As I listened to the cadence of their voices, as news and questions passed back and forth across the line, I had a flash of guilt, or pity. And for a long crazy moment, I thought that maybe I should dial my mother’s number so they could talk to her, too.
It was holiday guilt, its surface bare and clean and tinged with that amber holiday light, the windows around it dusted with snow as the camera moved in for a close look onto the charming holiday scene inside. The one that showed everyone gathered around the fireplace, full of pie and sated by turkey and gratitude. Faces turned toward the fire, backs turned to the hurt feelings of the year, of all the years.
Guilt has a way of regenerating in me, from the tiniest number of cells, even when there’s nothing for me to feel guilty about. This particular organism is of the but-she’s-their-family-too strain. Perhaps I was softened by the email she sent on my birthday that was pleasant, or her helpful email later in the month after I posted a sample of her mother’s handwriting.*
But, as I said to my sister, “That’s how she pulls you in.”
The craziness always comes back around, its wheels grooved to fit a track that goes only in a circle.
Maybe she didn’t spend Thanksgiving alone, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did. And even though I know she has chosen in so many small ways and a few big ones to make it virtually impossible to be with us or with her other children, I felt a little bit bad for her. It’s a flaw in me (it must be for all the sense it makes) that I can’t seem to remove. A broken bottle at the side of a road that still collects water when it rains.
I know my own reasons for keeping my distance, but part of me knows that at some point it will be up to my children to find their reasons to have a relationship with her, or to turn away. I worry that they will be hurt by her, that they will learn the lessons I’ve learned. That, like my relationship with her, theirs will be a one-trick pony.
And that’s where the other part of me steps in front of them, as their mother and protector.
They don’t ask many questions, not yet, but they will. They know they have a grandmother who lives in Kansas, and that they haven’t seen her in four years. But there are a lot of relatives they don’t see often.
Here’s the guilt at its root, though: Because my father and stepmother kept my sister and me from her for so many years, I am particularly sensitive to doing the same thing. I know how it felt not to see or know my mother for almost 15 years.
And the truth is, she hasn’t hurt my kids. She doesn’t ask about them, she doesn’t send them cards on their birthdays or at Christmas, but she hasn’t hurt them. Still, I can’t ignore what I know to be true of her. I can’t pretend not to know in my bones that one day she will write an email or letter to them, one full of blame for all the ways she’s been wronged all these years, and by whom, one that makes them feel bad about some part of themselves they never thought to doubt. Or words that would dig at the past until all that I’ve managed to put behind me lies in an enormous pile of hurt in my path.
She might say that she won’t do that. Or (and this is my instinct) she will say that they need to know the truth about their family. She’s not wrong. And she’s not even wrong about some of what she would say about my father. I’ve put off writing a post about him for the Fears and Events and Prayers series you see in the sidebar (my longtime readers and some of the new ones have read the first three installments). I meant to write it over the summer, but when my father had a serious health scare, I didn’t have the heart to do it. Soon, though.
But that’s just it. I still feel like it’s my story to tell, that I should be the first one to tell these stories to my children, when the time is right, if ever. And I don’t trust her to let me do that. I don’t trust her.
So even though she changed course in her birthday email to me and signed it as “Mom,” she still isn’t that to me.
She’s said as much. And on Thanksgiving, I couldn’t be sure that if she answered the phone to the sound of my voice or the voices of my children, that she would lay claim to any of us. Or that anything had changed at all. And my children deserve more than silence on the end of a phone line on a holiday – or worse, a voice saying that she doesn’t have a daughter named Jennifer, or grandchildren with their names.
Unless I know that it won’t happen that way, they will just have to trust me.