By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
When I was a child Mother’s Day was a big deal in our household. I was the second oldest of four siblings in a divorced family. We hung together pretty close. I was the only one in my school who didn’t have a father at home except the one girl whose father had died in an accident. That situation was legitimate. My “dad-less” state was not. Though we didn’t understand the word then, I now know we lived in shame. Divorce was rare and people shunned us.
We were fiercely protective of our mother. She was clearly the most beautiful of all mothers, which didn’t help matters because she was a bit of a flirt and other women were always suspicious of her motives.
We survived only because my grandfather saw to it that we had food. She was not formally educated past her junior year in high school because she got pregnant and had to drop out of school. But she was definitely very opinionated and never kept from telling her truth about anyone or anything. She had a passion for politics and thought nothing of offering the four of us to volunteer to leaflet the neighborhood for her favorite candidate. Our dinner conversations were usually pretty lively as we all had become as outspoken as she.
She was a tough mother. She expected us to do our chores, and we did, or else. Punishment was both physical and emotional. I was on restriction almost every other weekend of high school for such minor infractions as coming home two minutes late from a date. I know that her biggest fear was that I would get pregnant and end up like she had—stuck without many options. She assumed the right to inspect my room looking for any evidence that I might be misbehaving in any way.
When she found a book under my bed about converting to Catholicism (which I had planted there for her to find) she immediately marched into the bank where my boyfriend’s father worked to tell him his son could no longer date her daughter.
She was a “rageaholic,” especially when she was drunk. We lived in fear that something would happen to her or we would be taken away from her. We had no other relatives other than my grandparents. I lived believing that the devil I knew was better than whatever devil I didn’t know. One of my strongest memories is crouching by the window in my bedroom for hours when she was out drinking waiting to see her car come down the street. Only then could I go to sleep.
On Mother's Day , even at a young age, we made a point to gush all over her. Later she would remind me how we would make breakfast in bed for her. She loved telling how once I fried the bacon in butter. She both expected our attention and loved it. Years later, when we were older and had moved away from home, if she didn’t get proper recognition on Mothers’ Day she would write down in her note book which of her children remembered and which did not.
Being good enough for her was hard because she set the bar pretty high. And perfect was the only acceptable goal.
The last four years of her life she lived with me. Numerous times she would ask me if she had been a good mother. It was, of course, a set up. She knew she was as less than perfect mom. She would often remind me, by way of excuse, that she didn’t have a mother who loved her so she didn’t have a good role model. And then she would remind me how hard it was being alone raising four children by herself. And so I would say yes, you were a good mother because I knew that was what she wanted and needed to hear.
In those last days of her life, because I needed to protect myself from her disapproval, I found it hard to remember the good things about her. But now that she is gone and I no longer have the burden of shielding myself I can recall some special moments we shared. I know who I am today has a lot to do with her. I learned from her good self and from her not so good self. Just yesterday I remembered how, when I was in nursing school, I called to tell her about experiencing the death of a patient for the first time. She got in her car and was in my dorm room within an hour to console me. Until yesterday I had forgotten that little piece of motherly love.
I saw her walking on the street just last week. She was bent over but still had that perky way she lifted her feet like a clown. I wanted to talk with her and thank her for being a good mother. She was, you know. And she still is.