I’m just like my father. Growing up, my mother regularly reminded me of that. They’ve been married for fifty years, but it was never meant as a compliment. Nonetheless, when there’s a crisis, I’m the one she calls.
When I was six, I told her that I would never get married. She patted me on the head and told me to that I would change my mind when I got older. Later, she was excited by the success of the gay marriage movement, and I could tell that she thought that it was a show of support. She was trying, but I had to tell her that it’s not my movement, and that, at nearly forty, I hadn’t changed my mind.
I was severely and consistently bullied as a child. Although my mother would intervene whenever my brother had a misunderstanding with a teacher, she either couldn’t see or couldn’t respond to my abuse. She insisted that I “turn the other cheek”, and that not hurting people is more important than standing up for yourself. When I was about nine, someone told me that victims often become perpetrators, and I made a commitment to myself that I wouldn’t ever bully other people. There have been times when I’ve definitely been in the grey, but the only time I have clearly and consciously decided to violate that commitment, I was twelve. My mother had been asked to leave Nutri-System, because she’d been on it for a couple of years and wasn’t losing weight, which made them look bad. I came home to find her at the kitchen table, sobbing. My mother is the only person in my family who regularly cries, but this wasn’t typical. She said that she felt that it was her last chance, and that if they kicked her off the program, she’d be fat forever. The next week Dan, a boy with whom I often walked home from the bus, only because of location, saw my mother in the front yard and mocked her for being fat. I tortured him for the next two years. Many years later, as an adult, my mother told me that she thought that her mother, my grandmother, could never really love her because she was fat.
Later, after my grandmother’s death, and long after my mother had given up on Nutri-System, I went home and somehow became responsible for consoling her. The week after my grandmother died, she insisted that I be at home when she invited her priest to our house. They prayed, thanking their god for my grandmother’s death. That was the last religious ritual that I’ve tolerated.
I have never understood my mother’s religious devotion. In a therapy group, in my mid-twenties, we were asked to share the most important thing we’d learned from our mothers. My answer was “fanaticism”. The therapist was angry, and said that I’d violated the spirit of the question. I was also never very good at participating in therapy group.
I’ve thought about that answer over the years though, because it was wrong. My mother and I have never understood one another. And she is devout. But she and her Catholicism taught me a number of things that I now appreciate. She taught me the value of service without recognition, the value of kindness without reward, and the value of right living, although we disagree as to what the latter means. For all her faults, she embraces the ideal that she should treat everyone, human and animal, as though they might be Christ. We were the family who took in all the neighborhood pets, and after I left home (and a room became available), my brother’s homeless friends.
Three years ago, my parents came to visit me for Thanksgiving. I keep a dry-erase board, on which I write the quotes I’m currently pondering. When my mother saw the quotes, she asked me what they mean. The first and the third were easily explained, but the second…
“You will always be fond of me, for I represent to you all of the sins you never had the courage to commit.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I stared at it for a minute, and then said, “I don’t think I can explain what it means to me.” And my mom said, ‘I think I understand.” She told me a story about a girl she knew in high school, who dated older boys, and did all the things that my mother, who has always been a good Catholic girl, would never do. In a small town class of 40, she never talked to that girl, but she remembers her, fondly, 50 years later.
I didn’t tell my mother that in that analogy, I’m not my mother, I’m that girl. Besides, I think that in her own way, she already knows. That’s why, in spite of everything, and even though I’m just like my father, she’ll always be fond of me.