Opening the Secret Box

I said I would tell my mother’s story, what I know of it at least. I do this not to make excuses for her but to show the lineage of abuse. I am one that believes we always have a choice in our actions, no matter our history, no matter what has been done to us we always have a choice. My mother’s choice was to hold her bitterness and pass on to me her anger, her bile and her self-hate. I was the empty vessel she poured all her stored resentment into; I was bottomless; different from her in my emotional make-up, proof that we can be greater than our environment.

My mother was born in 1920; the first of two daughters to German immigrant parents, her sister would be born four years later in 1924. The two sisters were as different in looks, temperament and intelligence as it was possible to be. My mother was short, stocky even with a ruddy complexion, thin hair and her father’s prominent nose and thin lips. My mother was never what would be considered terribly attractive, when you added to this her plodding intellect and lack of curiosity she was simply an average person.

The two sisters

Her sister on the other hand was handed all the best physical features of her parents, tall and willowy, with average more feminine features and most important an above average intellect. The differences between the two daughters was apparent from a young age, the favoritism shown to the younger daughter was also obvious from a young age.

My mother was raised in a German enclave of Cleveland, Ohio. The house she was raised in still stands today though the neighborhood is no longer as nice. My mother and aunt attended public schools though they generally were not in the same schools due to the four-year gap in their age. They grew up surrounded by extended family and friends and both of them were bi-lingual, speaking German and English. It was a hardscrabble existence during the twenties, work was hard to find, money hard to hold onto but my grandfather supported his family throughout the depression.

Sometime around twelve years old she was molested by a neighbor, he may have been a family member. This molestation went on for months before she told her mother. According to the story I heard, her mother didn’t believe her at first. This man was a ‘pillar’ of the church and the neighborhood and so my mother was punished for ‘making-up stories’. Then something happened, I don’t know the full story of what happened to bring to light the extent of what this man did, not just to my mother but to other young girls in that neighborhood. It was several years though after my mother had told hers what had happened to her. The man disappeared and nothing more was said. This was the first time my mother’s parents failed her.

My mother told this story in a group therapy session where I was present. I was fourteen at the time. I held that story as ‘close hold’ for forty-four years. I suspect it was supposed to make me ‘okay’ with her treatment of me, it did not change my view that we make choices. Even at fourteen I knew she made a choice to pass her anger down to me.

As my mother matured she sought ways to escape, to leave the enclave and the family that so favored her sister and had failed her so completely. Each choice and opportunity was blocked by her parents and met with ridicule. My mother was not one to scream her fury, not like the daughter she would ultimately raise. My mother was in all respects a conventional daughter, obedient to a fault and more than anything else she sought the approval of her parents, most especially her father. One of the choices that still stand so poignant, that she told me about more than once is this conversation with her father;

Mother: I want to join the Navy, be a Wave and see the world.

Grandfather: Only unnatural women join the Navy. I will not give you permission!

Mind you, she didn’t need his permission at that point in her life she was legally an adult. If I remember correctly she was at least twenty-one. Nevertheless, in her mind, without the blessing of her father she could never follow her dream to see the world, to join the Navy. I think she would have been great!

She had already been quashed in another desire of hers; even uglier in my mind than her desire to join the navy was this one:

Mother: I want to go to college I want a career.

Grandfather: You aren’t smart enough for college; I am not wasting my money. Your sister is going to college you need to find a husband and have children it is all you will be good for.

My aunt did go to college and received her Bachelor’s degree. She also married well, according to my Grandparents. My aunt produced three children in fairly short order after her marriage, another feather in her cap. My mother floundered, sought to find safe footing on land in a sea of disapproval.

My Mother & Father on their wedding day 1951

She met and married my father, who did not meet with my grandparent’s approval and was likely the one thing my mother ever did that was an act of rebellion. That marriage was fraught with heartache for both of them; if ever two people were divinely mismatched it was my parents. If ever a marriage was proof of why it is a bad choice to stay together ‘for the sake of the children’ it was their marriage.

Before embarking on the adoption journey my mother suffered five to seven miscarriages. She failed at the one thing her parents had told her she was good for. Her failure would haunt her. Her loss would haunt her and eventually would haunt me as well. Her loss of her natural children was as if thorns had been driven into her heart that never stopped hurting, never lost their grip. Adoption did not change this for her; I did not replace her children though my brother was a balm for her pain. My mother told me once many years ago, she did not want to adopt she only did so for my father but she was glad she had my brother; I believe her.

That is my mother’s story.

Part One :

%d bloggers like this: