My Mother Is Human
My mother is human. To many, that is abundantly clear. This is not simply because the statement itself could hold true for any of the six billion inhabitants of this earth. No, it is much more than that. It is plain to see for those who have come into contact with her because she exudes humanity in all she says and does.
For anyone who hasn't met my mother, I offer an image. It is of a later-years Audrey Hepburn surrounded by needy children in Africa, caught unawares by a photographer in a freeze-frame image familiar to many. She, as always, exudes a certain grace and elegance that belies the environment she is in. She holds one of those children in her arms, captured forever in an evocative black and white photo whose image will translate, without words, the story of the sadness in Africa to the masses in North America.
That picture may have been taken to pull at heartstrings, create lumps in throats, and possibly to induce guilt in our overfed Western sensibilities. But all that doesn't matter when you get past the emotion and simply look at the subjects. She doesn't care about the cameras surveying her. She is simply giving comfort to a child in need, and that is all she cares about for that brief moment in time. This unselfconscious ability to give without thought to what will be received is at the core of who my mother is.
This is not to say my mother is a Saint. Absolutely not. And she would be the first to contradict anyone who came close to branding her with such a lofty and unrealistic title. Again, she is human, and with her humanity comes something intrinsic to my mother's whole being; insecurity. Saints may be altruistic, forgiving and kind; however I do not recall any insecure Saints being introduced to me in my early Catholic school years. Although often humble, Saints could go about their daily business knowing they were serving a higher power. My mother's insecurity often clouds and distorts her original good intentions, and she ends up feeling incredibly misunderstood and under-appreciated. Only those closest to her are aware of this.
Compassion and insecurity go hand-in-hand in the making of my mother's humanity. There is, however, one more vital ingredient in the mix that makes my mother who she is. The ingredient is Guilt with a capital G. My mother carries her Guilt so tangibly on her shoulders that she actually stoops when she walks. She blames her bad posture on a slipped disc. I know it is actually the burden of the Guilt she imposed upon herself nearly 25 years ago. Indeed, a Silver anniversary is approaching for my mother. It is not her 25th wedding anniversary; that event took place nearly a quarter-century ago. No, this anniversary marks the day when an old and incredibly self-destructive chapter in my mother's life was finally closed and laid to rest, and a new one opened, rife with possibility.
It was nearly 25 years ago that we almost lost my mother. Her insecurity had manifested itself, over the course of several years, from self-doubt to self-hatred to self-destruction. My mother had tried to kill her insecurities by drowning them in alcohol. In the end, she very nearly killed herself. The insecurities, of course, remained on dry land, intact and at the ready to set sail at any time. The years during my mother's alcoholism are not only a blurry haze for her, but for the rest of the family as well. There are of course some concrete, horrible memories that occasionally bob to the surface, but for the most part, it is a time in the life of our small family that remains submerged, held down firmly in place by the weight of my mother's Guilt over the pain she feels she inflicted upon us.
What strikes me when I think about the Guilt my mother has imposed upon herself, is how incredibly unscathed I am from what I know has destroyed many children who were touched by alcoholism. I have met many scarred and hurt women who often blame their mothers for their woes. Mothers who relentlessly reminded daughters to watch their weight, apply their make-up properly, get the right man and produce grandchildren upon request. These are bitter daughters, brought up on a steady diet of Guilt. Not me. My mother, knowing Guilt as she does, never imposed its wrath on me. I was reminded constantly of my worth, told I was pretty and smart, encouraged to travel, and never, ever pressured to get married or have children. I have received a wonderful gift because of my mother's inverted Guilt. I have the freedom to be me and not who she wishes she could have been.
Even though she hasn't touched a drink in almost 25 years, my mother freely admits to being an alcoholic. She uses the present tense adhering to the adage that "once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic." If she is in a position to help someone in need of advice or can offer an ear to listen when a person is hurting, the compassionate side of her humanity takes over. The insecurity is momentarily forgotten, and she is in her element. She is confident and helpful and caring when someone is reaching the end of their rope. When I hear her offering advice to her sister-in-law, or listening to her brother when he is down, I can easily conjure up that black and white Audrey Hepburn image of a woman who is so unaware of the outside world while so focused on what is in front of her. When my sister, a hard nut to crack at the best of times, momentarily lets down her guard and talks frankly to my mother, the weight of the Guilt is momentarily lifted. Her back straightens up, she leans closer in order to hear better, and simply listens, nodding, smiling and feeling, to her core, the emotions being shared.
I am learning, as I straddle the threshold of middle-age, not to judge my mother. Having spoken to many daughters, I know I am not alone. We wonder to ourselves why we get so angry and frustrated with these women who brought us life. I watch how men communicate with their moms and there doesn't seem to be this animosity. But, as tiny bits of that wisdom brought about by living life settle in, the picture is becoming clearer. I only have to close my eyes and think back to that moment in every teenage girl's life when she looks at her mother with contempt and says (sometimes for all to hear), "I will NEVER be like you."
When I said those spiteful words to my own mother, she lost her momentum for a mere fraction of a second. Her hurt was almost indiscernible. She stopped what she was doing, (applying makeup), turned to face me in the small space we were in, (the bathroom) and said in a very steady, firm tone; "Someday you will understand why I do what I do." She then picked up her mascara wand, turned to face the mirror, and continued what she had been doing before I had interrupted her with my grand revelation. It was definitely not the reaction that I had anticipated, and I suppose that is why I remember it so well.
She was right. I understand her actions, her mistakes, and, most of all, the things that make her human. I understand these things because she taught me, she nurtured me, and she guided me away from some of the paths I could have unwisely followed without her direction and experience. My mother's humanity, her compassion, her insecurity, and her Guilt, make her who she is. Daughters have been told through the ages that, over time, they will become their mothers. I wouldn't want it any other way.