A couple years ago I was telling some friends a funny story about my mother. When I finished, one of them gave me a puzzled look. I asked her what was on her mind.
"I only think about your mom in abstract," she said. "I assume she exists, but not in the way our moms do; I don't think I could ever picture what she looks like."
Painting an abstract picture of my mother is light years ahead of how I used to acknowledge her existence. I tried like hell to erase her from my life. My brother, sister and I all left home at 16, each for a different reason. My sister was married and pregnant. My brother's budding juvenile delinquency had him bouncing between home and foster care.
Me? Tired of being beaten by my stepfather, I was fighting back — often with whatever I could get my hands on. One time he took a swing at me and I split his head open with a fireplace iron. Another time, he was working on the car after kicking the shit out of me, so I followed him outside and tried to kick the jack out from the bumper while he was underneath. If I remained in that environment, there were two ways it would have ended: both scenarios end with my not being able to write this.
My mother saw this and signed over custody of me to my Uncle Stu before my junior year of high school.
I was angry and confused at what I saw was my mother choosing an alcoholic redneck asshole over me. Even though I knew I was in a better place with my uncle and aunt, I felt as though my mother washed her hands of me and getting rid of me was the best way to keep the family together. Worst of all, I felt there was something wrong with me and she had no patience to help me work through it.
As I entered adulthood, it was easier for me to acknowledge my mother’s existence in passing than to tell the details. I really didn’t want to talk about her, or with her. As I entered my thirties, I had effectively written her out of my life and didn’t want to talk to her again. That bitterness has softened over time. We chat regularly, catch each other up on what is happening in our lives, and tell each other we love each other.
The biggest change in our relationship came when I realized she saw giving my uncle custody of me as an opportunity. I could have vacillated between “foster care or whatever,” as John Kelly so callously put it last week. But both Mom and Uncle Stu saw a very gifted, budding young man who needed a chance to live up to his potential. This was a Hail Mary play: even though I was in a stable home environment with my uncle, there was no guarantee I would apply the life lessons he and my aunt were teaching me, as an adult. My teachers always told Mom I was gifted and my talents needed nurturing, but as a widow during most of the 1970s, Mom had a succession of second-shift factory or retail jobs and wasn't available much of the time.
Being honest with myself has allowed me to see my mother in a different light and recognize the traits I’ve inherited from her.
I get my impatience and anxiousness from her.
She listens more than she speaks, and only interjects herself into conversations when she feels she has something to add.
She sings along to the radio while she cleans and cooks.
She makes the best banana pudding on the planet, even though most of it comes from a box of Jell-O pudding.
She’s independent and loyal.
She has great hair.
She knows how to stretch a dollar.
She loves her children and grandchildren.
She instilled in me a love of baseball.
We both wish for the best for the people we love, even if we can’t provide it.
The biggest trait we share is a stubborn nature and an insistence on self-sufficiency. Neither of us wants to ask others for help, but we’ve both come around to understanding that asking for advice or a helping hand is not a sign of weakness. It’s a lesson my mother imparted on me when I was sixteen, although I didn’t recognize it for decades after.