How to Break and Mend Your Mother’s Heart
by JoAnne E. Lehman
What you will start with: You’ll be supplied with one mother, 36 years old when you are born. She will have many fine qualities and, of course, some baggage.
Your mother grew up on a farm, during the Great Depression, in a religious family, one of seven children with a stern father and a mother who was chronically ill. Your mother was kept out of school the year she was 13, but not told why. She resented her mother that year. Partway through the year, though, her baby sister Fran was born. Fran’s arrival was a surprise to all the children, because Brethren in Christ parents in 1933 did not speak of such things as pregnancy. Your mother adored baby Fran and took care of her. When their mother died less than a decade later, your mother, now married, took Fran into her home. Your mother felt guilty for the rest of her life for having resented her mother and the lost year of school. “There will never be tension between me and my daughter,” she vowed.
At your birth: Be your mother’s long-expected daughter, her girl-gift from God after four boys. Be her great joy. Be an easy baby, in tune to her rhythms as she is to yours. Be a peaceful toddler, such a contrast to her rambunctious sons. Be the child she can take anywhere, to any meeting, and put in a corner with crayons and paper. Don’t let her leave you in the church nursery, though; sit right next to her on the hard pew, perfectly quiet, through the whole Sunday service, including your father’s sermon. Draw neat little pictures and letters on scrap paper, using the tiny pencils provided in the pew racks for filling out offering envelopes and “Pray for me” cards. You will never deface a hymnbook or a Bible. After church, while your mother meets and greets church people as the pastor’s wife, hold tight to the hem of her gray wool skirt so you can’t possibly lose her. Keep your eyes down to avoid fawning parishioners who think you are cute. Be quiet as a mouse. To get your mother’s attention, just give the hem a little tug and she’ll bend down to see what you need.
As you grow: Be your mother’s creative outlet. Be the child she can finally sew for, a girl who wears dresses. Even let her dress you in pink, though it will not be your favorite color later. Learn to cook with her; browse Woman’s Day magazine at her side; learn early how to make the family’s special oatmeal cookies. Be her little helper, a child who likes to dust furniture. Be the daughter she can count on; feel bad when she has migraines and give her get-well cards you make yourself. Be the one who reads your mother’s moods better than anyone, better than your brothers or your father, and hugs her when she’s sad. Be her companion. Be that girl for many years.
When you are nine: When you go away to Bible camp for the first time, hide your feelings, because the camp handbook says, “No homesickness allowed! Playpens available for crybabies.” Be afraid of the consequences of breaking any rules — there are so many — at this strict place where children get fined real money for talking during rest hour, being late to chapel, or wearing play clothes when dress-up is required, which is almost all the time. Be grateful for the seven dresses your mother sewed and packed for you, a different one for each day at camp, and try not to resent it when your counselor, a young missionary wife without much sense, tells another girl (without asking) to borrow one of your dresses because you have so many, and the girl takes one you haven’t worn yet. Try not to be upset when someone steals your spending money, and be forgiving when the money is suddenly replaced, appearing on your freshly made bunk while you are down the hall cleaning the bathroom with PineSol as your cabin chore. Turn your homesickness into a stomachache by the last day of camp, and cry just a tiny bit when you visit the camp nurse, who gives you aspirin you can’t swallow unless it’s crushed up into tiny bits, because all you’ve ever had is chewable baby aspirin. Be so glad to see your mother when she and your father come to pick you up. She is an angel, beautiful and comforting and smelling of Lily of the Valley cologne. Give her the present you bought her at the camp store: a ring, fake silver, with a Bible verse engraved, because you know she never, ever had a ring before, not even for her wedding, and you want to grant her deepest wishes.
When you are twelve: Start going to a new camp run by strong, confident, athletic women in their twenties and thirties. No one brings dresses to this place. Your mother, now 49, is unsure of herself, fears deep water, and wears frumpy clothes. Fall in love with the bold young female energy of the camp counselors. Paddle a canoe on Lake Bunganut; get stung by yellowjackets; sing your heart out at campfires; cry when you leave. Tell your mother flatly, “I didn’t want to come home.” Fail to realize how that stings. Disappear into your room for hours, writing your new friends; watch for their letters and dream of being back in the Maine woods with them next year. Be furious when your mother snoops, when she reads your letter to a counselor you have a crush on; know from your mother’s face that you cannot say so. Let it smolder while you hide your letters more carefully. Pretend it doesn’t bother you. Pretend you aren’t embarrassed and afraid about having these crushes. You’ll have no context for envisioning a future life with a girl. You won’t even know the word lesbian yet.
When you are fourteen: When the Jesus Revolution comes to your youth group, have a spiritual crisis. Get fired up for God; also vow to be kinder to your mother. You can still rebel, but in a complicated way your parents won’t forbid: wandering the streets with hippies and staying out late—but witnessing, not drinking; praying, not doing drugs. Let out the hems of your jeans so they fray; innocently sew pink buttons down the fly, horrifying your mother. Buy men’s work boots at the Army Surplus store; avoid wearing dresses. Praise God with your hands in the air, in big hugging circles of singing, swaying Jesus Freaks, accompanied by candlelight and guitar.
Some of your freakiness will fade in time, but not your vow to be a better daughter. Hit upon a way to survive: be pleasant and agreeable, but never tell your mother about your deepest feelings, your doubts and worries, and least of all your yearning for attention and affection from women who are not her. Keep this vow for the next two decades. Also move away, farther and farther, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Seattle. Live your life; go to therapy. Write sweet letters and remember Mother’s Day. Send delightful homemade Christmas presents but live too far away to visit on holidays.
When you are thirty-five: Mail your parents an audiotape you record on two rainy Sunday afternoons in your tiny Seattle apartment, drinking tea. You know they’ll be able to listen to it because you recently gave them a cassette player as a gift, hoping they would record memories for their grandchildren (something they’ll never get around to). On the tape, tell them first that you are no longer an evangelical Christian, and then that you are a lesbian. Ask them not to argue the Bible with you. Be more honest than since you were twelve. Also tell them you are moving to Wisconsin to be with the woman you love. Be terrified when the tape is in the mail. Wait a month for their response, which, when it comes, is in two separate letters on identical stationery that say almost the same thing and, ironically, arrive via overnight mail.
“We love you so much and we always will. You know our beliefs; we cannot approve. Our hearts are so heavy. But we love you so much.” They will not quote the Bible or argue; you asked them not to. But you will know what they now fear: that you are lost and bound for hell; that they will lose you forever. Still, you will be relieved to have been honest. You will be glad not to keep this secret from them anymore.
You will have careful, tentative phone conversations with your mother now; she will not speak directly about your revelation, but she will tell you she loves you, every time, her voice breaking. You will talk about less frightening things, like your new pet guinea pig, for whom your mother sends presents, and small details about your upcoming move. After you move, she’ll call less often, sounding afraid if your partner answers the phone. “Hello, may I please speak with JoAnne?”
Find out from your oldest brother that your mother confided in him, and he defended you: “Don’t say you’ll keep praying for JoAnne; say you’ll keep loving her.” He’ll tell you what your mother said: “Oh, of course we will! I think I love her more than ever — if that’s possible.” Don’t find out for many years that she also confided in your cousin Doug: “This woman JoAnne is with; I think she has influenced her.” Don’t find out for many more years — until your parents have dementia and have forgotten so much — that in those early months they acquired some conservative literature about the misguided path you chose. (When you do find this literature years later, in the bottom of an unused drawer in your mother’s dresser, spirit it out to the dumpster and never mention it.)
After you buy a house with your beloved, invite your parents to visit. See them relax, especially your mother. Your partner is a midwife, she delivers babies on Amish farms, she is making a quilt — cozy, familiar things your mother can relate to. Your partner can also drive a nail, wield a power drill, and cook hearty food — things that impress your father. “Well, Martha, you pass!” he’ll blurt out at dinner, and you’ll know he doesn’t realize all he is saying. They can’t help but love her, no matter what they believe. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” your mother will say when they leave. They’ll send Martha presents every Christmas, although at first those gifts will be separate from the ones they send you.
Then give them a harder test when you invite them to your Quaker wedding, which is planned for Valentine’s Day. Again they will take weeks to reply. Finally your mother will call in tears. “We can’t come,” she’ll choke out. “You know our beliefs. But you know we love you, and we love Martha too.” You’ll be angry: “That’s hard to believe right now,” you’ll say. But you will write again: “If you come,” you’ll assure your mother, “no one will assume you approve. They’ll just assume you love us.” Also say, “I wish you could be there with me when I get married. I wish you could see my wedding dress.”
Then, just one week before the ceremony, your mother will call again. “We’re coming,” she’ll say. “We got flights. We won’t come early, and we’ll stay at a different hotel. And we don’t want to be in group photos the grandchildren might see someday, that might make them think we were okay with this.”
You won’t be able to eat on the morning of your wedding. You’ll be terrified to see your parents, and you’ll wonder what they’ll do. But to your surprise, they will ask to wear the same lapel flowers as other close family and friends. Your mother will sit in the Quaker silence before you speak your vows, trembling and quiet. You will catch her eye and say silently, “I love you,” and she will mouth it back. She and your father will behave perfectly at your reception, shy but friendly, eating cake, watching and listening. For years afterward, notice that your mother doesn’t refer to your wedding as such, but as “that time we were there, that February.” And when you write to your Aunt Fran — her baby sister — you’ll find out your mother hasn’t told the relatives you are married. You’ll also learn that Aunt Fran doesn’t approve of your lifestyle either.
When you are fifty: Watch your mother losing memories but never her yearning to be close to you. See her trust and confide in you. Travel many miles, many times, over many years, to care for her with tenderness. See her confusion about the passage of time. “Did you go to my one-room school too?” she’ll ask, and also, “Are you old enough to remember when the Twin Towers fell?” Take her to doctor’s appointments and be her advocate; do not discount her complaints of pain. Measure out Tylenol, and Vicodin, and keep careful track. Help her in the bathroom. Hear her mention “your wedding.”
Be amazed when your mother, in her mental fog, wonders whether another of her sisters — a spinster missionary — had a female partner. “Who was Anita with?” she’ll ask you. “Was she with Martha?” Hide your surprise. Say nonchalantly, “No, Martha is with me.” “Oh, that’s right,” your mother will say. She’ll ask again and again why you can’t move in with her. “Martha, too!” she’ll insist. “We can make room.”
See your mother mistake you for her baby sister. Feel her turn to you as if you are her mother. Assure her you won’t leave while she’s at daycare. Put stuffed animals and dolls in her arms. Recognize she is human and vulnerable; understand how many decades it has been since she had any power over you. Wish you could give her more power over herself; wish you could grant her deepest wishes. Have no resentment, no regret. Know that your own heart is on the mend.
JoAnne E. Lehman edits a gender studies review journal at the University of Wisconsin. She has an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her creative nonfiction has also been published in The Cresset, and she is a book reviewer for Good River Review.
Well written, my distant cousin, I’m grateful to be getting to know you better through recent years.
Thank you so much, Karen! Likewise — it’s really fun to discover and sometimes rediscover family members at this age.