Posted by: susanideus | December 5, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mom!

This would have been my mother’s 96th birthday.  When I was younger, I would never have imagined that I would miss her so much. As I look back over all I’ve written about her, I find nearly as much about missing her as I do about the angst our relationship caused me. She was a complicated lady, one I undoubtedly didn’t appreciate nearly enough. So, this is for you, Mom. Happy Birthday!

I wrote this piece some years ago in an attempt to understand my mother through “different” eyes. Some was fact, some conjecture. She and I, sadly, were never close. Instead, it seemed to me that I’d been born into an adversarial relationship with her. I felt like a stranger in my own family. Nothing I did pleased her (or if it did, she never showed it) and much I did displeased her (that she showed.)

As a young adult, I struggled with trying to figure her out. I spent a lot of time probing, raging, crying and being very frustrated. It became apparent that I would never get anywhere trying to talk to her, as it seemed, especially after my dad died, that she had constructed an alternate universe in which she lived. I’d ask her about a past troubling event, and she’d tell me I must have imagined it or her best comment to me “you always were prone to exaggerating, young lady.” One day, it finally occurred to me that I was expending far too much energy and time on trying to figure out the past, and that I was robbing my own family of having me in the present. I had to accept her as she was, warts and all.  I had tried and that had to be enough.

We did reconnect the last year of her life, become friends in a friendly if not mother-daughter kind of way. We spent long hours together, crocheting, reading and watching her favorite TV shows. No in-depth conversations, to be sure, but I saw my mother as a woman who was a kind and concerned neighbor and a good friend to those who had befriended her late in life. I still grieved for the relationship we never had when I was growing up, but this new friendship definitely worked.

Spending time in hospice with her, holding her hand as she died, was no doubt the best gift she could have given me, albeit unintentional on her part. It brought things full circle. She brought me into this world and I was able to be there and hopefully ease her way into her new world.

Finally, I was ready to acknowledge that she had loved me, as I had her. She did the best she could with the life she’d been given. It frustrated me to never have learned what made her tick, but it occurred to me that it was her right to maintain her privacy. There were obviously things she wasn’t comfortable sharing. I had learned enough living my own life to know that things aren’t always as they seem, and that some of my assumptions about her and about her relationship with my dad may not have been what my younger actively imaginative mind had come up with as “fact.”

She was who she was. Dorothy Emma Thon Myers was my mother and she loved me. I was her daughter and she died knowing how much I loved her. I could grieve for the bond we never had, and I could grieve what I perceived as a life lived sadly, and I did grieve that she was gone from my life. But, in the end, there was love, and that made the rest all right.

—————

The
Musings of a Hope Chest

By way of introduction, I am a 80-plus year old hope chest, a gift to my first owner when she graduated from high school.  Back then, I was as lovely as Dorothy was.  In fact, she often thought to herself that my lovely chestnut finish matched the color of her thick wavy hair.  Ah, she was proud of that hair, but I digress…   Now I sit in the bedroom of her daughter, where I’ve been since Dorothy died some years back.  Oh, but I wish I could tell Susan all I’ve seen in my lifetime.  I’m not just a hope chest.  I’m a keeper of dreams, a repository of secrets, a receptacle for disappointments, and a safe keeper of memories, both the heartwarming and the heartbreaking. If she could but hear my stories, she might understand her mother a bit better.

For several years, I just held Dorothy’s off-season clothes and a spare blanket or two.  She had but a few sparse dreams of a young woman of her time: perhaps she would marry, have children, and take care of a house.  Above all she was practical, living in the now.  She had to work, had to help support her family.  So practical was she that when I came to her, she thought me a bit frivolous…called me a cedar chest, saying she didn’t have time to hope, she had plans to make. Dreams, she said, were for the idle and the privileged and she didn’t fit there.  She worked hard, played almost never, and expected very little from life.  Early on, she began to develop the prickly edges of a world-weary cynic.  Humor was a stranger in her life.

When she began to use me more, I knew something had changed.  No more spare blankets for me. Rather, she gently set in embroidered pillowcases, her own handiwork. And, there were new towels and bed linens and even a pretty chemise.  She was still planning, but now it was for her own wedding, and she dared, for a time, to hope.

Those first years were tough, being newly married during THE Depression.  Both Dorothy and her new husband Cal had to work. Dorothy planned: budgets, affordable menus, and ways to work two jobs at a time just to make ends meet.  Dreams went to the back burner.  Times were tough.  As I became dusty and unused except for humdrum storage, Dorothy’s hair faded and grayed, as did her hopes. Every day was a struggle and the newly-weds were tired and spent.  Dorothy became even more convinced that life was not to be enjoyed, but rather endured.

I was sure hope had come once again after a few years as I began collecting tiny clothes and little blankets.  Dorothy was expecting their first child.  This was no vague dream; this was the joyous reality of a new life growing inside her very being.  The couple celebrated, and began setting up a nursery.  I was emptied out, but for such a wonderful occasion.  Then, IT happened and the nursery was abandoned, the clothes and blankets stored once more.  No one talked about IT, and I held the reminders of disappointment.  Life went on, one dreary day after another.  Hopes faded and her chestnut locks continued to fade, along with her ability to dream.

It took several years, but those baby things did come out again.  The lights around me were brighter, and the atmosphere was charged with excitement.  At Dorothy’s insistence, the nursery wasn’t made up until the last minute, so tenuous was her faith in this miracle.  Then the miracle came home! Son Ken was a joy to both of his parents, and the only bump in the next few years was Cal’s short stint in the army and duty in Korea.  We moved into a smaller place to wait for him, and Ken’s baby things were given to me to store as he grew into a happy toddler.  Cal returned home to them, ready to be a dad and a husband.  Dorothy was at last the wife and mother she had dared to dream about. She was, for the first time in a long while, content and maybe even cheerful.

Much to the happy family’s delight, it wasn’t long until I was unpacked again, and yet another nursery set up.  Once again, IT happened, and I was repacked, with little concern for neatness or organization.  Once again, IT wasn’t talked about, and even little Ken’s questions about a baby “brudder” were turned away with little patience or concern for a young boy’s feelings.  He learned not to ask.  I was shoved into a corner of Ken’s room, locked up, and used only as a base for Ken’s building blocks or the foundation for train tracks. At least, he found me useful.  I picked up a few dents and scratches, but I didn’t mind.  The little guy was playing and I was a good launching ramp for his cars. (I thought I still looked pretty good for my age, but I digress again.)  Dorothy became bitter, and with passing months, her hair completely grayed.  No matter, she said, for she thought it matched her outlook.  Cal couldn’t get through to her, and he began to hide in a bottle.  The atmosphere around me became dark. No one talked about anything.  Words were only spoken in anger or blame.  Ken still played with me as his collection of fast cars increased.  Alas, except for me, he played alone, very alone.  He grew used to his solitude – a closed door, his cars, his stuffed animals, and relief from the constant bickering.  He might have been invisible for all the attention he drew.

At age 35, when she thought all hopes of a “good life” were over for her, Dorothy became pregnant again. I stayed in Ken’s room; as though the thought of unpacking those baby things were a curse.  Ken was excited, though, and I could here him confide to his favorite teddy bear that he was going to be a big brother, and wondering if Mr. Fuzzy thought Mommy would be happy then.  What a surprise for that little household when Dorothy went into labor a bit early and had not one, but two healthy babies.  Twins!  My buddy Ken had his “brudder” and a sister too.  I was quickly unpacked, never so glad to be empty.  Now, I was used to store kid memories: Ken’s first school papers and the twins’ pictures.  I was privileged to be entrusted with them.

Sadly though, the long barren years had taken their toll.  Dorothy and Cal had fallen into the habit of not talking.  He continued to drink, never abusively, but to escape from the sadness of a gloomy household.  In turn, she nagged him about everything.  Ken spent a lot of time with me again, and when he wasn’t with me, he was with the twins.  Oh, the stories he would make up for them, never mind they were too young to understand.  He just talked louder as the bickering escalated.  Dorothy had her hands full, to be sure. Twin Jim had health problems and required mega-doses of attention.  At least Ken and Susan had their sweet Aunt Maggie to look after them; she was a
lifeline when Jim was sick.  For her part, Dorothy took his bad health as another sign that she just wasn’t meant to be happy, and her sister’s help as an indication that she had failed again, just as life kept failing her.

When the twins were five, Jim’s health took a bad turn.  We were all packed up and moved to New Mexico where his lungs would be able to breathe in dry air and the mild winters wouldn’t bother him so much. (Didn’t do too much for my “complexion”, but I digress again.)  Everyone was happier here, and things were a bit more relaxed.  I gathered in many more memories and mementos from all three kids and times were better.  Dorothy went to work when the twins went into junior high.  By now, I was a “window seat” in Susan’s room.  Now, that girl could dream…always talking on the phone or whispering to her diary.  Happy and lively and imaginative, she was the polar opposite of her mom, and the delight of her dad.  She and Dorothy squabbled often through those teenage years, sometimes bitterly.  How often Susan would curl up on me and cry in frustration.  Didn’t her mom know what it was like to be a kid???  Sadly, she probably didn’t.  Some people are born old, but there was no way I could tell her that.

Years passed, and when Susan left home to be married, I became a surface for stacking odds and ends. Not abused, merely ignored.  The years passed quickly; Ken and Susan both had kids of their own, a delight to their grandpa and another trial for their grandmother to endure. They just disrupted things.  I did so love it when they stayed in my room and I could soak in the sounds of laughter and childhood again.  I wished that Dorothy could see what she was missing.

Time moved on, and, in 1985, Cal died with Susan by his side.  For a short while, she stayed in her old room with me, and again I held her as she cried.  Tears fell as she missed him, and as she grieved for the sad way he had lived.  She always thought he deserved more.

A few more years and Dorothy became ill.  Susan was home again for weeks at a time that year and shared my space again.  She would look through me at night, and marvel at what had been kept over the years.  Maybe her mom did care more than she showed. Who would have guessed that this secret cache of children’s art and writings was here?  When the time came that Dorothy knew her time was short, she told Susan that she could take that “old box”, meaning me (well, really now…me an old box?)  home with her, .  Susan was thrilled and promised to take me on her next trip.

Dorothy asked Susan to stay with her in the Hospice, and while surprised that her mom would want her, she agreed.  She came to the house once when her husband and daughters visited “Gram” for the last time.  She asked them to take me back with them.  Imagine her surprise when she opened me up to show her girls the treasures I held – and they were gone.  She was crushed – and mystified.  She asked Dorothy when she went back to the hospital where all the kids’ stories and pictures had gone.  “Oh that old stuff!  Your father kept every little thing you kids brought home.  I just cleaned it out for you. That stuff went out in the trash.”  She had, at least, saved some photos that the three kids split up.  What Susan didn’t know was that Dorothy had shed more than a few tears going through that “stuff”, but in her lifelong way of being practical, she decided cleaning me out was the prudent thing to do.  If only I could have stopped her.  That day, my lock should have jammed as it often does these days, and she might have given up the task. If only I could tell Susan how it really was not as spiteful as she thought, but more a reflection of a lifetime of feeling disillusioned.  She truly couldn’t see why those things were of any value..  If only Susan could hear all my stories: there were some good times…oh yes, Dorothy once had dreams too.

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed both pieces, Susan. I think it really helps to use an object through which to see a difficult picture, and the voice of the chest seems to me to be true and revealing. Our furniture (especially pieces we’ve had for a long time) could tell a great many stories!
    My mom was like yours: unpracticed in talking about herself (she was raised in the days when women didn’t “go inside”) and unwilling to share more than surface details, funny stories, reports of events. She wouldn’t talk about painful things, about my father’s alcoholism, for instance. Our generation is more open, although we still have to work at it.
    Do keep exploring and writing. It’s an opportunity your mother (and mine) never had. I think we have to do it for them.


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