One of my favorite authors, Bryce Courtenay, has two quotes that have become threads in my life-quilt. The first is:
“Never attempt to write a book until you’ve written one hundred long letters to ten true friends.”
Although I didn’t come upon this quote until I was thirty, I may have unknowingly fulfilled it by the time I graduated high-school, due mostly to the volatile relationship I had with my mother.
My mother and I were like orphaned sisters, constantly balancing who was taking care of whom. Yes, she was my parent and deserved respect and obedience (something I had a hard enough time accepting), but she was also a generally helpless, thirty-something, single parent whose husband’s death had left her with two young children to raise and a business to run.
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You see, my mom and dad were dermatologists who, after my father’s characteristically thorough research, moved from New Jersey to Martinsville, Va., to start a private practice. Dad was the primary physician and business manager, and Mom was to see patients three days a week and be the mother she always wanted to be. Win-Win-Win.
Then my dad died.
I was four. My brother was two. My mom was devastated.
My maternal grandmother, who moved to Martinsville shortly after my parents (and who somewhat resembled Cruella de Ville), minded my brother and me through toddlerhood, while the town of Martinsville found my mother a business manager and saved the practice.
Mom’s patients were important to her self-esteem and imperative to our family. She worked long hours and came home tired and impatient. My brother and I descended upon her when she walked through the door, and she’d try to listen while also trying to run away. Often she’d change dress and leave again to attend a church event, PTA or Band-Boosters meeting, trying to be Super-Mom without sacrificing her personal fulfillment.
My brother and I knew she loved us – we were all she had, and we kept her alive. Nonetheless, I’m sure that, somewhere deep down, she didn’t want to be home, surrounded by her broken life plans.
Though she kept us busy with sports, music, dancing, and horseback riding lessons, my brother and I were generally on our own, under the loose care of a housekeeper who taxied us and fed us cafeteria-style meals.
There were no cell phones or the like, not that Mom had the time (or the sanity) to check in on my brother and me throughout the day. As long as we made good grades, she didn’t ask many questions. I’m sure she realized that, when it came to avoiding stress and anxiety, Not Knowing was even better than Denial.
Her veil of ignorance lifted in cycles. We’d neglect any semblance of chores for a month, my mother looking past the mess as she changed and rushed off to another commitment. Then suddenly she’d see a dirty fork and snap, yelling at us to clean everything up and be the good children she deserved.
My brother generally avoided confrontation. But I defended myself vehemently, even when confronted with my own entitlement, slovenliness, and ingratitude. It would ultimately end in an emotional yelling match, both of us crying and apologizing, my mother calling herself a horrible parent while I tried to convince her otherwise.
These were emotional purges that accomplished little to no constructive communication.
But, afterwards, my mom and I would often exchange letters, explaining ourselves and suggesting compromises.
“It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it,” my mother would remind me.
“You are an exhausted, emotional wreck.” I would warn, “You need to learn to say NO and come home.”
When I became a head-strong, back-mouthing teenager with a driver’s license, these letters were virtually the only way my mother and I listened to one another.
The letter-writing dropped off once I left for college and we weren’t physically close enough to hear each other yelling.
By the time I became a parent, we had learned to talk like adults.
It was at this point, as I was cleaning my things out of my mother’s house, that I found a box filled with letters. Some were notes passed in school, others were letters from old boyfriends, but most were letters to and from my mother, letters that traced my psychological, intellectual, and spiritual growth, letters that taught me to think and to write, letters that personified the love within the strained relationship between a mother and daughter.
Today I write yet another letter to my mother. She was, by no means, the perfect mother she’d planned to be, nor was I the perfect daughter she deserved. But we found a way to reach each other, and we are who we are because of it.
Melissa Rooney lives in Durham. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org