My mother, who as a girl, and even as an adult, had been brutalized by her domineering mother, was prone to flashes of anger. I learned to avoid provoking my mother’s outrage toward the end of her life. I was generally quite successful, but there were a few slip ups.
One happened not long before she died, in the narrow hallway outside the bathroom of her apartment in Florida, where the short hallway from her bedroom met the rest of the place. She had mentioned her anger at her daughter, and said she felt guilty about it, since her daughter had been taking such excellent care of her in recent years. She loved her, and depended on her, but there were certain issues that just made her furious.
I knew these issues well, from her point of view and from her daughter’s, both sometimes called me to vent. The stories were remarkably consistent, the major issue that drove each other crazy was constant. A good mediator could have helped a lot, their most common area of conflict was straightforward and seemingly easy to fix, but each was absolutely convinced the other would never go for mediation.
In an effort to reassure my mother about the anger she felt guilty about, I said that many mothers and daughters have such issues. It was fairly classic, it seemed to me, and I rattled off a number of these troubled mother-daughter relationships among people we knew. Believing that personal insight is the only key to interpersonal problem-solving, as I do, I misguidedly I pointed out that she had had ongoing conflicts with her own mother, in childhood and throughout the years I saw them together. My mother instantly flew into a rage.
“I had a wonderful relationship with my mother!” she snarled. We were standing very close to each other in that narrow space, her face turned red, her teeth were bared, she could have reached out and started choking me, if she’d been the violent type. I turned on a fucking dime.
“What do you feel like tonight, Lester’s or the Thai place?” I asked, pivoting as nonchalantly as Fred Astaire.
“Ooh, let’s have Thai,” she said, smiling in anticipation, and in great relief that I was immediately shutting the hell up about her difficult childhood.
That was the graceful end of my last attempt to shine any kind of light anywhere my mother didn’t want light shined.
It makes a cute anecdote, like a fortune cookie. Adroit son distracts angry mom with delicious bauble. It’s a little funny. On the other hand, it’s serious as the cancer that was eating at my mother in those final days.
Your mother’s anger?
She may never tell you the reasons for it, even those she knows well, preferring the painful, unpredictably rippling repercussions of repressing painful feelings, especially shameful, humiliating ones (who wants to feel that shit?) to laying out the many reasons she has to feel rightfully angry, especially laying this out to her children. It is the mother’s prerogative whether or not to give any insight into why she is sometimes short-tempered, or flies into a rage. She may know something about it, she may not.
I keep thinking of two of the luckiest breaks I’ve had in my life, both involving gifts of difficult honesty from people who loved my parents and cared deeply for me. The first one came from my parents’ best friend Arlene, when I was in my twenties. There was no doubt of their love for each other, there was never more spirited conversation, laughter and fun than when Arlene and her husband Russ were in the house. She took the trouble, during a long sunset walk across a beautiful hill, when I visited her after Russ died, to make me understand that my parents’ were basically unhappy people and that their unhappiness had nothing to do with me, though I undoubtedly, and understandably, blamed myself, since my parents always did. It was like Arlene had reached up and pulled a string to turn on a light in the darkness. It was the first inkling I had of a mature and beneficial understanding of my life up to that point.
The second lucky break, which I have written about many times, was my father’s first cousin Eli, who, toward the end of his long life, after many, many visits and long discussions deep into the night, finally revealing something that explained a deeply buried mystery about my father’s implacability. Eli and my parents loved each other as much as Arlene and my parents did. There was no motive on Eli’s part, as there had been none on Arlene’s, to in any way hurt or disparage my parents. These things were told to me strictly to help me understand a perplexing mystery they saw me wrestling with.
Eli told me, with limitless sorrow, that Chava, my father’s mother and Eli’s favorite aunt, a woman who loved Eli to death and who had always pampered him, had whipped my infant father in the face from the time he could stand. He’d witnessed it many times.
“How old was he when she started?” I asked Eli.
“However old you are when you can first stand on your two legs, I don’t know, one and a half, two?” he said with infinite sadness.
If those two revelations had never come to me, I have no idea how my life would be today, after the rocky start I had. Arlene’s insight made me begin to realize that trying to please people who could never be pleased, who would always blame me for their frustrations no matter what, was a fool’s errand. Eli’s flooded me with sudden sympathy for my poor bastard of a father. It made me understand how hard he must have struggled not to do the same to my little sister and me, even as he used other means to senselessly punish us. I had to give the man a certain amount of credit, after learning about his own senselessly destructive whippings, for limiting his destructiveness to words and rage. He could have easily started beating the hell out of me when I defied him as an adversarial, highly skilled baby.
Eli’s terrible revelation let directly to me, a few years later, being able to fully understand that my father, a victim of unthinkable abuse, had done his best with the very fucked up hand he’d been dealt. He had to fight to the death, it was that or face the horror of his own mother shamelessly humiliating him from the time he could stand, simply for the crime of being alive. That was how he saw the world, anyway, a bleak place of constant war and unreliable alliances. Fuck. Think about how that kind of treatment from your mother would warp your sense of yourself, your place in the world, your role as a parent. Knowing about my father’s traumatic childhood was essential, it allowed me to finally let go of a lot of anger I’d been carrying around.
I know there are many people, though I’ve met relatively few, who had a wonderful relationship with both parents. To you I say– you are truly blessed, and surely grateful, as you would have learned to be from people who were also grateful for the blessings in their lives, including their children.
For virtually everybody I’ve met, usually one or the other parent was better, sometimes just by virtue of being less monstrous than the other. We are lucky to get love and admiration from one parent, or if not a parent, another adult we meet early on. Even in the worst of situations, we humans always look to rationalize a bad situation, especially when we are young, inexperienced, and at the mercy of things and people we have little hope of understanding. We need to develop this ability to rationalize pain or be destroyed. If it was your father who was more openly at war with you, welcome to the club, there’s half a world full of members. To those whose mother was the more ruthless caregiver, and there are many millions there with you, you have my sympathy.
My point here, as I struggle to clarify and fully understand the quicksand I am gently splashing in, is that, if my troubled life is any indication of what’s good or bad for anyone else’s, the more we understand, the more insight we have into troubling things that happened to our parents, the better our chances of resolving conflicts within ourselves that are utterly hopeless when everything remains resolutely hidden and all personal life is a matter of pretending that the shame behind anger and self-loathing is nothing. The formulation of those who hide this way is intolerable, but I will reduce it to a footnote, so as not to ruin an otherwise reasonable piece with a tell-tale snarl of my own at the end .
 The formulation of the abusive insister on secrecy, the provider and hider of shame, goes something like this:
“Nothing at all to see here, history is overrated. Shit happens, life looks forward, not backwards. The past is prologue to nothing. Trust me, just be happy, don’t be a judgmental, angry, vindictive person like your insane uncle. Don’t worry about your mother’s pain, your father’s. It helps nobody. I already told you, for the thousandth time, the check’s in the mail and I won’t come in your mouth, so stop struggling so much, would you?”