"Tell Me About Your Mother."

Easter 1952.
I always come to Mother's Day a bit warily. It's not a day I place a lot of stock in, but when I'm remembered by my sons I'm always delighted. On the other hand, when they don't acknowledge it I'm not usually hurt. It depends. I'm sure they're as confused as I am and aren't really sure what to do about the day, either. I lay all this confusion unashamedly at the feet of my own mother with whom I had a complex, conflicted relationship.

My mother was 26 when I was born, after seven years of miscarriages and dashed hopes. All she ever wanted in life, even as a child, was a bright, curious red-haired daughter. She'd been disappointed when, at the age of 17, she gave birth to her first child, my brother, who later suffered brain damage due to high fevers as an infant who was as apathetic as a stone and who had black hair. When I came along, all of her secret dreams came true. It was a lot to lay on a child...

Her own childhood had been pretty bad. She came late to her parents after five siblings, all of whom were adults by the time she was born. It didn't help that her mother had tuberculosis, was pre-menopausal, and didn't have the energy or health necessary to raise another child. She was severe with her kids; her husband was even more so, but in an emotionally distant, critical sort of way. All the same, Mom adored her mother.

When she was just 14 Mom came home after school one day to find her mother in the final throes of death, having swallowed strychnine poisoning. Life as a consumptive had gotten that unbearable. To make matters worse, no one wanted my mother, not even her own father, and she awoke one night to hear him and her siblings arguing over who was going to get the burden of raising her. I don't know why her father didn't want her except that he was a selfish bastard all his life, a professional (failed and disgraced) politician who had better things to do than look after a daughter he'd never wanted in the first place. Her sister Helen was busy earning her Ph.D. in physics from UCLA and her brothers were raising families and building careers as writers and oil company engineers. No one wanted the child. In the end Helen took her all the way from western Kansas to Los Angeles, where she placed Mom with an aunt and uncle, a female cousin who was her own age, and a senile grandfather. She spoke fondly of her cousin all her life so it could have been a nice turn for her except that her grandfather repeatedly molested her. When this was discovered, Helen sent her back to Kansas where she lived with their father for about a year.

It was then that the Waller family took a shine to her, welcoming her into their home and opening their arms and hearts to her. The Wallers are just that way. They knew Harley was a mean old prick and they wanted to give her a sense of family. I think it was only natural that she fell in love with Jack Waller, a curly-haired, handsome high school football star, gifted musician, and all around sweet guy. And the more she hung around the more he fell for her, too. Why wouldn't he? She was cute, curvy, vivacious, and romantic, with stars in her eyes just for him. He was drafted, and they married in 1941 before he shipped out. This all sounds like the quintessential WWII storybook tale, complete with the Andrews Sisters singing Apple Blossom Time in the background, but it wasn't.

The Wolcott women had what we now know as bi-polar disorder for as long as anyone can remember (back then, women who suffered from it were called "nervous".) Helen eventually took her own life in 1955 just as their mother had, with strychnine, unhappy in an affair with a married man, questioning her sexuality, and coping with the pressures of her job as a new physics professor. She was brilliant as well—Mensa brilliant—which probably didn't help.

When I was born my mother swaddled me in all of her expectations. Unfortunately, I had my own agenda and couldn't fulfill all of hers for her. She hadn't considered that my being bright included a will to be independent and that curiosity demanded I search beyond her boundaries to find myself. The red hair was easy. It was the least I could do for that poor little girl whom nobody had wanted.

My mother's mental illness (bi-polar disorder and anxiety) made her difficult to predict. One minute loving and nurturing, she could flip into Mommie Dearest at a moment's notice. (The wire hangers scene wasn't the least bit funny to me and I was deeply offended when the audience at Grauman's Chinese Theater laughed the night I saw that movie.) I never knew what it was I did that made her flip out; I of course blamed myself. She could also be devastatingly abusive, both verbally and emotionally, cutting me with her words and accusations until I felt I should bleed then withdrawing her affection so completely, it was like watching her disappear into vapor before my eyes. She hadn't protected me from my brother's sexual attentions, either. In psychological terms she was the Silent Partner. It took me many years of therapy to come to terms with that part of my childhood.

As horrible as this all sounds, I must add that despite it all,I never felt unloved by my mother. I always knew I was adored, but it wasn't hard to recognize that she was a troubled person. Much later, when Lynette and I moved her in to live with us following her stroke in 2000, I was better equipped to handle her episodes. No longer able to physically abuse me, she tried to compensate verbally, but Lynette wouldn't allow it. I was her caretaker for four years, a time that was so difficult, it irreparably damaged my own health. She wasn't the only cause of the stress that destroyed my auto immune system, though. There were financial worries, the responsibilities of a blended, second family, relentless internet abuse, and chronic pain. I remember saying to Lynette one day when my mother had been especially difficult, "I will never be completely free from her until she's dead." I had no idea what little time I had left with her. She died at Christmas time in 2004.

At last I was free of her abuse, but not of the long term effects of that abuse. It wasn't until 2010 that I was finally able to recognize her as just another wounded woman and not as my mother. As I looked more carefully at her childhood, as well as her mental illness in hope of understanding her—and as more years came between her treatment of me and myself—my compassion began to grow. I understand now just how wounded she was and I forgive her completely and voluntarily. I'm now able to love her, let her off the hook, and wish her nothing but peace.

Mother's Day is always confusing for me, but I've learned how to focus on the deep and abiding love she had for me, to celebrate the sensitive, talented, artistic, generous woman she was rather than judge her for things that were beyond her control.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I do miss you.