Saturday, August 31, 2013

Lessons From My Mother Through the Eyes a Self-Righteous Daughter


My older sister, me and my mom circa 1972 in Tokyo, Japan.
I've always loved my mom...but I haven't always respected her. Those are hard words to type and actually bring tears to my eyes. I mean, I don't have to confess this to anyone. I am ashamed of myself. But I've learned so much about her, and myself, since my dad died that I want to scream from the roof tops how amazing she is...and it just wouldn't makes as much sense without telling you that it wasn't always this way.

I've always gotten along with my mom...she's fun, super nice, always in a good mood and seems to never tire until after her family's needs have been tended to. She talks to everyone and always offers a heartfelt compliment...cashiers, bus boys, toll takers, TSA agents...everyone. She's also a great listener and is the type of person who, instead of trying to turn the conversation around to talk about herself, will ask more questions of the speaker allowing them to remain in the spotlight. She's affectionate and thinks nothing of hugging me and kissing me whenever the urge hits her, even in public (and no matter if I am 6, 16 or 42).  If she feels like showing her love she just does it. And her laugh is infectious...you see it in her eyes and you feel it in the air...there's nothing fake about it.


Our family lived in a kind of vacuum. My dad was in the Air Force and consequently we moved frequently, about every 3 years. Growing up without an extended family around and changing friends regularly meant we pretty much relied on each other as company. The older I got and the more we moved, the less likely I was to try to maintain old friendships and make new ones. I am an introvert and the effort was too much.

Our little family...I have no idea why I'm the only one not smiling...
Without the influence of other relationships and without the ability to observe other family dynamics the foundation for what I would perceive as normal was laid for me by my parents. Don't get me wrong, this isn't the old blame game...just an observation. My parents did everything they could for my sister and me...including getting us horses. We always had food, new clothes every school year, pets to play with and we always sat down to dinner together. We played games like Yatzee or watched sitcoms in the evening. We took family vacations...normally to visit family in Pennsylvania meaning a major road trip at least once a year, but we also went camping, visited Disney World and saw pretty much all of the tourist attractions in whatever area we happened to be living in at the time.

So, how is it I lost respect for my mom? Well, my dad was an alcoholic...a functional alcoholic, but an alcoholic none-the-less. I don't know when that happened because in my lifetime, he was always an alcoholic. He grew up on a farm and it was hard work, he dropped out of school in the 8th grade, he was the one who found his father dead of a massive heart attack, he went to Vietnam and saw things no human being should see, early in his career he struggled to provide for his family and he also went undiagnosed as bi-polar for almost his entire life. These aren't excuses but realities. He was the only man I knew and the only man for a very long time who would have any influence on my life and experiences. And he took his suffering out on my mom by belittling her in front of his children.

My mom visiting us in Santa Cruz.
I doubt he understood the harm he was causing from his behavior (god, I hope not) but his disappointment with my mom for various, sometimes petty things seemed never ending. In time I learned that his disappointment was really about himself , something my mom and I talked about during our last visit.

My mom rarely stood her ground, at least not that we could see. The more it happened (which equated to the 'worse' of a drunk he became and the longer he went without treatment for his mental health disorder) the weaker my mom appeared in my eyes. Us kids would test the grounds ourselves, offering a few disrespectful comments here and there, speaking down to her and ultimately feeling superior or maybe smarter than her and we felt no repercussions from our behavior. I don't believe we were ever cruel nor was this an intentional act but more like a learned behavior. Also, it is not abnormal for there to be a sort of  'power struggle' between teen girls and their mother as part of the growing process.

But what gets me is that somewhere down inside I knew my dad had a problem. Yet, I chose his relationship style over my mom's. I saw my mom more and more as a push-over and people pleaser rather than a parental figure and a loving, sensitive person (who also needed to be loved back). I guess I thought that in  order for me to be a success I needed to be more like my dad. After all, he was a middle school drop out who had managed to earn his master's degree while working his full-time job in the military (and still earning promotions) and raising a family. He was smart, driven, sarcastic, condescending, judgmental (yet afraid of confrontation) and moody. He was my hero...and he was kind of an asshole to my mom.

My parent's wedding day...August 26, 1967.
 I know he loved her, provided for her and even she will tell you that if she wanted for something he would be sure she got it. But apparently, his need...the need to feel feel superior and less like a failure due to his own insecurities...required him to belittle her. And she took it. And I wondered why she didn't leave him even though there was no where for her to go. She had sacrificed her own dreams and career to follow him around the world as an Air Force wife. They were married in 1967...things were different then and women just didn't up an leave, especially since my dad's alcoholism was our family's secret due to his military career. The longer she stayed with him, as he spiraled further into the abyss that is alcoholism, the more I wanted her to leave.

But she did stay...for 42 years. And one day they were in a car accident and my dad died. And my mom became this amazingly strong person right before my eyes. Perhaps that strong person was always there but the shadow my dad made snuffed out the light she needed to blossom or for us to even notice.

Doesn't my mom just glow?
I spent 6 weeks with her this past spring and I finally talked to her about all of these thoughts I've had. I confessed to her the misguided judgements I had passed even though my own life was far from perfect and some of my own past relationships were perhaps worse in comparison. It's so easy to tell someone else how to improve their life rather than work on your own.

She spoke to me of the lack of emotion from him early on in their relationship which she led her to shower us with the love that not only she had but also what he felt for us, but could not show. She didn't let his fear of people and crowds (he was painfully introverted) diminish her love for them and she always had friends. She didn't let his moodiness be cast on her like a wet blanket but instead let her joy show not only in her smile but in her entire being. She didn't let his irrational and spontaneous ideas (he once bought a show car with money he had pulled out of an investment with steep penalties for early withdrawal...without telling her) take away from the needs of her children, always finding ways to make ends meet even though it was she who often got blamed for over-spending.

You see, I found that my mom, in a way, has learned something a lot of us struggle with daily. We have the ability (and the right) to choose how happy we want to be...even if we are surrounded by unhappiness. Although she chose to 'stick it out' with my dad, she did so under her own power and with her own principles in mind. Surely she wasn't always happy...and perhaps she wondered about the 'what-if's'...don't we all? But she took a bad situation and not only lived through it but thrived...as a strong woman who is still so full of joy and goodness.

My mom made the bouquet for my wedding in Tahoe.
I don't look at my mom as a weak person anymore. She is strong beyond belief. While I was full of self-righteousness and thought she should be better or different than what she was, she was accepting of all of us just as we were. Trust me, there is a lesson in that. She deserves my respect and then some.

These days, while I still long for the approval from a dead father who was never one to show emotion anyway, I find myself ever thankful that my mother has shown me that it doesn't really matter and to just be happy with what it is I am doing. My hope now is to one day be as strong and loving as my mom.

4 comments:

  1. dynamite story.....i hope your mom sees it. Growing up in my house was a little like that too, but not as bad...the alcohol and belittling were part of my life too...You have really done well yourself, Lynnie, don't forget!

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  2. LOVE THIS!

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  3. Thanks Betsy...your comments always make me smile. Thanks for being such a great supporter.

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