(this was written yesterday)
For some reason or another I’ve been thinking about my mother a lot lately, not the normal “why did you do it” rant but sort of pensive “we had some good moments” thoughts. For decades the only words that pierced my brain whenever I thought about her were hers, “hit her again, hit her again” that she shrieked to my dad as he beat me with a belt. It was that last beating that almost killed me that gave me the courage to run away from home a week later.
When she died of breast cancer at the age of 47 I felt nothing, no grief, no sadness, just a sort of detached view of it all. I felt like my mother had already died when I was 13 and my father began his nightly visits to my bedroom in the middle of the night. When she figured out what was going on she had my dad drag me out of bed and interrogate me regarding what was happening during his visits while she had him beat me with a belt. I had no clue. I thought you bought babies at the hospital. I didn’t know that the “nightmare” she had told me I had the first time when I screamed repeatedly for help was not a nightmare. Nor was it a steamroller suffocating me as it came over me, which is what I thought for decades whenever I remembered. I had enough sense of what was going on that I knew if I described to her what my father was doing it would break up our “happy Catholic family”. I would do anything to keep that from happening and so in the midst of all that brutal pain hurled at an 80 pound anorexic teenager I broke down and cried over and over, “It was my fault, not daddy’s.” I didn’t know what I was confessing to but it ended that beating. There would be more.
For decades I told people I was an orphan. When my father told me about our incestuous relationship I was appalled and wondered what he was talking about. The only thing I knew about incest was that it was biblical. I was in my mid-thirties by then and he had called to see if I would have dinner with him. I hadn’t seen him for years. He had remarried a few weeks after my mother died – a gal who worked at the office with him and they lived four hours north. He needed to come to LA to see his accountant. Here he was sitting with me in his motel room after we’d had dinner and taken a walk while he sipped brandy and smoked his pipe. Dad had never been much of a listener, wanting always to be the commanding presence that dominated all conversation. The following is an excerpt from my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin Sing.
“Suddenly, he commented, “I’ll bet people in that restaurant wondered what an old guy like me was doing with a young gal like you.”
My eyes flickered with surprise at the turn in conversation. “I’m sure they all thought it was a father out with his daughter.” My anxiety reappeared as my breath caught. I tore and scrapped at my fingernails, my mind freezing with unknown terrors.
A pause of uncomfortable silence followed.
“A lot of older men have relationships with younger women.”
I squirmed, not liking the direction Dad was taking, glanced at the door, then at my watch, feeling moisture dot my palms.
“I think it’s time I talked to you about the incest relationship I had with you when you were a young girl.”
My heart raced and my insides began trembling as my limbs froze. What was he saying? A door inside my mind flew open and a child began screaming in terror. I slammed it shut, leaning my body against it.
“A lot of fathers and daughters have this kind of relationship. It’s really quite common.” He sipped his brandy slowly, narrowing his eyes, and watching my reaction as if I were a specimen under a microscope.
I stared at him in horror, my body tensing like a watch tightened too strongly, and ready to snap. Why did my jaw ache, screaming with pain? The taste of blood was in my mouth as I grabbed the lining with my teeth.
“It’s done in the Appalachian district all the time,” he finished lamely, his eyes averting my face as he set his brandy down and lit his pipe. His legs crossed and uncrossed. The quiet drilled into the night like the sharp noise of a woodpecker. We might have been discussing the weather.
The rest of the evening is a strange blur, a dark patch unremembered, as if it had happened to someone else who could not recall the ending of the tale. I remember only sobbing helplessly as I drove home, not even knowing where the pain was coming from.”
Here I was decades later valuing the good memories of my mother. My father had delivered me in the middle of a blizzard in International Falls, MN. He was always proud of that, as if he’d won World War II by himself. It initiated a strong bond between the two of us one that was destroyed when I was thirteen. I remember my mother rocking me when I was very small and saying, “what am I going to do when my baby grows up?” I remembered baking day, once a week where she baked bread and cinnamon rolls and rolls laced with white frosting with bits of orange peels decorating the top. I remembered when I got sick and she covered my chest with goose grease and dabbed Vicks Vaporub on my nose. I remembered me and my siblings kneeling in a semi-circle in front of her while we said our evening prayers. I remembered waking up on winter days and hurrying in my flowered flannel nightgown to stand with my siblings in front of the wood stove while we dressed for school. Mom brought us cups of hot chocolate with whipped cream to drink as we looked out the windows covered with Jack Frost.
Today, I can forgive my mother. It was easier to forgive my father first but I’m not sure why. Today I can think of the good and remember that no one is all good or all bad. Today I know that carrying hatred for my mother is a bad thing. It taints my soul. Today I can remember that one of my sayings, “Understanding is the key, acceptance is the door” is played out in the decades of attempting to understand my mother. I ached for her love for decades, even long after she died, finding substitute mothers instead. She was a product of her generation’s mindset that believed in patriarchal families. Her motto about my father was that even “when he was wrong, he was right.” She adored my father and lived by that ruling. It cost her her life. When she found a lump in her breast at the age of 46 she didn’t seek medical attention. Dad said all doctors were quacks. That ended that.
I’ll never have my mother’s love again but I had it for thirteen years. That’s better than most victims of incest.
Wherever you are mom I pray that you are in a good place and are looking down at me asking for forgiveness, understanding the truth of what happened.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom!