Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sur La Table

When I was a little girl, we took a trip to Alabama, my grandmother's homeplace, to retrieve a dining room set that had belonged to my great-grandmother. It was oak with a round table that extended with a leaf, chairs and a sideboard to match. And thus, the furniture became a part of our home's landscape. I grew up with it.
And this is when I begin to try to talk about my mother. My mother. Um. Okay. My mother. My mother is not the kind of "traditional" mother that loves you in that unconditional way. I don't even think she is capable of really understanding what that kind of all-encompassing love is. I don't hold it against her. It's just not there. It's not a product of her troubled upbringing, either. It's not a light that was squelched. It was never there. It's absent. And knowing that, I'm sure she did the best she could raising me and my sisters. It saddens me at times to realize that. But it's true.
When my mother was 16 and suddenly in need of a boyfriend for the summer, she settled on my father and a few months later came a surprise that was not in the form of a party or an unexpected delivery of flowers. No, that surprise was me.
(And if I may digress for a moment, it really just galls me that in my family, the way of expressing this event is that I "happened" to my mother. I didn't just "happen". She wasn't attacked in the night. Two people got together and however stupid it was, they called me into being. Unless I am somehow party to a grander scheme of God's than I am currently aware or my mother was accosted by some waterfoul like a modern-day Leda, my mother and my father made a conscious decision to have sex without taking the proper precautions and the blessing of that folly is me - tada! So, if you're in my family and you are reading this, can you please find another way of referring to my conception, birth and life than the thing that "happened TO Cindy". Cindy happened to Cindy. That's the only thing that "happened" there. It's bad enough that she speaks of me that way. Could the rest of you find some other language? Take, perhaps, a more celebratory tone. Frankly, it makes me feel like a virus or a piece of space junk that fell from the sky and landed on her head.)
So, the table. This table was, of course, very important to my mother because of the family connections and because, I guess, she'd always just wanted it. I want you to understand that for a long time, my mother held things together as well as she could. She did her best. Life didn't turn out for her the way she (or anyone else) expected and even on the best of days, she struggles with managing the smallest of things. Sure, she had a baby at a young age and a deadbeat for a husband and still, she went to college and worked multiple jobs to take care of me. To hear her tell it, no one else lifted a finger to help her. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I heard about how my maternal grandparents wanted me aborted and then once I was born, they completely wrote us off.
(This is completely untrue by the way. But not something I was aware of until a few years ago. Can you imagine being 6 years old and trying to make your mind reconcile your Papa that loves you and plays with you with the notion that he never wanted you to be born in the first place? And then once you were refused to do anything to help you because he never wanted you? That's a really heavy burden. That's huge.)
I am sure that in the struggle of finding out your teen daughter is pregnant, the spector of abortion looms pretty large. It would be so easy, wouldn't it? Just to get it over with and get back to normal and pretend like it didn't ever happen at all. I can see why maybe that would have seemed like an option at the time. And I know my grandparents love me. As I am sure they grew to love me after I was born. Knowing all of this information at such a young age though, it really made me believe that I had to win people over and that my position was tenuous at best. No one had wanted me to begin with, so to continue in their good favor, I had to be sure not to upset the apple cart. Which is why I never told anyone exactly how crazy my mother was or how incredibly disfuntional my home life became over time. I never felt safe. I was never sure who I could trust. I certainly couldn't trust my mother. So I never said anything until two years ago.
The fact that I now never want to have anything to do with my mother again seems to mystify my family. I think that the general feeling is that I am being unreasonable, immature, resentful and unappreciative. The truth is I am none of those things; that I have dealt with her this long is a strong testimony that I am the exact opposite.
Back to the table.
My mother married a third time when I was a teenager. Together, she and her husband had two luminous and sparkling daughters that I love very much. They are a joy and a wonder each. At this time, I was an ecumberance. Keep in mind that I am not bitter about this. This is just true. Like recalling the details of a car crash. This happened and then that and then this. My mother was very quick to tell me in all the ways I'd derailed her life, made her miserable, held her back and that that was all over. She had two children (my sisters) and a husband all at the same time and I would be leaving soon for college. Until then, *they* were her family and I was just around. She would not be made miserable anymore. (I, however, didn't make her miserable. She did that to herself. And she still does.) Very quickly, though, she got cancer. And even though I was out of there by then and even though I had sworn up and down that I would never have anything to do with her again - EVER - (all with the counsel of an incredible psychiatrist, by the way) I went back into the burning building for my sisters. And instead of just escaping with them through the flames, I sat in the heat and the smoke for 15 years, telling myself it wasn't so bad and talking myself into saying I liked it in there.
And we're back to the table.
The cancer didn't kill my mother. She divorced her husband and tossed my sisters through the wringer just like she'd done with me. Eventually, she lost her house. Though that's not the correct language for what happened. The house became too much for her to keep up with. It was old and needed a lot of maintaining and financially, she just couldn't do it. So, my grandfather bought it from her and took over the upkeep, with my mom paying his payment for the house. Ultimately, it had to be sold. And even though my grandfather really came through for her and did his best to make sure she kept her home, it wasn't enough to make her appreciate everything he'd done.
Because my mom no longer had a home, the table no longer had a dining room in which to sit. So, it, along with my mother, my sisters, and everything else they owned, ultimately moved to my grandparents' basement, an incredible gesture of love on their part. And there it sat. And as the years rolled by, it became more and more neglected, piled upon with tools and boxes, getting nicked here and scraped there. Until I saw it, screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked for it. Only to borrow it.
It's in my dining room.
And the point of the table is this. When my husband was taking it apart to load it in the truck, my mother was telling him how important it was to her and how it was all she had left. She'd lost her house and everything else she'd ever wanted or had, except that table and some porch furniture. She wanted us to know that when she wanted the table back, we just had to drop everything and bring it to her. And so on and so on and so on. But this table - the one about she professed such perfect and undying devotion - had been languishing unused and uncared for in a basement for ages. How could you possibly treat something so important to you so badly? How could you let it get banged up and scarred? How is that any manifestation of love whatsoever?
And it dawned on me. My sisters and I, we are just three more tables. She loves us so much, she say, but she is unable to show it. To hear her speak about any of us, is to hear her complain, bitterly. One of us costs too much money with college and a wedding, the other just takes and takes and takes and never gives anything back and I? Well, I turn everyone against her and I used to make her miserable, but she won't let me do that anymore. Thank goodness.
My mother does not understand what love is. She has never felt it or recognized it when it was given to her. That is the source of her misery. We all speak in a language she just does not get. She didn't have it one day only to lose it the next. She just never had it in the first place. And far from making me angry or bitter or resentful, this mostly just makes me sad. Because I am a beautiful person. My children are beautiful people.
I have tried and tried and tried. And I'm tired. My magnanimity has run out. I am trying for Christ's compassion and grace, but I am coming up short. I have to get away from her for awhile. If instead of having her for a mother, she'd been my spouse, people would be applauding my decision. But because she is my mother and because I "happened" to her and because I kept everything to myself for so long, my actions have been misunderstood. I regret this. I am doing the best I can.


David said...

You & your sisters are more than just tables.

mzbees said...

You are doing so awesomely fantastic. I read the love and caring just pouring from you.

sabrina said...

You are the finest mahaghony from the finest tree. You are the woman that your mother could only hope to be. You give of yourself till you need a refill. I love you.

Patina Zwieback said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patina Zwieback said...

I have been most comfortable in the last month at your table, in the kitchen. The only memory of your dining room, where the table now lives, involves cream puffs.

What I take away from this post, and what reinforces my love for you...

Your grace, by my understanding of grace...