My Mother’s Birthday (August 24, 2010)

Today, my mother Gloria is 54 years old. I have no idea how she is celebrating, because it was nine years ago that she committed identity fraud against my sister and I, and left the family home with nothing more than the clothes on her back and her trusty carton of cigarettes. My mother is an accomplished sociopath, which I did not learn until long after she was gone. I say this without bitterness, anger or irony. It is simple fact. It took me years of therapy to be able to utter this truth without finding myself crushed by an avalanche of conflicting feelings.

This is the first time I have really opened up about this subject in writing, besides light allusions to parental dysfunction that left me with an ingrained fear of personal credit. But the only fear I have left is how my beloved sister Jen will feel about the public exposure of our mother figure’s darkest sides. However, having been raised with the twin companions of secrets and lies, I learned long ago that bottling never led me anywhere but a variety of analyst couches, and jail.

It is still hard to comprehend my mother’s reaction after I discovered a cache of unopened bills in February 2001, all addressed to my sister or I, many from companies of which I had never heard. In disbelief, confusion and the self-righteous rage that only a 22 year-old can do with justice, I confronted her with what I had found. Her reaction was thoroughly surprising, enough so that I lost my footing and my anger evaporated, as though my head were clearing enough to see Gloria for the first time. She was not at a loss for words. She was not surprised or even sheepish. She calmly put out the current cigarette she was smoking as she lit a new one. Then she looked at me as though I had finally annoyed and disgusted her beyond what her system could handle. She sighed before informing me that she had “run out of money.” Desperate times and all that.

When I recovered enough to ask her what the plan was to fix my now ruined credit, she handed me the “missing” mailbox key, walked out to her car, started the engine, and drove away. I never saw her again. She left me, a 20 year-old sister and a granddaughter who had just turned one. Gone. Poof. Like she never existed – or maybe like we never had. We were left to clean up the puddles of chaos standing in her wake.

My relationship with my mother was never what you might term “warm,” even during the “good” years, before our home became a constant battleground. In ways I only recognized much later, our mother-daughter dynamic was fraught with competition, sabotage and spite. I mean on her end, not mine. For a very long time, I just wanted to be loved, but could never figure out why that wasn’t possible. I was her daughter. Isn’t that the law of nature?

Instead I was confused when my mother would set up auditions for me (tough academic programs, choirs, theaters), only to be disappointed when I would achieve. I would be told later, through her bitter tears, that these were things she wanted as a child but was never allowed to have. So I would put that much more effort into succeeding, for both of us, only to accused later of having a “superiority complex,” even as I was made to listen to my mother bragging about her “talented daughter” to anyone who would listen. To this day, I an unable to accept a compliment, or discuss my own achievements, for fear of the speaker’s intentions, or the risk of being interpreted as an egotist. Awards received and letters of commendation written are generally shoved into a box, or between the books in my library.

This post may sound as though it is full of self-pity, the “poor me” wailings of an abandoned daughter on her mother’s birthday. But in truth, this is a day of celebration. Not having a healthy female role model in my life (or a male one either), I participated in stunted, wary relationships with other women for too many wasted years. I simply didn’t know how to relate. Mercifully, that’s all behind me. I am terribly close with my sister, have a fantastic rapport with my nieces, and have allowed aunts, female friends and professional mentors to educate me on how to bond with women in a way that doesn’t have to hurt.

This Saturday night, I will collect a journalism award from the National Federation of Press Women, a network of talented female professionals and colleagues who have accepted me as one of their own. They have shared successes, but also, and in some cases, more importantly, their mistakes. I am no longer wandering life’s highway without female guidance. It took a long time to get there, but I did.

And that award I will receive? I can tell you it’s not being shoved to the back of a bookcase this time. So happy birthday Mom. Perhaps the only gifts you left me in the end were your negative example, a model of what not to do, followed by the freedom to pick up the tatters of my life after you left without a look behind you. But I am the person I am today – neurotic and scarred certainly – but also part of a healthy family, a somewhat productive citizen, with the peace of mind to know I have never taken anything that wasn’t freely given.

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