I am happy to announce that Chicken Soup for the Soul has accepted this article that I submitted to them. The on-sale date is scheduled for May 5, 2015. The book title is Time to Thrive.
I was sitting at my dresser brushing my long red hair when suddenly Mom stormed through the door and started slapping me around, screaming and yelling, “I told you to stay away from those kids! They’re nothing but trouble! Then you have the nerve to bring them to the house!”
I liked the brother and sister. I had spent the entire day with them wondering what was so bad about them. They didn’t curse. They didn’t smoke. They didn’t pick-pocket the stores we went in; none of the things that I thought mom considered bad. I even invited them to go to Bible Study with me that night and they agreed.
So I brought them home with me.
Mom’s face said it all. It was like standing in front of a Judge, my mother scowling down at the three of us standing before her.
“They’re going with me to Bible Study,” I said hurriedly, hoping that would smooth her feathers and make her happy.
I thought a lot of things I did would make her happy. Going to church. Reading my Bible. Never hanging out with the wrong crowd. Obeying all her strict, religious rules. Living the squeaky-clean life of a Puritan. But in the end, I failed. She always raised the bar just a little higher, and like a fool, knowing I couldn’t jump over it, I’d try. And fail. And try again.
Of course I understood. She had a terrible, abusive childhood. Her mother, an immigrant from Germany, couldn’t raise her twelve children alone, so she surrendered the youngest two, my mother and her sister, to an orphanage.
From the time I can remember, I lived and relived her childhood horrors. Not only in the stories she told, but in the guilt and shame I felt for her sadness and pain. For her anger and rage. For not being enough to make her happy.
Trying to pay the debt I thought I owed cost me my life. I lost my identity, my thoughts, my hopes and dreams, my choices. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see my youthful, freckled face; I saw her wrinkled, angry scowl.
By the time I married and had a child, I believed that everything that went wrong was my fault. A slap in the face till my ears rung was my fault. Slamming me against the wall and being choked was my fault. Running out and leaving me all night was my fault. Ending the marriage in divorce was my fault.
When my son was five, I met and married a man who changed my life. He saw all the ugly inside me; all the hurt, anger and rage, and kept loving me. But it wasn’t enough to save me from myself.
Just five minutes with my mother set off a time bomb inside me. When I went home, I would blow up at my family. That’s when I sought counseling. That’s when all the bitterness and self-loathing, false guilt and shame began pouring out. That’s when, with God’s help, I began sorting through the rubble and found the little rag doll that was tossed and forgotten there. That’s when I picked her up, tattered and worthless as she was, and embraced her in my arms. That’s when my eyes began to see.
It was the hardest thing I had ever done; worse than going through my divorce. I walked out of my mother’s life. I said enough of her power and control! Enough of her self-pity! Enough of her dumping the weight of the world on my shoulders! Enough! Enough!
After two years of counseling, my therapist suggested I try talking to my mother. Immediately, my heart pounded in my chest, fearing that one moment spent with her would destroy every ounce of progress I had made. I told him I would consider it.
Several months later, I opened my eyes to a beautiful Saturday morning and knew this was the day. I jumped out of bed, and before changing my mind, I asked my husband if he would take me to see my mother. I needed every drop of his love and support.
We pulled up to the curb as mom and her new husband were walking to their apartment.
Rolling down the car window, I said, “Mom, can we talk?”
Like walking the Green Mile, I shuffled down the long, narrow corridor to her apartment. We sat down at the small kitchen table, and taking a deep breath, I poured out my battered heart.
And without a tear in her eye she said, “Sandi, if I have done anything wrong, I’m sorry. I just don’t know why we can’t let bygones be bygones and start over.”
The same old story. Let’s not get to the cause of our constant battles. No sense in delving into the truth. Let’s just cover it up and pretend it never happened.
“Mom, why can’t you see that you’re not the only one hurting? You’ve been so consumed in your own pain that you can’t see how you’ve hurt me. Right now, I don’t know if I love you or hate you. That’s why I have to stay away; to try and figure it out. I’m sorry mom. All I’ve ever wanted to do is make you happy. But I can’t. Nobody can.”
It would be six long years before I came close to trying again. Six long years of sorting through the guilt and shame of abandoning my mother. Six long years of facing it without the support and understanding of my siblings. Six long years of facing mom’s friends, seeing the shame-on-you glare in their eyes.
And during those six long years I learned that I am not responsible for my mother’s abusive childhood and the physical and emotional pain she suffered. I learned that I’m not God and that He never expected me to take on the tremendous task of fixing my mother. He told me so. Loud and clear. And the heavy burden lifted.
Finally, feeling emotionally strong enough to allow her back into my life, we gradually built a relationship. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it wasn’t. And although my mother never changed, I did. I grew stronger than I ever thought possible.
I still wish I had known a mother’s unconditional love. I still wish I had seen just a glimmer of approval in her eyes before she died. But I’ve learned that I can live without it.
The relationship I had with my mother taught me that no matter how hard we try we cannot fix people’s broken lives. We cannot try saving them without losing ourselves in the process.
It was tough. It was painful. It was fearful and confusing. But I’m glad I did it. I’ve reintroduced myself to myself. Like a flower in the dessert, I’ve come back.