Thursday, June 23, 2016


Shortly before my mother's death at age 91, she and I had an enlightening conversation in her home. She had recited her usual litany of all the stresses in her life and all the challenges she experienced as a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother. She was the adult child of an abusive alcoholic father and codependent mother, both poor immigrants. Her younger sister had died decades before of cancer. Her brother had also died decades earlier. My father had died eight years earlier. 

My mother's account of her life, if heard by a novice, would seem to be about how she had been a victim of people and circumstances. Everything she recounted seemed to have happened to her exclusively. No context. No reflection on how she handled the stress and disappointments. A novice might think she absorbed all the misery like a serene Buddhist nun. Nothing could have been farther from her actual behavior. 

She was a relatively tall and physically strong person. She had physically evicted her blacksmith father from her parents' home after a particularly violent drunken assault when my mother was in her early adult years. Her father never returned. My mother's mother always lived with us. She paid for her bad taste in husband for decades. My mother's reminders of her father's uselessness and abuse stung my grandmother almost daily. The arguments were relentless and violent throughout most of their remaining years together. 

My mother's younger sister, whom my mother helped raise due to their age difference, lived across the street from us with my uncle and my two cousins. My aunt took the initiative to come across the street almost daily to visit. She sat at our kitchen table nervously as my mother reviewed her accounts of my aunt's daily life. My mother was also quick to offer marital advice, child-rearing tips and housekeeping recommendations. My aunt absorbed all this with unquestioning devotion. She was a gentle soul, who eventually took to secretively drinking herself unconscious in her basement laundry room. 

My first cousin, a boy my age, confided to me years later that he often came home from school and found her there. He would then quietly clean her up, get her coffee and straighten up the house without anyone knowing. I wondered then how much my mother's well-meaning domination had contributed to this. My cousin has since died alone in poverty and chosen isolation as a dysfunctional alcoholic. 

My father was a career policeman. He climbed through the ranks from beat cop to FBI liaison to his city's force. He was a popular and friendly man who was known throughout our small city. He had worked with child protection, anti-gang initiatives, homicides, civil defense. Community leaders were always trying to convince him to get into election politics. He always declined. He was too honest, too sober, too optimistic. My father knew himself. He absorbed my mother's rages, arguments with her mother and her frequent hysteric panics with Zen-like resignation most of the time. I can still see him seated in his favorite easy chair with a newspaper opened in front of his face, like a fire wall. My older brother wisely sprouted wings early. He was hardly ever home once he reached his teen years when I was still in primary school. 

So, after my mother finished her familiar litany on that day shortly before she died, I said. "I know. You weren't alone. I was there for sixty-one years of that story. It wasn't very pleasant." She looked at me as though I had slapped her. "What do you mean?" she said. I laughed. I answered."It wasn't really all about you." 

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