Monday, December 13, 2010

Mother Mo Chroì

As some of my readers may know, my mother is very ill with a chronic degenerative disease from which, barring miracles, she will not recover.  One of the reasons I've been so busy this fall is that I've been traveling to see her every few weeks, which has meant mostly standing by helplessly as her condition deteriorates further, and more resources are scrambled for and determined to be out of reach.

My mother is one of the people I admire most in the world, though, until I became an adult, we had a stormy relationship.  She was a lonely girl, neglected by her own mother, who had essentially left her children for her one true love, the Communist Party.  At the age of fourteen, my mother became a Christian; in just a few short years, she also became a teen mother.  She left high school (her principal wept when she told him the news; a gifted student, she was going to be valedictorian) and worked in a factory for several years, later attending night classes and winning a full fellowship to graduate school, where she met my father.  She was a petite, dark-haired beauty who, even as a single mother, had many suitors.  She loved music, and I suspect it is from her side of the family -- musicians for generations, though she herself is not one -- that the musicality of my own generation is derived.  In her factory days, she would buy herself season tickets to the Philharmonic every year -- the cheapest seats available, which were in the top balcony, and which made the experience a mixture of transcendence and penance for her, since she was dreadfully afraid of heights, and the walk up to the top of the house, staggering in high heels and clutching the banister, was always a series of terrors.  She attended the concerts each year alone, since her friends preferred rock.

Later, in a sense, my mother left us too.  When I was a small child, she was hospitalized more than once for severe depression.  I remember my feelings of shock and betrayal when, as a five-year-old, I overheard her telling a friend that her psychiatrist had instructed her not to tell her children about the circumstances relating to her extreme grief.  Even if we found her crying, she said, she was not to tell us why, though she could pick us up and hold us.  As a small child, I was horrified by the implications of this deliberate withholding, although, nonetheless, I now know that there are some things that parents should never tell their children.

My mother taught me to read when I was three, because, she said, I was ready.  As a result, I was writing little books, perfectly punctuated and copiously illustrated, by the age of five.  Every day after school she had a project for us:  making paper, or soap, or butter; trying our hands at the arts of batik or stained glass.  Neighborhood children would come over to make our arts and crafts with us.  She was endlessly creative.  She was also a gourmet cook, which forced my siblings and me to become good cooks ourselves (one of us became a professional cook, and another semi-professional), or risk a lifetime of disappointment at our own tables.  She baked her own bread and made her own pasta, and every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas she made what my father called the Platonic idea of a pumpkin pie.  She ran a food co-op out of her tiny kitchen.

I am not exaggerating when I note that this wonderful mother also made some chilling choices, which harmed and will continue to affect her family for generations to come.  A deeply flawed woman, she made them out of fear and desperation, out of a lack of trust in God, in her children, and in herself.  She was and is, in this respect, what Nietzsche called "human, all too human."

It is one of the great sorrows of my present life to know that she is dying, though no one knows the hour or the day.

This is for her.  You'll have to turn it up.


Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry your Mom is ill - it's funny how they're "my Mother" in one circumstance, and just "Mom" in another, isn't it? I can't decide whether to laugh or cry about how humanly complicated this role is for all involved.

Prayers for both of you. Be well.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, CC.

Rodak said...

It doesn't surprise me at all to learn that you have a gifted, creative, and highly intelligent mother. Whatever her perceived flaws, she done good!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Rodak. In all honesty, my mother is one of the most brilliant people I've ever met.

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

Praying for your mother and I want to echo what Rodak said. I'm glad your mother encouraged you to be an early reader and writer. You have a gift for weaving words together that provoke thought and feeling in your readers.

Peace and joy...

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Kate. This is a horribly painful thing.

Sally Thomas said...

Praying, praying, praying for you.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Sally.

I keep thinking of a song by Brahms (of course), which goes something like, "Oh, if I only knew the way back to the beautiful land of childhood! Oh, why did I go searching for happiness, and leave my mother's hand?"

GretchenJoanna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rebekka said...

Such a beautiful tribute of a post - mothers as they really are, perfection and imperfection rolled up into one lovable/hate-able ball that you nevertheless long for even as an adult. I'm sorry she's ill. I'll pray for you both.

Pentimento said...

Thank you. One thing that keeps coming to my mind is the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's observation:

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

While my mother is not my enemy, I know that the destructive and harmful things she did to her family are a direct outpouring of the sorrow and suffering of her own life.

Would that we could always remember this about each other.

mrsdarwin said...

What a beautiful and balanced portrait of your mother. I don't know if I've reached the point in my life where I'm ready to write such a gracious account of my own mother, but I haven't yet had to consider the elegaic reality of death.

"While my mother is not my enemy, I know that the destructive and harmful things she did to her family are a direct outpouring of the sorrow and suffering of her own life."

Oh, this is so familiar it makes me want to cry.

maria horvath said...

Dear Pentimento,

You and your mother are in my prayers.

And this poem is for you:


A lady, the loveliest ever the sun
Looked down upon, you must paint for me:
Oh, if I only could make you see
The clear blue eyes, the tender smile,
The sovereign sweetness, the gentle grace,
The woman’s soul, and the angel’s face
That are beaming on me all the while,
I need not speak these foolish words:
Yet one word tells you all I would say, —
She is my mother: you will agree
That all the rest may be thrown away.

~ Alice Cary (1820-1871), American poet

Pentimento said...

Oh, that is beautiful. Thank you, Maria. And you too, Mrs. Darwin.