When I forgave my parents, I found my… self

“And when he finally did let me drive, I tried to will myself to drive the car into a pole; I was that miserable. I didn’t want to be his wife; it meant I was his property; but I had you two little girls; and y’all were delightful; he was…” My mother’s voice trailed off, reeling the memory back in.

We were both silent for a moment.

She has a favorite story she tells (too often) of when I was 18 months old, standing between them in the front seat of the old Dodge. My father, driving; my mother sitting passenger holding my baby sister, only a few months old.

My father was, as she tells it, “bitching, just bitching at me… I never did anything right.” She said she just sat there staring ahead like she “always did when he did that.”

After awhile, she said that I calmly reached down and picked up my sister’s glass bottle by the nipple, full of milk, and “thwopped him right on top of the head.” To this day, I am horrified at the thought I would resort to such a move as a mere tot.

“He swerved a little and didn’t say another word,” my mother laughs. “You were my little hero. You did what I didn’t have the nerve to do, I guess.”

This time, I ventured to engage her willingness to share a bit more. So, what happened that made you finally decide that your marriage with him wasn’t going to work, I asked.

“Oh! He would come in the door and just drop his clothes wherever, tie, shoes, jacket. I had asked him, please, put your clothes in the closet or in the laundry if you want them washed. He wouldn’t do it, he just wouldn’t do it,” she hesitated.

“So, I got a big box and anything that he had, you know, tossed in the living room or wherever, I would just go around the house and toss them in this box. One day, he was panicked because he didn’t have any clean clothes. I said, that’s odd, I washed everything that was in the laundry; maybe they’re in your box. He was furious!”

I gasped. You did not, I asked.

“Of course I did! And that’s when he called Daddy and told him to come get me! And, well, you know the story after that,” she said, the relief in her voice still palpable after almost … well, many decades. “You were about 3 years old.”

Me at 3 years old. My sister sent this to me a few years ago. Photo is faded and peeling.

I looked at my phone: Mother, mobile. I clicked off the speaker and put the phone to my ear. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We’ve always had a strained relationship — for reasons too many and not necessary for this moment.

Perhaps my expectations of her were torn between my father’s expectations of her and her expectations of her.

I felt an overwhelming need to share with her something my father said to me (via phone call) several years ago.

“I know you girls had a terrible violent childhood,” my father had admitted, sincere sorrow in his voice. “I honestly don’t know why your mother couldn’t be happy just being a wife and a mother,” his undertone changing to disdain.

As he’d spoken those words, I couldn’t help but think about all the summers she, no, we three, spent in Albuquerque and Las Cruces (New Mexico) while she worked on her Masters degree; then later, while in my very early 20s, typing her dissertation as she was completing her PhD. (She’d mail her changes and I’d make them on a Xerox word processor saving each reiteration on those giant floppy floppy disks, carrying them back and forth to my job, my boss allowing me to type the changes during my lunch breaks using the machine. Then, I’d print and mail it back to her.)

My mother listened as I recounted what he’d said, suddenly aware of her feelings of being “his property.” Her tone surprised me. “Oh! I loved being y’all’s mother!”

You did? I asked, clearly in a tone that said, I-don’t-believe-you.

“Well, of course! I did the best I knew how for us.” She insisted, the background noise growing louder. “Hey, I have to go; am at the assisted living center and need to get home. This was fun,” she said, then, before ending the call, “I love you.”

I love you too, Mother. She chuckled and we said goodbye. I stared at the phone, sat back in my chair.

Both my parents were right and justified in their separate values; their values simply weren’t compatible. Each blaming the other. Me, a baby, exposed to and imbued with their conflict — which, could explain why neither ever liked me very much and accused me of being too much like the other.

Funny now, for the first time in my life I see it for what it was, essentially: My father wanted to protect us; my mother wanted to liberate us.

If all politics are local, then all culture must begin at home.

Whereas I will never excuse the risks my mother put us through, I can no longer in conscience condemn her for the decisions she made. To do so, would be to give power to my father’s patriarchal views of women and children as property. And there were indeed good times. No wonder I’m always seeking balance; and why it is so often fleeting.

A single mom with two daughters in the 1960s & 1970s in a dusty southwest town on old Route 66. She was and is who she is; her negligence wasn’t intentional, rather it was fallout, if that makes sense.

I pulled the old white lace pencil skirt and Jackie O style top from the back of the closet and looked at it closely, it was handmade. She wore it in the mid-1960s. The 2-piece dress looks so tiny.

Before any woman is a mother, she is first a woman. Or should have the opportunity to be, if she so chooses. My mother wasn’t ready to settle down; she still isn’t. She’s just as oblivious and do-gooder galavanting around on one committee or another as she always was. And it still annoys me.

And that’s okay.

That little phone call tonight was the last piece in the puzzle for me in knowing the difference between what is really me and what has been put on me — the end of a long long journey.

And the beginning of a brand new one.

We are such creatures of our environments, our experiences, our cultures, our influences and impositions; I could go on.

I can’t say that I love my father because we didn’t have a relationship beyond a few phone calls and brief meetings. But I understand his expectations within the context of his time and his life and his culture.

And I see my mother the same in a way; she was a young woman in the 1960s and 1970s pushing against centuries of patriarchy, caught up in the new wave of opportunities for women.

Our phone call tonight, my questions, her sharing, put her into context other than simply “our mother.” I heard in her stories tonight a young woman, curious, educated, attractive, feisty, flirty, sassy, and horribly naive, easily distracted by adventure. And … lovely.

I couldn’t listen as a daughter, but when I listened as a woman, I melted.

I forgive you Mother. And I hope you can forgive me too. I love you. Maybe I can tell our stories in their context now… 

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