Discover more from gratitude mojo community
Love and wounds
On this day when we celebrate our mothers and all the women who mothered us along the way, it’s easy to gloss over the many wounds left behind from that first relationship: wounds of abandonment, neglect, or trauma, plus the ache of mothers lost or mother’s love never quite received. For many, this is a day of joyful celebration and memories; for others a touchstone anniversary of painful memories. May the day bring all of you both joy and healing in whatever measure your heart can accept.
This post is reprinted from ten years ago as I was trying to understand what went wrong in my own mother-daughter relationship. As the years go by and I soften, my heart aches for the young woman who became a mother all too soon and for all the unasked questions I would like to be able to ask her now. It is only recently that I realized the picture above was taken when she was about 26, barely begun on her life journey, yet already a mother of an eight-year old daughter, caught in a web that neither of us understood and which failed to nourish either of us.
Twenty-one shots fired into the drizzly morning. The veterans in dress uniform paid honor to my mother's military service, not knowing that her time in the Women's Army Corps was cut short after two months when they discovered that she was only sixteen and sent her home. Witnesses at the graveyard were few … my step-father, two cousins, the overly effusive funeral director, and me, the only child, the one who got mixed up in the hospital, the one who didn’t inherit the red hair or freckles, the one who didn't fit into the preconceived notions of daughterhood.
For years, I had wondered if I would cry when this time came. Two of my cousins had traveled across country to be there and they told stories about how much they loved Aunt Lucille. As they wept at the graveside, I stood dry-eyed behind them repressing the impulse to tell them how much each of them had annoyed my mother. I stood there not feeling grief or pain or even loss as this pivotal person in my life was ritually sent on her way. I felt some angst about what might have been, but I knew my parents had done the best they could. I had worked out my feelings toward her. Or, had I?
Five years later, at a writer's conference in Santa Barbara, a workshop leader is talking about screenplay structure, drawing pictures of story arcs and the weaving together of plot and character development. She plays a clip from "It's a Wonderful Life," a movie I've seen dozens of times. The scene is George's lowest moment, when he yells at those he loves and believes that all is lost. Suddenly, I am weeping and my chest is vice-gripped with pain.
The scene changes and George is in his living room after seeing the world as it would have been without him. He is ecstatic even before the townspeople surround him with love and the cash that solves his problem. My tears and pain gain momentum; I am thankful I'm in the back of the room. This wave of grief puzzles me and I try to find its source. The only thing that comes is: mother.
Jung says the story of a life begins somewhere at a particular point where memory begins. My earliest memory, at about three, was waking up in a car alone in the dark. I now know that my parents must have stopped on our way home at a neighbor's where they bought milk. I am not aware of it then, however, so I decide that they must have been eaten by a bear. I wonder who I will live with now. I am not frightened, I know someone will take care of me, I just have to decide who it will be.
Then my parents return and I tell them I was frightened because, somehow, I know I should have been. I wasn't though, if anything, I remember feeling anticipation. I was on the brink of a new direction, I could see another path winding off into the distance. I didn't get to follow it that night but I always knew it was there waiting for me. Somewhere out there, my people were waiting. Years later, it appears that, by age three, I was already disconnected from my family, willing to move on to another place. I was unbonded, looking for my real life.
Thus, my story was born, told and retold through the years in a hundred ways. Now I recognize this tale as the archetype of the abandoned child. However, as Leonard says, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." Feeling abandoned is a crack in my life but that was how the light got in, making me independent, self-reliant and strong. I left home as soon as possible and, by keeping several states between my past and my present, I gradually learned to love myself, grieve for my abandoned child, and, eventually, to find my place in the world.
Perhaps the return to grief brought forth by that perennial Christmas story was for that abandoned child, but maybe it was also for my too-young mother, a wounded child who had her dreams stolen before she even knew she had the right to have some. Her life story made mine look like the Brady Bunch. She left my birth father after only a few months of marriage and found herself unemployed, undereducated and with an infant who cried continuously because her mother's breast milk was not providing sufficient nourishment.
While I was barely a toddler, my mother covered over her wound by marrying a man who adored her but whose love she could never fully accept or trust. In her last months, lost in deepening dementia, she repeated the same question over and over as fast as the words could come out to anyone who came near her, but most of all to my father, "Do you love me? And, no matter how often we said “yes,” she continued: Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?"
Even before she began to verbalize that river of pain and confusion, her desperate, last question wrapped around her life like barbed wire, wounding everyone who came close and keeping the very people who might have cared for her at a distance. In an ideal world, together we might have healed our karmic wounds. In the real world, we nursed those wounds, separate and alone.
All of this makes me think about the great scheme of things. We seem to be thrown together in a way guaranteed to create wounds, shaken up in the great bag of life with the very ingredients (people and happenstance) that tear at our hearts and then offer healing for the wounds. It's all there … thorns and bandaids … with no signs that say, "Try this; it will make you feel better," no instruction booklet included. Was that an oversight?
The other night I listened to a reincarnated Buddhist master talking about the path of the bodhisattva which, as I understand it, includes a vow to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. Perhaps that's the instruction manual, period. In this time when purpose and meaning seem to be so illusive, maybe that's all we need to know. Perhaps all of us are here simply to learn to love, care for, and reduce the suffering of ourselves and our fellow travelers. Ram Dass says it so much more eloquently: “We’re all just walking each other home.”
There are a lot of ways of doing this, so it probably doesn't matter which form we choose as long as the intent to help others is part of it. Of course, that still doesn't explain why we've been thrown into a world that guarantees that we will be wounded but does not guarantee that we will be healed. Maybe we've chosen to come to this theme park where we can either ride the roller coaster screaming and shouting in fear all the way until we stagger off rubber-legged and delighted, or walk about as an amused but unengaged sightseer until the park closes and we go home to sleep.
That was from ten years ago. I never became a mother; I didn’t feel competent to take on such an important role. If there’s another go-round and I do decide to take on that challenge, I hope I’m as wise as Picasso’s mother. He is quoted as saying:
"When I was a child, my mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier, you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll be the pope.' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso." -- Pablo Picasso
The wisest advice I have for this day when we celebrate our mothers is … if she is still alive … ask her the questions you will want to know the answers to after she’s gone. It could be a gift to both of you.
Thank you for reading gratitude mojo. We love your “hearts” and please feel free to share this post if you think any of your friends and family would like it.
And if you would like to see other Gratitude Mojo posts, click here:
In good times and challenging ones, practicing gratitude helps us recognize the good things in our lives and build resilience for the challenges that come our way. Gratitude journaling is one of the best ways to better understand yourself and deepen your practice of gratitude.
Any journal will do … however, here are two we are biased toward:
Gratitude Miracles, a 52-week journal filled with inspiring quotes and the science behind 13 amazing benefits of gratitude. Available from amazon.com:
Or, Gratitude Mojo, a 26-week, workbook format, which comes to you free with your annual paid subscription … including one copy for a friend because having a Gratitude Buddy makes the journey better.
We want to help everyone develop a deeper practice of gratitude, therefore, all posts are always free. … However, it is paid subscriptions that help support this work.