On the line

by Jennifer on November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving night, my kids were talking to my dad on the phone, the obligatory holiday call that doesn’t yet feel obligatory to them.

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.

And theirs.

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.


*I had to give her credit for not posting the contents of her emails in the comments in this space, which she did a few months ago. I vowed then that I wouldn’t change what I write even though it’s possible that she might read it here. This is my space, and she arrived here uninvited.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

kl November 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm

I so relate to that “should I or shouldn’t I” feeling and you just have to go with your gut. I had an “I should talk to him” feeling for a moments yesterday, and I put it off. It wasn’t an hour later that I got my feelings hurt and told him so, and he just laughed. I was so glad I held my thoughts and words inside to never be heard by his ears. SO… GO with your GUT! I’m with you!!!


suburbancorrespondent November 30, 2008 at 7:34 pm

As someone who is having a very difficult family weekend here, I feel safe in assuring you that you must protect yourself first of all. Your children need a mother who is sane and whole. As do mine…

suburbancorrespondents last blog post..Take Me Out To The Costco…


Leanne November 30, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Yep, you need to protect them and trust your instincts. Hopefully you can keep the kids and her apart long enough until they are old enough to understand that. Sigh. As if raising kids isn’t hard enough….

Leannes last blog post..The first of December


JCK November 30, 2008 at 9:31 pm

That piece of you that feels guilt at times, that tiny piece that burns -that is why you are so special. No, you should not feel guilt. You haven’t done anything. But, you are a loving, thoughtful person and a wonderful mother, so of course these flashes will come. You described it so beautifully:

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.

You have a gift, my friend. I so hope your holiday was fun despite your husband being gone.

JCKs last blog post..those small moments stay with you


flutter November 30, 2008 at 11:33 pm

You know? Your truth needs no explanation and no excuse to your mother. Let her bring her tripe here…I will jump on your bandwagon every time.

flutters last blog post..A writer’s soundtrack


Hilary December 1, 2008 at 7:11 am

“A broken bottle at the side of a road that still collects water when it rains.”

A mother who makes you feel like this does not deserve your feelings of guilt. When the time comes for your children to know the ugliness of a parent who does not cherish her own, you’ll know it for sure. Just as you know that you need to protect your heart, and theirs at this time. I’m sorry that she’s not there for you. I’m glad for your children that they have such a wonderful, thinking, feeling mother.

Hilarys last blog post..A Knock at the Door


apathy lounge December 1, 2008 at 8:40 am

Guilt: The voice of one’s conscience or just a worm of destruction out to kill happiness? I can’t decide. Here’s what I do know: It’s really hard to forgive people when they don’t apologize for whatever they’ve done to be hurtful. Even though my parental issues are not like yours, they’ve given me trouble in the past. For this reason they do not know about my blog. It is my refuge. Here’s hoping that the issues which CAN be resolved GET resolved soon. And those that can’t fall away and fade with time.

apathy lounges last blog post..Thanksgiving Recap: A Photo Essay


Coco December 1, 2008 at 9:21 am

It’s not a flaw in you that makes you feel a little bad about the idea of her spending a holiday alone. It’s part of what makes you so much more, in so many ways, than she is and what she does.

It’s also, I think, a testament to the pull of mothers on their children, no matter what hurt and poison has been cast in the path. It is powerful. It’s in the very cells that make us up. I’m sorry she can’t open her heart to it.

I completely agree with your decision to keep your own children from her for now. Hopefully someday things can change, but if not, at least you’ve spared them from those crazy-train words for this time.


Emily R December 1, 2008 at 9:23 am

there is a big difference between what sue did (a violent act of subverting your relationship — dishonestly) and you keeping the from her (a protective act).

Emily Rs last blog post..At least they’re talking to each other


Mrs. G. December 1, 2008 at 9:57 am

Aarrggh…mothers. Honestly.

Mrs. G.s last blog post..Finally! The Thanksgiving Movie


melissa December 1, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Yes, stay away from her. It’s safest.

melissas last blog post..Raw nose, sore throat


Dharmamama December 1, 2008 at 12:52 pm

*gasp* My stomach flipped when I read that your mother reads here! You have my undying admiration for remaining true to yourself.

And yes, protect them. There’s no need to invite that kind of crazy into their lives.

Dharmamamas last blog post..Exactly Sixteen Years Ago…


fancy feet December 1, 2008 at 3:43 pm

It sounds like you’re following your heart and I don’t think you can ever go wrong with that.

fancy feets last blog post..In the Now


Bruce December 1, 2008 at 3:59 pm

This is a very good example of why I don’t really care for the Holiday season anymore. It seems that no matter who I know or talk to there is always an underlaying feeling of guilt, or expectation not meant, or anxiety or worry.

Correct me if I am wrong here, but that was never what this whole ‘Christmas’ thing was supposed to be about. It was time of celebration and joy and forgiveness. But alas, it seems that we American will screw up any Holiday if we throw enough money at it.

Bruces last blog post..Essential Cinema – 41


Louise December 1, 2008 at 6:50 pm

I really liked what JCK said. All of it.

You HAVEN’T done anything about which to feel guilty, and I don’t believe guilt is healthy. A conscience is healthy, but guilt is not.

As one who has suffers my own similar guilt, I will say that my head keeps me in line most of the time. I remind you that it was my grandmother that taught me to feel the deepest guilt. Her legacy is carried on in her remaining children and even her grandchildren. You do not want your kids to get that. I never bought the biological ties bit. Those ties destroyed my mother, and they’re tried very hard to destroy other family members. Not that your mother is exactly the same, but I see so many similarities in her attitudes and behaviors as that of my grandmother.

When those feelings arise, call “L” instead. Call me.(Though hopefully I’m not the grandmotherly type yet.) Watch The Princess Bridge. Do what it takes to get past it.

For the record, I have a letter/card from Sue in the box where we keep our mail until we have time to go through it. It’s been there over a week. I haven’t opened it. I’m not sure if I will. I know I felt like I had accomplished something when I could put mail from Sue’s mother in the trash without opening it.

The thing is, your mother has made a couple of somewhat nice gestures, but I’m going to agree with Ducky on that. She’s pulling you in. Until I get full-blown apologies (without excuses) for specific things, I cannot believe people have changed. I do not believe I am negative or unforgiving here. Every time I give in to the guilt, someone gets hurt. Usually it’s me, but not always. And I don’t want that hurt transferred to my kids. There is nothing. NOTHING wrong with your protecting your kids. And there is nothing wrong with their never having any contact with your mother… EVER. I have blown every chance there will ever be of my children being in a 4-generation picture. Those generations are not important enough to preserve.

Go easy on yourself, and seriously, call someone else (put me on the list) when you are going through this. I have done the same to you when I was going through it. And FTLOGAATIH, PLEASE spend next Thanksgiving (or any other holiday) with us!!! We will melt those temptations away with a nice game of “Ticket to Ride.”

Louises last blog post..The Polar Express–My World


Jenn @ Juggling Life December 1, 2008 at 8:20 pm

The family stuff is hard. Really hard.

Jenn @ Juggling Lifes last blog post..Into The Wild Blue Yonder


Ducky December 1, 2008 at 8:44 pm

But that could be the crazy Christmas letter, which is good for laughs!


Denise December 1, 2008 at 8:49 pm


And Happy Thanksgiving to you!!

Denises last blog post..Webster, I think I lurrrvee you!


the mama bird diaries December 1, 2008 at 9:17 pm

My heart just hurts for what you have been through. You’re a great mama. A great protector. No guilt.

the mama bird diariess last blog post..eco friendy holiday cards (and a discount too!)


Mrs. Chili December 2, 2008 at 7:01 am

Are you SURE we don’t have the same mother?! Is her name Bonny? Because, DAMN!

Look, here’s the thing; she HAS hurt your kids. Maybe not directly, but the way she chose to conduct her relationship with you and all the residual crap that came (or, rather, comes, because, let’s be honest, it’s an ongoing thing) with that has an enormous impact on YOU, and you can’t separate that from how you, in turn, parent.

Further, I think that she IS wrong. Your children don’t HAVE to know anything about her family. Honesty and full disclosure for their own sake aren’t always GOOD things. Do my children need to know about how my parents treated me? Do they need to know about generations of abuse and dysfunction in order for them to live full and productive lives? Absolutely not. In fact, I think that introducing those things would be detrimental to their well-being. The LAST thing I want them thinking is that they’re somehow genetically destined to be miserable.

I’ve managed to establish a warm, loving, supportive family specifically BECAUSE I’ve excluded my biologicals from our lives, and their inclusion would do more to UNDO the work that I’ve done than to bring any kind of benefit to my children – or to me.

Jettison the guilt. Blood does not equal love.

Mrs. Chilis last blog post..Monday Meme


Ree December 2, 2008 at 10:50 am

You answered my question with your followup. And good for you for not changing what you write – never censor yourself when it comes from your heart.

Rees last blog post..Mute Monday – Q


Ann December 2, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Indeed protect your children from that which has repetitively shown itself prone to injure others. Having had to “cut off” some of my own family, however, I do understand the pull and the confusion. And how it comes back (holding hands w/ guilt) over and over…


Madge December 2, 2008 at 7:09 pm

I love that you are taking care of them and not giving into the guilt. I cringe every time my kids are around my mom — just waiting for them to get hurt, even though she’ll never hurt them like she hurt me..

Madges last blog post..Seriously? Ten Things Tuesday


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