The Two Faces of My Mother

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that she passed a church sign this morning that read “A mother’s love is as close to God’s love as you can get on earth.” To say that this friend’s relationship with her mother is difficult could qualify as the understatement of the year, so obviously, this sentiment did not sit particularly well with her.

She’s certainly not alone. Many of my friends either had or still have strained relationships with their mothers. In fact, I think more of my friends fit into this category than into the Ma-Ingalls-has-nothing-on-my-mama category.

Myself included.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I did not have an absolutely horrible mother, but she and I really did not get along very well. In fact, if we weren’t related, I can almost guarantee that we would not have ever sought each other out for any kind of friendly relationship. There simply wasn’t much we saw eye to eye on, and we could never seem to get past that.

My mother passed away eight years ago. While we may have lost chance to mend fences and have a decent if not friendly relationship, I have been gradually working through a lot of the angst and trying to understand and why my mother acted the way she did and to forgive her for the way she treated me during my growing-up years. A few years ago, while I was visiting my aunt, she gave me some unexpected insight that in all honesty initiated much of this soul-searching and gave me something to contemplate.

This conversation occurred during a time when I was feeling very isolated. I think every stay-at-home mom goes through that particular emotion at one time or another, but this was something I had been dealing with almost constantly since my older son was born, which at that time would have been eight or nine years. I was really feeling thatwas lost, that no one knew me. Everyone knew me as Wesley and Wayde’s mom, or as Mike’s wife. While I was those things, am those things, it wasn’t all I was, but I felt as though people forgot that. No one really knew who I was, what my hopes and dreams were. It seemed that no one asked about me; they just wanted to hear what my kids were doing or where my husband was working. I felt as though I was just a nobody. I told my aunt that I was turning into my mother, and that scared me.

Let me connect some dots. When I was in elementary school, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. And when I say she was a stay-at-home, I mean she was a stay-at-home. She didn’t drive, so when my dad was working, she either had to rely on someone else to get us somewhere, or we walked, or we just stayed home. Most often, we just stayed home. I wasn’t allowed to be in any activities like Girl Scouts or dance lessons, nor was I allowed to go to play dates or birthday parties unless they were within walking distance. So I was a very isolated, uninvolved child, as was my older brother. Likewise, Mom was also very isolated and uninvolved. My memories of her from this time period were of a woman who sat at home watching soap operas or game shows, smoking cigarettes, and doing jigsaw or crossword puzzles. That to me was  her existence. She rarely played with me or interacted with me, except to criticize or belittle me for “showing off” or “looking for attention.” As harsh as this sounds, I really didn’t see her as having much of a personality.

When I related this to my aunt, she told me that I had missed out on knowing the Aleta that she knew. She began to tell me of a creative, clever, witty young woman. My father had spent twenty years in the Air Force, and they had traveled all over the United States, even spending four years in Japan, long before I was born. My aunt reminded me that while in Japan, my mom had taken classes in millinery, painting, and doll making and had been a Sunday school teacher and a Den leader for my two oldest brothers’ Scout troop. She had also hosted holiday dinners to which she and my dad invited the unmarried soldiers from the base. She told me that my mom had loved cooking and always wanted to try new recipes.

She told me that she saw a lot of that Aleta in me. And that if I didn’t take control of my life and make some changes, that I would end up just like her.

So what had happened to make my mother change so drastically? Well, unfortunately, that’s something I’ll never know for certain. Some of it may have had to do with her relationship with my dad. Mom was always very soft-spoken and timid, while Dad was a typical, in-charge military man. He wasn’t abusive, but he was, in my aunt’s words, domineering, and he often treated his family as he did his subordinates. I just think Mom never really learned how to stand up to him and say what she thought or what she wanted. When you add to that the fact that she didn’t drive and therefore wasn’t able to get out of the house and pursue her own interests with her own friends, well, that just set her up for isolation, unhappiness, and I think even depression.

There’s a (not-really) humorous saying that “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” And I think that’s ultimately what happened between her and me. Because I have a lot of the same qualities that my mother had–creativity, intelligence, wit–she saw herself in me. A family friend’s nickname for me was “Little ‘Leta” because I was so much like my mom (and yes, that is one of the reasons I chose Leta as my pen name). Because of her own unhappiness, she was unable to encourage those qualities, and instead squelched them in me the way they had been squelched in her. I don’t think she meant to; it just happened.

As another Mother’s Day arrives, I listen to sermons about Godly mothers, browse through racks of cards intended for “my beloved mother”, and watch some of my friends enjoy the day with their mothers. And then I think about people like my friend who posted on Facebook this morning, about the countless news stories of mothers who have harmed their children, or even about those of us whose mothers have passed, or who want to be a mother but can’t. And all I can do is pray that we all find some kind of peace.

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