Sunday, September 26, 2010

Strangers in a Stranger Still Land


It’s been lonely with you out of town. I feel like a stranger in this here place.

Stranger still are the events surrounding my mother’s health. As you know she has been having some physical difficulties for some time, and now it seems that a sudden (or maybe just previously undetected) assault of dementia has emerged. I spoke with her yesterday, very briefly (she hung up abruptly because she was engaged in some intrigue and would only refer to it obliquely) and I came away from the “conversation” feeling rumpled.

It is the only word I can think of for my state of mind and my emotions. There was a kind of dishevelment to our relationship from the outset. Actually that probably is putting it too mildly, but the sense of disarrangement, of mess, has always been a key element of how we lived together and apart.

When I first encountered consciousness raising I was shocked at how openly the women spoke about their mothers. Up to that point I had spoken about my relationship with my mother only with close friends; many of these women were strangers to me and me to them. Yet they were confessing feelings of betrayal, competition, and loss, without obvious fear. That of course was the key piece for me. In time I would talk about the violence.

We talked about our mothers and the secrets they kept from us. My mother hid that she had a sexual relationship with my father when she was not yet fourteen. She tried to hide the affair she had when my brother and I were still in elementary school. Most of my mother’s deceptions were around sex. Learning about these showed me that I was right, I was not crazy to feel that I was being lied to to keep me in line, to make me behave, to make me be the right kind of woman, not the whore she accused me of being when I was thirteen and still a virgin.

It seems that for the women in my group our mothers were the locus of the angst we felt around our bodies, sex, and power and that was what we tried to untangle as we tried to find our woman selves by first examining our mothers.

My mother’s dread came in many guises. It seemed that raising me filled her with anxiety very particularly, as she displayed none of the unease with my brother as she did with me. It seemed as if she could not depend on me to be recognizable, but instead expected me to jump out of one identity into a new one she could not negotiate. My brother always seemed more reliable as a person to her; she never expected him to change other than the change brought about by growing up.

It may have been her silent but palpable expectation that I would constantly morph into some new and unknowable creature that gave me the idea, and then the permission (in a sense) to do just that.

It has been a source of tension (and secret pride for her) that I have continued to try on lives, ways of living, often to her chagrin and loud protestation. Somehow, her fear about me as a person, as a woman, gave me the courage to be one, despite the fact that I nearly always (putting it mildly) disappointed her.

Yesterday my mother was some kind of spy engaged in a conflict that could not be discussed over the phone. The day before she was laughing and joking, and visiting with dead relatives. Her dementia is allowing her to live multiple lives. Maybe it is a source of freedom that she never felt she had, to try on new ways of being in the world.

It is strange to realize that I have tried to keep her in the box as my mother, and now due to a disease, she is able to resist that entrapment and find her own kind of freedom. I know that I am romanticizing, imbuing her situation with a kind of grace that is not only sentimental (some would say a form of denial, except that I am well aware of the reach here) but untrue, and yet it would be an interesting way to look at how this might be the only way she can break the imprisonment of the culture that she lived in that asked her to be only one type of woman(which most likely caused the suffering of the breakdowns and outbreaks of rage and violence).

I am still trying to figure out my life as a woman by examining the stranger that is my mother. I am weirdly happy for her (if she is not suffering, and so far this seems to be true) that she can live outside the proscribed world and be an outlaw. She never really had the chance.