Monday, October 20, 2008

Ghosts of Mothers Past

Sarah now has the new Catholic Carnival posted up at "Another Day of Catholic Pondering." Be sure to stop by and check out the collective wisdom!

I recently gave my dining room a face lift, covering the walls in a springy green to complement my grandmother's newly refurbished buffet. The dark wood is now antique white, the brass appointments polished, the heavy wooden shelves replaced with glass and interior lighting. Truth be told, it's a thing of beauty.

After a week of casting admiring glances at my new cabinet, it struck me that the old antique is the perfect metaphor for the difficult relationship I had with my grandmother. When she passed away a year ago, I did my best to focus on the good memories: the bountiful Sunday dinners, peanuts and Coke on the back porch, lovely rose gardens. I honed in on the last memory I had of her, confused yet undeniably pleasant as she chatted with my daughter in the nursing home. That she had no idea who I was, was a blessing in disguise.

In a sense, after grandma died I slapped a coat of paint and disassembled the interior of my memory banks. Historical integrity was not nearly as important as the intention to honor her memory. The shadows that slip around the periphery, old controversies and cantankerous exchanges, are like ghosts of mothering past.

For many of us, who have had such difficult examples of motherhood to learn from, to honor is to spin. And when I am unable to conjur up things I'd like to emulate, I can be thankful for the things I know not to do -- all because of "ghosts of mother past." I can think of several examples from my own life ...

* When I was nine, my mother's friend (who watched me while my parents were in NYC for my sister's chemo) found me crying late at night and told me that I had to "grow up" because "your parents have enough to worry about without listening to you whine." Because of her harshness, I was determined to show kindness to some poor little kid who needed it one day.

* When I was a teenager, I had a friend with extraordinary athletic talents and other natural leadership abilities that made her a rising star ... everywhere but in her own home. Especially in public, her mother -- an unhappy woman whose second husband soon followed in the steps of her first, leaving her just to get out from under the incessant nagging and emasculating -- never had a kind word to say about her daughter. Never encouragement. Only nagging little jabs and passive-aggressive manipulation. Mrs. F. made me resolve to praise those I love in public, criticize (when necessary) in private.

* In my twenties, I watched in horror as a young mother, desperate to escape an abusive husband, showed up on her mother's doorstop with her children, asking her to let them stay until he cooled off. Instead, the mother informed her daughter that "her place is with her husband now," and drove her back home. Years later, the mother wonders why the daughter lets her husband mistreat her -- and why the daughter doesn't confide in her any longer. I learned that, as a child grows older, the opportunities to lend silent support far surpass the opportunities to give advice. While the goal of every parent is to work herself out of a job ... There are times when even the most self-reliant child needs help.

The "Extraordinary Moms Network Carnival" this week is dedicated to mothers ... Mothers who have taught us to be better mothers than we otherwise would have, left to our own instincts. The Carnival brought in several touching tributes of women who understood the self-giving that is such a necessary component of good mothering. As for me, I wanted to pose an alternate point of view: That negative examples, in their way, can be every bit as powerful.


Scribbit said...

I think it's wonderful that you've learned from the mistakes--and the line: the opportunities to lend silent support far surpass the opportunities to give advice" is just wonderful. Pure wisdom.

HappyAutisticMama said...

Thanks for this post. It was brave, and it helped me to read it.

Sarah Reinhard said...

You always know just what to say, Heidi, to touch my heart and make me smile about things that I otherwise might just crumple up and toss in the trash heap. :)