After writing about my father I intended to write about my mother but never quite got around to it. Well, today, she made it clear it's time.
When I was a kid, my mother was great. She always encouraged me to develop myself and become better. She read to me and kept me provided with books; she fostered my education. She encouraged me to become independent -- admittedly, part of that was probably not entirely intentional. (If no one does your laundry for a while, you learn how to do your own laundry.) But she was never smothering -- quite the contrary, she always left me plenty of distance. And I always knew whatever I turned out to be, she'd support it. I always felt she respected me and I always respected her.
Sounds pretty idyllic, but of course it had its bad sides. I was a very responsible person from a very early age, and also driven to do what had to be done. (Though I did get off to a slow start on the job front, admittedly.) Sometimes I felt like I was more responsible than she was, as I got into high school and on. Sometimes I felt cast adrift a little too much; sometimes I despaired of being able to get things done, because anything I needed done, she'd know someone who could do it cheaper, but who never did. But that was fine. Our distance didn't grow or shrink and the relationship was stable and founded on respect.
I was a late bloomer socially, as previously discussed. (Some might say I still haven't quite bloomed.) I was only 16 at my graduation, and though I could have gotten into MIT or Caltech, I went to SUNY Stony Brook and stayed living at home for another few years. In fact, until I was 21. My moving away was abrupt, sudden, maybe even surprising, though I remember when I told my mother I was moving, she said she wasn't surprised -- she'd already figured that I would either be out within that year or I'd never leave.
Bad luck plus my usual awkwardness with things like goodbyes (which I understand is a trait a lot of people have) led me to not leave very well. My mom threw a wonderful farewell party, which I believe I enjoyed and showed my appreciation. Then as the last day came, I stayed up way too late with friends -- perhaps understandable when you're moving 4000 miles away? -- and couldn't sleep. Mom took me to the airport, and I fell asleep there. She had to wake me up for final boarding, and I staggered off down the boarding ramp with only a perfunctory, awkward goodbye. I regretted that as soon as I was on the plane (just before passing out again) but it was done. I figured, after all that we'd been through, and for as much as our relationship was founded on respectful distance, it wouldn't be too bad, right?
Well, maybe that planted a seed I didn't know about for a decade, and maybe it has nothing to do with anything. I suppose I'll never know. Ten years and more went by, during which I moved comfortably into adulthood, getting married, buying a house, getting jobs, moving to Vermont, etc. During this time I visited family about a half-dozen times, at considerable cost (flying from Juneau to New York is nothing to sneeze at!). But even after I was in Vermont and had rooms to spare, I never could get my mother or indeed anyone in my family to come visit me. Instead, they always pressured me to visit and call and write more and more. It got to feeling where if I called I knew what I'd get was no decrease in the pressure but an increase.
And slowly I got to resenting that they demanded so much but never reciprocated at all. After all, why should I go stay on Long Island, which is icky and which I had already seen everything good on, and stay in a hotel at considerable cost; when they could come see a beautiful place like Vermont that they'd never seen before and stay in a spacious, well-appointed guest room at near no cost? And yet time and again I had to go there, no one ever came to see me.
One day I heard my grandmother was on her last legs; it seemed she wouldn't live more than a few more weeks. (This is several years ago, and she's still alive, though not doing too well, I am forced to surmise; but no one knew then that she wasn't about to go.) I dropped everything, took time off from work I couldn't afford, and spent money I couldn't spare, to rush down and visit for a long weekend. It was a very nice visit, cordial and friendly. (Though my sister couldn't be bothered to drive ten miles to see me while I was there, after I'd driven several hundred.)
Some offhand comment about enjoying the visit, made as we were leaving, somehow got twisted into a promise of far more frequent visits starting that Thanksgiving. This got talked about in email during the following week. The resulting discussion exploded and I was frankly stunned for weeks from what came out.
All of a sudden I was made aware of all kinds of simmering resentment and anger. Apparently, my mother somehow had concluded that I had moved away from Long Island because I felt I was too good for the rest of the family; that I looked down on them. That I refused to visit often enough out of some hatred for the family. That I had betrayed Long Island (umm... what's the idea of having loyalty to something like Long Island in the first place?) and the family, by moving away and being successful and independent.
After days of hateful, hurtful barbs, I lashed back; after all, I was damned tired of the fact that no one would ever come visit me or see my life, but here they were spewing vomit on me for not visiting them often enough. My barbs barely even got noticed in the vitriol of the return volleys. Things went from indescribably ugly to inexplicably gruesome quickly, and I was summarily dismissed from my family and barred from any further contact. My mother even went so far as to kill-filter my email, so unambiguous was she that she never wanted to hear from me again.
I was shocked, and still sometimes I'm a little shocked, to think that such an incredible festering wound of hatred could have built up in her. We'd had such a good relationship as far as I could tell all along. Now, I know I'm not the most discerning person, that it even borders on being a social disorder, but even so this was and is bewildering. It's like she's not the same person. My whole life with her was all about making me an independent person, self-reliant, confident, able to go out into the world and do things. And yet, the kernel of all of her anger and vitriol seems to be nothing more than that: that I finally did leave the nest, that I went off and became my own man. And that undermines every single thing that I respected her so much for in the first place.
In the years since, she's occasionally tossed another barb at me and then run back to hide behind her defensiveness and her kill-filters. I'm denied knowing the state of my grandmother or even if she's still alive, and then I'll be condemned for not caring about what I'm not being allowed to find out about. I'm told never to talk to her again, then lambasted for not answering.
The worst part is she's very obviously lashing out at me with vicious, hurtful, acid-laced barbs that make no sense, specifically because she's trying to hide from her own guilt. Even an eight-year-old who just finished watching an ABC After School Special could tell. I'm sitting there minding my own business, perfectly content with my life, and all of a sudden I'm being told how I'm full of hate and miserable about it. Ummmm? Doesn't take a degree in psychology to recognize guilt-inspired projection, that she's talking about herself but in second-person to scapegoat me for her own agony over her unconscionable actions.
In a way, I don't completely miss having a family; after all, I am, as she made me, independent and self-reliant, and very content with my very successful life. And the hurtful hate-filled screeds from my mother don't hurt me nearly as much as most people would probably be hurt, because I'm just confident enough to not put any stock in them. So what's my problem? In part it's the bewilderment; what the hell happened? What ever happened to the mother I used to know? And in part, it's being sad for her, that she should be so unhappy, guilty, and angry over such bad reasons. But the biggest thing is simply this: I miss being able to respect her. She used to be the most respected person in my life, hands down. Now, she's an embarassment to herself and to me. And if this can ever be fixed, it can't be fixed by me. What a shame.