My Mother in the Afterlife

When my mother died, the vast weather of anger surrounding her like a force of nature dissolved and disappeared as if overnight. The change was astonishing. My father had his difficulties, but a constant display of anger was not one of them. In the old days, I might have gone without speaking to my mother for a year or more, yet even so, I could sense her animosity long distance, and when at last we finally met, it would not be long before rage would pour out of her, like the fiery breath of a dragon.

Why she was so angry and why her anger so consistently was directed at me were subjects I explored in therapy for many years. In our very first meeting, my therapist suggested that my mother suffered from a mental illness that she had never acknowledged or addressed. The way I saw it when I was growing up was that she was unhappy and determined to remain so rather than try to do anything about it. And because she was unhappy, she felt entitled to make everyone around her unhappy as well.

As long as I lived with my parents, I was unhappy, too, yet I believed that I could be happy if only I could get away from them. “Getting away” proved to be more complicated than I realized. I got away physically but not emotionally. Eventually, I accepted that our relationship was irreparable. I would never feel the closeness to my mother that I longed for. My mother’s closeness was destructive. A truce was the most we could achieve.

The relief I experienced at the absence of her anger was like moving from a poisoned atmosphere to fresh air. I began to hope that my sisters and I could finally get along. Mom used to try to divide us. She talked about us behind our backs to each other and fostered competition and dissension among us. It was a way for her to feel powerful and prevent us from ganging up against her.

For two years after our mother’s death, while our father was still alive, and for the year after that until the estate was settled, we managed to make it work. We had our mutual concern for our father’s welfare to keep us together; then we had our mutual interest in settling the estate. Dad had selected Mimi and Lois as his executors. Stacy would have been disastrous, but I trusted Mimi and Lois to be fair and scrupulous. Lois was more sensible. She came from a career in city government and was used to working within systems. Mimi had an M.B.A. and was self-employed as a jewelry maker. She was obsessive and willing to devote all her attention to the estate. When Mimi was unreasonable, Lois coaxed her into changing her position, and Mimi encouraged Lois to pay attention to what she might have overlooked. They were organized and efficient in different ways. 

We had to dispose of the house, its contents, two several-years-old cars, and two commercial properties. One of them, a laundromat and cleaners that my father and a Chinese-American friend, David Chen, had established over fifty years ago, would prove the most problematic and consume too much of my sisters’ time, but eventually, the Chen family, who now lived in Colorado, bought our father’s share of the business. This was the outcome we had hoped for since there was a possibility of environmental contamination on the site, and we were relieved it was no longer our responsibility.

Five months after our father’s death, most of the contents of the house were sold at an estate sale. The interior was repainted, the floors were recarpeted, and two months later, the house was sold. We had only one reasonable offer, and we took it. Taxes were assessed and paid, bequests were made, the probate process was completed, and eleven months after our father’s death, the balance of his estate was divided between the four of us.

The process was not without some struggles, but I was proud of how we’d managed to resolve them, better than some families I knew where the siblings seemed to get along better than we did. I hoped that once we were done dividing things up and with that potential for conflict gone, we’d recapture the closeness we’d once had in early childhood. At least that was what I hoped for with Mimi and Lois. 

For a while, it seemed that Mimi, Lois, and I might be closer—not the three of us together in the same place at once, but in a virtual space where we sent each other group texts, photos, and emojis and enjoyed a feeling of closeness without the risk. Two at a time, we visited each other. Lois stayed with us in New York, and we stayed with her in California. In California, I felt my welcome wearing on her. I got the impression she was sick of me. She seemed impatient, angry, and disapproving. Unsettled, I didn’t know how to talk about it with her.

That summer, Mimi visited us in New York on her way up the East Coast. I saw her that November and the next, when we were in Sanibel, Florida, with Keith’s family, and she was in Naples. After that, she moved to Florida’s North Atlantic coast, and the following year, she relocated across the country to California. It was her old pattern. If only she could find the perfect place to live, she would be happy. She energized herself with plans and exhausted herself executing them. But there would always be something wrong. The move would never make her happy. 

Mimi had no human connections because human connections would mean eating and living a normal life. This was impossible for her. By choice, she was almost entirely isolated. For a while, she kept me informed of her plans and her moves, and then suddenly, she cut off contact with me. That shift, that capability for ruthlessness reminded me of Mom, but in Mimi, it was intensified. She first refused my attempts to contact her, then surprised me with an offer to have a conversation with me where she would tell me what I had done to wrong her. That, too, was like my mother. 

I thought about it. For years, conversations with Mimi had been mostly her monologues. It was always more about her wanting me to listen than to have a real interchange. I had the sense that she was so unused to speaking that once the floodgates were broached, they couldn’t be stopped. So far, I’d been willing to go along, but not if our conversation was to be confined to how I had harmed her all our lives. 

Our past was painful. I didn’t want to re-engage in our family conflicts or to be forced into a position of defending myself. I wrote to her I didn’t want to have a conversation limited to those parameters. By then, she’d decided that she’d rather not have it either and preferred to have no contact with me.

From disdaining me, Lois progressed to disparaging me. The cold way that she turned away from me when I tried to hug her goodbye in New York reminded me of Mom. When I asked her if she cared about me, she refused to answer. That determination not to give satisfaction even when the cost to her was small was all too reminiscent of what I’d experienced all my life.

I deplored aspects of Mom in myself as well. I am oversensitive and too easily hurt. I would have an easier time if I could let go. We’d all suffered from Mom’s toxic anger, its ramifications, and consequences. Why, once we had the potential to forge new and happier connections, were we choose to channel the very behaviors that had brought us pain? 

Why, in general, do people persist in ways of being that are certain to cause unhappiness? In therapy, I learned that it is human nature to seek out situations, connections, and relationships that are familiar to us even though they make us miserable. Habit is hard to break. You have to want to do it. You have to put the work into it. It is hard enough to recognize and come to understand harmful interpersonal dynamics and harder still to change them. Much as we might like other people to change their behavior towards us, we only have control over our actions.

When Mom died, and her anger disappeared, I thought that I was done with it forever. But it came back—first through Stacy (that’s another story), and, in time, through Mimi and Lois as well. Disdaining me, Lois showed me an edge, razor-sharp. Mimi, meanwhile, had retreated in full defense mode. Behind both attitudes, I sensed anger, just as I once had sensed Mom’s anger. 

Thankfully, there were important differences. This time we were older and self-sufficient and the relationships weren’t unequal. The anger was more diffuse and hence less destructive, though still painful. This time I was in a position to withdraw, and so I have. 

I have passed the age of sixty, and my life is mostly over. I am not going to let myself be drawn back into our tortuous familial embrace. Attachment is the root of suffering, says the Buddha. I try to practice detachment. I try not to expect too much from my sisters, to smooth out my responses and reactions, and to stick to safe, well-worn paths so as not to get hurt or lost. I try to practice humility, not to think about myself, but about them. 

My therapist used to say to me, “You care more about being right than getting what you want.” Our mother’s example, and, like so much of her legacy, it is something I’ve had to unlearn.

* * *

When I was growing up, I sometimes felt like a monster because of my resentment of my mother. It grew from a sense of injustice, of being treated harshly and unfairly, weighing me down. After my mother died, my father accused me of not loving her. 

“I did love her. I loved her as children love their mothers. But she didn’t love me.”

A silence followed as my words sunk in. He didn’t try to deny them. Though I’d known it, I still felt sad. 

“Your mother had a way of turning on people and then deciding to have nothing to do with them. Maybe because of something they said. She’d say, ‘I’m never going to see that person again,’ and she wouldn’t. That was just the way she was.” 

This conversation with my father was the first time in years that I admitted that I loved my mother. After my mother’s death, I found myself retrieving that love in bits and pieces. At first, it was the ability to feel like a normal daughter, posting pictures of her on social media on her birthday and Mother’s Day, feeling proud of how pretty she was. 

It is easier for me to love my mother and find ways to approve of her after her death because she can’t thwart my affectionate feelings for her. I admire her sewing abilities, which I will never achieve. She was a Home Economics major at the University of Alabama with a sewing concentration. When she got married right after graduation, she proved herself a frugal housewife, sewing slipcovers for the cushions on our sofas and chairs. She made our curtains, first in our apartment, and then for the sliding glass doors in our mid-century modern house. They were floor-length and voluminous, and it was no easy task.

When I was a child, she made the dresses I wore to school, economically using the same pattern for several dresses. She had a black Singer sewing machine in a cabinet that opened up to be a sewing table. When not in use, the machine swung under the cabinet and attached upside down, out of sight. 

I remember going shopping for material with Mom at the Alabama Mills, a cavernous warehouse full of bins of fabrics where the smells of the dyes induced a headache. I dreaded going there for that reason, but at the same time, I wanted to go, so I could have a choice in the fabrics Mom bought for me. There were so many possibilities that it was good to have an idea of what you wanted, even if you changed your mind once you were there because otherwise, it was hard to make up your mind.

The hum of Mom’s sewing machine had a comforting sound. When Mom was sewing, she wasn’t angry. She taught me running stitch, hemstitch, and cross-stitch. One year I embroidered handkerchiefs with her initials as a Mother’s Day gift and napkins for my grandmothers. Mom insisted I take home economics in junior high, where all the girls made A-line skirts. 

There is mastery involved in making clothes. The hardest part is laying out the pattern. You want to make the most of your fabric, but you also want to make sure that if the material has a design, like plaid or stripes, it matches at the seams. The moment of truth is when you cut the fabric to the pattern. If you’ve made a mistake, there is no going back. You have to learn how to thread the sewing machine, to baste and sew a seam, insert zippers, make gathers, pleats, collars, and cuffs. The list goes on.

My skirt turned out lumpy. I didn’t like it, and I never wore it. I decided I didn’t enjoy sewing. I wasn’t good at it. I stuck to the basics when I had to—hems, minor repairs, buttons. 

There was always a pile of clothes waiting for Mom next to the sewing machine in her bedroom. We four sisters passed clothes down to one another, and they often needed to be altered or repaired. Clothes could be bought so cheaply that after a while, Mom stopped making our clothes. But it isn’t as satisfying to alter clothes as to make them, and it seemed to me that Mom lost the enjoyment of it. 

After we grew up, Mom and Dad moved into a new house, where Mom had her sewing room. She bought a new sewing machine for it, a Bernina. But in fact, she rarely sewed anymore. When I purchased her sewing machine from the estate for my daughter, it hadn’t been used in years and required a complete overhaul.

During one of my parents’ rare visits to New York when my daughter was small, I showed Mom where a visiting child had bitten off a piece of the piping on my brand-new sofa. 

“Do you have any more of the fabric?” she asked.

I found the fabric sample, and Mom made the repair by hand, on the spot. Her work was so expert that if I didn’t know where she mended it, I would have trouble finding it. Twenty-five years later, I still have the sofa. 

On the rare occasions that I sew—repairing seams or hems, sewing labels or buttons, and, at my most ambitious, making Halloween costumes—I am reminded of my mother and how easily she would accomplish what is laborious for me. 

* * *

Despite my efforts to shut her out, Mom’s criticisms of my character and behavior as a daughter and as an individual wormed their way into my psyche. I wondered if she were right, and I was a bad person. I was insecure, and I doubted myself.

Even more damaging than Mom’s low opinion of me was her overly high opinion of me, which she reflected back on herself. It was either one or the other. Everyone in my family valued academic success, and I excelled at school. Mom liked to say that she had been a brilliant student, and I had inherited her abilities. I felt the pressure not only to do well but to be perfect. I couldn’t forgive myself for my mistakes. 

It wasn’t knowledge for its own sake that Mom esteemed, but the signs of achievement that she craved. When I received my scores for the College Boards, she opened the envelope before I got home and crowed over the results as if they were her own. 

As long as I was a student, I met her expectations, but once I began to seek my future as a writer, I found it hard going. My parents were unhappy that I hadn’t followed a professional career. My father had his heart set on my following him into law, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy as a lawyer. 

After Keith and I got married, and he began graduate school, my mother was furious at me for not giving up my part-time teaching and part-time writing for a full-time job, any job, “to put him through school.” Her rages, her screaming, the calumnies she heaped on me seemed to come out of nowhere and wounded me deeply. No one else—not my husband nor his parents—had such expectations of me. What business was it of my parents anyway? They didn’t support me.

Mom wanted me to give up my ambitions. I was stubborn and resisted her, but in return, I assumed an undue burden. I felt bound to insist that I was not only a good writer but that what I was writing was significant. I was still reaching for that “A.” I felt I had to justify myself to her. 

I was writing a long, sprawling novel. Bits and pieces of my experience found their way into it; random overheard conversations, signs, portents, events. Coincidences in life confirmed my sense of coincidences in art. Or was it the other way around? This novel engaged my imagination and attention. I lived through my characters as I wove my tapestry of urban life. 

“Why don’t you just write a best seller?” my mother remarked as if I could just whip one out. “You have contempt for that, don’t you?” she added contemptuously.

“It’s not so easy,” I replied. “If it were, more people would succeed at it. And I’m not able to do it. I have no feeling for popular culture.”

Refusing to accept my explanation, Mom called me a snob. Because of her opposition, I learned how to be tough and to persevere. But my attitude also led me to grief when there proved to be a disconnect between the qualities I claimed for my writing and its reception by agents and publishers. Rejection followed rejection. I faced a painful reckoning.

In my middle years, I was like Dante, wandering in a dark wood where the way was lost. Fortunately, like Dante, I had guides and guideposts—my husband’s love and the help, love, and support of elders, a generation older than my parents. Most people would say that it took me way too long to write my novel. Had I known what it would demand from me, would I have done it? Maybe not, but after so much effort, I couldn’t give up. In the end, it doesn’t matter how long it took. No one reading it will never know, and it makes no difference to the work. Not everyone can be great. I am satisfied with my novel, and I am satisfied to be a minor writer. Indeed, much of the time, I prefer the minor writers. They are less grandiose. 

In my mother, feelings of inferiority existed side by side, convictions of superiority. She made a cage and put herself in it. So much wasted opportunity. Something harmed her when she was young, and she, in turn, inflicted harm on us. I’ll never know what it was, but I have inklings as I look at photos of her, buxom at sixteen in a bathing suit at a lake, squeezed between her big brother and her cousin with their arms around her, the three of them smiling and squinting into the sun. In another photo taken the same day, she lounges on a dock in the middle of the lake while they horse around.

That pretty girl became my sickly, haggard, angry, unhappy mother. I feel sad for what went wrong in her life. At the same time, I hold her accountable for her injuries to her children. For a long time, I was afraid to have children because I didn’t want to be like her. Once I realized that I was not like her, I was able to let myself be a mother. 

We children were divided between our parents, who were eternally at war. I was my father’s child, and Mimi was Mom’s. Mom said she understood me, and she didn’t like me. Dad didn’t understand me, but he did like me. Or did they only like what of themselves they saw in me?

When she wasn’t exaggerating or insisting on something ridiculous, Mom sometimes showed flashes of insight. Compared with Mom, Dad seemed unimaginative. I often shared Mom’s impatience with him. I wish I could go back to find the person my mother used to be before she became warped and miserable, but she is forever out of my reach. So many memories have a sting, but Mom can’t hurt me anymore. What a relief it is to put down her burdens and assert that they have nothing anymore to do with me. 

“Ghost Girl” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC0 1.0

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