This essay, written as a column for Sagewoman in 2007 for its issue called “Mother,” has now, in 2018 been superceded several times. First of all, Mom finally died, when she was 96. (For more, see the many posts under “Lady Renee’s Final Journey” in The Grieving Time.) And secondly, just as with my husband Jeff’s passing (see This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation), I feel that her passing infused my life with something of her essence. For ever since that time, I have been left with a powerful new appreciation for my mother, how she could lift the spirits of any group just by her presence; how she graciously and effortlessly opened space for relations among those in her presence to flow. Thus I do not now consider it coincidental that I impulsively chose to scatter my portion of her ashes in the gardens bordering one of our community spaces, the back patio in the Green Acres Permaculture Village, where we hold weekly Community Dinners and celebrate seasonal turnings anytime the weather allows.
So take the below with a “grain of salt.” It offers a glimpse into my own evolving psyche when she was 89, seven years prior to her death. Much went on during those seven years, both within her psyche, and within our family. Our Dad’s dying process was, of course, equally momentous, as was that of our long suffering sister Mary, all of which are documented in The Grieving Time.
I’ve heard it said that a woman doesn’t come into her own until her mother dies. If so, then I am still unconsciously tied to a mother who, nearing 90, is very much alive. Or is she? How alive is my own mother?
All my adult life I have contemplated this question. How much of her authentic self has actually been allowed to express? Who is she, really, underneath?
In asking these questions, I touch with anguish the part of myself that felt strangely detached from my own small children, and know that this sad reality reflects a primal wound in my relationship with my mother.
When I try to feel my way back into myself as a young mother, I encounter a sense of panic and entrapment. Mind reels, heart contracts; I feel confused, disoriented, numb. . . . Though I knewI loved my children, I couldn’t uncover that fierce, tender bond that I also knewwas natural. My mind cut off access to my feelings.
I encounter a similar confusion when I attempt to dive into the murky depths of my early relationship with my mother. What went on back then? All I have is “the facts.” That my Dad left for the war when I was nine months old and returned when I was two years ane nine months. That I was so energetic I would bang my head against the wall of my crib and scoot it across the room. That she was so depressed while he was gone that her mother would bring dinner to her daughter’s apartment every day, just to make sure she ate. That I would dance and sing for her, trying to make her happy.
In public, or even inside the family, she appears as an enigma, even more so now that she has lost most of her energy and cannot mask the mystery of her interior with bright patter and incessant activity. I am not alone in this assessment. As a former sister-in-law (now dead of breast cancer) whispered to me at one of our family reunions: “When I walk up to your mother, the closer I get the more her face disappears. She is not there.”
On the surface, until she entered the ranks of the very old, my mother’s energy seemed cheerful and lighthearted. A Libran who shied away from conflict, she expertly smoothed over tense social situations that her husband stirred up with his sincere but heavy-footed, all-or-nothing, right-or-wrong attitude towards life — and especially his own children. For me, his equally righteous first-born, he was by far the dominant parent. In comparison to him, her reality felt diaphanous, barely there. “A cipher,” I used to call her, dismissively.
My mother birthed and reared eight children, yet I see her as a Hera figure, paired with Zeus, their children spewing out of her almost incidentally. My doctor father had the height and bearing of a king, and she, a beautiful woman trained as a nurse, played queen. They still sit in these roles, though shadows of their former selves; and despite their advanced age, we remain their minions, sensitively attuned to their moods, what would make them happy, or at least not too upset. I was the only one who gave them real, long-term trouble, a standoff that polarized the family (me against just about everybody) for 30 years, and prompted my mother to ask, with real wonderment: “How did I spawn you?”
I find it interesting that in discussion with several of my sisters, their unanimous perception of our mother differs considerably from mine. They speak of her “cruelty” towards them, something that I didn’t recognize even when they started talking about it.
But then there came an occasion, only two years ago, when I finally—at 62 years of age!—grokked their point of view. Mom and I were visiting my sister Marnie. They were discussing how much they love their Kaelin leisure suits, and how when Marnie is through with one of them, she gives it to either Mom or one of her sisters (most wear about the same size). Suddenly Mom blurted out, “Do you have one for Ann?” And of course Marnie, always a generous soul, did. She brought out a lime green outfit (not a color I wear), and Mom urged me to try it on, then and there.
Moving slowly, as if drugged, I undressed in front of them and put on the suit for their inspection. Mom then pronounced, triumphant: “There. Nowshe looks nice.” And in the very next second Marnie commented, “Cruel, cruel,” in a soft, sing-song voice. Marnie’s accurate assessment of what had just taken place woke me from my trance. I suddenly realized the sting in my mother’s remark, and how it had instantly seeped into my bones and left me exhausted, confused and demoralized. Such a gift, to be given the opportunity to be made consciously aware of a lifelong dynamic between our mother and her girl children. Thank you, Marnie!
But the surprise was not over. Later, in the car on the way back to her house, Mom apologized for her remark. She too had absorbed Marnie’s comment and, struck by its truth, moved to make amends. At 89 years of age, our mother is still growing, able to “call herself on her stuff” and seeks forgiveness.
I told the other sisters about this three-way interchange, assuming it proved that our mother didn’t mean to be cruel. They still didn’t agree with me! I seem to be the only one who sees Mom’s cruelty as unconscious.
I like to think that they are in denial, that my “superior” psychological understanding of the layers of the psyche helps me to see how unconscious forces prompt us to say things we don’t mean, or that we wouldn’t say were we more aware. On the other hand, one could argue that the very fact that she blurts these things out shows who she really is, the real person behind the face that yes, does seem to disappear the closer you come. And that may be how my sisters understand these remarks that undercut their sense of self-worth. Whatever is the truth about Mother’s level of awareness and her intentions, I imagine all six sisters do unconsciously suffer from the inner condition of feeling demoralized, exhausted and confused by her subtle and not so subtle zingers. Yet I may be the only one who didn’t recognize this aspect of her, and whose wound was covered by a thick scar of numbness.
So my mother is a light-hearted, high-spirited Libran who cleaves to her man and soothes social scenes; and, my mother is both “not there” and cruel? I do find it hard to grasp the fullness of her complex nature. And yet, somehow it feels important that I do — not in small part because I can see myself in her, her contradictions as my own. And now, as I come into cronehood and have apparently let go of my formerly desperate and addictive need to “cleave to a man,” unsettling aspects of my own character shift into high relief.
I was determined not to be cruel to my children, so when my frustration at being hemmed in by little ones exploded I would throw our kitten against the wall. I refused to let anybody in, so kept up a bright patter to smooth the social surface.
My mother was (and is) no cipher. I assumed I was like my father and, hating him, unconsciously modeled my persona on hers — at least the part that interfaced with the world. (My inner life does remind me of his, both of us perpetual students of life’s larger mysteries.)
After dinner, she’d sometimes sit out on the front stoop in the summer twilight, and smoke her one cigarette of the day. I look back now and realize that she probably needed to snatch a few minutes alone. But I’d find her there, and sit down next to her. She never complained.
I’d talk and she’d mostly listen. But on one evening that is seared in memory she said something very uncharacteristic and in so doing gave me a great gift. I had, as usual, been complaining bitterly about pretty, popular Marnie, the second oldest and my despised roommate. Mom must have felt fed up, for suddenly, out of the blue, she turned to me as she squashed out her cigarette and said, in a firm but nonjudgmental voice, “Ann, you’re jealous.”
Mom loved to “do errands,” and she loved to shop. She’d leave several older children to look after the little ones and take us, one at a time, downtown to “The Paris,” a department store, searching for sales. As soon as we walked in there I’d freeze up, get a headache. I didn’t know what would “look good” on me, and I didn’t like to stand in front of a mirror for all to see. Finally she gave up, brought clothes home for me to try on.
I did like to accompany her on errands, if I could wait for her alone in the car. She’d get to socialize with shopkeepers; I’d get to sit and watch people walk by, trying to sense their inner lives by the way their bodies moved, the look in their eyes.
I am needing to contemplate the nature of my mother and my relationship to her now, in May 2007 when transit Neptune has locked on to 22° Aquarius, square (90° away from, in tension with) my natal 23° Taurus Moon. Moon is the vulnerable, child self; More than any other Moon, “exalted” Moon in Taurus craves physical and emotional security— and I didn’t get it from my mother, due to her fearful distraction during World War II when her husband was overseas and might not make it home alive.
This week Neptune slows to an apparent stop on May 24, and turns to go retrograde. Like a vice that grips stronger and stronger until it finally lets go, the stationary periods of planets dramatically amplify their intensity. Neptune is a powerfully strange outer planet that usually works on us unconsciously through subtle and little- or unnoticed ideals, dreams, visions, and yes confusion, disorientation, delusion, exhaustion, demoralization.
Neptune’s virtues are those of compassion, unconditional love and forgiveness, a spaciousness that includes all, knows no limits and melts the universe into Oneness. Neptune’s vices that keep us from realizing the truth of that Love are those of cynicism and addiction — to substances, ideals, patterns, especially — for those born in my generation, between 1942-1957 when Neptune moved through Libra — patterns in one-to-one relationship. Indeed, my generation invented the term “co-dependency” to label our unnatural bending towards the other, so much so that we no longer feel our own essence as separate and unique.
For me, natal Neptune and Midheaven stand in close conjunction with Mom’s natal Sun and my sister Marnie’s natal Moon, a three-way karmic, co-dependent tie. No wonder I need to recognize and clear this dynamic inside myself. And given the current transit of Neptune in hard aspect to my natal Moon, no wonder I need to clear it now.
I don’t remember Mom ever putting her arms around any of us, unless it was to carry the baby in her arms while stirring a pot on the stove, or to let that littlest one sit on her lap for a moment. I can certainly understand her apparent squeamishness. Can you imagine eight children clamoring for a piece of you all day long, and then your husband at night? How did she do it? How did she manage to keep her equanimity? Well, she didn’t.
On rare occasions during long hot summers she would suddenly freak out, begin to cry, tell us all to go outside and not come in until dinnertime. We would skedaddle, scared that our mother, whom we wanted to take for granted, was vulnerable. Sometimes, on those days, Dad would break away from the office and hurry home. (I guess she must have called him. Otherwise he’d leave early in the morning, come home for a quick supper at 6:00 p.m., then leave for hospital rounds and house calls until late.) They’d be in the house alone for an hour or so, and if any of us tiptoed inside to use the bathroom, we’d pass by their locked bedroom door and listen for the murmuring.
On those days I’d walk around outside, filled with fearful fantasies. What if they got divorced? What would happen? I’d redouble my vow to help her, come home every day after school to fold four or five loads of laundry and walk the piles on the metal cart down the hallway to the bedrooms.
In my natal chart, Taurus Moon makes only one close aspect, a harmonious sextile (60°) to expansive Jupiter, also “exalted,” in Cancer. So you might think that this Moon, and my early childhood, would have been favored by the gods. And it’s true, while my father was gone my aunts and grandparents treated me like a princess, their little pet, the center of everyone’s (except my mother’s) attention.
But then the low blow: my father did come home. And from that moment on my spirit was ruthlessly and regularly crushed — to the point where my essence burrowed underground and I became like I feel my own mother to be, disappeared inside the dynamic she plays out with my Dad.
Like most women her age, my mother appears as a creature of her generation, locked into the role she has followed assiduously since marriage at 24 years old. Last year in a rare afternoon of just sitting around with Mom and three of my sisters, I asked each in turn, “At this point, how would you assess your life?” One of my sisters said she wanted to be perfect, and was afraid that she wasn’t. Another one remarked, without apology, that she “preferred the unexamined life.” A third sister also ducked the question. But when my mother’s turn came, she said, in a direct, matter-of-fact, and sober manner, “I knew my job and I did it.” She has also confessed, now that they have moved to a retirement community and she no longer has to cook, that she “always hated cooking.”
Yet such was her determination to do her job well that she presided over an extremely well-run household where meals for ten were served like clockwork and household tasks, geared to the age of each child, posted and rotated on the refrigerator door. She took her turn as P.T.A. president. She entertained the parish priest with tea and cookies and humor. And, for real relief, she would sometimes relax for an hour or two with her dear friend Marge before their children arrived home from school.
I sit here, combing through scenes from the past, as if she were already gone. Why? Do I need to cushion the inevitable sense of loss by prompting myself to feel it now? Or, more likely, is my need to form a clear gestalt to carry with me, like a talisman, reassurance that, despite my still partially benumbed state, I didhave a mother? I was no Athena formed from the forehead of Zeus. I was a child of Hera, and she formed me in ways I am just beginning to comprehend. I need to breathe in her full flavor as she subtly incandesces in a graceful, slow-motion departure from this plane. Somehow, I sense that by grasping something of her that I hope to unpeel back to her vital essential core, then when she does go I will be able to feel the huge reality of my grief.
As the child who did rebel against the dominant patriarchal father, I can sympathetically imagine how, given both her Libran nature and the world-view of her generation, she had no real conscious choice about how or whether she would cleave to her man. The greater part of her had to disappear. He, a decidedly alpha male, would not have understood, condoned, or allowed his wife, the mother of his children, to be otherwise. I took the heat for her, and I know it caused her great anguish to see Dad and I filled with rancor. She was faced with an impossible choice between husband and first-born daughter. She had to choose when he came home from the war, and she had to choose during those 30 years of our domestic war. As Hera, she chose him. And though I was the fiery child who could take the heat, the Moon part of me suffered.
About a month ago, I committed to a ten-week book tour by car. In order to set this in motion, I decided to activate the informal national network established through both Crone Chronicles and Crones Counsel, and ask crones throughout the west to help me with both housing and book events. The process has been grueling, for I find myself periodically inundated by that old familiar numbness, desolation, shame, embarrassment, worthlessness, fear of rejection and abandonment — to the point where for days at a time I have not been able to pick up the phone or even write an email asking yet another woman for help. Yet, for the first time in my life, I deliberately “sit in my stuff” that pools from the wound in my relationship with the feminine. Over and over again, I allow icky yucky feelings to emerge and, given enough time and honoring, to clear.
And yet, only now as I complete the writing of this essay do I actually recognize the links between the painful internal work that I take on to set up this tour and my current need to focus on my relationship with my own mother. For the mother wound is the deepest one, much more profound than the ideological battle with my father. And it is a wound that, though I have been aware of it subliminally for decades, I never blamed her for. How could I? How can I blame one woman for her place in the long patriarchal line? That role limited her conscious choices; she must have resented this lockdown on her own soul’s expression, and it rendered her “cruel” towards her own daughters. (See what happens when you get out of line? Look what happened to Ann. Don’t do it!) Nor can I blame my archetypally patriarchal father, who was living out his generational pattern with a sense of duty and dedication and integrity that I have always admired.
One last story sums up my mother more than anything else I could convey. I have treasured this memory for decades, and only as I write it down now do I realize how perfectly it symbolizes her gift to me. Though she was only able to hold this gift in herself momentarily, she threw down the gauntlet, and I, as a first-born pioneer in the second wave of feminism’s great ocean of spiritual sisterhood, took it up and thrust it into the stuffy ‘50s world. Here is that story:
Sometime in my 30s I was at my parents home, along with my brother John, then in his early 20s. He and I decided to get high, and on impulse, I asked Mom to join us. Of course, she reflexively declined, but when her favorite son chimed in, changed her mind. We opened the windows to clear any telltale traces, sat down in the living room, took a few puffs, and launched into an astonishing conversation, the details of which I can no longer remember, but in which all of us forthrightly explored aspects of ourselves and each other that ruptured the membrane of our usual family dynamic.
After about an hour Dad came home for lunch, walked in, and unconsciously picked up on our altered vibration. He walked across the living room, stood over Mom and, genuinely puzzled, asked, “What’s up?”
She looked right up at him and, slamming her arm on the rocking chair’s arm announced, in a strong, clear, resonant voice, “We’ve come alive.”
Postscript: I asked my 92-year-old father the other day on the phone, during one of our rare conversations when my mother was getting her hair done and his hearing aide working better than usual, “What was it like when you came back from the war? How was I with you?” And he tells me, “Well, you cried a lot.” And then, after a pause, “And you were negative.”
Several days later I phoned and my mother answered. I asked her the same question, and she replied, after a moment’s silence: “Well, I don’t remember it that way . . . You would look at him, like, ‘Who is this guy and what right does he have to tell me what to do?’ I told him that he couldn’t automatically expect to have you obey him, that he had to earn his place as your father.”
I ponder the difference in their responses.
Ann Kreilkamp, Ph.D., a philosopher and astrologer, offers herself and her new book, This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation, to groups that would like to explore the multidimensional and transformative nature of their grief. Ann was Founder and Editor of Crone Chronicles: A Journal of Conscious Aging(1989-2001), and will serve as “Elder Editor” with Anne Niven as Publisher, Designer, and “Junior Editor,” of the new magazine, CRONE: Women Coming of Age, to launch at Spring Equinox, 2008.