Really, Mom? That was the best you could do?

“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” -Oscar Wilde

I used to want to argue with Wilde. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” I would imagine myself saying to him.  “It won’t be that way for me, because I am going to get it exactly right.”  God knows, I have tried, and at no small cost. I just hope that when the time comes for my children to judge me, and it is coming—they’ll count up the columns of faults, frustration, and weaknesses, and those of love and kindness, and I’ll come out better than did my parents or my grandparents before them.

Oscar Wilde ca. 1882

I have worked so hard to help my children to be whole and well and better than those who preceded us, those whose lives and hearts were spent in anger and wanting. I hope they come to see my efforts for what they were: The best I could do. I hope so because I look back at my own parents, as they did at theirs, and I wonder, “Really? This was the best you could do?”

I wonder if I’ve been too harsh on my own mother all these years and then I remind myself that she made a pass at my then husband when he saw her safely to her car while I lay asleep in a windowless hospital room, recovering from the unplanned C-section that brought my now fifteen-year-old daughter into the world.  Is that really forgivable?

If your mother had fallen into bed with your brother’s college buddies while drinking, wouldn’t you feel a need to carefully consider just how much contact you would want to have with her or how much (or how little) you’d like her to be involved in your life or the lives of your children?  (I bet you would, Readers.)

If your mother testified in your divorce trial against you and your children wouldn’t you feel just a little bit righteous in your failure to forgive?

I’m working on it, working right-hard on forgiveness.  Readers, when I work right-hard, I read.  So feel free to send links, suggestions, comments, advice, and the like.  (Those have helped me to find my way on many things already.)

In her memoir, How to Sleep Alone in a King Sized Bed, Theo Pauline Nestor writes that it was said of her mother that she “…saw herself as something of a sexpot back then” [when Ms. Nestor was a child]. Her mother even had a boyfriend, a handsome and married boyfriend.  Nestor called her mother out as a former “sexpot” in print (and available on kindle).

The New Perfume

Reading this, I had two thoughts with regard to my own life. First, to my own mother: “I’m sorry, but you kinda had it coming.” Second, to my children: “Forgive me, children, for every way in which I’ve failed you.” (…and if you write your memoir, pray, be kind!) I have a feeling Nestor’s mother is the sort who would be mildly amused by the telling of some of these stories. I have a feeling she is a woman considered still quite lovely for her age, which at some point is all that remains of hot when it becomes formerly hot. It’s better than nothing though, so we’ll take it. Hopefully our lives and wisdom have a depth and richness that is simply a different brand of hot, our grandmother’s perfume, the expensive Friday-night-at-the-supper-club perfume, the smell of let-me-tell-you-how-it-all-works.

A friend visited over the holidays. She was describing her uncomfortable position with her in-laws and she used a word that illuminated the situation perfectly. English is not her native language and she paused for a moment, lingering over the word, flipping through her mental dictionary to find the English term that would be most suitable. “Tribal,” she said finally, “it is like to live in a clan.”

“Great,” I thought, “…assuming you are the person in charge or that the person in charge happens to adore you. Not so much if you’re living under an abusive tyrant, bloated with seemingly unfounded animosity.”

When one takes a step toward estrangement, it’s not just a matter of simply saying to oneself, “Who needs this sh*t?”  It’s about drawing boundaries with the people you love who also hurt you. It’s about protecting yourself and others whom you love and may even have an obligation to protect.  It’s what I have had to do with my mother and with my ex-husband and I’m a villain for it in some (rather small) circles.

This is a season when many gather with their tribes. Many of the people I love have had their dramas with their respective families over the last month, some petty and small, forgiving and healthy—the kind that help us as individuals come closer to understanding one another in all our blissful imperfection. Fortunately, few had dramas such as ours, though some had holidays of heartbreak and tears. (To those, I hold you in my heart.)

My son's backpack (You can't quite see the leaking honey bear.)

During holidays, many of us take time off and we have long strings of minutes and hours in one another’s company, time we have trouble finding otherwise in our busy lives however hard we might try.  In that time there is always discovery. Often, as with my children now, that is a pleasant and loving experience.  It is time to mend misunderstandings, to listen deeply, to renegotiate the terms of our relationships and to grow together. We reconnect and recommit, which are both inspiring and uplifting.  During the last several days, I have helped my children to thoroughly clean their rooms and organize all their belongs for the second half of the school year. They have ordered their books and exchanged the things on their walls to reflect who they are now, which is a little different than who they considered themselves over the summer. They develop so rapidly, changing two clothing sizes in a year, struggling to define themselves and settle on some of the crucial terms of their identities. They are choosing who and how they will be and I want to see them to pick wisely and with an eye to their own gifts and their own weaknesses.

I don’t want them to pick ‘broken’ from the list as many do, as I sometimes have, which is exactly why I do many of the things I do. (That and the dust bunnies were getting to me.) We have a little contest going to see who has the best and worst finds in their room clean. Worst for my twelve-year-old son: He came home on the last day of elementary school, coming up on two years ago, and he threw his backpack into the back of his closet and turned out the light. He obviously doesn’t use the closet very often. Best find:  The Luke Skywalker and Han Solo action figures I bought for my eight-year-old last summer when he was recovering from his injury. The two heroes were among other toys spread out on the floor of the van during the trip home in August.  I had asked him to pick them up and he put them all into a chico bag which he deposited on a shelf in his room, a shelf that was long buried in a stack of books.  My daughter, unearthed three wrist braces, bought separately each time she has re-injured her right wrist. (One sec… Okay, sorry.  I’m back.  I had to run to make sure the health insurance premium was paid.)

I hope that my children will find their tribe a supportive and comforting one. I have consciously betrayed some supposedly sacred blood-loyalties along the path and I wonder what that says to them about commitment—If the going gets tough, the healthy and reasonably well-adjusted walk out? (…and probably put you in a nursing home, a nice one if you’re lucky.)

In the end, the best I can do is all that I can do.

Really, Mom? That was the best you could do?

“If you have something to say, say it with a civil tongue or not at all.” —My mother

My mother was a young woman from a decent family who made a huge mistake when she was fifteen, a mistake that turned out to be me.  That was the best she could do. The best I could do was to wish her well.  I could not forever be someone else’s mistake.

“…rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”

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