My mother and biological father, circa 1955
My mother, born seventy-seven years ago today, was a story teller. I remember how restless I could be as I tried to sit through her telling me something. Especially as a teenager and young adult, I often thought, "Just get to the point!" She loved to weave in every detail she could remember, or rather every detail she wanted to remember. Her version of reality was usually not the same version that other people experienced. Although she only had a high school education she was very smart and spent the last years of her life learning about quantum physics.
My mother was never a healthy person, she had polio as a child and rheumatic fever. She use to tell stories of being five years old and confined to bed for a year, hooked up to machines. Her grandmother was her only joy in those days, visiting her and comforting her. She never found much solace, at least not that she chose to remember, in the care and love of her parents. These illnesses left her with a damaged heart but she could walk. My mother's heart was damaged both physically and spiritually. Forever broken, my mom, was unable to tolerate any kind of criticism of herself. This, the result of her parents leaving her to tend to her younger siblings when she was just three and four years old, while they left for weekend long drinking binges. That wasn't bad enough, when they returned her parents would beat her for not taking good enough care of the house and her younger brother and sister. My uncle, her brother, corroborated these stories. He says that while his parents were always good to him, they were not good to my mother. They broke her in ways that she never recovered from. She was always broken in heart, mind, and body.
On some level my mother knew she was broken, even though she could not admit this to herself. She would tell me these stories of her life and then remind me that she was trying to give me a different life. I was to go to college and have a job. I don't think she ever thought of me having a career, but at least able to have a job and support myself.
I graduated from seminary when I was 41. My mom was 59 that year, the same age that I am now. Sometime that summer we went out for lunch and she gave me a framed cross-stitch that I had made some 34 years earlier. The cross stitch, in a hideous baby blue and pink thread reads, "I will bring the light of the gospel into my home." I remember making this and thinking that I was being so creative to alternate the colors. I laugh at that memory, of making this. But I was very touched that my mother had saved it and then framed it to give to me. I had accomplished more than what she ever hoped for me. Growing up, as she and I did, in Salt Lake City, Utah, it was inconceivable that a woman would or could ever acquire a dual degree M.Div/MSW and be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. As former Mormon's I didn't hear of the Episcopal Church until I was 28. The UCC minister, a woman, recommended the Episcopal Church to Dan and I, during our premarital counseling sessions. She had grown up in the Episcopal Church and said it would be a good fit for us, Dan with his former Roman Catholic upbringing, and me with my many questions about faith. Obviously we took that minister up on her recommendation, and to my great surprise, I ended up becoming a priest. My mother was an agnostic, but still she celebrated my accomplishment.
Then again, my mother tried to live her life through mine. My early years were spent supporting my mother's version of reality, confirming and affirming her. It was my job, my role in the family to do this. When I moved away for college, and in the twenty years that followed, I slowly came to realize that I was not my own person. I did not have a complete grasp on how to make decisions because I could not figure out what I really thought or wanted nor could I trust my judgement. I was very confused and insecure, having spent so much of my life being enmeshed with my mother and making decisions that she led me too. Years of therapy and much hard work in family systems have finally given me a greater capacity to do that, to know who I am and to make decisions I can trust because they are centered in my values, beliefs, and principles, which are grounded in my faith and the teachings I've internalized from the Episcopal Church and family systems.
My mother died suddenly, of a massive heart attack, when she was 65 years old, September 21, 2004. She always told me that she wanted to be cremated but to not get back her ashes, just leave her be. However, when she died, I called my brothers, my uncle, my dad and my aunt, all people who knew her well. We talked about what to do and how to honor her life, even though she had managed to become estranged from all of us. That was her way. She usually had a lot of people she was angry with, and only a couple of people in her inner circle. But, that circle was fluid, anyone on the inside could quickly find themselves on the outside, without any sense of how or why. She'd just get mad and stop talking to you. It was the dominant feature of her life long brokenness.
In the end we decided to cremate her and inter her ashes in the Salt Lake City cemetery in a plot shared by her mother, father, and sister. There is some irony in this, interring her for ever with the very parents who broke her. But she claimed to love her father and so we put her next to him. I remember wondering if she would hate me for all eternity for doing that. But on the day we buried her the sun was shining and the air was clear.
I like to think that in the end she found peace with all of it.
View, looking down from the plot where my mother is buried.
And another view, looking out across the tree tops to the mountains that surround the SLC valley