Today is Mother's Day in the United States.
I do not celebrate Mother's Day.
In part, that is because Mother's Day is a corporatized, commercialized fake holiday that diverts people from honoring their mothers on a daily basis. It guilt-trips people into doing things, which in fact a child should honor his mother every day with special gifts, respite from work, special dinners, and bunches of flowers.
I have no photographs of my mother. I was in graduate school in D.C. in 1994 when my father decided to sell our house. Lock, stock, and barrel. He never told me about the sale, and refused to empty the house of its family heirlooms, photographs, and treasures. Subsequently, all my belongings -- and all family photographs -- were thrown away by the new owners.
What was my mother like? My mother grew up in a small town in western North Dakota. My grandmother gave birth to four children, of whom my mother was the youngest. When my mother was just about to enter high school, my grandmother got pregnant again. My grandmother was in her late 40s, and could not care for a baby on her own. So my mother became a surrogate to her little brother, Donnie. Donnie grew up not knowing his brothers and sisters (nor they him), and seeing my mother as a caretaker and not a sibling. (Donnie remains estranged from the family to this day.) My mother's childhood was subsequently spent taking care of her baby brother, not enjoying high school.
My mother was initially adventurous. She travelled to San Francisco after high school, and spent some time there. She worked in Yellowstone National Park, and liked the outdoors. She went to Dickinson State University in North Dakota, and made solid friends for life there. After graduating from college, my mother moved to Great Falls, Montana. She became a public school teacher in the very rapidly growing school district there, like many of her college friends. She dated. She left the public school system and became a speech therapist with the Easter Seals Society. She became involved in the kindergarten movement, just then being adopted in the United States.
But during this period, things changed. My mother's friends married, and she did not. My mother's adventurous nature seemed to drop away. My sense is that my mother felt lonely and afraid -- afraid of being an old maid, afraid of never marrying, afraid of never finding the right man.
She married my father in 1962, a man from the same small North Dakota town who had come to Great Falls to teach as well.
It was a horrible mistake. In the 1950s, my father had been a sort of swinging bachelor. He loved music, he cooked, he enjoyed parties. But he was changing, too. He was a fearful and angry man, and as he aged and he did not marry he became more fearful and more angry. Science fiction movies gave him nightmares. He didn't like heights. He'd suffered a life-threatening head injury (he was kicked by a horse in the skull) as a child, and the injury was now causing extensive personality changes that gave him a violent temper he could not control. He was becoming incredibly selfish.
Their first child was stillborn in December 1964. It destroyed my mother. She sank into a deep, life-threatening depression. My adopted me the next month, primarily as a means of solving the deep depression my mother sank into. My mother became pregnant again in June 1965 (her third wedding anniversary), and my brother J. was born in March 1966.
I was the "make-up child". J. was his son.
My mother became pregnant again in November 1968 (her birthday), and my youngest brother D. was born in July 1969. She'd desperately wanted a daughter. The pregnancy was a very difficult one, and she was told not to have more children afterward. Adoption was out of the question; my father didn't want to adopt kids, he wanted to breed them. He didn't want "fake children", he wanted his own seed and blood.
What my mother was cannot be separated from what my dad was. My dad played favorites among us kids, favoring J. (who was the black sheep of the family) and coddling D. (who was "the baby"). His violent temper and violent actions were taken out on me. My mother stood by and did nothing. Initially, she argued with my dad about the beatings I received. But that stopped by the time I was in the third or fourth grade. Neither J. nor D. had to work around the house; I, being adopted, had to be the workhorse. I had to be the one to "prove" I belong, and had to mow lawns, dig gardens, shovel driveways, fix engines, build fences, pour cement, build act as a home-builder, cook, do laundry.
My father taught me nothing. He believed that his sole duty to me was to feed, clothe, and house me. Our relationship was fraught with fear, hatred, and violence. Did I ever love my father? Perhaps, when I was a small boy. But by the time I entered my early teens, I had come to hate him with my entire soul.
What did my mother teach me? As time went on, my mother withdrew into herself. She established a home business, a preschool, ostensibly because it meant that she could be home to cook, clean, and take care of us kids after school. But a great part of her decision was my father's refusal to allow her to work outside the home. Oddly, the preschool enthralled me. My mother bought children's books to stock the shelves; I read them all, out of a desperate need to get attention from her. It instilled in me a life-long desire to read -- but not because she taught me or encouraged me to read. For the rest of my life in my parents' household, I bought my own books. Not once did my parents buy me a book, or encourage me to read. My mother subscribed to children's magazines like Child's Play and Highlights for Children and Playmate and Jack and Jill and Pack 'o Fun. Workmen installed some large overhanging bins in the basement with two shelves and sliding pegboard front doors to store all the preschool materials in. This was forbidden to us, but by the time I was 10 years old or so I was digging in these magazines to find craft ideas for my overly creative imagination. My mother bought Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas decorations from the Beistle paperware company, and I began taping them up on the picture window in the living room. (It was my father's sole concession to holiday decoration.) My mother never encouraged my decorative skills, my desire to make arts and crafts, or my creativity. She oddly facilitated it, but by accident. She never encouraged it. When other kids' parents made cookies or had cakes on their birthdays, I'd complain to my mother -- who criticized me, told me she didn't have the time, and why didn't I make them on my own if I wanted them so badly? So I learned to cook for myself.
What did my mother teach me? She gave in to my father like an old-fashioned housewife. He rules the roost, even if she did sometimes argue with him. He never hit her, but he hit me -- and I learned never to argue with him. Instead, I learned to give in, submit, obey, cower. That's what my mother taught me.
My mother visited her best friend, Ruth, weekly. My mother would weep and tell her all the awful things my father did, and Ruth counseled her to divorce his sorry ass. But my mother, like an old-fashioned housewife, could not confront the social opprobrium and shame that she imagined such an act would bring down on her. "I'm staying with him for the children's sake," she said. Only, her husband was beating her eldest child, and refusing to parent the other children. Who did she think she was helping? Well, it wasn't for her children's sake; it was for her own sake. And what my mother taught me was that self-sacrifice in the face of violence and insensate selfishness was appropriate and rewarded. I learned to not complain, to not stand up for myself, to take it and shut my mouth.
As I got into my middle and late teens, my mother withdrew more and more into herself. She had breast cancer in 1974, and cancer recurred in various places in her body from 1979 onward. She'd die of cancer in July 1987. Her ability to fight my father essentially collapsed. She withdrew into faith-healing religion, she isolated herself in her craft room in the basement, she stopped cooking, she stopped becoming involved. When my dad, out of the blue, bought my brother J. a $500 stereo for no reason, she said nothing. When my dad agreed to buy J. $350 in ski equipment in 1976, 1978, 1980 and 1983, she said nothing. When my dad bought my brother D. a satellite dish for $1,500 in 1979, she said nothing. What did I get? Another smack in the face. In 1980, I purchased a copy of the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan. My mother reimbursed me the cash. It is the only "for no special reason" gift I remember getting as a child.
It shocked me when she did that. Later, she said that I never asked for anything, unlike J. or D., and she realized that I'd never been given a single gift or purchase. Her admission shocked me. Her guilt was obvious, but... she also never bought me anything ever again. And never apologized, and never mentioned either the favoritism or the guilt ever again.
What did my mother teach me? She taught me not to talk about my feelings, not to admit I had them, not to admit error or guilt, not to mention wrongs or rights. She taught me that you only engage in penance to make things right when the guilt becomes overwhelming.
My teen years were ones of immense struggle. I embraced my homosexuality, but remained in mortal fear of anyone learning about it. I had terrible episodes of deep depression, isolating myself in my bedroom and playing classical music at high volume over and over and over. Even though I got straight A's in school, even though I came straight home after school, even though I never attended parties, my mother and father assumed I was on drugs. They ransacked my bedroom every few months. What did my mother teach me? She taught me mistrust, fear, and ignorance. She taught me that I should never have an open, trusting, honest relationship with anyone. She taught me that violating a person's privacy, and dismissing all the good works they do in favor of assuming the worst about them, was the way relationships worked. She taught me that parents and children should have no relationship whatsoever, and that parenting was all "command and control": Parents order, children robotically do. There was no nuturing, no trust-building, no adult relationship which followed. You just did, like a slave.
My mother died on July 8, 1987. She went to the hospital on July 1 for her regular chemotherapy treatment. She would come home from it, lay down, and barely eat. The following day, she'd be up and around as usual. But not this time. She didn't get up on Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday. She lay in bed, with extreme vaginal bleeding, for days on end. My father lay next to her each night, ignoring the problem. Her friend Ruth came to see her on Friday. She realized what a disaster was going on, and took my mother to the hospital. Her oncologist took X-rays, and said the cancer had invaded every organ in her body in just a few days. She was dying. My father stayed at work on Friday, and did not come to see her until that evening. He spent the night in the hospital, and then came home. I spent Saturday night with her and Sunday day. I was exhausted, and went home Sunday night. The hospital frantically called me on Monday morning at 9:30 AM to let me know she was dying. I and D. got there just as she passed on. My father had gone to work Monday, even though he knew she was dying. He arrived only moments before I did.
In many ways, my mother was a good person. She made the household run, did laundry, cleaned, took care of your wounds, and so on. She bought everyone presents at Christmas, and cooked on Thanksgiving. She watched TV with you, worried that Dungeons & Dragons was going to lead you into satanism and animal-killing, made dinner most nights, and came to school pageants and graduation and band concerts.
She was, far and away, a pleasant and enjoyable person to be around.
She parented very little. And what she taught me were things no child should be taught, although I'm not sure she intended to teach them to me.
No, I don't celebrate Mother's Day.
As for Father's Day? A violent and abusive man provided money for my upbringing. I had no father. I learned, at long last, to jettison the intense hatred I had for him. He means nothing to me.