My sister's 72nd birthday comes on another motherless Mother's Day. I guess at 58 it's a bit indulgent to pity myself as a sibling-less orphan. Now, the concerns of my parents which struck me as selfish and paranoid suddenly seem practical. I missed the chance to admit this to them. What will I do with the days that are left? What will I leave behind for the people I love? When I was in my twenties I was fully formed and immortal. I so want to challenge my children in these assumptions but I know it's futile.
With two kids in diapers and a business to run, I flew frequently to Las Vegas to make sure that my sister's private nursing staff was providing adequate care. I held her hand while she died and returned to Los Angeles to tell my elderly fragile parents that they'd outlived their first born. I made sure my dementia addled mother had warm and efficient care. When my father exhausted extraordinary measures and after the plugs were pulled I sat by his side for the thirty six hours it took for him succumb.
I romanticize the house I grew up in and can recall fifty years of wallpaper and every plant in the garden. I was the only kid in the neighborhood whose house had a screening room and a mural of a Paris street scene. I was shattered when I was forced to sell the house in order to finance my mother's care and the new owners ravaged it with spray-on stucco and concrete columns.
Despite my affection for the home itself, some of my memories of the people who lived there are less sanguine. A decade before I got high and listened to Joni Mitchell in the front bedroom it was used for my sister's illegal abortions. My dad traded film prints for the service. Everyone screamed at everyone else. Door hinges often required replacement due to incessant slamming. Ceramic pots and Franciscan plates were flung and shattered. Accusations were vicious. Love and money. No one ever had enough. I screamed at my parents and sister in anger. If my own children ever spoke to me in such a fashion the wound would be irreparable. I don't know if I vindicated myself by rising for the occasion of their deaths for the heartlessness I demonstrated during their lives.
This is not to say I grew up in a house of horrors. Sheri and my parents all shared a wicked sense of humor. We all loved to eat and to entertain. But, there was a mysterious kernel of pain that plagued my family. I've chewed this around for years and years and still only have a glimmer of understanding. I do know that all the hatred that was hurled in my direction emanated from some hollow carved long before my own conception. I learned however to retaliate. Compassion remains a work in progress.
Perhaps I have overcompensated and striven too ardently to insure that my children never feel less than cherished for even a nanosecond of their existence. Maybe the aggressive unconditional love that I foist at them has hobbled them in some way. I know that both are far more sensitive about displeasing me than I ever was with my own parents. When I reflect back on some of my worst fuck ups I see now that, despite their apparent blindness to it. a lot of my actions were motivated by hostility for and rejection of my parents. As much as, despite their own demons, my parents loved me, I doubt if either ever agonized about whether their parenting had been harmful to me in any way. They both knew that I was essentially OK and had little personal investment in the struggles I experienced towards achieving OK-ness.
Mom and Dad ascribed very much to the nature over nurture philosophy. My own ego is right in there though. Every single one of the kids' triumphs or missteps gets jammed through the “what I did right or wrong” filter. Perhaps because or perhaps despite both have grown into people I respect. It is hard however to park the helicopter and accept that my children will require less and less. I am forced to find something else I'm good at and frightened that the time I have left will be spent languishing in a nostalgia for motherhood.
Illustration: George Romney--”Mother and Child”