I have marathon telephone calls with my mom every time we speak. Three or four hours is not unusual, so much so that I schedule time for them so that I don’t cut the call short.
My mother didn’t find her voice until she reached the ripe old age of fifty. If I remember correctly her first words were FUCK YOU, or maybe it was “mell of a hess.” She has this thing about not actually using the words, hell, anything derogatory with “god” in it, or christ. I believe she’s decided that it’s ok to curse mildly in moderation but not to blaspheme at the same time. Language substitutions or letter rearrangements are perfectly acceptable in order to get your point across clearly without any unnecessary fuss. It’s almost as if she curses in code. This peculiarity is one of the things that I love most; partially because I know the code, but mostly because I find it endearing that she’s found her voice at all and I’m proud of her efforts.
My mother was the petite, shy, pretty girl in small town nowhere West Virginia in the 1960’s. The daughter of the high school janitor and a stay at home mom with four siblings, most of them older. She was, for much of her adult life, the epitome of a shrinking violet, or in her case iris. This early training taught her to keep her head down, keep her thoughts to herself, and swallow her heart and pride when the occasion required it of her. Which in my totally biased opinion was far too frequent.
My mother maintains two sacred loves; myself and my grandmother, and woe to the one who threatened either of us in her presence. This calm, quiet, door-mouse of a woman transformed into the biggest, scariest, determined mother bear when she felt we needed protection or advocacy on our behalf. This change in personality was lightening fast and lethal, especially when dealing with doctors or health professionals who didn’t give us the time of day, or adequate consideration. Unfortunately this determined fierceness only applied to the two of us, and never to herself.
My mother learned much too late in life to protect herself with that same determination that she’d shown me. The same woman who literally kicked me outside to fight my own battles, stood behind the door holding her breath, praying that she would make me into a tougher and stronger woman than she knew herself to be. Forming me into a woman capable of being independent and taking care of myself became her primary life goal. The lesson of “do as I say, not as I do” was repeated by both of my parents much to my confusion of the glaring contradictions this approach posed.
When my grandmother died, my mother discovered her early in the morning tucked in her bed as if sleeping peacefully. During the night my grandmother had experienced the third and final stroke that she had patiently waited for. In the months leading to her death, she had told me that she didn’t have much time left, and to be strong; that my strength would be needed. I didn’t understand her warning at the time, in fact I dismissed the possibility completely as the ramblings of an old tired mind.
That morning in my grandmothers bedroom something in my mother snapped. She collapsed. Her ability to work, to function, to live, failed her. She became frail and withdrawn and mortally injured from a wound buried deep inside. The source of her inner strength had died.
Several months later, by gradual degree, I observed changes in my mothers personality that initially felt odd, foreign and cold. I realized much later that she was teaching herself to be assertive, and not having acquired or practiced the skill, her early attempts were clumsy and severe. An awakening of self slowly arose from deep within the ashes of her soul. In time her previously lifeless eyes glowed with brilliant clear blue iris’s, the color of water, of the summer sky, and of the flower that she was named after. It took her fifty years to find her voice, but now that she has it, watch out! While still introverted, shy, and reserved, she may tell you exactly what she thinks and feels.
The best part is that she now speaks in sentences that begin with “I”, which is really her code for the formal declaration of “I am.”
I’m here listening mom, you just keep talking.