Today is my mom’s 64th birthday. She died this past January and the year has invited me into many reflections on our relationship. While she was alive we spent quite a bit of time trying to get the other one to see the legitimacy of our existence. Now that she’s not here and it’s quiet and there is no more proving and haranguing her to see I just have my reflections and they have taken an unexpected turn. I imagine that it is the quiet I needed to be able to see things differently—to see things and to see her with more compassion and grace and pure longing without strings and expectations.
Psychologists and counselors always talk about attachment between mother and infant when looking at how adjusted an adult is in the world. Let’s just say that my attachment to my mother was incredibly complicated. I didn’t feel attached. I felt on my own from as little as I can remember, but then I see these pictures of her and I and I wonder if my memory of my attachment to her is just fuzzy. She was young, but she looked happy and we looked at peace when we were together. However, my memories bring me to many occasions on my own. My parents were unhappy and there was civil unrest in our home and I remember plotting and planning my escape if things should completely come undone. I felt like a kite that was attached loosely to human hands and in the event that I should slip away or be let go I should have a strategy for how I should land.
On the days when the storms would roll in I would expect the house to come off its foundation, but it never did and my parents would stay together and we’d have some reprieve for a few days to a week until the grey took over…
When I got older and I was a tween to teenager the rumblings pulled me into the heart of the storm where I played some role of referee, peace maker or sponge for all the spill over between my parents. My mom was loud and made her thoughts and feelings heard; my father would retreat in depression and silence and so it was easy for me to blame her—I didn’t see that both styles were forms of violence and manipulation. I just saw her aggression because it so often came at me or my brother that I despised her and we had no attachment to protect us or harbor us for the storms.
When I wasn’t playing mediator for the tensions between my parents I was a parenting my younger brothers. My parent’s preoccupation with their conflicts and poor self-esteem and mom’s illness required me to parent and this produced a weird mixture of resentment and fierce loyalty to my brothers.
At 13 and 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 I was really trying my best to do good and to secure love, but the combination I had in my hands seemed to fail me and my family and my mother resented my involvements and so it was in these times I wished Claire Huxtable was my mother. Claire Huxtable was that perfect mixture of beauty, sense of humor and grace. She was a rock for her family—working as a lawyer, yet always ready to engage her children and all the mischief they’d find themselves in. She wasn’t vindictive or resentful… She loved being a mother and a wife and she did it all so seamlessly and I wanted her to be my mother. I loved the way that she talked—with wisdom and grandness and grit. She was the one I wanted. I loved how her smile would spread across her face at the end of a conflict with her children and how she would pull them close in for hugs and kisses. She didn’t let her kids get away with shit and her love was never questioned. I wanted all of that and I thought only Claire could provide it so I wanted her.
As a teenager I couldn’t really see my mom. I could only see what I thought I needed. It would take years of therapy and heart searching to realize that my mom, in all her toiling and struggling and pushing and pulling, she was trying to use the combination she’d been given, too.
Before she died we talked about these things. I mean for years we talked about these dynamics—we acknowledged their existence and we managed to do so and come out alive. Even still, I wondered if my mom loved me and if I there was the slightest chance I had made her proud.
The last several years of her life were difficult. For obvious reasons, the mystery of her illness and the ways in which her body was slowing closing up shop one organ at a time made it incredibly difficult. Relationally it was hard because we didn’t always agree on the course that should be taken, but we muddled through it together. Her rock solid willfulness and unyielding stubbornness drove me completely mad. We would come up with a plan of action and on her own she’d decide to do something different—like the time that she was told her heart and kidneys were failing and she decided that she was going to quit all medical interventions to try an herbal remedy and diet instead. I had to learn to accept that she had the right to make her own, adult decisions—even though I kept thinking, “Why won’t you fight to stay here—for me and for your grandkids”?
Over time I realized that my mom was also looking for a mother’s love. Her mom had left her when she was about 10 or 11 years old and my mom being the oldest daughter raised her younger siblings (all 6 of them). In order to graduate high school, she would take her two- year old sister to class with her. Her father left before she was born and she always questioned her lovability. I started to wonder what it would be like to have a child at 22 after you’d already raised a family… I wondered how that felt. Raising two kids of my own, I imagined it was exhausting and disillusioning. There was never time for my mom to be a kid and so by the time I came along I think my mom was ‘mothered’ out. I could never fault her for that and despite the rough edges she did mother me.
My mom taught me things that I couldn’t learn from Claire Huxtable. My mom taught me how to be yourself. Whether you liked her or not…with my mom—she was who she was and she inhabited her skin unapologetically. I didn’t always understand her background and pride in her Filipino/Hawaiian cultural upbringing, but despite all the ways people tried to twist her to be more adaptable to white culture… She never did. She loved her kimchee, rice, soy sauce and green mangos and peas and pork and she did not care if you thought less of her for what she ate, did or said.
My mom did what felt natural to her. She’d answer the door in hot pink sweat pants and her hair all wild and pinned in random places with bobby pins and I-would-be-mortified. I didn’t know how important that would be for me to witness her in this way. She didn’t get all ‘cuted’ up for anyone—she did what she wanted because it felt good to her.
My mom said what was on her mind. She didn’t mince words and she was horrible at filtering. When people would make a mistake at the grocery store I’d pray under my breath that my mom would not see it or overlook it, because if she didn’t then I knew the person would get to hear what my mom thought about that and I’d want to slink away and melt into a puddle.
My mom did what she wanted and didn’t let status quo norms say she couldn’t. She had always wanted to dance hula, but wasn’t able to when she was a child. When she was in her late 40’s-early 50’s she started taking hula classes. Within a few years she was teaching classes… people commissioned her for all kinds of events. She danced for parades, anniversary celebrations, birthday parties, carnivals, etc. She was such a beautifully exquisite dancer. She excelled in her dance group and people were in awe of her talent. She-gave-two-shits-about what people said she could do or not do.
I always thought my mom had one volume: loud. As a young woman struggling to be a ‘good’ woman I thought how impolite and brash of her, but now I know that my mom laughed not in her throat but from the bottom of her gut because when you have to laugh then for God’s sake let it rip. She had an infectious laugh that reminded you why it is good to live.
Since she died I have been thinking about all these qualities of her and realizing that I couldn’t have survived these forty years without what she has taught me. More importantly, I wouldn’t want to be taught any differently because for the bulk of my life I have tried to make people happy and what I realized is that when I was doing that I wasn’t living at all. The challenges that life has presented me with has needed me to have the same kind of authentic, gritty, scrappy, You-can’t-have-me mentality that my mom taught me. Her survival has become my own.
Today I realize that she was exactly the right mother for me. Claire Huxtable is great, but not who I needed. I needed what my mom taught me—I needed to observe her and learn from her. I needed to grow and without the ingredients my mom gave me I don’t think it would have been as possible. She was the right mom for me.