Mother Dearest [Non-Fiction]

A scrap of paper in my mother’s handwriting fell from between the pages of a yellowed hardcover as I boxed up decades of Book of the Month Club selections for Goodwill. Despite Mom’s protest that she’d be moved into assisted living over her dead body, the day had arrived. The fallen note was a scrawled rant about my father. By the time I finished the first shelf, ending with books by Michael Crichton, I’d found over a dozen diatribes against Dad, his family, and my mother’s own sister and brothers. A few were self-pitying: So-and-so doesn’t listen to (or understand or appreciate) me. Most were critical: So-and-so isn’t as smart (or kind or attractive) as everyone thinks. None were as cruel as the things I’d heard my mother say about these people, but who knew what I’d find by the time I reached Bernard Malamud, let alone Herman Wouk.

There must have been hundreds of grievances tucked into those books. After discovering that first batch, however, I shook them out and threw them away, unread. It felt like an invasion of privacy, although Mom likely intended, consciously or not, for them to be found. I may have been trying to protect the living and the dead, or afraid I’d find one about me, but I don’t recall thinking that at the time. Rather, I didn’t want to carry around forever a picture of Mom writing these nasty notes. Which is odd, because my image of my mother was already badly tarnished, not to mention befuddled. Then 58, I still struggled to figure out why she lied, disliked women so much, and had a sense of entitlement. Above all, I couldn’t fathom why she was so mean.


Not that there wasn’t also a lot to admire. Bright and determined, Mom worked by day and finished college at night during the Depression. While raising two kids, often as the sole breadwinner, she made time to volunteer at the hospital and served as the den mother for my brother Steve’s Cub Scout troop. Despite our financial troubles, she scraped together money for my piano and ballet lessons. Yet she was also petty and vindictive, especially toward the family. As Steve said on the fifth anniversary of her death, at age 97, “She had a hard life and a hard death. And she was a bitch.” I thought enough time had passed to mellow his anger. I was wrong.

A decade after finding the hidden notes, I believe I finally have a clue about what made Mom who she was. Recently, our community was stunned by the death of a five-year-old girl who’d bounded into the street while walking home from a Rosh Hashanah party with her parents, brother, and sister. It was dusk and the driver of the car, cresting the hill, didn’t see the child. The following week, as I tried to pray during Yom Kippur services, the words stuck in my throat like a cat’s hairball. I didn’t know the family (they belonged to the “other” synagogue), yet their tragedy felt like it belonged to me. Hours later, I finally made the connection with my mother.

Thirty-five years before I was born, another little girl, who would have become my Aunt Celia, had chased a ball into the street on the Lower East Side and been fatally hit by a horse-drawn cart. She’d recently arrived in America from Austria, along with my grandmother and two older brothers. My grandmother, reunited with my grandfather, who’d come two years earlier, was already pregnant with my mother at the time of the accident. Studies in behavioral and neuroscience prove that the uterine hormonal bath in which my mother swam, and the depressed household into which she was born, would have profoundly affected her character. Most significantly, my grandmother would have been a wreck and emotionally unavailable to her.

I’m a developmental psychologist. I know or should have known this long ago. Why the insight did not arrive until I was just shy of 68 is beyond me. Sometimes I fail what my statistics professor called the Inter-Ocular Trauma Test (IOTT). The truth doesn’t hit me between the eyes. When I finally realized that it was this association that prevented me from praying, the blockage cleared. However, I also felt guilty for turning another family’s sorrow into my own story. There is a fine line between empathy and narcissism, and I risked crossing it. Worse, along with the bad memories about my mother, I also remembered outrageously funny ones, ill-suited to mourning.

Mother Dearest

I don’t recall how old I was when my mother Kate told me about her dead sister. There were no further details because, according to her, mentioning Celia was forbidden after the funeral. Just hearing the name made my grandmother Mindel faint. I say “according to her,” because I learned, although not until my forties, that Mom was a chronic liar. As I said, I’ve been known to fail the IOTT. Thankfully, I pride myself on being a lifelong learner, which gives me a perpetual second chance to notice what I’ve overlooked before.

Only blinders befitting a solar eclipse could have allowed me to miss Mom’s whoppers. Some were innocuous, but many were vicious. Among the latter were that an adulterous aunt had contracted a venereal disease and sought my mother’s advice. That I swallowed this tale is hard to believe. The aunt was so Orthodox that she rarely left home without my uncle. Also, Mom was an unlikely source of sexual expertise. Pressed by her children, she refused to admit that “screw” referred to anything other than hardware. She forbade me to use tampons because they would “tip” my womb, a fate she ascribed to another aunt of mine. I had to hide my stash at a friend’s house.

How could I have remained so ignorant of my mother’s compulsive lying? I wasn’t naive or gullible; perhaps I just liked a good story. Whatever the reason, it was my brother, incredulous at my myopia, who finally clued me in. We were in his kitchen the weekend of his younger son’s bar mitzvah. My nephew had been named for our father’s father, prompting this conversation:

“I still can’t picture Dad beating up his father and spending a night in jail,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” My brother frowned, perplexed.

“Didn’t Mom tell you about that?” I was equally puzzled. He couldn’t have forgotten.

Steve gave me his older-brother-with-a-dumb-little-sister look.

“You do know that Dad’s mother had two abortions between each of her three children?”

Now Steve regarded me as if I were hallucinating.

“How about that Dad, after his own traumatic upbringing, loved Mom’s mother so much that he was the one who insisted Mindel come to live with us?”

A mixture of pity and alarm crossed by brother’s face.

I tried something less inflammatory. “Mom never got her teaching license because she was half an inch too short to pass the five-foot height requirement. True or false?”

“Cockamamie bullshit!” Steve offered me something stronger than coffee to drink.

The following week I easily debunked Mom’s height claim by calling the historian of the New York City Department of Education. I knew Steve was right about the others without having to contact any of my relatives. Facts forced me to erase decades of lore I’d believed about myself and my own history. I was bereft. In compensation, I acquired respect for a well-told invention, although I should clarify that Mom was not technically a liar. I think she believed what she said once the words were out of her mouth. I, by contrast, usually recognize fiction for what it is. Moreover, I write stories to reveal a universal truth. Figuring out why my mother lied would let me understand a truth about her, and perhaps others whose childhoods were colored by tragedy.

Celia’s story, if not the hush-hush surrounding it, appears to be one of my mother’s rare true tales. Perhaps  that’s because Mom harbored no conscious sense of having been wronged by the dead girl. The story was confirmed by my mother’s younger sister, a more trustworthy source. Neither she nor their other siblings appeared to have contracted Mom’s affliction, leaving me at a further loss to explain the reason behind her mendacity, as well as her other bizarre behavior.

Not all of Mom’s lies were derogatory. Some simply recast her life as she wished it to be. This was especially true when she spoke of my grandfather David, who seems to have stepped in where my grandmother failed. Mom adored, even revered, him, and never got over his sudden death from stomach cancer when she was 18. She claimed, with no hint of humility, to be his favorite child, the one who shared his love of books, music, and art. “High culture” she called it. While the details are questionable, I have no doubt that he played a more significant role in Mom’s upbringing than her mother. Grandma Mindel would have not only been stricken with grief, but simultaneously caring for her older sons, readjusting to marriage, learning a new language in a strange land, and for the first time in her life, coping with poverty. She and her husband had been well-to-do landowners and hops growers in Europe until a fire of unknown and perhaps anti-Semitic origin, wiped them out and forced them to migrate. My grandfather found work as a presser in a sweatshop; my grandmother took in washing and cooked for other men, who like my grandfather, had preceded their wives and children across the ocean.

Mom described her father as a happy soul with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and an apple in his pocket for every neighborhood child as well as his own. Only for my mother, however, would he polish the apple before handing it over. My image of this grandfather is neither twinkly nor kind. There was one photo of him in our house, a framed professional portrait of a stern and narrow-eyed man, with a long-beard and side locks, in other words, a generic Orthodox Jew.

Perhaps it took me so long to realize that my grandmother’s distance must have damaged my mother because the Mindel I knew growing up was just the opposite. If Mom’s happy father was to me a dour portrait, her harried mother was in my eyes a patient and loving bubbe. She lived with us, helping to raise my brother and me while Mom, unlike most women of the post-war generation, went to work. Grandma Mindel was my emotional anchor, which must have pissed the hell out of my mother. Her sister told me that whenever Mindel slipped and referred to Steve and me as her own children, Mom virtually banished my grandmother from our presence. Of course, with five of us living in a four-room apartment, Mindel couldn’t go far or disappear for long. She was soon beckoned from her darkened corner to babysit again.

My mother’s fierce competitiveness with women is easier to explain, although, as with her lying, I can’t account for its venom. She learned early that being female was hazardous, while the favor of males could be turned to her advantage. That made other women a threat. I was oblivious to this trait too until my brother once again opened my eyes. My Mom’s sister had recently joined my parents in Florida, moving into a condo several doors down from theirs. I mentioned to my brother that I was glad because Mom didn’t socialize much with the other women in their retirement community and she and my Aunt Fae had always been inseparable.

“Yeah,” Steve snorted, “now Mom can compare herself to her sister up close instead of worrying what Fae is doing up in New York.”

Now it was my turn to ask what he was talking about.

“I can’t believe you don’t see how competitive Mom is with Fae.”

“Huh?” I shook my head.

“And with you,” my brother added.

A light flickered on. My mother had always resented my aunt for marrying a man more successful, not to mention more dashing, than my father, and for having twice as many children. She never failed to point out that her legs were nicer than Fae’s and that my aunt “struggled with a weight problem” all her life. Fae was also a poor student, hot tempered, and a terrible driver.

As for me, Mom praised my slimness while plying me with Raisinettes and Mallomars. Was my own mother trying to fatten me up, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel? Then, when I inevitably put on the pounds, she pitied me for having inherited my Dad’s “sluggish” metabolism instead of her speedy one. She barely acknowledged my doctorate, which outshone her hard-earned bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, she basked in the reflected glory of my brother’s Ph.D., proof that she’d raised a brilliant son.

Mom also claimed credit for helping to raise the brother born three years after her. She took pride in having encouraged his studies and “developing his mind.” In fact, other than her father, this brother was the only immediate relative about whom Mom spoke positively. They were the two middle children, followed three years later by boy and girl twins. Alas, this favored brother subsequently fell out of favor too for abandoning high school to marry young, which also made Mom the primary support for her widowed mother. His bride was my aunt’s best friend, and so my mother also blamed her sister for the untimely marriage. She punished the young wife with the tipped womb story. That this woman bore three children with no apparent difficulty should have, but didn’t, aroused my suspicion. Nonetheless, I was taken aback when her death from uterine cancer decades later elicited a prim “I told you so” jerk of the head from my mother.

The woman Mom truly hated, however, was her mother-in-law, who had dibs on Dad’s loyalty. My father had been his mother’s substitute husband whenever the real one disappeared. She also detested my father’s brother for choosing a pretty young bride when he came home from the war, a woman who incidentally got along fine with her mother-in-law, and for being a better businessman than my father. Mom punished that uncle by typing a letter, supposedly from Dad, claiming that his cardiologist had ordered him to cease and desist all contact with his brother to prevent another, and surely fatal, heart attack. This is the same uncle for whose wife my mother invented the affair and venereal disease. I never asked Mom if my uncle remained clueless or was in turn infected by my aunt, nor am I sure which outcome would have pleased her more.

Our mother doted on my brother, earning me membership in the “society of siblings of only children,” and hated his wife for stealing him. When my brother and sister-in-law had two boys, she tried to steal my younger nephew. During a visit with my folks, he’d complained, like any normal nine-year-old, that his older brother picked on him and his parents didn’t come to his defense. My mother replied, “That’s because your parents never wanted you.” She then invited him to confide in her, promising she would be a better mother to him than his own. Instead, he confided in his parents when he got back home. Hence my brother’s unabated anger toward her.

When my daughter was growing up, I felt bad that Mom didn’t lavish as much attention on her as she did on her grandsons. In hindsight, she was better off. Certainly she was safer. I suppose the same logic applies to me. Not that my mother didn’t keep tabs on me, but she did it by remote control. Guilt was the invisible current that connected me to her. My brother she hovered over in the manner of today’s helicopter parent. Her concern was less about his well being, though, than guaranteeing her own reputation. My animosity toward her pales compared to his, and although my brother’s is justified, I resist his unyielding rejection of her. I don’t want to drag befuddlement and anger with me to the grave. Adult children dwell on the damage done to them by their parents, but rarely do we consider the injustices inflicted upon them during their own childhoods. Yet doing so seems necessary in order to grow up, and let go.

My mother’s fixation with men extended to my two husbands. She flirted with them and when both marriages ended, claimed her loss was greater than mine. When I announced my first divorce, her response was a plaintive “Oh, but I love him.” Months earlier I’d told her that he was abusive. Instead of expressing concern, she’d chosen that moment to reveal that my father’s father had beaten his mother (thus Dad’s night in jail, for defending her), adding that the woman “deserved it.” Did she think I did too? Her response to my other divorce was a disgusted, “I suppose you know what you’re doing,” followed by glowing remarks about the special affection she shared with my second spouse and regret that I was now depriving her of that attention.

I can list more grievances, some worse, some funnier. In elementary school, she bought me dowdy clothes, navy and maroon woolens, when other girls wore flouncy pastels. Perhaps it was her competitive spirit; she didn’t want me to look too good. In junior high, she offered me a nose job I never asked for, or thought I needed until she said so. In high school, Mom accused me of causing my father’s heart attack because I was so rebellious. A puzzling accusation given that I was an honor student and a Junior Red Cross volunteer. True I smoked cigarettes, but my father smoked stinky cigars. In college, she complained that I wore sweatshirts instead of more stylish clothes (there was no pleasing her), and expressed backhanded jealousy rather than worry when my weight dropped dangerously low (“I wish I could be that thin but my breasts are too large”). In graduate school, when I dated a Japanese man, Mom accused me of trying to again kill my father. Actually, she didn’t refer to Tom’s race, only to his not being Jewish. I doubt Dad cared either way, but attributing her feelings to my father, like the forged letters she wrote his siblings, gave my mother what we today call deniability. Likewise, she accused me of being so selfish when I moved her into an assisted living facility that my father was “turning over in his grave.”

Along with Mom’s need to prove she was better than others came a sense of entitlement. Despite our family’s economic straits, my mother was an impulsive and extravagant spender. She splurged on a pair of antique candelabrum for the piano and on an impractically pale and plush living room carpet that she then protected with plastic runners. The cost, more than the affront to his taste, made my poor father apoplectic. After he died and I took over Mom’s meager finances, her irresponsible spending distressed me too. Along with her lifelong inability to differentiate between reality and fiction, age also blurred the line between need and want. One Sunday night, Mom decided that she absolutely needed a bottle of over-the-counter eye drops to supplement her regular glaucoma medicine. The cost, if she’d waited until the next day for my aunt to go to the drugstore, would have been $5. Instead the emergency weekend delivery (“Make that two bottles of Genteal, plus a large tube of Polygrip and a twelve-pack of toilet paper”) was nearly $250.

My father’s sister once described Mom as having a sense of entitlement. Although that aunt had ample reason to disparage my mother — she too had received a letter from my “father” demanding that they cut off all contact under his doctor’s orders — I think she spoke the truth. The question for me is why. My best explanation is that having been deprived of the mother-love that all children deserve, Mom felt that the world owed her. Big time.

After my aha moment about the traumatic timing of my mother’s birth, I looked up the research about how the death of a sibling affects the other children in a family. A high percentage have emotional and behavioral disturbances, especially low self-esteem. They perceive themselves as inferior to the dead child. Perhaps that insecurity was what made Mom so competitive.

Then I remembered an incident in the early 1990s when a couple conceived a child to be a bone marrow donor for their 16-year-old daughter afflicted with a rare form of leukemia. Neither the parents nor an older brother were a match. The chances of success were slim. The mother was 42, the father had to have a vasectomy reversed, and the genetic odds were one in four. Nevertheless, in the seventh month of pregnancy, tests determined that everything had aligned and two months later a baby girl who was dubbed a “biological supply vehicle” was born. A quarter century later, the older daughter was healthy and her younger sister claimed she was glad to be part of a wonderful family. She reasoned that if her big sister hadn’t been sick, she wouldn’t exist.

This story had a happy ending, but what if the baby hadn’t been a match? Would she have been loved as much or seen as a disappointment, a failure rather than a savior? These days, there is talk of using cloning to replace a lost pet or even a child, as if the next iteration, genetically the same but raised in a different environment, will be identical to the original. But can the new life ever be a replacement for the one that was lost? Or will it instead be a sad reminder?

What accounts for the supposed difference between my grandmother and grandfather’s ability to be an attentive parent to my mother? It’s hard for me to judge, never having met my grandfather. But perhaps for Grandpa David, Kate was a welcome replacement, while for Grandma Mindel, she would never be anything but a painful reminder of her grievous loss.

After the little girl in our community was run down, the newspaper printed a photo of the exuberant towhead. I picture my unknown aunt as a lively child too. My mother, there’s no other word for it, was humorless. I don’t mean that she was sour or grimaced all the time, but she had no sense of humor. Wit or irony never sprang from her lips. She didn’t get most jokes, even clean ones, although she knew enough to smile politely at them, particularly those narrated by a man. It’s as if the sorrow that infused my grandparents’ household after Celia’s death infected my mother and robbed her of a child’ natural joy and trust. Reality was not a good place for her.

Of course, my insight about Mom being the child born after the loss of a sibling can’t fully explain her hurtful behavior. Character is too complex, a delicate weave of genetics and environment, to be interpreted that easily. Even if her birth so close on the heels of Celia’s death helps to account for who my mother is, I have no justification for why this trauma found such particular expression in her. Nor have I scoured the child development literature for answers. I prefer to take my own journey, unearthing memories and epiphanies along the way. I don’t want to reduce my mother to one explanation, nor do I expect one big truth to hit me between the eyes.

Written by Ann S. Epstein – Ann Arbor, Michigan

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