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How I Learned to Cut My Difficult Mother Some Slack

A Humble Story of Forgiveness

Exactly six months to the hour after my daughter Teal suddenly died, my 94-year-old mother joined her. This death was entirely different. It wasn’t radical, like Teal’s death. Instead, it was gradual. The disintegration of a life; the slow drift of a continent.

With her death, I found an unexpected benefit. Finally I could forgive the mother with whom my relationship was … well… complicated.

It seems as if Mom had been dying much of her adult life. Boo was always craving a rest, a peace she just couldn’t get. No matter how many lists she made from her bedside, propped up on pillows, blue willow cup of coffee beside her.

No matter how many dinner parties she threw. No matter how well shined the antique copper pots were. No matter how perfect her hair, how straight her hems, how well-applied her lipstick. In some basic way, my mother felt like she just couldn’t get it right.

Oh, but I am here to say that you could, Mom. You really could. And you did.

This is the secret children know that mothers seldom realize: You are far more loved and appreciated than you know.

Boo suffered from depression, anxiety, alcoholism and a serious pill addiction. And through it all, as dark as it got, she still managed to be funny and elegant.

She dated Joe Kennedy, JFK’s brother who died in World War II. She dated Najeeb Hallaby, who went on to be the father of Queen Noor.

She was Stanford’s Campus Queen of 1938.

My mother was also ‘The Happy Housekeeper’, which she wrote for House & Garden Magazine. And she was married to three men named John, one of whom was my father.

Boo was an impeccable dresser and a great beauty. She loathed exercise, preferring great conversation and a few vodka martinis. She was a spectacular cook; she knew how to jitterbug. And about every twenty years or so, something would happen that would bring her right to the edge of death.

Each time Mom would magically survive.

I loved my mother more than anything. But I was also scared for her. At any moment, I always felt like she could crumble, and that it was up to me to keep this fragile pastry shell together.

So I did what I could all through my childhood to help my mommy hang on. I never got mad. I always made my bed. I tried to be quiet and helpful. I made her endless little pictures of princesses, cats, and of her. They always said, “I love you Mommy!”

The pattern continued right through my twenties. I was the one teenager on the planet who didn’t rebel. I let her pick out all of my clothes, though we did go to war over bell-bottoms. (She relented.) And I sat through one memorable lunch when I was soon to graduate from college. She looked at me over her glass of Chardonnay and declared that I would go into ‘communications’. At which I promptly burst into tears.

I didn’t want to go into communications! I wanted to be a Broadway star. I wanted to sing and act. I wanted to be a wild creative soul writing books in Paris. I didn’t even know what ‘Communications’ was, but at that moment I felt as trapped as I’d ever been. And I’d be damned if I was going to go there.

God bless Boo. Now I understand she was honestly trying to be helpful.

What a folly it is to think our parents should be any way other than exactly how they are. This is why we chose them — for within all that pain they show us what we’re made of.

I have done just what I wanted to with my life. Even though it meant that my mother and I didn’t speak for months on end sometimes. Even though I took risks again and again that kept me worrying in the night, almost none of which I ever told my mother about.

For I was a big, loud, blast of energy in her life; too much, really. And she was anxious, small and reserved, a woman trained to fit in, to be charming and find her man, no matter what. 

In Boo’s world view, it was always best not to rock the boat – true of so many women in her generation. And so she was ill-prepared to raise this maverick child.

Honestly, I think I scared my mother just as much as she scared me. But through her own attempts to smother me with protection, and to shape me into something more conventional, my mother actually set me free.

She gave me something to chafe up against, and so sharpen my wits and my will. Perhaps without even realizing it, my mother made me who I am today.

Within that great matrix of human understanding we are given exactly those conditions we need to thrive in. Even if that thriving means we must spend a significant part of our life in pain.

Beyond the perimeter of that pain is a glowing field of redemption; a place we only allow ourselves to wander when we are ready. Once there we can finally take responsibility for our lives. And isn’t that what leads us directly back to joy?

Did Boo make mistakes? Yes. And did I make mistakes? Definitely. But none of that matters now. All that remains is the unified field of love that unites us all.

In the last years of her life, dementia overtook Boo and all of her anxiety and insecurity melted away. She became extraordinarily present … and she was so very, very happy to see me each time I visited. This was the heart of our connection — that love that was always there hiding underneath it all.

Forgiveness, as sweet and pure as local honey, flows back to us from the afterlife, no questions asked. And what I feel now is my mother’s simple love and pride at who I have become.

I was singing as I drove yesterday, and I could feel Boo drop in and join me. ‘That’s right, Susie,” she seemed to say. “Sing! Sing as loud as you want!”

Thank you, Mother, for everything. You will always be my greatest teacher. But most importantly, you were my mom.

And I will always love you.

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