My great-grandmother killed herself by drinking a bottle of ammonia–at least this is what my mother told me. She never wanted to ask her mother about this because apparently her mother was the one, at 10 years old, who found her on the kitchen floor, empty bottle in her hand. She killed herself, it was said, because she had a constant ringing in her ears.
Since my grandmother, Grace, grew up without a mother, she had to raise herself. One Sunday afternoon when she was 35, she was outside hanging her laundry. As she was pinning her rather large underpants up on the clothesline, a young man approached and suggestively remarked, “I would love to see you in those.” This young man and Grace were married soon after. Grace had three girls, but only the last one, my mother, lived. My mother, Hope, was born when Grace was 40, a rarity in 1932. Grace was not a natural mother; she hadn’t had a mother to hold her hand through adolescence or young adulthood. Given that Grace’s mother was driven to suicide, one might surmise that she was not a well woman and was probably preoccupied with herself.
Grace was a gambler. She drove to the dog races in Taunton, Rhode Island twice a week. My mother was dragged along because there was nowhere else for her to go. Being a mother was overwhelming to Grace, so when my mother needed a bath, Grace had one of the neighbors come in to do it. My mother’s memories of dinners involve being given a dime to eat by herself at the counter of the local diner across the street.
Like her mother, my mother had three girls–although my mother’s three children all lived. My mother’s love for me was hit or miss, inconsistent, unpredictable. I never felt understood, listened to, encouraged, or noticed. I never heard, “I love you” and have no memories of being hugged or holding my mother’s hand. To this day, when my mother kisses me hello, it is a quick peck and her nose usually pokes against my cheek. I don’t recall doing things with my mother that I suppose would have been nice—things like baking, going to the park, swimming, or playing. The truth is my mother had her own problems to contend with. She was miserable in her marriage and so busy getting things done for everyone else that she had no time for herself–not atypical for a wife and mother in the 1960’s. Too many times I would come home from school and hear Frank Sinatra blasting through the house. If Strangers in The Night was playing, I knew where I’d find my mother—sobbing in the den, her second Rob Roy in hand. My mother had neither the skills, nor the emotional stability to guide me. Getting through her day was challenging enough.
At the age of 35, after a year of marriage, I became pregnant. I had mixed feelings. I was terrified that I might repeat the mother/daughter legacy from which I came. However, there was something deep within me that knew with certainty that I would be a different mother.
At 10:01 a.m. on June 5th, 1998, Sophia was born, and I became a mother. That moment marked the beginning of my opportunity to give my daughter the mother I didn’t have. I notice her. I validate her. I tell her I love her—too many times a day. Sometimes when I’m afraid that I’m destined to repeat the cycle, I wonder if Sophia can tell that I love her. When I ask her how she knows I love her, she tells me, “You cuddle me. You take me shopping. You tell me you love me.” I believe a cycle can be broken no matter how many generations it has had to cement itself. My daughter and I have begun a new cycle, which will continue for generations to come.
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