It’s almost Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about my mother June, who inspired my forthcoming book, “Wild Ideas: Creativity from the Inside Out.” This year marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of her untimely death at the age of fifty-four. I offer this edited version of a longer essay written several years after her death.
I have almost no concrete recollections of my mother. What I have are flashing impressions, a kaleidoscope of emotional memories with no beginning or end. What I do remember is how I felt about her as a child—I hated her. I hated her for burdening me with her defects, for humiliating me by allowing her terrible vulnerabilities to be visible to the world, and for letting me down again and again and again until I learned to rely on no one but myself.
I don’t remember when I consciously stopped loving her, when my anguish turned to disgust and finally overwhelmed and hardened my heart, when my longing for her and everything else in me that reminded me of her—including my own creativity—was shut away in some dark and unspeakable place.
For much of my life, I tried to make some sort of sense out of my mother’s life. This is what I know . . .
My mother was once a beautiful, spirited, and fun-loving young woman. Gifted with an operatic voice and the soulfulness of a blues singer, I romanticized her vocal artistry as a blend of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday. As a child, she danced in a Stravinsky ballet; following one notable performance, Stravinsky himself encouraged her to keep dancing. . . .
My parents celebrated the end of the war by getting married. Like a lot of woman of her generation, my mother went to work in order to help my father through medical school. In her spare time she sang to patients at the VA hospital. In rare moments of vulnerability, my father’s eyes would flood with tears whenever he spoke about the love they once shared and the life they once lived—a life full of friends, music, and pleasure taken in small things.
About six months before I was born, my mother and father left the bustling, cosmopolitan city of San Francisco to live in a modest postwar neighborhood in west Los Angeles—and that’s when things began to change.
With my father’s frequent absences due to the relentless demands of his medical training, my mother found herself alone and struggling to cope with the responsibilities of a new baby. In that quiet isolation her private demons took hold and, little by little, she began to lose herself.
By the time my sister was born two and a half years later, my mother had already had the first of what would eventually be three nervous breakdowns. She waged a heroic struggle just to get out of bed each day. My childhood impressions are of a terribly overweight woman, staggering, unkempt, needy, retreating into the bedroom with bottles of prescription medications, cigarettes, and a book. She could rarely be counted on for even the most basic responsibilities like changing diapers, cooking dinner, or remembering to pick my sister and me up from school.
Chaos reigned in the absence of predictable rituals.
Every so often, my mother tried to pull herself together in a valiant effort to rise above herself. At such times, a light within her would shine and I caught a glimpse of the vibrant woman I had heard so much about. And despite myself, I would feel some faint hope blow through me like the forgotten scent of a favorite perfume.
During her “good periods” there were birthday parties, bedtime stories, lullabies and laughter. We went to the pony rides and she made sour cream pancakes for breakfast and spareribs for dinner and the oven didn’t catch on fire.
But these periods never lasted for very long. The pressures of living were simply too much for my mother, who was so internally depleted and in need of a kind of reassurance no one had the patience or capacity to give her. Although she sought help from psychiatrists and endured shock treatments, cycles of disease and remission continued until one day she passed out in bed with a burning cigarette . . .
Even after the disaster of that fire we all still wanted to believe we could try again. It was if all the remodeling and refurbishing could somehow rub off onto our family and we could become, like our house, new again. If our house could be reclaimed from the ashes, then perhaps our family could be too.
A month later my father found a cigarette burn on the new couch. This incident was significant in that it became the final straw—we all had to admit it was never going to get better. Facing limited options in those days, my father had her committed. Eventually, she was released to a halfway house.
She never returned home. . . .
There was much speculation in my family about the reasons for my mother’s behavior. In the face of her deteriorating condition, assigning blame was one of the ways my family coped with pervasive feelings of guilt and helplessness.
Throughout my childhood, I heard various stories about my grandmother’s craziness. How she wouldn’t touch my mother for fear of catching germs. How she dressed my mother in rags. How, after her parents’ divorce, my mother lived in hotels with her own incompetent mother, never learning to do anything for herself.
Perhaps because compassion requires distance and certainty of surviving, these explanations led not to understanding and empathy, but to more judgments and fault-finding. My mother’s behavior, regardless of the reasons, became the scapegoat for the failure of all our lives. Consciously, none of us had to be responsible for our own shortcomings and, secretly, we all blamed ourselves for the failure of our family.
Almost a decade would pass before I saw my mother again. I had just finished my first year of college. I was eighteen and disillusioned—and so desperate I actually called my mother for help. By that time, she was able to manage her life in a small, one-bedroom apartment while working as the Lancôme cosmetics rep at Robinson’s Department Store.
At one point, I spent three months sleeping on her couch while struggling to recover my own bearings. Like many sensitive people, my mother had an intuitive wisdom about life. She was never able to help herself, but she often had the ability to say just the right thing to me.
But there were also things that never got said. Even though I continued to see her more often, I dared not get too close. Always, I felt the lurking fear that her pain would reach out and grab me. . . .
The year following my mother’s death I watched myself fall helplessly in-love with an alcoholic-artist. Unable to resist the relationship—even against my better judgment—I finally admitted I needed help. It was the beginning of a real healing with my mother.
I had spent so may years trying to distance myself from my mother’s craziness that one of the hardest things I ever had to feel was how much I loved her. I vividly recall the day when the dam that held back all my deep longing and love for her finally burst: Big tears spilling out and over and down my face, rushing forward in great sobs of uncontrollable loss and love—and forgiveness for us both.
Forgiveness for my beautiful mother, who tried, but could never find a way to mend. And for myself—for never finding a way to help her, and especially for punishing her for so long with my anger.
With my release from the prison my anger had become came the missing pieces of myself—the ones that I needed to make my own life work. With some incredibly hard work, I learned to do what my mother could not: I learned to experience the pain without collapsing and to use it as a source of creative expression. Finding my own way through the darkness has enabled me to help others in ways that I could not help her.
Perhaps more than anything else, it was my mother’s betrayal of her own potential that made the most lasting impression on me. She possessed a powerful talent but lacked the internal resources to develop it or use it. Ultimately, what was in her turned against her. I felt determined that her tragic fate would not become my own. In that, her life has not been wasted for she has inspired me to persevere.
At some level, I will always miss the mothering my mother was unable to provide. But I no longer imagine how different my life would have been if only she had been stronger. Acceptance has replaced the ache and rage and longing for what can never be.
Finally, I feel an inexplicable connection with her beyond the darkness we shared. I know that whatever is graceful, original, and expressive in me, whatever depth and inner beauty I possess—all that is her gift to me. And at long last I can simply say, I loved my Mother.