My mother by her own admission was a crappy mother. Yet she taught me a lot. Like manners and speaking well and being well read. She did not suffer childish or idiotic conversations. She taught me that women are as strong and as ruthless as men in business. She forced me to learn to wash my clothes and cook my meals because she sure as hell wasn't going to, she was at work. She warned me about being friends with my employees by saying "Don't make friends with the barnyard animals because someday you might have to eat them." Yet, for someone who often said that she didn't like children when my sister disappeared in her sophomore year of high school, my mother, went every night with a detective into New York City looking for her. I knew it was eating her alive. It was maybe a year later we found out she had "run away" and had built a life for herself in California. I could go on and on illustrating my mother's distinct lack of "motherly" qualities. But I'm kind of done with that. One reason was that her lack of empathy for her children, her selfishness created a stencil when it came to being a father. I just had to fill in the holes in me to know what to be for my sons. And, I am grateful for that.
So that little woman on the left is now 98. I am almost certain that she has lived this long, sharp as a tack because of all the times I told her I wished that she would just die, or told her to fuck off, it wouldn't be long before Satan rose up from the floor and dragged her down to hell. And just for spite here she is today.
She worked her entire adult life until she retired at 70 as comptroller for a company she had worked for 35 years. During that time she went to Pace University at nights and on weekends until a counselor called her in and said she could have graduated three years previous. When she did graduate with a BA in abnormal psychology she received multiple awards from Pace for excellence. At one of these award ceremonies, she leaned over and nonchalantly whispered: "I'm going to tell you something that nobody in the family knows and I have never told anybody and you are not to tell anyone until I am dead." She then told me that she had dropped out of high school shortly before she was to be graduated and that she had never gotten her high school diploma. She had been ashamed of that her whole life. Now she was being graduated Cum Laude or some such from Pace University.
And here is something else about my mother. At the same time that she was going to college at nights and on weekends, while working her full-time job, she also spent four years learning how to figure skate. It was only after the second time that she broke her wrist that her doctor told her that if she broke it again, she might not be able to move it ever. So she stopped.
She moved to Florida, complained about all of the old people and worked for another 20 years for Innisbrook Country Club as a guest relations manager. One day while coming home from work, she blew through a red light. She drove home and told me, there on a visit, that she would no longer be driving. She then retired from her job again and moved back north, in order to get away from the old people.
So there she is in an assisted care facility. She ended up there after banging her head from fainting a couple of times and then fracturing her hip. Mostly old people live there.
Maybe a year ago I was interviewing her about her life. My son Cameron operated one video camera and I the other. We turned them on, started the audio recorder and I began to ask questions that my sister and I had come up with. We wanted answers to questions that perhaps might soon be lost to time. I started out asking her about growing up in Brooklyn when there were more horses on the street than cars. She told of how frightened she was when the Hindenberg flew over her street. She told of all the friends she had lost in the Pacific during World War Two and of her sister dying of Lupus and her father dying of kidney failure. She said that her mother became the first women to own and manage an answering service. She also confessed to being a hellion with the nuns in her Catholic school and told a few stories about what a little shit she was.
I asked her about regrets. She was quiet for a few moments and told a story about how early in her marriage to my father, she returned a gift he had purchased for her because she thought it was too expensive. She said that all these years later, she could still see the hurt in his eyes. She paused and then her voice quavered and tears fell. I turned to ask my son to get her a glass of water and saw that he too was wiping away tears. I can not relate to the reader properly how poignantly the story was told or how my mother started out telling it and ended it crying, slumped over, sadder than I have ever seen her.
With the video still recording I asked her if she wished to stop. No. I began to ask another question to move her away from the subject of regrets but she wanted to continue.
My mother then told of several events in my life, of which she said she had her deepest regrets. She began to list them and with each, I could see the pain consuming her. Even though I swore that I would have no sympathy for her when she would eventually want it, I had no stomach for it now. What is more worthless than an apology 30, 40 or 50 years later? When there is nothing back there but dead time and memories that could not be done with?
My sister, because she had to, grew up stronger than I would ever be. I learned how to maneuver and manipulate and too easily give myself a pass. I grew up shit in relationships and dealing with money and I guess I still am. For much of my life, I blamed my mother for that. But our mother, the woman with her red wet face sitting across from me gave me those other things too. Manners and linguistic skills that I was going to learn "So help you God" she would say. The rage of being misunderstood and at being brought up with the idea that we were actually quite wealthy but temporarily without funds. And from that an appreciation for poetry, books, theatre, ballet, history, fine cuisine. How so much stronger women are than men because they have to be. And how "Goddamnit you don't have to love me, but you will damn well respect me." And what has taken my entire life to understand: if you want to have memories of passion and love in the end, sometimes... perhaps at the wrong time, when you know it is the wrong thing, you have to ignore everyone else and be selfish and do what it is you desire to do. And somehow, I learned that the need to feel you are loved and important to someone, no matter how flawed a dynamic, how sinful or inappropriate, if you can, it is worthy of your forgiveness.
I asked Cameron to turn the camera off and I sat down next to my mother and I put my arm around her. Already surpassing the sum and total of physical contact experienced with her, ever. We both laughed at that observation. She then began a litany of regrets. That she never did anything for the lonely child I was. Ignoring that I needed someone to show me how to be a man. For not allowing me to join Boy Scouts or play Little League or have friends come over. For instilling the fear of getting close to others in me. For leaving my sister and me at 12 and 9 years of age alone for weekends. For forgetting birthdays. For the lies, she forced us to accept because the truth about a lot of her behavior was just so awful.
Eventually, my mother just ran out of steam recounting every crappy thing she had done or thought she had done to me.
And I told her what she needed to hear. What would make her perhaps a little less afraid at the hour of her death. Because the unforgivable sin is being unable to forgive yourself. And if you believe in sins or horrible Karma what kind of sin is it to cause someone not to forgive themselves?
I told my mother that I am the person I am for her faults and all of the good things that she was. I have empathy, creativity and the knowledge I needed to raise two sons that are surely the finest thing this human has ever done. Without my shitty mother, I told her I wouldn't be the person who won't kill spiders and whose sons never hang up the phone or leave their mother or I without saying that they love us. It's because of my mother and their mother my sons are attracted to strong smart people and appreciate so many things about this wonderful life. My kids never told me they can't wait for me to be dragged down to hell. And her sense of humor..which I must say can be pretty dark, I have been told is one of my best features. I told her that I had come to terms with all of those things, and I was OK and grateful for who I am. I told her she just needed to forgive herself. That was the most important thing that she could do for me now.
A few months ago I was visiting and she said to me that she had learned in the past year that she was wrong about something. It was something she had thought was true her entire life. She said: "I have come to the realization that I don't know everything."
She sure as hell had me convinced that she thought she did.