March 22, 2007
Family Feud—with my family, it’s no game
(Page 2 - Previous Page)I asked to just grieve and not entertain. She was having none of it. I couldn't stand up to the grieving widow, so I got up there like mommy's little show pony with my funny anecdotes and a fury so fierce I wanted to put her in that casket.
So I did what my mother taught me to do, I excused myself from the relationship. And I was prepared to go the distance, though I didn't know if I could.
I had seen enough to know my mother wouldn't flinch. I wondered if I was truly her daughter, capable of waiting her out. Or worse, if I had seen a family divided by wood and glass and stretched plastic and silence and had learned nothing but how to up the ante.
I'm not going to kid you; the feud wasn't easy at first. I counted the days since we'd spoken. Mother's Day went by. My birthday passed without a card. I worried about her a little bit, alone with her stupid little dogs. There were times -- hard days at work, months I struggled to meet my mortgage, small victories -- I wanted my mommy because I knew no one would care as much as she would. I waited it out, and after a year or so, I didn't miss her as much, and I understood how a feud goes. You learn to live without the person because it's easier than figuring out how to deal with their crap. That may not be the most lyrical depiction, but it's accurate.
So, the master of all feuds dealt me a blow last year. She got cancer.
OK, obviously, she didn't get breast cancer just to force my hand, but it certainly made me reconsider. My brother called me with the news. A little part of me was relieved she had cancer, because I don't have the constitution for a lifelong feud. I wanted my mother back, manipulative and impatient, snapping at waitresses and getting to movies an hour early, ignoring me half the time and cooking my favorite kugel the other half. She may be a character from a Western, but sometimes she's the kick-ass hero, and she's the only mother I have, equal parts good, bad and ugly.
As it happens, I'm not my mother's daughter. I took the first train out of vendetta-ville.
I didn't want to be her hostage, never able to say no, but maybe I had faced my biggest fear. I didn't have to be scared of her killing me off anymore, because I had experimented with life on the other side and had survived without her.
I called her and simply said, "I heard the news. I'm wishing you well. Is there anything I can do?" I swallowed my pride, and that doesn't make me better than her, unless you define "better" as more humble, more caring and way more evolved. On the other hand, she is far better at knitting. It's not a competition.
During her treatment, I called her every week. Being sick seemed to give her a purpose. She was uncharacteristically upbeat about her medical care, the organic sandwiches at the cafeteria, the nice receptionist, how her friends offered to take her to appointments or garage sales to cheer her up. While she never, ever would have reached out to me, I know she was happy I called, and if a touch of cancer is what it took, I think she would have preferred that to calling me.
There's no happy ending other than the fact that she seems to have survived radiation and is healthy for the moment. I don't talk to her much because that's how I protect myself against having to cut her loose again. I love her, but a little contact goes a long way.
At this point, I'd have better luck bringing my aunt back from the dead than changing my mom. I can't make her the kind of mother I always wanted, self-sacrificing and warm. All that's in my grasp is what kind of daughter I want to be.
Now that I'm not a POW, I genuinely enjoy talking to her on the phone from time to time. She gives me support, watches the two-bit cable shows I host, gets upset if anyone trashes me online. For my part, I treat her like a parent that's been busted for negligence. She no longer gets overnight visitation, but lunch in a public place is fine. We chat, but I don't dig down deep to give her everything she wants from me. I don't send her hand-framed photos or write her poems or show up all dolled up for her annual latke party, mommy's little pseudo-success. On the other hand, I don't ignore her or shut her out.
I guess as a daughter I'm something she never was as a mother. I'm not the best or worst. I'm somewhere in between, a daughter in the gray.
Teresa Strasser is an Emmy Award-winning writer and co-host of the syndicated Adam Carolla Radio Show. Please don't write her angry letters. Her mom is used to this sort of abuse.
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