"You were lonely? But, I was lonely too!"
No mere words, this was an "ultra-violet moment" -- a moment when the world halts on its axis, lights bump up to surgical brightness, masks are dropped, words fulfill their precise meaning, and Truth is illuminated -- finally -- in our case, after an eon.
My mother was lonely? That self-sufficient, God-fearing, beautiful woman, beloved of her many, many friends? Yes, she went on, haltingly, handing me the explanation she had withheld for decades, or perhaps it had been locked inside her and she lacked the key: "I saw you and your father as a team, and I was on the outs. I was lonely."
Now it was my turn: I confessed to the loneliness of long service as Dad's defender -- against her, bereft of warm mother love. From age eight on, with a child's keen sense of justice made keener being the eldest of three, I had squirmed for Dad at what I perceived as Mom's harshness. So unlike, Dad and Mom resembled Jimmy Stewart and Queen Elizabeth not only in appearance but manner, Jimmy at his most soft-spoken, the Queen at her most forbidding. A household of five needed a firm hand to run it, but Mom seemed so rough, especially with Dad. My constant plea to her from the sidelines was "Mommy, be nice." As a kid I could not ask, though I screamed it inside, "What is going on between you two?"
But by the time I entered young adulthood in the late '50s, taking responsibility as seriously as that sober era required, I stepped forward from the sidelines and into the no-man's land between my parents, positioned myself in front of Dad, facing Mom, and told my mother, fearfully but nicely -- we were nice people in a culture placing a premium on nice -- "Back off, Mom."
That choreography was simple, but the result, not: Mom froze, I froze, and a thick wall went up between us, one of ice, through which we glared at each other for a long, long time. It was with Dad that I had the good times to be had in my childhood -- going to movies, concerts, opera, followed up with discussions of Art and Life. With Mom, it was icy; it was, as we discovered in our ultra-violet moment twelve years ago, lonely.
Not that, outwardly, either Mom or I have led lonely lives, far from it. Having survived the Great Depression in a farm family in Ohio, Mom can "make do" for herself in ways that I, "the artist," do not. My mother, still proudly self-reliant at 91, sews her own clothes; she bakes and puts up preserves; she gases her own car (I can gas a car). Likewise she "made do" professionally in a pre-choice age. Endowed with $300 from her father, she put herself through nursing school. During World War II she ran a small hospital, utilizing her natural executive abilities. It was during the war that she met Dad, a doctor, and married. Resettling in Dad's home state of Washington, she re-cut his Army uniform into clothing for us kids and devoted the next 20-odd years to motherhood -- without much help from Dad, an over-busy doctor in a town of 5,000. Later, faced with an empty nest, she turned another talent, cutting hair, into a new career. My old bedroom became "Millie's Beauty Shop," a business she maintained until only recently: the cuts were great, the paintings on the wall were by her own hand (she took a class), the laughter and wisdom coming from that quarter filled the house. Dealt her hand by necessity and few resources, Mom, outwardly, has more than "made do." And when she can't, she "turns to God," or her friends.
By contrast, my hand was dealt me by the domestic Cold War created by Mom and Dad. Seeking solace, I dove into music (piano) and books -- I Hoovered them -- seeing scholastic achievement as my ticket out. In college, an international relations major expanded my narrow horizons; graduate school in Italy hit me like the Renaissance. Choosing a career, however, I floundered, bewildered by too much choice. I floundered also in a brief marriage, which I entered seeking warmth. It was this fiasco, and the lingering image of my father's wounded face, that rekindled that early purpose -- to seek justice -- and led to a deeply fulfilling career in civil rights. That same purpose now drives my writing.
Enabling my own Renaissance is marriage to my second husband, Larry, an alliance of nearly 35 years that we have pointedly conducted not like my parents did theirs: we talk-talk-talk about every thing, laugh lots (I cannot remember my parents ever laughing together), and when a dispute emerges, we work it out, no silent treatment permitted. Unlike my parents isolated in their corners, Larry and I see ourselves as shoulder to shoulder, going down the Road of Life together. He is my compagno di vita, my safe harbor, my rock. I'm mixing metaphors, but Larry fills an abundance of needs.
And yet, and yet: I still needed mother-love. And I daresay Mom needed daughter-love, too. The love that should define itself.
Bathed as I was in marital harmony, that primal need would catch me by surprise, as when I'd spot a mother and daughter riveted in easy conversation, easy laughter; I'd stare at them like an anthropologist in the wild. Most powerfully it hit after a rough visit with my parents when Dad began his decline, in the mid-1990s. Mom had landed verbal blow after verbal blow on my head, behavior I'd put down to caretaker exhaustion. On the drive home, though, back to Washington, D.C., when we got caught in a wall of fog, our car shaking as trucks roared past, I blurted out in fear, "Any mother whose child is out here tonight would sob!" The recognition that I did not have such a mother struck like an arrow to the throat. I kept it in, but later, in safety, as my husband watched helplessly, I broke down.
Certainly I made the effort at reconciliation. I hated the idea of us caught in a web, hanging limply, lamely, in a conflict -- parent-child -- as old as History, a conflict that ancient Drama often portrayed as tragic, even fatal. The example of Clytemnestra and Electra was constantly before me -- Electra killing her mother Clytemnestra in revenge for Clytemnestra having killed her husband, Electra's father, Agamemnon. This Electra, though, had a different plan: Break the cycle, stop the tragedy. Especially as in our case the father had survived; Mom and Dad reconciled sometime while I was in grad school. Yet despite their marriage warming up, the ice between Mom and me remained. Why?
But whenever I'd broach the subject, Mom treated it all as "past" ("Leave it"). Mother-bashing memoirs like Mommie Dearest only confirmed her doubts about my "digging," no matter my assurances that I disdain such weasel books for being long on pain but short on balance, humanity, reconstruction. Dad, observing our struggle, once said, "You should write about Mom and you." "Only if we get a happy ending," I said. So I'd try again, but soon we'd break down, again: "You always favored your father," to which I'd shoot back, "Yes, because you were always attacking him! Can't we please break this cycle?"
Such were the "dynamics" of our Ice Age.
Everything changed, however, when Dad died, in 1999. The king had to leave the scene before the queen and the daughter (make that two queens) could reconnect.
It happened, that first chink, as I drove to catch my flight after Dad's memorial service, Mom in the passenger seat. Already, after the deep emotion of the public goodbye to Dad, the ice was returning. This has to stop, I thought -- now -- otherwise how do we go on? With the airport coming into view, I grabbed at an ice-pick.
"Mom," I started, "a parting thought... " though what that magical thought was, I didn't yet know. Throwing the switch from brain to heart, I leapt off: "Don't you think... that all those years of conflict between us... were really about Dad?" Mom's response was long in coming. Finally, in a firm voice that nevertheless revealed the hurt, eyes straight ahead, she said: "Yes, and I think he rather enjoyed it."
Eureka, end of the Ice Age, cycle broken! This was Truth, our first ultra-violet moment. And -- crucially, refreshingly -- this was new, this was advance. Granted, it entailed speaking, if not ill, then analytically of the dead, but it also signaled less defensiveness and greater ease, and more of the analytical to come. Saying goodbye, I gave Mom the warmest hug she'd ever gotten from me.
Since then, the ultra-violet light has blinked many times. My next annual visit was only months later. That was when we discovered the loneliness of estrangement in what should be a primal bond. We also noted the loneliness of someone else: Dad. I then pressed ahead with a question preying forever on my mind: "Mom, did you see me as, well, evil, because the way you glared at me, I thought you did." "No, never," she said; she added she didn't feel much love in my glare, either. I confessed that, sometimes when I considered Dad's sad face, I did think she was "not nice." "But, I don't now." Presentation of credentials completed.
With the ice breaking up, my husband and I felt comfortable enough to move back home, to the beautiful Pacific Northwest, reducing the 3,000-mile barrier I'd purposefully erected between Mom and me to just 60. Happily, the revelations continue. Rather than with direct grilling, we find revelation flows best over cards -- specifically, double solitaire (do metaphors get more perfect?).
It was over cards that we approached the hurt of my intercession on Dad's behalf, doing battle against her. I introduced the subject, then -- as the ultra-violet light blinked on -- this came out of my mouth: "What Dad should have said was, 'Thank you, daughter, but this is between your mother and me. We'll take care of it. You go have a childhood.'"
"Yes!" Mom exclaimed, jumping to her feet, slapping her cards down. "Didn't you see you were being used?"
"Mom, I was a child, not a little Dr. Freud. You were the grown-ups. I saw the two giants in my life warring against each other, not fixing things. I had to help the giant who was down. But I was so frightened, because you were so scary."
Once, I asked her, "What was the problem between you and Dad?" For the first time, Mom looked bewildered: "I don't really know," she said. "Oh Mom, " I said, "that is so... modern." "What do you mean?" "Complicated, confusing, inconclusive." But now, having learned her perspective, and having established she is not evil, I'd attribute her rough treatment of Dad to the uncomplicated fact that she was an overworked mother of three who needed more of a hand from her largely absent husband, who, when she gets ultra-tired, gets snappish.
There are ramifications, of course, and regrets -- of not "being there" for each other for so long, and for me the decision not to have children. But given my frightening childhood, and the antagonism I felt for Mom, and the negative perception about family I saw around me and in all those books I Hoovered, better (I thought) to stake my happiness on an elective bond, not a blood one: my marriage. The point is, Mom and I can talk now -- about anything (including this article; as Mom says, "I think the world could use a story of conflict resolved"). Interestingly, we tend not to dwell on the pain of the past, simply because it is not foremost anymore. And if it must be expressed ("I was so hurt when you said/did X"), it leaks out during our card games -- as information, not as the bell for another round.
Still, occasionally we bump heads (make that tiaras), in part because I'm quick with my sword arm, also because Mom missed the class on power-sharing. Humor heads off most trouble ("Now, Millie, stop being so bossy"); if trouble does arise, we -- lovely pronoun, "we" -- we fix it next day, not an eon later. And we are able to fix it because, having studied each other through the cross-hairs so long, we know each other very well, in ways that other mothers and daughters might not.
Not amenable to humor, but handled with exquisite care whenever it resurfaces, is this: that I (from her point of view) "exaggerated" the harshness with which she treated Dad in those early years and that she (from my point of view) was, as a devout churchgoer engaging in un-Christian behavior, a "hypocrite." But I explain my context: that at thirteen, fourteen I was coming into consciousness as a moral being. Having learned by then about the Holocaust and how that monumental atrocity happened in part because few people spoke up, I would by God speak up, starting with the test case right in my own house. Plus the mother figure who might have soothed the frightened child and put things in perspective had instead become the child's enemy. And Mom explains her context: that of the tired, over-worked mother who wanted more companionship from her quiet husband, the kind of easy back-and-forth she sees that Larry and I enjoy. Beyond that, we don't press; we leave each other what we each most treasure, what any human being treasures: the integrity of our moral selves. Rather than the knock-out punch, we go for mercy. We leave intact the moral foundation vital to me as a moral artist and to Mom as a moral being.
All that ice that accumulated during the Ice Age... Who knew that, while it separated mother and daughter as an impenetrable barrier for so long, it also, thanks to its preservative properties, preserved a burning love?
Which love comes at an especially useful time, as I am "living with cancer," a turn of events that has brought out the maternal in Mom that I was without for much of my life. "I don't want any of my children to go before I go," Mom says. I laugh, "I'm not planning to go anywhere, now that I've got you."
Not long ago we had a kind of coda. Over the phone, finding ourselves in purr-fect agreement over some topic, I said: "Oh Mom, I think Dad would be pleased for us." "Yes," Mom replied, "he saw the rage in us and didn't know what to do." To which I said, "We had to learn to trust each other again. Not see each other as opponents. Really trust that both wanted harmony." I paused, then said, "It took a long time, didn't it?" "Yes," Mom said, "but we made it."
Laughing, I added, "We are, you and I, by far -- by far -- my most complicated relationship. I'll bet you could say the same." "Indeed, I could!"
And with that, something historic happened: Clytemnestra and Electra cackled, together.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom. And, no less important, happy Daughter's Day to me, too.
Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," included in the forthcoming volume "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more