Understanding My Mother

My mother had a motto regarding my father: “Even when he’s wrong, he’s right”. She lived and died by that motto and it cost her her life. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45 my father convinced her that all doctors were quacks. She sought no medical care until the very end when it was too late. She died in agony.

My mother had an almost idealistic and Utopian childhood, the oldest of three children. Her mother was 18 when she was born. Grandma was a fairy like person, full of wit and warmth and laughter. Grandpa told me that grandma spent every day doing something for someone else from morning to night. I adored both of my grandparents and always envied mom being raised by them in a small town in northern Minnesota. She had two younger brothers and a huge Finnish clan that numbered four aunts and four uncles on her father’s side and four uncles and an aunt on her mother’s side. They were closely knit and spent many happy hours at grandpa’s lake where he had 40 acres of thickly wooded forest and a home-made cabin built by grandpa in the early days of their marriage. There they fished, played horseshoes, baked pies and dinners in their enormous black wood stove, swam in the lake and took Finnish saunas. The happiest memories of my life were the times I spent there as a child, nurtured by my many aunts and uncles and spoiled by my grandma and grandpa. If there were ever a man in love it was my grandpa. Grandma was only 4 ft. 10 in., green eyes and blond hair, with small features. Impish, always playful and mischievous, she spread joy and love wherever she went. Grandpa was stern and strong charactered and grandma was his whole world.

But mom grew up and fell in love. Unfortunately, the man she fell in love with came from a patriarchal family. There was a saying about his father: “No woman is safe with George Leick.” That saying would one day have fatal consequences. After producing four children in three years Dad went off to war. They must have had a great sex life as I found in my father’s possessions after he died several black and white photos of my mother in the nude. Photography was my father’s hobby and he had his own darkroom.

As I wrote in my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin Sing:

I learned a great deal after my father’s death from letters he and my mother exchanged while he was in the Marine Corps about the way a marriage worked in the forties, especially in our family. My mother’s letters were full of strings of endearments, gushy words of how she could barely live without him and comments on how obedient she was to his dictates. His letters were full of instructions regarding how she was supposed to think and act. A letter he wrote to Franklin Roosevelt was particularly enlightening. In it, he outlined the role of a woman in both marriage and society. She was to be obedient to her husband’s wishes, passive about her own needs, stay out of the working place, take her opinions and values from her husband’s and have none of her own. With a set up like that, I had little chance of either being my own person or setting my own boundaries.

While he was stationed in Hawaii playing piano with Bob Crosby’s band as his duty (tough duty – but he had had 12 years of piano lessons and they needed him) my mother developed a daily regimen of placing us four tiny tots on the bed width wise, side by side, like sacks of potatoes. Then she gave us daily and painful enemas chanting, “Hold it, hold it.” Many decades later a psychologist would call that a “ritualistic rape of four small children by a woman who was sexually deprived”. The internal trauma it caused in me would stay with me until the psychologist wrenched the words out of me. He had asked what had happened to me when I was three and I had responded, “nothing.” I kept talking but felt like I had told a lie. I finally backed up and shared with him what had happened. It was the first time I had ever told anyone and as I described the agony I sobbed as if my guts were pouring out of me. I walked out of his office feeling as if the weight of the world had been taken from my shoulders. Three weeks later my daughter helped me get rid of my abuser and I filed for divorce.

Once my father returned from the war, he and my mother continued in their marital pattern with him as the patriarch and my mother as passive and obedient. When I turned 13 and Dad began his nightly rapes my mother eventually found out what was happening. She blamed him and had my dad beat me until I confessed to being the guilty party. I thought, in my immature, misguided brain, that I was saving my dad and mom’s marriage by bearing the brunt.

My memoir describes what happened next. No longer did Mom get out of bed and fix us hot cereal and chocolate in the morning. No more did she avidly question me on how my day went when I returned home. Now, she was asleep when I went off to school. We fixed our own breakfast, stumbling through burnt toast and soggy cold cereal. When I came home, the house was dark, Marine Corps blankets covering the windows and the breakfast dishes sitting on the table in an accusatory manner. There was no dinner happily cooking in the oven and no cheerful sight of Mom listening to her soap operas shushing me until they finished their fifteen-minute segments. Instead, she lay in bed in an emotional stupor, depressed and withdrawn.

Dad had begun working a new job, one that took him away from home during the week. He returned on Friday nights to a house heavy with despair, a long line of crimes related by Mom about his children, who waited for him to hand out punishments.

The change in Mom slipped into our lives almost as if programmed. Was this just another stage in mothers? I wondered if she was ill. With little or no communication amongst my siblings and me, we didn’t dare discuss it. As time passed, I realized that I realized that Mom had indeed changed for good. My heart was frightened and hollow when I approached our home and saw the Marine Corp blankets, signaling that mom was still in bed. I tried to waken her, to get her to eat, oftentimes grooming her as I would a pet. She’d lie in a state of apathy and sorrow, and have me shave her legs, wash her face, or comb her hair. I felt someone had taken my mother from me and left this strange lady in her place. What had I done? Was she angry with me? Didn’t she love me anymore? There was no more affection, no more interest, no more “my mother”. I grieved deeply. As time went on, my sorrow and bewilderment, planted seeds of a neurosis that only grew with the passage of time.

I never again had a mother. The woman who lived in our house, who controlled our every move, remained a cold stranger, one who’s hatred of me was apparent when at the age of 18 she had my father give me a beating that almost cost me my life. She chanted over and over, “hit her again, hit her again.” When my older brother tried to stop my father by grabbing the belt and screaming, “Dad, you’re killing her”, my father knocked him out, he splattered against the wall and dad continued the beating.

When I was in recovery one of the most difficult steps I had to address was forgiving my parents. My father was easier than my mother. How do you forgive someone who chanted such ugly words? I had come to believe that understanding was the key and acceptance was the door. In order to understand her I had to reach back into her childhood and her years before she met my father, then come forward in time and see the setup she had found herself in. Raised by a loving but stern patriarch of her own, she partnered with another who believed in the patriarchal setup. In a way, she was a victim of her generation. I found a letter she had written her parents after she found out she had cancer. It was the most beautiful letter I had ever read. Using moving words that touched my soul she had shared with her parents the difficulty of her own nature and the heartfelt gratitude she felt for them. She wrote: “With age and as with me through my children, then and only then, have I come to learn the wisdom of all you tried to teach me. Raising me has had a share of trouble you had to withstand and many, many times I have felt ashamed and frightened at the worry I caused you. I know on this special day that in listening to cautious voices spoken to me many years ago only lately have I been hearing them. So Mother and Dad, on this day of happiness may I thank you both for from the bottom of my heart you gave me life and may I be able to justify that love with whatever I leave as you tried to with me.” A close friend of hers told me once that my mother had the finest mind they had ever encountered. I understood her better after reading and re-reading this letter many times. I had found the key and was able to open the door and forgive her.

One of the last things she said as she was dying was a comment she made to her brother: “I wish I had protected the children more from Bernie.” Too late mom.

 

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