So, my mother passed away this week, exhaling her last breath in a small bed at a nursing home not far from the sea. I was sad and a bit weepy at the news, but also relieved that she was no longer suffering from the end stages of kidney disease, caused by years and years of medications, and that I too, her firstborn daughter, was no longer suffering from years of torment by her ill intentions. In a welcome contrast, my own firstborn daughter reached out to me in so much love and care, and with a certain and secure knowledge that I, her mother, adored and cherished her. I could only wonder at the differences which had passed through matrilineal descent in my mother’s family, and then sigh with a grief, welcomed, knowing the paradigm that was my mother’s and her mother’s relationships with their firstborn daughters, had finally ended.
Even in afterlife, and whatever that might seem to be to those of us trapped on the earth in a linear time and space continuum, my dearest and nearest, including my father’s mother, who was my grandmother, and my own father, and my son, were each able to convey a sense of peace and tranquility toward me at the time of their deaths, so much so, that I almost immediately felt a complete sense of calm and resolution. The sadness at their departure was something I lived with for a long, long time, and especially the grief after losing my son, which will still accompany me through the coming years. But most importantly to me; I was certain that they were safe in love and light, and that I would somehow experience their presence again, one day, after I took my last breath, and began my own journey toward an afterlife.
Not so, with my mother, nor her mother. There has been nothing. Absolutely nothing. And while I reflect that my mother desperately longed for her mother’s love, for all of her life, owing, I believe, to the nature of her untimely and unwanted conception from the passion that my mother’s mother felt for my mother’s biological father — even so, my mother was entirely unwanted from the start. She was still just as unwanted as her mother pursued a career in modeling, and as she divorced my mother’s biological father, and as she remarried, and then, again, as she adopted my mother in her new name, together with her new husband. My mother was also very badly spoiled and favored by her mother’s parents, causing even more animosity between herself and her mother, and so, the real maternal love that any normal child requires for healthy development was nearly always bitterly elusive for my mother.
According to my mother, her mother was very aware of this need that her firstborn daughter wanted after, and as she went on to have four more children, the desperation that my mother felt for her mother’s love and devotion paved the walk on my mother’s journey toward madness. My mother often recounted to me, the incredible power that her mother held over her, which was wielded at any opportunity that was advantageous in managing the duties of parenting, from her early childhood years, until long into her young adult years. My mother claimed that she was assigned too much responsibility for other siblings, especially late into the night while her parents were out with friends, too many household chores, and that when she was in her very early teen years, she was given too many over the counter medications for sleeping and waking, from her mother. From all these very harsh lessons, my mother comprehended nothing.
My mother gave birth to me, her firstborn daughter, at the age of nineteen, while I gave birth to my firstborn daughter, at the age of thirty. At the time, my mother had graduated from high school, but was not academic enough to complete any sort of college education that would lead to her independence, so she decided to marry and have children of her own. Unfortunately, she had no mothering skill sets, and that meant that she was very abusive. I don’t recall a single day in my childhood that my mother did not strike me with her hands, when no one was looking, and I do not recall her ever referring to me as anything other than a, “goddamn kid.” She also trained me, as her mother had, to do all the household chores by the age of nine, assigning most all of them to me by the age of eleven. Mine was a miserable upbringing, marked by some wonderful kindnesses from a few unsuspecting family members, some extraordinary opportunities, and some well earned privileges.
As I grew older, my mother very often appropriated, as her mother once did, everything that I ever accomplished — for herself. When I earned my BA in English Language & Literature, she recited her high school grades in English, to me. When I earned my MA in American & New England Studies, she told me that most folks thought she sounded as though she had earned a graduate degree, when she spoke. When I fell in love with my husband, Stratton, she told me that if she were only a few years younger, (she was old enough to be his mother), that he would be just the man for her. When she saw images of my children, she criticized their appearance with, “Why does she wear dark lipstick?” or “Why doesn’t he wear different shirts?” Once, when I took her to lunch before she passed away, she looked at me, and shrilled loudly, for all the restaurant to hear, “Oh, you have got to color your hair – it’s turning white!”
She also knew that I craved her love and approval, and she deliberately withheld it, as she had learned to do from her mother, even as I grew to become more and more independent over time. Nothing I ever did do or could do was ever going to be satisfactory for her, and that methodology was entirely effective in manipulating me into submissive compliance toward accommodating her every need. Worse, everything about myself and my life was open for her disapproval and disappointment. Eventually, when I did marry at the age of twenty-eight, and have children of my own, at the age of thirty and at thirty-two, I married a man who closely resembled my mother, and whose own mood swings, and abuses were as compulsive and as clever, as my mother’s. Over time, I withdrew to become more and more independent from him, as well, until I achieved my own confidence and freedom from him, as I had, from my mother.
My daughter so lovingly and attentively rang me, after learning that my mother had passed away, and she was both nurturing and inquiring. “Was I Ok?,” and “Was someone with me?,” were her first thoughts. I marveled at the love between us, and the contrast between my relationship with my firstborn daughter, and my mother’s and her mother’s relationships with their own firstborn daughters. My daughter learned from me, that she was brilliant and talented, that she was beautiful and fabulous, that she was courageous and accomplished, and that she could do anything with enough hard work and determination. My firstborn daughter and I have the relationship that my mother and her mother should have had with their firstborn daughters, were it not for selfishness, and vanity, and jealously, and cruelty. By contrast, my daughter grew up with a maternal love that was hallmarked by sacrifice, and appreciation, and encouragement, and support, and protection.
My mother and her mother were from generations of mothers who were, at times, more likely to throw other mothers under, and even today, it can be seen in a few of the mothers in their immediate and extended family. The same presumptions, the same insecurities, and the same conversations that bring destruction to other mothers and to their children are still present among them. I despair that they might never learn that sisterhoods, in all their various manifestations are precious, and that communities of mothers who often nurture, support, and protect one another, bring strength to the world. That every victory that is theirs and their children’s only achieves greatness for everyone within their sphere. That families of mothers need to “choose to go high,” for every mother who “chooses to go low,” and that admonishing and expecting those strengths in other mothers can be done with great tenderness and love.
My mother has passed, as her mother has done before her, and with them both, passes a terrible burden that they imposed upon their firstborn daughters, to wait, and to watch, and to wonder; that they might one day be loved by their own mothers.
On Grief, Welcomed, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020.
“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from, Wise Welsh Witch.