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2004-05-10 10:55 AM
Cutting the Umbilical Cord
Few words in the English language carry the multiple connotation as the word, "mother."
"Mother is the word for love."
"He's a real mother."
"Don't mother me!"
And few relationships are quite as complex.
They endure horrendous pain to give you life. The go without so that you are provided for. They make you feel as if you'll never quite be good enough. They can find dust in your home no matter how well you clean before their visit. With a glance they can ease, enrage, frighten, console, praise, chastise, ennoble, embarrass, hurt and heal. With a word they can soften any blow; with a different word they can send you into a howling rage.
My mother used to have a stock phrase: "When I don't see you kids for a long time, I get physically sick."
Which, of course, means: When you kids don't call or visit, it makes me ill. If I get ill, I could end up in the hospital. If I end up in the hospital, I could die. You wouldn't want me to die, would you? So maybe you should visit more often.
But I'm not trying to give you guilt or anything . . .
My mother raised all eight of us kids on her own, with only a thousand-dollar a month police officers pension to sustain her, after my father died.
The two of them met in a Cleveland coffee shop just after the war. Bob came in for a cup of coffee and pie after an Indians game with a bunch of friends. He looked up and saw this teenaged waitress fresh from upstate New York waiting tables and smiled. He then turned to his friends, pointed out my mother, and said, "There's the girl I'm going to marry."
There were eight of us kids. Jean, Bob, Kathy, Sue, Jim, John, Myself and Dee-Dee. After my father died of complications from a gunshot wound suffered during a drug bust, Jean was the only one old enough to have moved out of the house. The rest of us were still in school.
At my fathers funeral, hundred of people showed up. I was three at the time. I remember looking around at the mass of people and asking my mother, "Why are all the people crying?" She told me that it was because they all loved my father so much, which made sense to me, even though I didn't understand that he really wasn't coming back.
Deming, New Mexico--the town in which my father died and we had lived for years--is not a large place. In good conscious, the members of my families church immediately started discussing which of us children would be adopted by which family. After all, there was no way my mother could possibly take care of all of us.
My mother, hearing the talk on the wind, packed us up and moved us to the other side of the country. We spent the next few years in Pennsylvania, just over the border from New York and only miles from where my mother grew up. Even at three, the image of my poor mother chasing seven kids across every Greyhound bus station at which we stopped stuck in my memory.
Somehow, we always ate. Somehow, we always had clothes on our backs and toys at Christmas. I haven't the slightest idea how she managed it, but she did.
She paid the price with her wits. Her mind started to go in her later years, and I knew that my family history would always remain something of a mystery to me as every question I asked her would get a different story each time she told it. I haven't a clue as to how much of what I know of my father is fact or fabrication.
But she raised us to be independent. She needed to know that if anything happened to her, we kids could take care of ourselves and make it on our own. Much to her dismay in later life, she succeeded beyond her wildest hopes. We love each other, but I haven't seen any of them in over twelve years.
She paid the price.
Once, when my little sister and I were around seven or eight, we hit mom up for some cash under the pretense of going down to the local Ben Franklin store and buying her a birthday present. She smiled and gave us what money she had and off we went.
Now Dee-Dee and I had had our eyes on a badmitten set for what seemed forever--two or three days in eight-year-old parlance--and we even convinced ourselves that it would be a fitting present. (Mom was always saying how much she enjoyed gifts that the whole family could enjoy.) We even half-heartedly attempted to get her out in the back yard to play with us, to assuage any lingering doubts about the appropriateness of the gift, but I'll never forget the crest-fallen look on her face when she opened the present.
She banished it immediately lest we catch on, but I saw it none-the-less.
She made us pay.
When I was twenty-three or four and fresh out of the Army, mom decided one afternoon to tell me that she was going to kill herself. None of the kids ever called her (mind you, I took her out to eat at least twice a week) and she really had nothing left to live for and she wanted to be with Bob. She told me this at least once a week.
One day, I blew up at her. I told her that she was an incredible woman who had raised eight fiercely independent, successful children and she was well loved. The reason the kids didn't call as often as she wanted was that they didn't want to hear mom talking about killing herself. I told her if it was really that bad, I'd get her the damned gun myself.
She stopped with the suicide talk soon after.
It's a mixed bag, this parental thing. We want our children to be their own people and we do our best to give them the skills to make it on their own, but we don't really want them to outgrow their need of us. But it happens, as it should.
Everyone should outgrow their dependence on their parents. No one should ever outgrow the love.
As parents, it's important to know the distinction.
Mom, I'm sorry I had to re-cut the umbilical cord. We're no longer attached, but I always will be. The pain will only last a lifetime.
Thank you for everything. I'm going to be okay. You always were.
Joseph Haines, signing off from The Edge of the Abyss.
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