Did You Ever See Your Parents As People?

The last time I saw my maternal grandmother alive, she told me that she regretted putting my mother, May, on a pedestal her whole life. I don’t know what prompted Grandma Rosie to make such an insightful statement at 94, but I vividly remember it almost 25 years later.

My mother did have “princess” tendencies. Although an extraordinary talented fine artist (she went to Pratt Institute for two years but quit when she married), and an avid reader, she spent most of her life devoted to my father. I was the first born, and, as far as I’m concerned, she probably would have been better off if she had fewer children, perhaps no children at all.

She wasn’t an especially endearing mother (again, I’m speaking for myself, not for her two other children, AKA my sisters), and her ability to relate to me and my needs was, at best, minimal.  When I became distraught after a breakup, she told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll get married someday.” When I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as a freshman in college, she took me to a motel off campus and said, “Take a shower and clean yourself up and you’ll feel better.”  Once, when I talked back to her she hit me with a hanger.

I was more emotionally demanding than my sisters, so having a mother who was somewhat like a child herself didn’t make my childhood a cakewalk. I turned to my father to help me solve the big problems (like understanding algebra and geometry), but he, too, didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with a high strung kid. When I talked back to him, or frustrated him until he couldn’t take it another second, he’d slap me across both arms. The red imprints created by his hands on my arms became badges of courage.

I grew up into a hard-working, ambitious, and emotionally needy woman, who had precious little respect for myself, no matter how much I achieved, how attractive I was, or how many men desired me. And, like my mother before me, I am not an exemplary mother, although for far different reasons. But, I don’t tell you all this to bemoan my upbringing or castigate myself for my once boundless insecurity or inability to master motherhood.

I write because I’m sad that I never truly related to my parents as people, with their own insecurities and imperfections, concentrating instead on their inabilities to relate to me.

My dad died when he was 69 and I was 41, and my mom died when she was 87 and I was 62, so I had a lot more time to figure myself out, and accept my mother for what she was, not disparage what she wasn’t. So, even if she was self centered and generally lacked empathy for others (when her oldest friend didn’t reveal that her son was seeing a psychiatrist in the 1970s, my mother stopped talking to her; when her best friend developed Alzheimer’s, she visited her but once or twice), my mother was fun loving, curious and (surprisingly) independent from the day my dad died, two decades before her.

Mom lived, after my dad died, on a modest income, in a smallish studio apartment, never complaining about either.  She never asked to go on vacations with me. She didn’t fret about her health. She didn’t lean on me to “entertain” her in the evenings, or on weekends. Instead, she religiously went to a senior program at the Y, where she took classes, attended lectures, played bridge, and developed many friendships. She also helped plan many of the group events at the Y, from Chanukah parties to Atlantic City jaunts.

What’s more, my mother tried her darndest to help me, in later years, emotionally and physically, as much as she was able.

When my insane relationship with boyfriend Edgar got me down, she would try to talk sense into me. When I had a hysterectomy, she was by my side as I took my first excruciatingly painful steps. When I didn’t want to fly to Cleveland for a business event, she accompanied me on the 8-hour drive.  Even when I was overwhelmed running my own business, she’d volunteer to help, from stuffing envelopes to organizing clothes for a fashion shoot.

Sure, she continued to anger, frustrate, and upset me (“Why aren’t you visiting Emily?” I’d implore, referring to her friend who had developed Alzheimer’s), but those times became less frequent, and my new man friend and I looked forward to taking my mother out to dinner and listening to her countless anecdotes. She was always upbeat and could be pretty funny.

She even told me she loved me, not long before she had the accident at home that led to hip surgery, which quickly led to a raging infection, and then to her death about two weeks later. I visited her daily during those two weeks, and it was heart wrenching to see her in such pain and not understand what was happening (I later learned that diabetics are highly likely to develop fatal infections after hip surgery, and that she should never have had the operation in the first place.)

I said, and did, some unwise, callous, or downright stupid things to my mother (and father) when I was young, and even not so young.  But, I am grateful that I recognized that they only WANTED the best for me (even if they didn’t, or couldn’t, always DO what was best for me.)  Parents are only people. It’s hard enough to look after our own well being. Being responsible for the emotional, mental and physical development of another human being can be downright daunting.

Just because you make the monumental decision to procreate doesn’t mean you’re going to ace the parenting “test.” Considering our kids are the ones giving out the grades, many of us don’t even pass.