeen.
When I had my first son I knew I was at risk for perpetuating the longstanding tradition of physical and emotional abuse. I took steps to circumvent that. I got help. I read books. But mostly, I remembered. I remembered how I felt when I was a child--how I was afraid of my mother. I remembered the feeling of humiliation and terrible sadness when the abuse took place. Then I held my sweet DJ and promised him he would not ever receive such treatment from me. I keep my promises. But I was very, very angry with my mother for instilling the impulses and setting the deplorable parenting example.
I worked very hard to be the best parent I could be. My children do not have memories of rampant yelling and constant physical punishment. Darrin and I have lived by a different set of parenting rules, understanding that while we need to allow our children to learn about choices and consequences, and to teach them self-discipline, there is no place for derision or shame and humiliation. We've chosen to exclude corporal punishment and while the alternative requires a great deal of self-control and ingenuity, I believe the outcome is preferable.
And in the meantime, my mother has found treatment for chronic depression and extreme anxiety. She has continuously begged forgiveness for her treatment of me while I was in her care. And when I told her that she was never to harm my children physically or emotionally, she has agreed and complied. I've watched her try desperately to change her behavior and I believe her when she says she's deeply remorseful.
Except, now she's disappearing. Three years ago my mother had a tiny stroke--the first warning that something was wrong. When the neurology report came back, all those tiny spots of brain damage were discovered, and no medications seemed to be able to stop their spread. And so as the spots grow by the millimeter, they take away pieces of my mother.
She tries very hard to pretend everything is okay. She smiles and chats and does what she can to maintain a semblance of herself. But she can't combat the mounting evidence--forgetting her way to Walmart in a town stretching less than 10 miles in any direction; imagining phone calls and emergencies which never happen; buying the same things several times in one day; repeating herself because she can't remember whether or not she said something or just imagined it; embellishing or fabricating facts about family members or, worse, talking about extremely confidential matters in public settings, often with complete strangers.
And finally, the tangible evidence in the form of a disastrous quilt top from my master seamstress mother.
The quilt is a graduation gift for my niece. She won't notice the mistakes, and she'll love it because it's from her grandmother. And I realized as I looked at the unfinished product in my mother's living room, that all the anger and resentment I've felt for my past treatment is gone. As pieces of my mother slip away, so does my desire to hang onto any rancor. Instead, I find myself feeling grateful for the skill she passed on to me, and I'm grieving her loss along with her.
My mother wanted lots of children and she wanted to be a stellar parent. But she lacked the tools necessary to parent effectively and instead, perpetuated the abusive childhood she, herself experienced. Probably the childhood damage to her brain, unnoticed for fifty years, had something to do with her inability to deal with the stress of raising children. And in this moment, when the anger has gone, I have to admit that, given her past, she probably did the best she knew how. Under the circumstances, it's likely she did not have the ability to control her behavior.
And so I will spend the remainder of her life remembering the things she did that were healthy and loving. I'll remember that she read to us nearly every day, and she loved to sing. She provided us with music lessons and taught us to draw and paint. She insisted that we learn to sew and cook and clean and care for ourselves and others. She taught us about God.
My father asked me why I was looking at the quilt top for such a long time. I shrugged and laughed and said, "It's just so unlike Mom. It's kind of sad." But that wasn't the real reason. The quilt top had portions that were neatly matched and lovely, surrounded by the ungainly, ugly portions. I thought how it was very much like my life with my mother. And while the quilt top is now finished, I am not. I can still smooth the corners and match the points and finish my life without the scars and wounds of abuse. I can concentrate on the beautiful parts my mother gave me and continue to make memories with her until such time that she no longer remembers me.
I'm not angry anymore. I suppose there will always be sadness and regret, but while I believe that's understandable, I'm also grateful that I can now choose where my emotions will dwell.