After my mother died, I was talking to one of my aunts and she said, "I knew what went on in your house and I did nothing." What went on in my house? My mother drank too much, had too little patience and left me to care for myself much of the time. I wanted to tell her that it wasn't that bad but I've come to understand that I'm not the best judge of that anymore as time and compassion have blurred my memories. I looked at my aunt, the guilt visible on her face and shrugged, "There was nothing you could have done." I believe that but believe more strongly that there is no point in dwelling on the past. We can't change it. We can only make peace with it. My aunt then said, "I'll never understand how, after everything she did, you loved her so fiercely." I gave the only answer I had at the time, "I forgave her." I've spent years trying to understand why I loved her so much, why I still consider her to be one of my heroes. People have asked me how I forgave her for the pain she caused and I could never articulate the why or the how of that forgiveness.
When I went to Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, Galit and I had hours and hours in the car and nothing to do but talk. We talked about parenting and family, past and present, compassion and forgiveness. And as the hours went by and the conversation wandered, I realized that I separated my mother from the woman she was. She may not have been a great mother but she was an incredible woman.
She grew up poor and what little her family was able to accumulate was washed away in a flood in 1952. She knew a level of economic hardship that, fortunately, I have never known. Her father was sadistically abusive and she survived by fighting back. She was smart and practical and left home and made her own life. She prided herself on her independence and raised us without much assistance from our fathers. She couldn't go to college but worked harder than anyone I have known and retired at 50. She was pro-choice and a feminist and an old school labor Democrat. She raised me to value education and to focus on my studies rather than worrying about boys. And yes, we laughed about that bit about boys years later when she said I might have taken her too literally. Beyond all that, she was one of the most charming people I've ever met. She could draw you in with a story and leave your ribs hurting from laughter. You would have loved her. I know I did.
So this is an important part of the puzzle of my past and the peace I made with my mother. She was not just my mother. She was so much more. Somehow, I knew that.
My mother has been gone 8 years now and this would have been her 80th birthday. Today, I'm telling stories and I hope to throw my head back in laughter at least once in her honor. And I will parent and live and love like the strong woman she raised me to be. And maybe the lasting lesson from all of this is that we are not just mothers, we are more. So much more.