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The Eclectic Pen - Darning Socks: The Troubled Relationship I had with My Mother

By: Meg B. (nuttmeg)  
Date Submitted: 7/19/2008
Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Words: 1,972

  I came across an odd piece of rounded wood on a stick and for the life of me I couldn't remember it's purpose. Looks kinda like a hard boiled egg popsicle. It's smooth and seems to be utilitarian, about 3 or 4 inches high.
Then it hit me.
I took it home from Mom's in the flurry of activity that was the wrapping up of her life and posessions after her death exactly a year ago.
This object is one of many things I stuffed in my suitcase, not wanting to throw it out and not really knowing what else to do with it, like so much of her stuff. None of it was worth anything other than sentimental value but it was all we had of both her and ourselves, her place being the repository for all the detritus of our childhoods and her adulthood.
The object I found myself fondling is for darning socks.
Darning socks. A lost art, much like "tatting", a kind of intricate embroidering/knitting/crotchetting. People don't "darn" socks anymore-they throw them out and buy new ones.
I felt a sadness when I saw it, not just because of the obvious reminder of her and all the baggage that that memory entails but for the fact that I never had her teach me how to use it.
I don't remember her ever using it to darn anyone's socks but I know she knew how to do this once essential task.
There are probably a lot of things I never had her teach me to do.
My relationship with her was so complex, with no one interaction clean and forthright; each one dredging up the one before it and numerous others before that.
I hated her and loved her and hated myself for not being able to evolve beyond my primordial responses to even hearing her voice on my answering machine on the rare occasions she would call.
Each inflection of her distinctive voice was so reminiscent of the hurtful arguments we used to have, how hateful she could be when my budding sexuality in adolesence brought up painful memories of her own in eclipse. The very sight of me would send her off into the dangerous primitive netherworld of thwarted hopes, dashed dreams, disapointment.
She hated me at times because I reminded her of her.
And her was a mysterious powder keg that I only recently came to some understanding of; or at least came into posession of a plausible theory with which I could make some peace.
She was certainly unhappy a lot of the time. The transitory optimism that I remember she had at one time became dimmer and dimmer; the fight to keep it became like that of someone in the sea after the Titanic had sunk and the strength to hold on to the life preserver to stay alive diminishing much like the strength in her legs.
I believe it became so hard for her not to complain and express her misery to anyone and everyone she talked to toward the last years of her life; maybe it was easier just not to reach out to anybody at all.
Hence the long periods of being incommunicado which I took for indifference.
I think there was indifference, the kind that comes from a self absorpbtion borne of the belief that she was due something she never got. Something she was robbed of.
But what it was and by whom will now never be answered.
Fortunately for me I feel confident that I tried as hard as I was capable of to have a relationship with her of whatever quality. Could I have tried harder? Maybe. But I was so conflicted about what she had done to my self esteem that I alternately wanted her to pay for it, pay like the laws of the universe, the "spiritual quantum physics" I was so convinced at the time would ultimately render justice, that I was reduced to screaming vulgarities at her, hoping for justice later.
I could have done more; I could have tried harder but the truth is I knew years ago that after she was gone I would wish I had tried harder and done more. I knew I would feel bad and regret our harsh words, I knew I would regret not having done more to make her last years more comfortable, less lonely, less wracked with pain. I also knew I wouldn't be able to.
It was just so godamned hard.
I would go to visit her with the best of intentions; therapized to the point where I really believed I was beyond all that was between us that made me crazy and inevitably led me home to take to my bed with a crushing depression and hopelessness no other experience with anyone else could engender.
I would sit in her living room trying to figure out what to talk about next, what activity I could do or chore I could accomplish for her that would make the trip worthwhile. I wanted to go home feeling like I had turned a corner in my relationship with her.
But too many times I would leave her apartment and take a walk outside in the neighborhood feeling like I couldn't breathe, fighting for air, wanting the City of Chicago to restore my breath before I could go back there and try again.
A lot of her misery in her last years was the misery of all people who are old and infirm; whose limbs just will not do what they're told, whose bodies betray their owners. It's inevitable that the daily tasks of everyday life become more difficult the less one's body cooperates; that bitterness that can befall all who do not keep constant vigil against it.
But her bitterness preceded her old age and came I think from a jaundiced world view, the origins of which I may never fully comprehend.
I remember asking her sister Dot about it years ago when I was struggling to understand what was wrong with me and why our relationship had more lethal land mines than Soviet occupied Afghanistan. I had been in therapy at that point at least long enough to understand that it may not have all had to do with me; maybe some of it was her.
Now there was a liberating thought.
She was the mother, the adult. I was the child, one among eight. Maybe it was the inherent power differential between two children; one who happened to have given birth to the other that skewed who was responsible for creating the reality of what life was like in the Brizzolara household of the fifties, sixties and seventies.
The saddest thing for me is that I can love her now without her ruining it.
Her death has freed all of her children to love her or hate her, whichever we will, unencumbered by the guilt of not having givin up our lives NOW and going to live with her, merge with her, allow her to be us or us be her, with the boundary between the two of us forever blurred by need.
Need, hate, guilt, love, transferred hopes and expectations. Too late now, the resulting deficit of good feeling and memory forever relegated to the emotional rewriting of history.
Dot told me that their childhood in Berkeley was essentially unremarkeable. Grandpa A was not an abusive drunk, didn't single her out for undeserved beatings or persecution or other forms of abuse.
No, from all accounts he loved her the most, even favored her over her brother Bill and her sister Dot.
Jenny A, her mother was cold, Germanic and undemonstrative.
But none of what I've heard about MJ's childhood explains why she was so angry, why she was so disapointed in her life, why she looked to her children to make her whole, then became so furious and felt so cheated when it became clear that we would not take care of her, she had to take care of us. At least until we were old enough to start the caretaking that would continue until the last of us left home and long beyond. We never did get it right.
What a ripoff that seemed to have been for her.
And yet. Yet there was a really beautiful, wonderful unique part of her that never got to take wing, like so many women of her era.
She had children in the 50's after marrying a man she thought would make her happy because he was so smart. Smart, charming, intellectual but aloof emotionally. She was madly in love, in that there is little doubt. But his emotional aloofness and inacessability is what she could never reconcile.
How could a guy who was so bright, seem to understand so many things about the world that she did not, not understand the most fundamental things about relating to her?
How was it he didn't automatically know what she wanted and needed when he knew so much more about so many things that the average person couldn't grasp?
Women had few choices then; marriage and childbearing weren't even debated. It's what was done.
It's all that was done for most average women.
And if you're Catholic, especially if you converted to Catholicism for your husband's sake, you forsook birth control as it went against the teachings of the Church.
You have as many children as you have. Two or five or twenty, it was God's will.
That cultural phenomena gave birth to "mother's little helper", valium. Valium and booze for a lot of housewives who felt foriegn and frightening stirrrings within for something more while waxing the kitchen floor and cooking dinner.
She always claimed to have wanted eight or even more children but I could never really believe her.
She seemed so miserable, so destined for something else; something grander and more exciting than changing diapers and breaking up fights. Something denied her.
Her weight was the great albatross around her neck. I still feel a stab of pain when I think about all the diets she went on, the non fat cottage cheese on the 500 calorie a day diet her doctor put her on, only for one of us to find her eating the lasagna she had made for everyone else late at night when she thought no one was awake.
Maybe she had an eating disorder. It sure occurred to me later in her life that she did because of her bizarre eating habits. She would never eat when anyone was looking, not wanting anyone to think she lacked self control; but binging at night, eventually giving up even the pretense of dieting. See sawing between good eating habits and out and out gluttony when alone.
The diet pills she was given in the fifties and sixties turned her into a psychotic rageaholic.
She took desoxyn and other stimulant, amphetamine based pills during the day, giving her heart rate a dangerous boost, while taking nembutal and seconal at night.
I can't help but wonder if the dangerous chemical soup she was taking at the behest of her doctors back then caused a permanent irrationality that never really wore off even years after she stopped taking them.
She had a sense of entitlement that would appall all those who witnessed it. We would go to a resturaunt where it was clearly posted that the establishment did not take checks. She would scoff at this, eat a full meal and become enraged when the propieter told her checks were not accepted there. She would raise such hell that being as big as she was, the owner of the place would give in and accept hers in fearful placation.
Yet she could aslo be incredibly loving and accepting, taking in "strays", friends of Paul's and John's who had no other place to go, having been kicked out of their own parents homes for one reason or another.
She could see the good in people where others would see only the big "L" of LOSER invisibly tattoed on their foreheads.
She was less able to be that accepting of us.
To be

The Eclectic Pen » All Stories by Meg B. (nuttmeg)

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Comments 1 to 2 of 2
Marta J. (booksnob) - 7/23/2008 5:44 PM ET
This is very good. I hope you plan top continue with more!
Pat B. (danbookswife) - 7/25/2008 6:02 PM ET
My mother died suddenly at age 43 on a work morning, was dead on arrival at the hospital. Besides my father, it was just my brother and me. I, too, went through the sewing basket and found the darning egg, but I knew what it was for and had even used it, though I'd never seen her use it. I had a great aunt in New Jersey who showed me how during a week's special vacation. Since I'm now 72, those were still the days when people darned socks. Every once in awhile I take out the egg; it is smooth with use. This is my fourth and, hopefully, last marriage. This husband walked holes in his cheap socks wearing cheap Payless sport shoes down at the mill. Several times, just for auld lang syne, I darned the socks, and I felt a connection with the women in my past--for good and ill. The raging we did is long over. I'm glad to say my relationship with my only daughter has been good for many years. It wasn't always so, a really bad divorce from her father, the second husband, kept us apart from the time she was 12 until she wrote, at last, again, at age 18, from Holland, where they lived. She has come to the US, I have visited, we email back and forth. DVD's come in the mail with a baby Robin Eva chortling and dancing through the house with a loving, camera-laden mom following her every move. She is getting it right, they are getting it right, I'm working to get it right. I'm going to send the darning egg, as I have my mother's wristwatch, removed on the morning she died, and my baby pearl necklace. My mother told me she wanted to die several weeks before the stroke took her. She said she didn't want to get old, her mother was a helpless stroke victim who outlived her to age 86, complaining all the way. It was a long time before I could see the sense in living past middle age, besides, I didn't know how--my role models were ones I didn't want to copy. I went to work after many years as a secretary, as a nurse's aide. What a comedown, I thought resentfully. But I got an unexpected gift, Elderly Lessons--what to do and what not to do on my aging trip. I would really like to visit Holland again or have my girls come here and give them a lesson in how to use a darning egg before I hand it over. But that would be putting conditions on my gift, wouldn't it? danbookswife Pat Baumgartner
Comments 1 to 2 of 2