March 22, 2007
Family Feud—with my family, it’s no game
I would take my mom against Clint Eastwood in any movie. Sure, he usually plays a grizzled, gunslinger with cat-like reflexes and something to prove, but if you cross my
mother, you will find yourself, like the title of Clint's greatest Western, "Unforgiven."
Make no mistake; this isn't a cute story about my "zany" Jewish mother and her unswerving ability to hold a grudge. Cute stories rarely involve relatives who suffocate themselves with plastic bags, but more about my Aunt Maurine's untimely death in a minute.
No one really knows why my mother stopped talking to her sister. I think it was something about a china cabinet that once belonged to their mother. After my grandmother died, there was a duel over the mammoth piece of furniture. My mother got it (which I only know because I grew up with it in our dining room, our only piece of furniture not from a flea market). As anyone with even one screwed-up relationship in life knows, the squabble is never about the china cabinet, but about the heap of slights and injustices that could fill it. The cabinet just stores the resentments, puts them on display.
That cabinet was my grandmother's favorite. So was my mother, so this isn't a family feud syllogism that's difficult to decode. Apparently, if your parents make it obvious that you're the favorite, your siblings hate you, they unconsciously take out their feelings of rejection and hurt on you and you become spoiled and unpleasant. Put these feelings on simmer for about 30 years, and the flavors really intensify.
Here's the thing. I'm just guessing and speculating about all of this. All I know for sure is that after a nine-year feud, during which my aunt and mother never once spoke, Aunt Maurine effectively ended the stalemate by killing herself about six years back.
I've never written about it before, nor did I give it much thought, until I got into my own feud with my mom two years ago and wondered who would get the last word -- or leave the feud in a stretcher.
Back to my aunt and the resounding way she stuck it to my mom by offing herself. I should mention here that I don't mean to be cavalier about her death or her pain; but we're Jews. That's how we deal. Just the other day when I was sounding depressed on the phone with my dad he asked, voice filled with concern, "Are you eyeing your plastic bag collection?"
If we took every family tragedy seriously we'd be killing ourselves. I mean, in even greater numbers.
Aunt Maurine's death didn't seem like one of those "cry for help" suicides, because of the aforementioned plastic bag method, a technique she got from one of those "how-to-kill-yourself" books, which was found a few feet from her body.
She left a note, too, something about how her grown children didn't love her (a feud may have been percolating there, too; feuds are big in my family). The suicide note contained no mention of my mother. My aunt had silenced herself yet still managed to get in the last word with one final snub. Score one: Maurine.
My mother went to Aunt Maurine's funeral, but I don't know if she regretted the feud.
Mom has about as much gray area in her personal relationships as the linoleum floor of a 1950s diner. The point is, like Clint Eastwood, she is not likely to be lukewarm on you. There are good guys and bad guys, and once you cross over, you are dead to her.
I lived in fear of saying no to her, displeasing her in some way as to flip the off switch on her loving me. Because she raised me alone and it was just the two of us, I was so close to her that the idea of her wishing me to her emotional cornfield rattled me to my core.
In essence, I should have spent my 20s wearing a yellow ribbon because I was a hostage; I did what she wanted, gritting my teeth every second of it, but complying nonetheless. I couldn't lose her, but I also couldn't stand her.
If she came to visit me, she stayed however long she wanted, we ate dinner when and where she wanted, she listened when she wanted (which wasn't often), and I basically watered and manicured my grudge garden until it was overgrown and lush, and I was often petulant and bitter. She was the kind of mother, and lots of us have them, that demand we mother them. This so flies in the face of nature that you either become the codependent wife of an alcoholic or addict -- continuing to mother people you shouldn't -- or you get very, very angry. Or you get yourself some therapy. I've done two out of three.
Here's where I admit something. That part of me that loved "The Bell Jar" in junior high didn't feel so bad about the incident with Aunt Maurine and the sinister feud preceding it. It added to my "crazy family" mystique. I didn't choose to have a family chock full of the mentally ill, but once I realized there was no way of passing them off as normal, I decided to embrace it as part of my identity.
I had met my aunt only once at a family reunion when I was kid. I remember she had red hair, wore a crisp white pants suit, lived in Orange County, seemed like she couldn't possibly be the sister of my hippie mother and generally seemed like a nice lady. I was 6; what did I know?
I certainly never predicted I would also have a blow-up with my mother leading to a long silent feud. Curiously enough, my feud also followed a funeral. Watch out for this; in my family, one of the stages of grief is creating a vendetta with someone living.
Here was our cabinet incident: Before my stepfather's funeral two years ago, my mother insisted I speak at the ceremony. 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.