Island Voices

Dear Old Mom

By Mary Litchfield Tuel

I have spent years in therapy trying to get the critical inner voice of my mother to pipe down, without success. Having realized that, I thought if I can’t get her to move out, I might as well mine her for material.

My mother was fond of telling me that I was lazy. Also, that I was just like my father – I only thought of myself. I know now that thinking of themselves is how children survive.

My mother was a troubled woman who didn’t think she was troubled. She described herself as “happy-go-lucky”after being abandoned in an orphanage when she was six years old. Abandonment did not affect her negatively in the least, she said, and she got mad if anyone suggested it had.

Like most parents of her generation, she felt no guilt for hitting her children, physically or verbally. She was the parent; ergo, she was right. Her preferred move was a slap in the face. Late in life, she asked me if there was anything she could have done better as a parent, and when I said it would have been nice to be hit less, she exclaimed, “I never hit you! And I only hit your brother once.”

Okay, mom.

Our Aunt Thelma once told my cousins that my mother grabbed my toddler arm one day and yanked so hard, she dislocated my shoulder. Aunt Thelma was a nurse, and we lived in a small town, so there was no keeping that secret. I did not and do not remember it, but I wasn’t surprised to hear it.

My mother had a sense of humor, but she tried not to show it. She was terrible at telling jokes. She’d start in, “There was this lady on a train with a dog…” and then say, “No, no, that comes later. Oh, and I forgot…”

Once she said to me, “Remember! The mighty acorn was once a little nut like you!” Then she looked surprised because she realized she’d said acorn instead of oak. Then we both laughed, which was a rare occurrence.

But wait. There was the time we were going home from the Seattle World’s Fair.

In 1962, the train service changed from Burlington Northern to Southern Pacific in Portland. We ended up staying overnight in a hotel.

Somehow, somewhere I picked up a risqué coming-of-age novel told in the voice of a profane teenage boy. I didn’t know what it was when I got it. The cover made it look like it was funny. I liked funny.

Well, it was funny, all right. My mother picked it up and started reading and laughing. I snuggled up in the hotel bed with her and we read it together, laughing our socks off. She made me go take a shower when we got to the part where it looked like the boy might have sex. (Spoiler: he did.)

The next day, shame kicked in and she told me that I was not to tell anyone we’d read that book.

I never did. Her secret was safe with me.

Until now.

My mother was abusive, and she was a human being. I’m not looking for pity here, nor do I mean to minimize my, or anyone’s, experience. It was awful and it happened. I have been dealing with the fallout of her abuse all my life.

Most children acquire battle scars of one sort or another and my heart goes out to all of you, all of us, in recognition of our common humanity and the abuse we survived. Comparisons are useless. Did my mother have it worse than I did? I am pretty sure she did, but what happened to me was bad enough.

I encourage you to give yourself a break if this kind of childhood left you with lifelong twists in your opinion of yourself. Maybe you recognized PTSD symptoms when they were first described. Maybe you thought, “Hey, this sounds like me.” I did.

As for laziness – if I’m sitting still, or reading during the daytime, or thinking about all the chores that need doing, I feel like I am living down to what my mother drilled into me: I am lazy, lazy, lazy.

Which reminds me. I have a couple of baskets of laundry I need to fold and put away.

I think I’ll go lie down with my Kindle and not do that.

October 16, 2022

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