Finding the Mom in My Mother
I was my mother’s firstborn. Over the next seventeen years many siblings would follow.
Because my coloration resembled my father’s, and because he was who he was, I became not so much her child as his. Because they both held full-time jobs as professionals — doctors, to be precise — my raising was left to the hands of numerous caretakers among whom were my mother’s parents. They eventually saw fit, on the weekends when they took my closest sister and I, to rent us out to men with enough money to pay for the privilege of raping drugged little girls. A small wedge was inserted between my mother and I because of that activity about which it had been suggested, with ominous overtones, that I not speak.
The second wedge came when my father took a sexual interest in me. Since that was taking place right under her nose, she couldn’t ignore it entirely. The situation was referred to tangentially but never directly addressed between us. We had a relationship that was more like roommates who barely tolerated each other than it was like that of a mother and her young daughter.
I discovered that she and my father had made a deal and that he was supposed to stop having sex with me when I got my period but that didn’t happen. What happened instead was that what had essentially been a ‘secret’ love affair between us turned into the occasional rape, usually following one of his drunken nights out. I repressed a lot of this, as one might, just to be able to get by, but one thing that never faded was the reality of the morning after when I’d awaken to find dried semen between my legs. I would soak in the bathtub for hours, when that was possible, but nothing made me feel clean. On the flipside of that coin, I gave up brushing my teeth for a long time on purpose, hoping that my bad breath would put him off. My teeth became kind of fuzzy and had a green tinge. I thought that would stop him but it didn’t and only made things worse for me at school where I became an object of derision.
It wasn’t long after I started dating that I began having sex with boys because that’s what I knew to do. Once birth control pills became available I simply asked my mother for them and because she’d have been a fool not to, she got them for me. That made the decades of promiscuous behavior that followed a lot easier for me. When I got married at 23 and left the house, my promiscuity no longer her problem, but mine and my new husband’s, she breathed a sigh of relief and the tension between us eased noticeably. When I struck out and got a job as a Playboy bunny in my mid-30s it made my father furious, and my mother and I got a little closer… if you could call it that. Although her hanging a picture of me in my bunny uniform on the wall of her office at the hospital was, I thought, a little odd.
My father divorced my mother eventually so that he could marry the woman who’d been his most frequent mistress among the many he’d had over the previous 40-some years, a woman who strongly resembled me. Half of my siblings were still living at home and my mother eventually took in my closest sister, who’d gone certifiably crazy by then, and her son, whom my mother adopted.
While living in her own house she’d discovered that I had posed for a painting of a reclining nude done by well-known Philadelphia artist; she bought the thing for thousands of dollars and hung it over the mantle of her living room embarrassing the hell out of all her kids. She didn’t care. My crazy sister slashed the painting; my mother had it repaired.
When I became mysteriously ill in my 40s and was eventually diagnosed with a disease that was both incurable and fatal, my mother offered all the assistance she could which was for the most part monetary and very appreciated since I was, as usual, pretty broke. I saw her once or twice during the two years that I was on the verge of death and one of those times, while I was lying on the couch at my brother’s house, she held my feet, which were as hard as rocks, the result of the scleroderma that had taken over my body, and she massaged them ever so gently. It was the only time I can ever remember that she ministered to me and I treasured that moment. I could see the sadness in her eyes at the time and countless unspoken words.
In her late 80’s my mother lost most of her mind and had to be placed in an assisted living home. She hung the nude painting of me over her bed. (I’m sure nobody at all thought that was strange!) I visited her as often as I could which was every few months. I was living hours away by then and would drive up, stay with one of my brothers who was nearby and tending to her needs, then go spend a couple of hours with her. We didn’t do more than just sit and talk, often going over the same topic again and again. She remembered most of her children and a few of her grandchildren and had managed to turn the story of her life into a kind of comedy review for the people who worked there. My mother always loved an audience and had been a compelling public speaker in her day.
This was the first time in our lives that I had seen her truly enjoying herself, utterly comfortable, totally unguarded. We laughed together and played bingo in the rec room and Scrabble occasionally (she was still darn good at it). In the last years of her life I would help her when I was there, if it was necessary, to do whatever needed to be done that she could no longer do by herself. In the last year of her life she had finally become for me a mom, someone I could feel warmly towards even though in her last few months while she took to telling all of my brothers and sisters, when they would visit, that she loved them, she never said those words to me. What she did say though, made up for it: “My buddy,” she would say as she hugged me close, “my buddy.” They were the sweetest words she’d ever said to me; I couldn’t have asked for more.