Just Shelley

If only parents weren’t so real

If only I had brought the camera – I could have shown you such pictures of last Monday’s storm. The clouds were furious, angry, as if annoyed at having to push against the front facing them. Yet here and there among the clouds, a break would occur and the sun shine through.

At one time I was hit with winds so hard, they knocked me back and the air was cold, even in the middle of a hot, humid day. The sky took on a green cast and I knew that a tornado would form eventually from it, and it did, but on the other side of St. Louis. For me though, it was looking up at the sky as it pushed and pulsed down towards me directly over my head. At that moment, was the closest I’ve come to wanting to believe in God.

Eventually the might of the storm was past, and as I headed back to my car, the other storm watcher in the truck was leaving, stopping first to call out, “Hell of a storm, isn’t it?” I could only agree, both of us smiling like the damn fools we were to sit there in what could be the path of a forming tornodo. You had to be there, though.

I drove home directly back into the storm, amid constant lightning that made it difficult to focus on the driving, because of the incredible crashing sound and the bright glares of light in front and to the sides.

When I got home, I stood at the back door just looking at the sky and the constant lightning. When it turned 9, and my cellphone reached its ‘free minutes’, I called my Mom to share with her the half-formed funnels and the cool fronts, the blow by blow retelling of the story. Does this seem a child-like thing to do? To call one’s mother to share a storm?. She already knew about it anyway, having checked out the weather channel. We both like a good storm.

I call my mother once a week now, or more often when something interesting or special happens. This is contrary to today’s seeming fashion to blame one’s mother or father for whatever demons the person may be battling. Or the converse: making our parents into some form of super heros, as if by having us is comparable to fighting off tigers, inventing cold fusion, or creating world peace.

Some parents are heros, but not because they became parents. And for others whose parents or guardians were anti-heros–who beat or abused or abandoned–the demons are very real.

For many years I nourished a great deal of anger at my mother for events in the past, while making my father into the Man who could do no Wrong. When my Mom would say, “You’re a lot like me”, I’d reject this statement, being nothing like her. I would tell her I found more of my father in me than her, which was a hurtful thing to say.

And I did learn much from my father: honor and responsibility, not to mention inheriting from him my good Irish temper.

As for my mother – the last of the beatniks, the free spirits; the woman who left my father when I was young, and who left I and my brother to the care of dubious caregivers, well, for years I would keep in rare contact with her; a call here, or a letter there. I used to tell my ex-husband the reason I moved so much was so my mother wouldn’t be tempted to move where we were.

But anger unfaced and unresolved is a jail of our own making, and one can’t go through life carrying our parents about like wardens holding the keys to our happiness. I know someone who talks about his narcissic mother, again and again, and all I can think of is: at what time in his life is he going to stop punishing her in his mind, and go on with his life? Or is that the point– not facing life? Sometimes we carry our ‘bad’ parents about as shields as much as iron bars.

I’ve been particularly depressed these last few years, as I watched my glory days fade out about as quickly as the unreal dot-com profits. I’ve even tried an anti-depressant, which only made me very sick; though before I broke out in hives, the medication did clear my depression. However, it also cured much in me that I use in my writing and photography. Remove the bitter from bittersweet and all that I have left is bunnies and kittens and feeling good. Medication works for some, but not all; the rest of us have to find another way to confront our ‘demons’.

Not that I hadn’t tried, especially the demons arising from my mother. In September in 2002 I made the trip back west to confront her over the past, but rather than be cathartic, the event just left me more tired, and dissatisfied. My mother was guilty of the worst form of neglect and I was justified in being angry with her. At the same time, though, I love her, and secretly have to agree with her–I am like her a great deal. Does this, then, make me the monster that I remember from my youth?

It was only after a trip to my brother’s earlier this year, to watch my father while my brother was on Spring break that I came to understand my mother better. My father talked about one time when he had to take my brother and I along with him in the patrol car to an accident, and my brother released the brake on the car and it ended up crashing down a hill– a favorite story. He ended the story as he always did, laughing about telling my Mom that she couldn’t take piano lessons again. That she had to stay home, and take care of us.

He’d told that story a dozen times. Why was this the first time I heard what he had to say?

That started a series of calls to my mother– every weekend. This time not in anger, but in genuine curiousity. I wanted to know more about the woman that was my mother before she was Mom. And the man who is Dad.

She told me that she and her brother were told they’d have to leave home as soon as they were finished with high school–they were no longer welcome. I started to tell her, I wasn’t surprised remembering my grandmother, Atilla the Grandmum. But it wasn’t my grandmother who said they’d have to leave: it was my sweet, quiet grandfather. According to Mom, grandma tried to get my grandpa to reconsider and let them stay.

This shook my world with my memories of my grandmother and her sharp remonstrations on my behavior; all the while I would be spending quiet times walking the orchard with my grandfather while he would cut slices of peach for me with his pocket knife. But then unbidden comes to mind my grandmother’s care when I had the chicken pox; or the time when we women, well we women and one little girl, were canning corn and my grandmother exclaiming, “Lands sake, child! You’re going to be taller than your father someday! And prettier than your mother!”

(Towards the end of her life she would ask about me, but I wouldn’t visit. I didn’t even go to her funeral.)

But back to my Mom. My mother ended up living with her grandmother after she left high school–a woman who was very strict and religious. This was not easy on my mother, who was very outgoing and vivacious and popular with boys and girls alike.

She worked as a waitress in a roadside cafe where she met my Dad, a cop. He was a good looking guy, secure financially, and smitten with Mom, who was a couple of decades younger than he. They married, immediately had my brother, and then, not long after, had me.

We lived on a farm miles outside of town, and my Dad was gone on duty most of the time; leaving behind a young, talented, restless wife who never did have much chance or choice in what she did with her life. There was also a lot of younger good looking guys around who were more than willing to step in and fill in gaps in Mom’s life, though my Mom never cheated on my father. No, she just eventually kicked him out and divorced him. And then she went to town.

My Mom made mistakes during that time, some pretty serious ones. Some folks might even consider some of them unforgivable. I know I did. So unforgivable that I brought them out, again and again, polishing them with recollection until they were worn round and shiny, and wore them around my neck like some kind of fancy pearl necklace.

And I made a martyr out of my Dad – a true hero. After all, he didn’t want to go, and never re-married. He loved my Mother still, and loved us, too. He was always there for us–well, when he wasn’t on duty, but can’t fault a man for not being there when duty calls.

Yet, years later, I can finally see that my Dad made mistakes, too. It’s just his were not as obvious, or as immediate. I guess what I found over that series of calls is that my parents are neither saints nor sinners.

My brother won’t talk to my mother. He’s still angry at her. She won’t visit him and the kids because she’s afraid of flying, and she doesn’t act the proper grandmother role. Of course, he won’t talk to me now, too, because I failed as aunt in my last trip. Rather than nurture my 18 year old nephew, I, among other things, called him a lazy SOB when my 93 year old father carried up a sink worth of dirty dishes from my nephew’s room. My Dad got upset because I yelled at my nephew. He said, that’s what I’m supposed to do–care for the kids. Daughter to one, sister to another, aunt to even a third.

No. No. I think not.

It’s good to spend time with our parents, and find who they are as people. For me, it’s too late to have long talks with my Dad, though. He’s old, very old, and confused much of the time. I give him the love and respect he deserves, and that’s enough; I even lie when I write him now and tell him I have a wonderful job, so he doesn’t worry about me being a writer.

And now, at 49, I have found that I like my mother. I really like my mother. We have become good friends. If only we had talked sooner, we may have reached this place sooner. But then, neither of us was ready for this talk, long ago.

I was chatting with her this weekend about this and that, including the recent discussions about weblogging and women, and I mentioned something about having my Dad’s poor eyesight, as well as his height and temper. Mom said that I had some of her, too, and I replied, yes, I had her beautiful green eyes and a little of her artistic skills. She said more than that – I was a lot like her, in personality.

I giggled and said, “You mean flaky, odd, and annoying to men?”

She responded back with, “Well, I was going to say ‘different’. You’ve never been afraid of being different.”

She paused, undecided whether to be affronted or tickled, and said. “Well, flaky will work, too.” And at that we both broke out in laughter.

I guess I and my Mom are more alike than not: we both have the same laugh.


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