The Mother Of My Reinvention… our continuing journey

– my mother... Chicago, 1953
– my mother… Chicago, 1953

Tucked in her lift chair, chilled and uneasy, she waits for tea and dry toast to calm her daily quarrel with queasiness and hunger. With a raised eyebrow and sardonic grin, she remarks, “It ain’t easy gettin’ old.” I commiserate, but she dismisses my empathy; tells me I’m too young to understand. I don’t bother to correct her.

She’s tired, though she’s been in bed since breakfast. It’s a long day by two o’clock, and not necessarily a good one. Though there are good ones: days when she plays Bingo, sings along with glee, or gets to video Mass in the community room. She still relishes her three squares and always brightens at the sight of chocolate. She’s now in a wheelchair full-time but loves a roll around the park. She’s almost eighty-seven, a widow for seventeen years, and a diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient for six-and-a-half.

She is my mother.

Pensive Mom

I left home—and her—a long time ago. I left hard and fast, no quibbling or weepy boomeranging. My mother refers to this as, “when you ran away,” which isn’t far from the truth. It had been a challenging childhood.

I am a third child, the third girl in a family of eleven children. My two older sisters and I, by virtue of gender and birth order, became “little mommies” for smaller, younger siblings while we were still smaller, younger siblings ourselves. And though being in charge of an infant at six-years-old is, perhaps, too steep a learning curve, the responsibility did promote skills found useful later in life. I not only learned to change diapers, feed babies, and wrangle toddlers, I became adept at making meals, doing laundry, and running interference for a mercurial and confounding mother. And that was before I got to high school.

– her high school years
– her in high school

By the time I did get to high school I was bone-weary of family, and desperate to fly. Somewhere. Anywhere. Graduation couldn’t come quick enough and my departure for college was so swift high school friends claim I never even said good-bye. I don’t remember; I was moving too fast. I came home the summer after freshman year, but by the next I was gone for good. My first apartment was a hideous ninety-dollar-a-month single with lousy furniture and a stuttering landlady, but it may as well have been heaven.VirginiaAmandes_8_ w:Phil_early marrieds

It wasn’t just the weight of trading too much childhood for “little mommy-hood.” It wasn’t just the burden of my parents’ religion with its restrictive view of human interaction (anything related to boys and sex). It wasn’t even that one-on-one time in a big family was too spare to be satisfying. It was that I couldn’t find an honest way to consistently and compassionately tolerate my mother.

She was a paradox. One minute clever and creative, the next enraged and irrational. She was impossible to predict and easy to trigger. She loved music, did a mean jitterbug, and had a wildly romantic relationship with the handsome Greek/American who was my father. She could make any day a holiday, taught us that fun was our birthright, and, oh, she loved with a passion. All this provided the good that pushed against the other. Her dark side. The turbulent state that came with frenzied tears, cold silences, or rages that scattered us like terrified animals.

She tried; I believe she sincerely tried, but she was undeniably overwhelmed by a family too large to manage, a husband often too detached to meet her emotional needs, and a psyche too fragile to offer the flexibility and endurance required by the job.

So when I left, I stayed away and kept her away. She and my father didn’t meet my husband until years after we eloped and I’d already given birth to a son. They were that distant and I was that intractable.

But life is surprising. You grow older and live longer. You stumble on expectations not met, cringe at the sharp pangs of disappointment and heartache, and you learn some things. You learn that not all dreams come true, not all promises are kept. Life humbles and sometimes softens you. You accrue compassion for things you might not have previously understood, and that expands your view.

MDD_front porch_sm
– grandparenting with my son

It wasn’t until years after I became a parent that I saw my mother beyond the filter of a child’s eye. When I attached to my own child, and learned the frustrations, passions, and struggles of parenting, I gained perspective on what she’d experienced, many times over, in her own role as a mother. When my marriage met challenges or I felt distanced by a sometimes distant husband, I realized her anguish at the hands of her own husband’s penchant for the same. Simply put, I began to see the human behind the mother. And I had empathy.

She is a third child herself; a brother and sister preceded her. Her mother died shortly after her birth, and her father abandoned all three to be raised by her mother’s extended Irish family, who loved, took good care, and kept kegs flowing in the dining room. She claims it was a happy life—I’m sure much of it was—but when my father died many years after that childhood, she wailed that she’d been “abandoned” by all the men in her life, asking through tears how a father could leave his children without a look back. I had no answer for her. But it seems, regardless of her rosy, revisionist narrative, she’d suffered for it all.

She suffered for growing up without the intimacy and guidance of a mother’s love, or the constancy of a father’s. She suffered for the raging alcoholism in her family. She suffered for being an orphan whose need for love could hardly be filled. And now I, as an adult, mother, wife, and family survivor myself, was beginning to understand her story. It made me ache for her. It made my heart open.

Countless people I know are caring, or have cared, for aging parents. It’s a rite of passage and a task like no other, requiring a depth of dedication I’d rarely felt for my mother and wasn’t sure I could conjure into being if required. But ten years after my father died, my aging, rudderless mother was in need.

Mom & me in buggyHer short-term memory was slipping away and she was often sick and in pain. Incapable of caring for herself responsibly, the family was running out of options. We needed a new plan and all eyes were on me. “Look away!” a voice hollered inside my head. “You don’t have to take it on. You left a lifetime ago for good reason; it’s not your job!” That voice was loud, but its mantra rang hollow. Because I knew, as clearly as I knew when it was time to leave home, that it was my turn. It was my job.

So I leapt, all-in. No turning back, no quibbling, no lack of conviction. Mother was coming to town. With the collaboration of my brilliant and indispensable brother, and our network of family and friends, I was going to manage the care and feeding of the woman I’d fled so many years ago. And so the Tour began.

But let’s be clear: I am not a saint. Far from it. Some days I suck at the job. Some days I hate it. I wake up and feel my teeth grinding, resentful that I have to debate faceless doctors who know little about her beyond her prescription protocol, or rifle through reams of redundant paperwork to get thorny insurance issues worked out. I don’t want to drive over to her facility to have the same conversations with the same people, listen to her ask “what’s new and exciting?” a hundred times, or play that infernal card game again. I sometimes feel real anger that I’m obligated to schedule my life around “care meetings” set at inconvenient times, or “run right out” to pick up items she’s lost or broken. I cringe when I see the name of the facility on my caller ID, wondering if she’s been taken to the hospital again, is being ornery with the night staff, or… God forbid… that call. And, yes, I sometimes feel, once again, like a “little mommy,” only this time the child I’m caring for is my mother. The irony is inescapable.

Mom @ the house

But there is another side to this: an awareness of some sprouting evolution, hers and mine. In her case, the dementia creeping into her personality has done a curious thing. It’s stripped away her anger and narcissism. It’s pared her down to the purest, most basic essence of who she is. A human being who can be grateful Mom & __ photo stripand appreciative, smile even through pain, or tell me how happy she is to see me walk through a door. A woman who can genuinely thank a son for a song played at the piano after lunch, or a daughter-in-law for a thoughtful gift. Who can find delight with grandsons who make her laugh or interview her for class projects. A person who can listen to and make note of someone in front of her… even if she can’t remember who they are or what they said moments later.

This is different woman. A different mother. And this different mother is allowing me to be a different daughter.

I look through photographs of her from time-to-time to remind myself that she was once as vibrant and appealing as any young girl finding her way in the world. She had sexy legs, a smashing sense of style, and an infectious grin. She was flirtatious and sought after, ultimately loved by a man who found her beautiful and exciting. She could laugh raucously (see left 🙂 ! ) and make others laugh as loud. I study those photographs and say to myself: “She was young once, just as you were. And you will become old, just as she is. We’re all in this together.”

And so my mother and I continue our Mutual Reinvention Tour. I have found patience; she’s become humble. I’m learning empathy, while gratitude is her new skill. The more of life she forgets, the more I’m there to remind her. We’re both evolving, transforming; that can’t be denied.

VirginiaAmandes_9_w:Phil Amandes_'70sShe looked at me recently and whispered, “I’m scared.” When I asked why, she said, “Because I’ve made so many mistakes in my life, especially with you kids.” She was concerned that, at the Gates of Heaven, she would be harshly judged, but mostly she wanted me to know she loved us all and was sorry for those mistakes.

I felt a tug. I’d been angry at her for so much of my life, the candor and vulnerability of the moment struck me. I took her hand and said, “Don’t worry, Mom; they say if you’re truly sorry, you’ve already been forgiven.”

And as I said it, I realized that, like St. Peter at the Gates and God in the Heavens, I, her third daughter, her runaway, her lost child, had forgiven her as well. And in the swirling eddy of emotions that accompanied that revelation, sweet and simple love could be found.

Precious and timely, as the Tour continues.

Mom & me_sm

Happy Mother’s Day to all who nurture, love, and exude tenderness and compassion for those in their care… that would be almost everyone I know. ❤

* * * * * * * *

The original version of this piece was published in 2011 at The Huffington Post, but as my mother’s life evolves, and hoping to keep this the most current reflection of our continuing journey, I update it from time-to-time. One of the more recent installments was submitted to The Maine Review in 2015, where it was awarded in their 2016 Rocky Coast Writing Contest. This weekend I’m posting the latest here again… in honor of Mother’s Day, in honor of mothers in general, and, very specifically, in honor of the mother in my own life… who helps me realize, year after year,  the sweetness of this closing chapter we’re writing together.

* * * * * * * * 

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Mother’s Day Celebrates Life, It’s Not An Act of Exclusion

– Passing Down Below
– Passing Down Below

As I was doing research for my recent piece at The Huffington Post, I Don’t Care If You Don’t Want Children…Really, I became increasingly dismayed by the bitterness and resentment bubbling under the surface of our current parent vs. non-parent wars. As some in my circle remarked upon reading my article: “Who knew?”

Indeed, who knew that the procreation-imperative, imprinted in humans since the beginning of man, had unleashed such competitive envy, defensiveness, judgment, and self-pity? But it seems it has. Reams have been—and continue to be—written on the topic (my article above has links to the latest), to the point that even the sweet tradition of Mother’s Day has been put under the gun by cultural flamethrowers:

“I did not raise my son, Sam, to celebrate Mother’s Day. I didn’t want him to feel some obligation to buy me pricey lunches or flowers, some annual display of gratitude that you have to grit your teeth and endure.”

* * *

“Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha!”

* * *

“I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure.”

Think those lines were uttered by one of the curmudgeons at Fox News? A churlish blogger with generalized anger issues? Some embittered naysayer who rains on the parade of any holiday celebration? You’d be wrong. They were all part of very gifted writer Anne Lamott’s recent takedown on the matter of Mother’s Daya surprisingly bitter rant that seems out-of-character for the usually wise and compassionate author. Not only is Ms. Lamott put off by the singling out of mothers on this special day, she goes so far as to assert that 98% of parents not only feel themselves superior, that same percent believes non-parents simply cannot know the level of love they know. To which I sigh, “Really?? I have not met those parents. Apparently the people I know are in the other, more rarified, 2%.”

COME ON, PEOPLE!!

happy coupleThe fact is, yes: while everyone has been a non-parent at some point in their life, no one who has not had children can know what it feels like to have children. Fact; not judgment. Just as I cannot know what it feels like to climb Mt. Everest, go hand-gliding, or bungie jump off a bridge. People can tell me the attendant exhilaration is like no other, and I believe them; but I wouldn’t know. That they’ve had that experience does not make them superior; it just means they’ve had an experience I have not.

Maybe it’s a lame analogy, but the same applies to parenting. Whatever that experience is for anyone, it doesn’t make them superior. But let me also add: no one I know feels superior simply because they’re a parent. They may feel superior because of other things, God knows, but the mere fact and act of procreating is not something I see anyone hoist as a measure of personal value or worth. It’s just part of who they are and how they’re living their life. Like being a teacher, a doctor, lawyer, or landscape artist.

If those who are childless-by-choice, who have lost, or who cannot have children, feel minimized and/or dismissed by the parents in their circle, either they’re hanging out with the wrong people (who likely act superior and callous about a great many other things as well), or they need to look inward to see why their pain and heartache, or their choice, compels them to judge others so negatively. It’s one thing to step away from a Mother’s Day celebration because it’s difficult to be reminded of what you can’t have, don’t have, lost, didn’t want, or had an unpleasant version of; it’s another to slime the holiday and denigrate the people celebrating it.

I don’t usually get involved in social media hot-topics these day, but frankly, as a mother, a woman, and an optimistic human who believes we each have the power to manage our joys and sorrows, I was stunned by both Lamott’s thesis and the vitriol of some of those commenting. The language of this seemingly metastasizing conflict is counter-productive and presumptuous enough that, ultimately, I felt a need to respond on the thread:

I usually agree with your wonderful posts, Anne Lamott, but find this one sad and oddly cynical. Celebrating mothers is not, in any way, a dismissal of the myriad roles men and women play in making this world go around. Nor is it about “pricey lunches or flowers, some annual display of gratitude that you have to grit your teeth and endure.” That WOULD be a sad thing, and if that’s what the holiday means to you, I can understand why you never celebrate it with your son!

I cannot help but hear a certain victim tone in your assertion that by celebrating one set of people, “superiority” is being asserted over another set, the non-parent people in our midst. Not only is that not true, there is narcissism and bitterness in the idea that makes ME sad…that somehow you feel the universe doesn’t provide enough joy for us all, to begrudge the celebration of others. In fact, the day is NOT another faux-separation of women-who’ve-had-kids vs. women-who-haven’t, a construct that seems rampant these days. ANY woman who has been a mentor, a leader, a caregiver, a teacher; a nurturer is honored on this one little day. Not at the exclusion of ANYone else. We’ve got days to celebrate fathers, our God-figures, the birth of the nation, hell, even secretaries; we can surely spare one day for the mother/nurturers in our midst.

Nor do most of us approach the day with a presumption of “guilt” being the driving force behind our children’s cards, our family’s emails of love; our colleagues’ and friends’ hoots of “happy day!” For many of us, Mother’s Day is simply a day to give a nod to the women in our lives who’ve provided nurturance and compassion, whoever they may be and regardless of their parental status. It can be done with a simple hug, a card, a phone call, a warm smile, an “I love you”; maybe a homemade breakfast, a walk on the beach, or shared space on the couch watching a movie. No money has to be spent; no endurance required.

But to say “Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path” is SUCH a sadly negative and ungenerous perception! I don’t know where you get that “98% of people think….” negatively about non-parents, but Anne, none of the parents I know believe celebrating mother/nurturers makes ANY such statement! Dear Lord, we cannot live our lives so afraid of offending someone or making someone feel left out that we eschew honest, joyful celebration. Even the women who are not mothers were born of mothers, have strong female role models, etc… how about turning the day into a celebration of them!?

Maybe you feel your stance on this is democratizing, but I’d ask that you look at the edge in your philosophy and consider that you might have made some presumptions about those us who have had children that simply don’t ring true.

For now, I’m going to go leave for a walk on the beach with my family, to celebrate me, our children, our mothers, our mentors; our nurturing friends (some of whom are not parents!). And it will be a great day. I hope somehow you have one too.

That pretty much says it all. For me, anyway.

Rikki w-Maritza & family

Look, life is short, obstacles are many, and most of us are focused on living meaningful lives infused with as much joy and happiness as possible. When a holiday represents an opportunity to celebrate the essence of love and compassion as symbolized by the life-giving role of “mother”—a title and role that can be applied to any person who nurtures and mentors—the wiser person acknowledges that intent and either joins in, or steps aside to allow others to join in. The person less wise and considerate makes it about them, about less, about what they don’t have that others might; what they don’t wish to celebrate that others do. Let’s not do that. Let’s rise above, let’s exude generosity of spirit; let’s allow that each one of us is having our experience and one does not negate the other.

So to my friends and family celebrating: Happy Mother’s Day… said with all my authentic, guilt-free, non-superior, all-inclusive, openhearted love and good-will!

All photos by or by permission of me.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Is There a War on Mother’s Day?

Mother’s Day has long been a holiday that required no PC posturing, no concerns about what to call it, how to celebrate it, or who might get hurt or offended by it. Up till now there’s been no “war” declared, no confusion about who gets to partake; even the food shared on this day has no particular tradition or agenda. As it should be. It’s an inclusive holiday; we all have mothers, most of us hold them dear, and the notion of honoring the “one who brought us life” typically engenders some measure of warmth from everyone. Bring on the brunches! 

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed a growing sensitivity toward all the unabashed “mother” hoopla. In this life and time of choice — of women putting off families while careers gestate, of couples making decisions not to procreate at all, of older women finding pregnancy more elusive or fruition sometimes impossible — the matter of celebrating motherhood necessitates some nuance. While, certainly, most of us can gather to celebrate our own mothers without concern, what about those whose perspective on being a parent is either bereft of experience or desire? Is greater sensitivity needed in those circumstances?

Let’s start with those who wanted children but couldn’t have them for one reason or another. CBCs, childless by circumstance. I have several people in my life who fall into this category and it’s a tender and sometimes sensitive one. The CBC will cheer, bring muffins to brunch, and spend oodles of time with the kids with nary a complaint, but when mimosas are mixed and glasses are raised “to motherhood,” a shadow of pain crosses those eyes and you can’t help but realize Mother’s Day has a bittersweet and confusing edge for some.

I have a friend who married in her early-thirties while building a successful career and when she crossed the mid-decade mark, decided it was time to start a family. What was expected to be a simple matter of “getting pregnant and having a baby” turned into a several year, very expensive, and emotionally draining project with fertility specialists, repeated inseminations, two miscarriages and even the temporary separation from her husband when the stress caused a wedge they couldn’t overcome. They ultimately got back together and are in the early stages of exploration with adoption but, as she wistfully stated, “We really wanted one of our own.” When Mother’s Day rolls around each year, she sends flowers to her out-of-state mom, avoids all brunch-centric restaurants, and hunkers down in a Cineplex to watch enough action-adventure movies to get through the day without bursting into tears.

rikki-w-maritza-family

Then there’s the childless-by-choice people (CBCP), a hearty bunch with clear minds and no regrets about eschewing the parent track. They love kids, enjoy being around them; are close with nieces, nephews, Godchildren and mentored youngsters, but they had/have no desire to make any themselves. Being social people, however, they willingly spend time with family and friends who do have children and this is where things can get sticky…hands and otherwise. They’re typically outnumbered by PWK (People With Kids) and because the majority steers the theme, the theme usually comes with all manner of happy, messy, usually very loud kids, moms chirping about schools, playgrounds and the most gifted pre-schooler, and distracted parents of either gender who can’t finish a sentence for the flickering of eyes as they follow their little rambunctians (yes, I made that up) around the yard. For even the most patient, most interested CBCP, this frivolity has its limits. They’re supportive, loving, and tolerant but, frankly, they’re not in the club and the jargon and kid-centric focus can hold interest for only so long, like listening to computer geeks discuss HTML.

me__baby_dill_001

But MOTHERHOOD (there’s nothing lower case about it) is all encompassing. I know. I’ve been there. And when you’re there, there’s nothing more interesting, more engaging, more emotionally fascinating than not only being a mother, but talking about it. Except to CBCPs, who can find their good sportsmanship wearing thin after the second hour of sand play and string cheese. We’ve seen the glazed eyes and restless leg tapping as childless friends edge toward the door with excuses of meeting “colleagues” at the Formosa for drinks and adult chatter. We know because we used to be them. We sometimes wish we still were. But now we’re wiping snot off the noses of children we don’t even know and, oddly, we’re always the ones with the Kleenex.

Mother’s Day was easier when we were younger; at that point our own parenthood was far enough ahead that categories weren’t yet clear. We could happily make calls and send cards to our own Moms, toast till we were tipsy, and no one had to dab eyes or prevent rolling them. We didn’t have a parental status to talk about so we didn’t have to avoid it. Mother’s Day was simply a day to celebrate our moms. As it still is, with just a little more complication.

yaya-the-kids-and-the-cat-in-the-tree

According to one friend and hostess, Mother’s Day has become, like so many other holidays, a confused, PC sensitive event rife with wrong turns. “There is a War on Mothers’ Day!!” she declared. “It’s gotten to the point where I want to send out surveys before I invite anyone to brunch! I mean, come on! Let’s either celebrate it or not but we can’t be held responsible for triggering CBCs (she liked my acronyms) or annoying the crap out of CBCPs. I feel for them but whatever they’re going through is their issue. Everybody had a damn mother, how about we just celebrate that?” She’s an excitable sort.

And while I reject the overused war vernacular, I agree with the notion of not losing the holiday to hyper-concern. Sensitivity, certainly, but not war. Making a Mothers’ Day toast in mixed company does require a little forethought and it can’t hurt to limit the poetry to: “Here’s to you, Mom; you’re the best!” or “To all the mothers in the room, cheers!” Probably wise, however, to avoid, “And to motherhood, which is a woman’s greatest gift and most satisfying role!” For your cousin still mourning her second miscarriage, it’s likely cutting; for your friend who decided not to have children, condescending.

So let’s make this clear: there is no war, just consideration. Celebrate the matriarchs in your circle with every bell and whistle at hand, but keep the rhetoric sensitive. We can all find reason to celebrate LIFE…and that, after all, is what motherhood is all about.

family-reunion-09

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.