Mother’s Day

Mary Gilruth Sealy (later Hoffmann) in 1933

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of my mother is her anger. The second thing is her wonderful sense of humor. The first quality caught me by surprise at a very early age and led to years of angry dreams wherein I sometimes actually killed her (or at least tried to). At times she would fly into uncontrollable rages over nothing, terrifying me as a toddler—an only child who depended on her. (My mom had two “only” children, fifteen years apart. I scarcely ever knew my half brother.) At other times her patience with me was boundless. I never knew what to expect and early on I tried to control her moods by being “perfect.” I made a chart on a shirt cardboard and gave myself a gold star on the days when I didn’t make any mistakes, while a black star was for days that were full of errors. In the end, I found that most of my days were half black and half gold. My father tried to talk to me about “shades of gray” in life, but I don’t think I, at the age of five or six, understood what he meant.

Sometimes she would be so out of control that her face would contort and her hands would be curled up claw-like, shaking with rage and the desire to do me bodily harm. She would scream things at me such as, “I’ll strip you to the buff! I’ll skin you alive! I’ll beat you black and blue!” (Later in life I learned that she had had an Irish nanny who had inadvertently taught my mom how to swear very colorfully and probably had used these terrifying phrases on her when she had misbehaved.)

However, watching this metamorphosis from “Mom” to “monster” had a profoundly disturbing effect on me. As I had no verbal ability to combat these rages (especially in my first five years of life), I would become violent, deliberately breaking things to express my outrage. This was not a good solution, either, and persisted into my twenties: far too long, but apparently my tantrums were somehow rewarded by ending the argument.

She knew when she had become dangerous to both herself and me, and would abruptly slam out the front door, leaving me terrified and alone. At those times I would try to find a safe hiding place, convinced that monsters watched me from all of the windows. She would reappear about a half hour later (forever, in child-time), and say, “All right. We’re going to be nice now.”

“We”? She had walked off her rage and was left feeling peaceful, while I was still furious and baffled. Half the time I didn’t even know why I had been punished. And I was supposed to be “nice”? What did that even mean?

Sometimes she tried to justify herself by telling me what her older sister Margaret had done to her (the woman sounded evil!) But that confused me even more: I wasn’t Margaret and I hadn’t done these things to her—I hadn’t even been there. Mom always had to be right; and when she felt she wasn’t, she resorted to long excuses about how it wasn’t her fault because she had been abused by her parents and sister as a young girl. From this I learned three things that were to create great difficulties in my life: the first was that it was all-important to be RIGHT. The second was that it was OK to do the wrong thing as long as you had a good excuse for it. And the third was that the world MUST be the way I wanted it to be and under my control, or all hell would break loose—I might even die. Needless to say, these rules have not served me well. Finally (especially as a child), I longed for the approval of others, as that was the only thing I thought would keep me “safe.”

As I grew older I became increasingly frustrated by her manipulativeness. If I ever tried to address the problem she was having with me she would counter with a sarcastic, “Oh yes. I’m a bad mother.” Whatever my needs were, it was always about her, not me. She would control when the episode began and when it ended. I never had a say.

This often led to some crazy confusion in my mind. For example, when I was three, I remember trying to appease her when she was angry about having to prepare dinner and felt she wasn’t going to be able to do it on time. I desperately wanted to help her (and to avoid an explosion), so I went into the pantry and put the round heat diffuser onto the floor (she sometimes put this banjo-shaped, perforated metal object under pots on the stove when they were cooking too fast). I then decided to “cook dinner” for her so she wouldn’t have to do it.

I have to add here that at three (and even later in life) I often confused fact with fantasy. Thus, “cooking dinner” involved taking all the spice jars from the rack and mixing them up on the heat diffuser on the floor, creating an unholy mess. Needless to say, this did nothing to pacify my mother, even though I was really sure she must have seen that I was trying to help her (understandably she saw nothing of the kind). I assume I remember this incident for its result, which was the howling rage it must have brought on, although I really don’t remember the aftermath of my well-intentioned “cooking” efforts; just my pride in being able to “help out.”

As a teenager I saw other mothers handle “disastrous” mistakes their children made and saw the patience with which they handled these incidents. It wasn’t until then that I realized that there could have been other responses to my childhood errors, responses that could have even been transformed into learning episodes.

My father’s mother was devoted to me but did not like my mother (the feeling was mutual). However, my mom always invited her to spend the weekend with us, so I could play with her. Grandma Hoffmann was so much fun! I still wear her diamond ring that she promised me, and think of her often every day.

When she stayed with us she would sleep in the other bed on the sleeping porch Dad had enclosed and made into a charming bedroom for me. Grandma sewed lovely yellow floral curtains for the windows that made up three sides of this porch, and it was a pleasure to wake up to the eastern sun blasting through those windows.

One time (I was seven?) I remember dreaming that my mother was slowly metamorphosing from “Mom” to “monster” and I woke up screaming, “I’ll kill you, you bitch!” Grandma Hoffmann was shocked to the core by the violence in my voice, and even more shocked when I told her what my dream was about.

It wasn’t until I was over thirty that I gained a small amount of insight into what was behind Mom’s rages. As I’ve said, I often confused fact and fantasy as a child; but the notion that the world must be as we will it to be is a grown-up version of that same condition. At that time I was working as an executive secretary at Northwestern University and my then-husband was completing his PhD program. We wanted to spend a few days at Christmas with my parents at their beautiful retirement home in Door County, WI, and had arisen at 5:00 a.m. to pack the car before going to work. We didn’t manage to leave before 6:00 p.m. and immediately hit rush hour traffic. When we came to Milwaukee, we stopped for a nice dinner and to relax a bit before the grueling part of the drive began. From there on it was largely two-lane unlighted highways and a continuous battle to stay awake. We arrived exhausted at my parents’ house around 1:00 a.m. (me asleep; poor Gérard driving).

My parents had had a nap and were waiting up for us. When Mom saw how groggy I was and that all we wanted to do was fall into bed, she was furious. “I pictured this lovely Christmas!” she yelled, “And you had to spoil it!” The next morning she got her revenge by dragging us out of bed at 7:00 a.m. because there was “lots to do.” “Lots” entailed a 20-minute vacuuming of the house; everything else was done. She immediately became remorseful and told us we could “have the rest of the day off,” but we were too tired to do anything. Our own very short vacation was spoiled.

What I realized from this episode, however, was that she had “envisioned” a Dickensian Christmas that never would have happened to anyone anywhere, and it was up to us to guess what the script in her head called for and to correctly play our parts. Of course we couldn’t, and that took an incredible load off of me. If I was failing to read her mind, that was OK: it was her problem, not mine.

In fairness to Mom, her frustration stemmed from the fact that she had made the choices almost any single mom in the Depression would have had to make: marry and become a servant to your husband and family, or starve.  She had my brother to consider when she married my dad in 1938 (Fred was eight then), and they deeply loved my father; it could have been worse for them. However, she was an athletic, sociable person who was not cut out for cooking and living isolated in a suburban house day after day. Any attempts she made to express and develop her personal talents was quashed by my father who wanted to be the only creative person in the family (I was not similarly discouraged, however, and I think she resented this too).

Mom was not allowed to work, although she had great executive capabilities, as this would have “reflected badly” on the man of the house. It was the 1950s and women were supposed to rejoice in child rearing and domesticity and men were supposed to be the breadwinners. Once I asked my mom if she regretted not working; her answer astounded me. She said she would rather not try to achieve something than to try and fail. This was contrary to everything I was being taught in school, and even at home. I vowed then and there never to be afraid of failure, although it took me a long time to arrive at that condition. So she was a good teacher, even if it was in spite of herself.

She also knew how to ignore adolescent teasing, while I gave up my power to my tormentors, fearing their displeasure. I know she would never have done that. However, my dad and I tended to wear our feelings on our sleeves and he had also had a terrible adolescence because of it. Dad really understood my agony over ostracism and gossip, which ended when I entered high school, where there were so many kids that I could disappear into the mass if I wanted to. Nevertheless, it was Mom who ferociously defended me: woe be to anyone who threatened her child! She tried to teach me how to feign carelessness, and though I envied her ability to do this, it was a long time before I learned how.

She was a clever politician, too. When I was “in love” with a delinquent boy in high school, she made no effort to tell me to abandon the relationship. Instead, she cleverly arranged to have my friends over to our house, where we had fun and were secretly monitored by my (invisible) parents. When Mike ended up in Cook County Jail one summer, Mom arranged for me to spend three months in Germany and Europe. By the time I returned home (and found out that Mike had gotten someone else pregnant), I didn’t care any more. I was off to college in California, 2,000 miles from home, where I wouldn’t suffer from maternal clashes and could begin to live independently. She wanted to get back to her own life—and to see me independent as well. No fool, Mom!

Our best times together were when she got out her childhood diaries and we laughed at the things she wrote. She knew how to be a child and how to share that with me; it was being an adult that she hadn’t mastered.

She also knew that Dad could be a bit aloof, so she made me an early dinner and then had me come down later and have coffee with them while they ate. These were some of the most fun times I ever had with anyone! We could tease each other; argue over words (Dad’s first language was German, so he was always learning English); share our dreams; and (in the event of an approaching storm) grab a bottle of wine and go out onto the front porch to cheer for the thunder and lightning before the storm broke. She could be soooo funny! And she could laugh at herself as well. After dinner, Dad and I would do the dishes and discuss philosophy, books, art, or whatever we wanted. This was her way of seeing that he and I knew each other, and I’m very grateful for that time together.

Did I ever love her as a mother? I think she was more of a sort-of-bipolar sister to me. If I needed advice I went to my dad. Mom and I were like oil and water. In college, I would receive short letters from her, along with lots of clippings from the Wilmette Lifeconcerning people I didn’t know but apparently went to high school with. Boring!

Dad, on the other hand, got a new “semi-electric” typewriter and would send me letters that began more or less sensibly—and then he would hold down a key and roll the paper for the pleasure of seeing the shapes it would make—and then go off on another tangent. When he got a new lathe, he turned teensy cups for me (as practice for him), and would stuff them with wadded up checks or small poems. One time he had shoulder pains and found out he had bursitis, so he wrote about our family, “We are three little poops reaching for the stars and getting bursitis in the attempt.”

My mother’s friendships with other women, her garden club (which I understand now: I love plants!), her women’s club meetings: none of these resonated with me. If anything, I was convinced (from the age of four or five) that I never wanted to have children (and I didn’t); and that men made better friends than women. That is finally starting to change, as I meet incredible women (and as the men in my generation die off). But she never understood me. Everything I did “embarrassed” her, as I was always very unconventional. What other people thought mattered to her almost more than anything; from college on I couldn’t have cared less.

When she was 96 and I was visiting her for the last time, she was blind, deaf and couldn’t walk. She was so sunk in herself that even after I fed her and kept her company for a week, she turned to me one night at dinner and said (with real contempt in her voice): “When did you get here?!?” These were her last words to me.

I really admired her for the anguish and humiliation of her teenage years (she became pregnant her senior year of high school; married a ne’er-do-well; and—worst scandal of all—went through a divorce at 19 or 20); her physical courage and athleticism; and her ability to negotiate (or, at worst, manipulate) people. She had many wonderful friends, but never got past her anger or her need to aim it at me. I don’t know if I loved her as much as respected her for her struggles. But, for better or worse, she was a huge part of making me what I am today.