My sister, Yankee Transferred, reminds me so much of my mother.
I remember asking my aunt one day what my mother was like as a girl/young woman. My aunt peered over her reading glasses, and pronounced, solemnly, "Your mother was extremely smart".
That wasn't really news to me, nor was it exactly what I was looking for. I was looking for the chinks in the armor, the vulnerability that I knew must be there, that would make her life more understandable. But that was a side of my mother that she had a hard time showing. I'm not sure why. Sometimes I'm afraid that the answer is that she had so many irresponsible or emotionally troubled family members to take care of that she didn't feel as though she could afford to let her guard down. So she shouldered all of our burdens and trudged on, doing the best she could.
Her mother, my grandmother, had spent most of her life in an asylum, in various degrees of depression or dementia, starting when my mother was a very young girl. My mother took it on herself to be a little mother to her younger sister and brother, even while they were shunted off to various boarding schools (her father didn't want to take care of three children alone}. When my mother was a young woman, she was given legal charge of her mother, who at that point had been lobotomized. My mother oversaw her care at various institutions throughout the rest of her mother's life. I didn't even know that my grandmother was alive all those years. My mother had told me that she had died when my mother was a teenager. I know Mom wanted to shelter all of us from the knowledge that our grandmother had had this kind of life, and that she also did not like sharing any emotional pain that she was going through herself.
Mom was smitten with our father, who was a very handsome, charming man. He had an easy smile, a sharp wit, and a way with women, particularly my mother. Even through his many affairs, his heavy drinking, his anger and disdain for her, she loved him. It is a testament to my mother's love alone that they stayed married until my father died.
Because of all of this, however, Mom was also extremely difficult at times. She was inconsistent, argumentative, acerbic, and (often) not really too concerned with the truth. She was quick to anger, but it never lasted very long, however. Her optimistic, idealistic nature, which had helped her through the many tough times, always won out. Her bright blue eyes would soon be smiling and full of affection, especially for us kids.
Mom showed us the same kind of unstinting devotion that she did my father. When I was little, I clung to her, knowing that there was no other place in the world that I would feel the sureness and safety of being loved just for being myself. As I grew older, I realized that there was nothing I could ever do or say that would change that devotion. And so I took advantage of her, as, I suppose, many children take advantage.
As I grew to understand how destructive her relationship with my father was, I was angry at her for not leaving him, and scornfully I promised myself I would never put myself in her position -- I would never love unless I was absolutely sure that the love would be returned.
But that wasn't her way of living. Her knowing love was deep and far-reaching. It spanned the length of her days, and was as bottomless in its depth.
In some ways, Yankee is very different from Mom. She recognized, much earlier than I did, the difficulty of having a parent whose emotional whimsy was tought to predict, and does her best not to bring that part of her childhood experience into her own children's lives. And she has never made her children suffer, even indirectly, for any of the choices she's made in life. But she shares my mother's love of children, her empathy and her intelligence, and her values. She's a steadier, more honest version of Mom.
I often wonder if Mom had seen Yankee raise her children, loving them through so many trials, rejoicing in their successes, and uncomplainingly taking on more and more responsibility, if she would have recognized herself in her daughter. Maybe not. Truly selfless people don't spend that much time thinking about themselves.
But I do know she would have been proud.