Monday, May 11, 2015

Grief Story #7: Kath Ellen

Losing My Mother's Love
by Kath Ellen

My mother loved me, and I loved her. What we had was special. I didnʼt want to lose my mother. I didnʼt want to lose my motherʼs love. I depended on her love.

Of course, she had an angry side, too. The one that yelled and reached for the
yardstick and spanked me, the oldest, the girl who must be punished for any
ruckus. Mom did nice things for me, took care of me in so many ways: she
cooked and baked, washed, ironed, helped me with my homework, and gave
me practice tests so Iʼd be a success in school. 

She monitored and judged my communications.

“Donʼt give any information.”
“Don’t say anything.”
“Don’t talk about what happens at home. It’s private.”
“People always value a good listener, so be a good listener.”

I believed that she was giving me training in good manners so people would like me. Every day of my life I heard her say a dozen times, in warning, “What will people think?” What others think of me and of us held great importance. There
was no one to play with. My sisters were too much younger. Mom found the
neighbor kids unsuitable for me. I could sometimes play at a classmate’s house,
but then Mom stopped the connection before she would have to reciprocate as
hostess. She didnʼt want any kids coming over. She didnʼt want noise or mess.

It was a lonely childhood for me, but at least Mom loved me. At the end of each day, Mom sat on the edge of my bed,
asked me to tell about my day, and had me say my prayers. “I love you, Honey,” she said, before she turned out the light.

Church had a high priority with Mom. We went every Sunday and every Wednesday. We read the Bible every day, knew all the stories, memorized verses. The church told us what was right and what was wrong. Mom added to the list. Mom considered herself perfect, and continually reprimanded and corrected me, so I could become perfect, like her. I was her project, and she was determined to turn me out as an excellent student and a lovely little lady.

I cooperated.

I studied hard, nervous before every test, nervous about facing the repercussions at home if I didn’t uphold the family honor by getting all As. I did get all As. I brought honor to my family. Her religious beliefs did not allow Mom to feel proud of me, so she thanked God that I got all As, thanked God that I was bringing honor to His name.

It didn’t pay to disagree with Mom or argue with her. She held all the power. Her word was law. What would she do to me if I disobeyed? Well, she spanked me, of course. That stopped when I was ten and the stick broke during a spanking. 

Later something worse happened. It was two years later, when I was in eighth grade. In those days I usually walked home from school with Carolyn. At home after supper Mom and I would be washing and drying the dishes together and talking, and occasionally Iʼd say, “But Mom, Carolyn…”

One evening Mom exploded: “Carolyn, Carolyn, Carolyn. I want you to stop talking with Carolyn. You are not to talk
with her any more. Do you hear me? I forbid it.”

Did I mention I was a lonely kid?

Carolyn was the best part of my life. There was no way I was going to stop walking home with her. Mom ostracized me. She wouldnʼt talk to me, look at me, or interact with me in any way. Ow. That hurt so much. Remember, I wasnʼt allowed to talk to others out in the world, so I was pretty much invisible to most people. And now at home I was invisible to the person I loved most. And she was not loving me.

I was starving without her love. For two weeks the silent treatment lasted. And who gave in at last? You can
bet it wasnʼt Mom. I was so heartbroken and tortured that my beloved Mom wouldn’t speak to me. Of course I gave

During all my years of being a teacher, I organized lessons, taught with joy and creativity, and educated and nurtured my
young students, plus shared professional knowledge and skills by giving training workshops for other teachers. And I still
went home for family Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners, family birthday parties and celebrations. I still
loved my Mom.

She still corrected me: “Honey, why don’t you just xxx xxx xx?” So I tried to be perfect, like her. She was my role model. And she told me, “I love you.”

My first years teaching, I shared an apartment with Anne and Fay. We had so much fun! I loved our life together as
independent young teachers. But after the second summer vacation, Anne didnʼt come back from her trip home to
see her mother. Anne wrote me a letter saying sheʼd gotten married. I was stunned, and then grief-stricken. Fay
had a boyfriend and moved out, too. I was left alone. Lonely all over again.

So I went home to Mom. I lived at Momʼs again, under her roof, under her rules. When my younger sister E became
a teacher, the two of us got an apartment together. Again, I was so happy we were on our own. Of course we called Mom to ask for recipes and advice. We went to our family church on Sundays and then to Momʼs for Sunday lunch. I couldnʼt
have imagined my life without my sister E or my Mom.

Then my sister E married and moved away. A huge loss for me. A huge grief that no one wanted to hear about or
acknowledge. “You should be happy for your sister!” I couldnʼt get past my own devastating loss and aloneness. Bereft.
And shouldering my sorrow all alone.

I was lonely my whole life. I was lonely in girlhood, lonely as a teen, lonely as a young professional, lonely as an older
professional. But at least Mom loved me. At least I could always go home for holidays. I followed the family rules and the church rules, and I was accepted by my family and my church.

Cloistered in a narrow belief system with strict policies and self-contained social events, it took me decades to find out
that there are lesbians in the world and always have been. After I first read about lesbians in a news article, I began
to read everything I could find about them, about us, for I found all the descriptions described me. 

I love women. The people I feel closest to and want to spend time with are women. The people I fall in love with are women.

It was time for me to stop agreeing to pretend to be someone Iʼm not, to stop being so polite, to stop trying to please the church and my mom. It was time for me to find out more about “my people,” lesbians, by reading, and then by meeting some. I found they are intelligent, fun, witty, brave, independent, loving people, and they accepted me without any requirements, no rules and regulations, in fact, imperfections.

How would my mom take it, hearing my news? She sat with a frozen stone face when I told her Iʼm lesbian and asked,
“Are you sure?” She was polite for some years. All the family members were polite. She pretended it wasnʼt true. They all
pretended it wasnʼt true. I went home for holidays. We cooked together and cleaned up together. We talked about the
food, not about our lives. But of course, we had never talked about our lives. It wasnʼt allowed. Polite listening but no
honest sharing was the policy.

Do I miss them? Itʼs the biggest grief of my life. Five years now. No communication. I always knew, instinctively, in my gut, it would be like this, even as a little girl. If you donʼt follow the rules, you canʼt be in the family. Donʼt upset Mom. Donʼt cross her. The silent treatment I had endured in eighth grade let me know that there are consequences for disobedience and for non-conformity.

I feel sorry for people when they tell me their moms are dying or have died. I do. That is a very big loss and leaves a
gaping hole. An important source of love is gone. My mom is still alive. My sisters, too. And they canʼt love me as I am. They donʼt like lesbians just as a general principle. Not that they even associate with any. They havenʼt ever
actually talked to a lesbian. Because they wouldn’t. They couldn’t. They vehemently don’t want anyone to be
lesbian. Itʼs just wrong to be lesbian.

See? Sigh.

So they donʼt love me. It hurts me that I have lost their love. When I think about them, aching for a love that is dead and
gone, my insides sob and wail. Itʼs a huge loss of love. Thatʼs my past. And I am not there. Every day I have to
remember to choose to live in the present.

Actually, I have a great present. I am having the life of my dreams. Iʼm retired. I live in a gorgeous place. I have
a circle of friends. I read, study, travel, garden, sing, make art, make noise, make messes, and then clean them up. I
make myself happy doing what I love and being with those whom I love.

There are many people who used to be in my life and arenʼt any more, and I miss them. But the hardest loss of all was
when my mom stopped loving me. Sheʼs still alive at 95, holding fiercely to her beliefs and her perfection. I wish I could say, “Donʼt worry about me. Iʼll find another special love.” But sometimes I wonder. I falter. Then I take a deep breath and try again. I give friendly greetings to people I see. I see how nature shows me that beauty is all around. 

What makes me happy every day is that at last I am free to be myself, just as I am, maybe not perfect, but authentic and very, very brave.

Kath Ellen is enjoying an active retirement in Eugene, Oregon

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