It was the last emotion I expected upon exploring the voluminous genealogical document I had commissioned. I merely wanted to learn more about my family. With both of my parents long gone, I hoped this would provide tentative answers to the perplexing question many adult children have of their parents: Who were they beneath their parental poses? I hunted for them between the lines. In the process, I was momentarily sidetracked by some unfinished business with my mother.
My father’s side was more compelling and the original reason for my interest in the project. His mother, my Nana, had been a beloved person in my childhood. I had been told the intriguing story of her bringing seven of her nine children to the US from England on an ocean liner in 1922, notably leaving her husband behind. Who was this brave, independent woman who sailed off to a foreign land? How did she raise all those children by herself?
I discovered that my mother’s family had come from Germany, emigrating to the US in the 1600s, to the same small town in North Carolina where she was born. To my delight, the genealogy study revealed that, many generations back, this family sired a circus performer and the man who held the patent on the first coffee percolator. One of my forebearers was in the Revolutionary War. The recent clan was not as formidable. After a series of self-induced financial reverses, my mother’s family migrated to Cleveland, Ohio. She found a best friend with whom she walked to school every day until they graduated from high school. They attended a party together, met two brothers, and subsequently married them. There’s a newspaper clipping in the genealogical book, announcing the engagements. The girls are sitting close, beaming for the camera, their ebullience infectiously leaping off the page.
It was the middle of the Depression, so my parents gambled on a move to Southern California, which promised unlimited opportunities. My father held a series of semi-skilled jobs until he was hired by the up-and-coming defense giant, Douglas Aircraft. A loyal company man, he would remain with them until the day he died.
What was their life together before I was born in 1943, some eight years after they married? My mother told me she had several miscarriages before me and another between me and my brother, born nearly six years later. How did this impact their marriage? They had friends; they went on trips; they wanted children. Again, facts without nuance.
With the genealogical information in hand and knowing family lore, it’s tempting to speculate. All my father’s eight siblings were entrepreneurial except him. As a boy in Cleveland, he was bullied because he was foreign and the youngest child in a large family. Do these facts explain the genesis of his anger, his intense resentment of minorities and the underclass? He was aloof with both his children and perhaps my mother. My curiosity about him was dulled by his opaque personality and our lack of connectedness. It seemed to me, in most instances, he was exactly who he presented himself to be.
On the other hand, my energetic mother was vicariously ambitious, overtly pushing my father to seek promotions. Where did that drive come from? A longing for a stable, middle class existence after the embarrassment of her own disreputable family? What filled her thoughts, her dreams? Was living out a traditional role enough for her? How did she handle my father’s epic philandering? Why did she stay? She affected a perpetual smile that masked contradictory emotions and served to repel inquiry into any hint of darkness.
I didn’t get the chance to say good-bye to my father. He died suddenly of a heart attack while in the company of my mother’s best friend. But my mother’s death was protracted for more than a year, her daily life crippled as much by her ambient anxiety as disease. At 80, she had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and emphysema after a lifetime of heavy smoking. She was adamant about not moving from her condo into a safe place where her needs could be met more readily. “The only way I’ll go out of here is on a slab,” she announced more than once. My brother lived in another state, but I was a convenient 30 minutes away, leaving me with what often felt like a burdensome responsibility.
Two decades earlier, I had become a clinical psychologist with a thriving practice, but when we’d meet, everything from my wardrobe to my parenting skills were dissected and evaluated. There was always a hook at the end of the line. I unwittingly learned to protect myself, silently retreating, gradually revealing less personal information, hoping to avoid the judgments. Given her middle-class aspirations and my unconventional life choices, our emotional ties were more than frayed by the time we knew she was dying. On the outside, everything looked fine; on the inside, there lingered a cold estrangement. When she was placed in hospice care in her condo, her death officially imminent, I knew I had to try again.
I decided to crack open the door to a rapprochement. I knew I risked violating the family code that side-stepped truth and began to jump into murky waters. Substantive conversations were unwelcome in our family. I knew what I wanted to hear, but I was open to anything that revealed the person within. This was our last chance.
“Looking back on your life today, is there anything you regret?”
She gazed out the glass door that led to a tiny garden I had planted with flowers on Mother’s Day.
“I would have liked to have seen the new century.”
I felt the wind fly out of my lungs. Was that it? Nothing personal, huh? I persisted, trying to find out who lived in that decaying body, even while vacuuming out any possibility of my own complicity. I tried a different tack.
“What do you think was the best time of your life?”
She smiled, her blue eyes sparkling. “The backyard barbeques around the pool with all our friends.”
She was referring to a five-year period in the late 1950s. We had the only pool in the neighborhood, so on weekends, friends and family would drop by. It was not the best time of my life, by far. I was a teenager, a self-conscious and probably depressed introvert, finding the noise and the constant small talk intrusive. I wondered why that was such a memorable time for her. Distractions from the marriage? A way to maintain the 8X10 glossy of the happy family? Appearances always trumped reality for her. My father was unusually charming on those occasions. They didn’t have to talk to each other. There was safety in numbers.
After a few more similarly unsatisfying responses, I realized that what I had hoped for – some warmth and understanding between us – would not be happening. It felt bad to not feel bad that she was dying, but by then I yearned to feel free.
I continued to sit at her bedside in those final weeks, but I could only manage it every other day. The criterion became, what did I have to do to avoid any guilt when it was over? I wanted to make sure I had done all I could. Still, I understood by then that it wasn’t me she wanted to see; it was her daughter.
The last time I visited, she was nearing a coma. She looked like she was asleep. I knew she could die at any moment. With the caregiver glued to a blaring TV in the background, I bent over and gave her a gentle hug. She was hard of hearing, so I cupped my hand and leaned into her left ear.
“It’s OK. You can go now. Everyone’s all right. Goodbye, Mom.” No response.
I left with tears in my eyes.
We had a celebration of her life in her condo. Her friends came and my brother made the trip. We had assembled a poster board of vacation pictures she had taken, photos of the family as my brother and I were growing up, snapshots of people having fun in the pool. I wanted music in the background, so I opted for the big band music I remembered hearing on the record player during my childhood.
Her neighbors came, said nice things. They didn’t seem to know her, either. My son and I frequently exchanged knowing looks. He had also been the target of years of passive-aggressive comments we had labeled “slimes.” If there was sadness that day, it was for the death of opportunity, the loss of hope that it might be different someday.
That was a quarter century ago. Leavened by the passing years, I have come to appreciate the gifts she gave me, among them, a love for music and for movies. She was invariably generous with her money, supporting me even when she didn’t believe in why I wanted it. She had a childlike sense of humor, playful and quick with word play. In spite of the slings and arrows, she was amiable, mostly kind, always there. I came to understand that she was doing her best, working within her own constraints and her faith in an anachronistic cultural framework.
I had hoped to discover more of her in that genealogy research. The bones were there but not the sinew. Our relationship was a viscous mixture that failed to gel. I regret I couldn’t transcend my own limitations, that I was unable to navigate beyond pain and anger to connect with her, to forge the deeper relationship she likely thought we had. I forgave both of us years ago, so the sense of regret is surprising, emerging as it does twenty-five years after her death. Still the paradox remains that, though we were mother and daughter, we really didn’t know each other at all.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram, Almost Famous, and As Alone As I Want To Be. She’s a former clinical psychologist, performer, and film historian. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood is scheduled for publication in early 2021.