During a recent session with a client, she was revisiting some memories about her mother, familiar to both of us since the beginning of her treatment. Although her parents provided the basics — food, clothing, a roof over her head — they were both disastrous on an emotional level. As the session unfolded, my client repeated many painful details from her childhood, and yet amidst all those memories, I caught little glimpses of the way she had at one time found her mother beautiful. It made me think about the spots of goodness to be found in the mostly-bad mother, and how hard it is to hang onto them. It’s an issue I continue to struggle with in relation to my own mostly-bad mother.
I could describe my own parents in very much the same terms as my client’s: they fed us, clothed us, gave us a very nice home and bought us used cars once we learned to drive. In financial and material terms, I had a comfortable, upper-middle class upbringing. Emotionally, it was fairly awful. I won’t burden you with the details; many people have more horrific stories to tell and entered their teens even more scarred than I was. Suffice it to say that I suffered from severe bouts of depression and at 18 concluded, on my own, that I badly needed professional help. Without telling my parents, I went to consult a psychiatrist who was a casual business acquaintance of my father’s. He intervened on my behalf and spoke to my parents. Later, after an endless and agonizing argument in which my mother and father insisted that either (a) I was making “it” all up; or (b) I was so mentally ill that nothing would help, they finally agreed to pay for my therapy.
Two months or so later, I entered the office of my psychotherapist and he said, “Joe, do you know why my bill hasn’t been paid?” When I asked my mother about it later that afternoon, she snapped, “He has to wait like everyone else.” I informed her that he wouldn’t continue to see me without payment. A couple of weeks later, my therapist told me that my mother had sent him the nastiest, most abusive letter he had ever received. At that point, I took a part-time job in order to pay for my treatment. Many people in college have to work, of course; I wasn’t unusual in that way, although my motivation was a bit different. I moved out of my parents’ house a few months later.
That was my mother: nasty, sarcastic and often vengeful. She had a powerful streak of envy and belittled anyone who aroused it. Though not always obvious to outsiders, she clung obsessively to my father and felt jealous of the attention he paid to my sister. She found motherhood a burden and preferred time alone with Dad. She occasionally rage-spanked or slapped us; at the same time, she leaned on me emotionally, confiding information unsuitable for a child to hear, in a way that made me feel responsible and frightened. When she found a marijuana “roach” I’d attempted to flush down the toilet, she brought out the belt; I told her I was too big for her to beat and she broke down in tears. “If you end up like your brother and sister, my whole life will have been a failure.” She was a functional alcoholic who suffered from her own major depressions. She lived on prescription meds — first Milltown, then Valium — for years.
There you have her, the mostly-bad mother — angry, self-absorbed, envious and depressed. Over the years, I’ve struggled without a lot of success to hold on to the good things about her.
My best memories of her cluster in two areas: food and music. Mom grew up on a farm in Texas where her own (angry and depressed) mother taught her about putting food on the table for the men; she wasn’t a fancy cook, but nearly everything she prepared was delicious. I’m convinced my mother made the best spaghetti sauce in the world, despite the fact that most people I’ve known believe the exact same thing about their own mothers. Rotisserie chicken, roast beef, lasagna, pork chops with Spanish rice, fried chicken, steak and baked potatoes: these were her staples, each of them consistently excellent.
She also had the ability of preparing an entire meal without any stress and getting meat, starch and vegetable all piping hot onto the table at the same time. The entire family ate dinner together almost every night. To this day, my brother, sister and I all cook and care deeply about food; we enjoy feeding people. Looking at it objectively, I can see that we’ve taken in the best feature of the mostly-bad mother and made her a part of us. There are even rare moments when I even feel that to be true. On the rare occasions when I make her spaghetti sauce — it takes all day to make, with lamb shanks, sweet and hot Italian sausage, ground beef, wine and mushrooms — I know that I haven’t internalized only her bad qualities.
Another set of memories concerns music. My mother didn’t play an instrument or sing but she listened to music much of the time. Most of it was bland, easy-listening music; but in the living room which we almost never used, there was a hi-fi in a wooden cabinet that also housed her record collection. Most of these records had been purchased when she joined a record club — one of her many enthusiasms that came and went, like macrame, decoupage and oil painting. I discovered these albums and began to work my way through them at about the same time I was discovering old movies on television. Thus I came to know and love musical theater through her recordings of South Pacific, The King and I, Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. I have vivid recollections of those album covers, and a stylized Rex Harrison as God-on-a-cloud, manipulating poor Julie Andrews by strings as if she were a puppet.
I also learned to love classical music from exploring that cabinet, mostly Tschaikovsky and Strauss, with some Gershwin and Copland thrown in. I used to lie on the living room floor alone and listen to these records over and over. That music represented something good and beautiful to me; I know it has emotional connections to my mother since she loved that music, too. During my early teens when we all became enthusiastic about Burt Bacharach, she bought us tickets for his concert at the Greek Theater. She took me more than once to see The Sound of Music, and not just because I wanted to go. Those works of music that we both loved gave us a common, clear, good space where we could connect. Some of my most pleasant memories of Mom involve shared music.
But as soon as those “good” memories come up, other “bad” ones will soon follow, connected by their shared theme. For example, her utter contempt for music I enjoyed but she didn’t, her sarcasm about my singing, her patent disinterest in my clarinet or piano or orchestra concerts at school. The bad keeps seeping in. At the age of 12, I begged her to buy me the soundtrack for Mary Poppins and she refused. A week later, she told me she had a “special surpise” for me that concerned one of the five senses. Could I guess? When I failed to do so after a dozen tries, she felt deeply disappointed and treated me with scorn for not realizing it was — obviously! — the record I’d asked for.
I have several nice memories of going with her to pick out a new puppy, inextricably linked to other painful memories of coming home to find she’d gotten rid of it, unable to handle all that energy. My two cats “ran away from home” one summer while I was at camp. I think this may be the fate of those good parts of the mostly-bad mother. It’s hard to keep them wholesome and good; they too easily become tainted by the pain of other memories. Too quickly, they seem to slip away. Even at their best, these memories of my mother don’t quite feel like love to me.
She died nearly 20 years ago and I don’t think about her often. Holding onto the good bits no longer seems so important. I have solid, deeply meaningful and long-lasting relationships with other peope who make me feel loved.
But I will always have food — the best, truly good part of the mostly-bad mother.
Finding Your Own Way:
Did you have a mostly-bad mother? Do the bad memories crowd out the good ones, or can you hold onto the small areas of goodness?
What were the truly good parts of her? Can you organize them into discrete areas the way I do or are they more diffuse? When you think of your mother’s goodness, does it feel like love to you?
Some mothers are so depressed and overwhelmed by their pain, or so wrapped up in their spouses, they have little emotional room left over to love anyone else. The narcissistic mother may be incapable of true love, the kind of love that values a child for more than his or her ability to mirror what is expected.
Even in the worst of mothers, I believe there’s almost always some small oasis of goodness around which memories cluster. What about yours?