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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

My Angry Mother, My Angry Self

In 1978, Christina Crawford shocked the world by releasing Mommie Dearest, a tell-all book that detailed the beatings she endured at the well-manicured hands of her famous mother, screen legend Joan Crawford.

“She ought not do her mother like that,” my mom said as we watched a news report about the autobiography. I took note – not of Mommy’s lack of sympathy for Christina’s plight – only of her disapproval towards a daughter who exposed her mother’s ugly side – especially after that mother had died.

Back then, at age 9, I intimately related to the perplexing state of living with a woman crazed with rage yet filled with a supreme love that prompted her to preserve my every hand-written report card and softly intone endearments like “sweetheart, lover, doll-boxy.” At 37, I now reside in the completely confusing, all-consuming state of blind devotion felt by any protector who would undoubtedly rip a mangy dog limb from tail that threaten to bite the same defenseless children she takes her own fury out upon.

Throughout my life, maltreatment has always blended with intense affection as inevitably as bitters in the best martinis, so I always took my mom’s furled-knuckled head knocks like a good little girl. The physical manifestation of Mommy’s antagonism climaxed when I traipsed home through one dawn’s early light during college break, bounding happily down my parents’ sidewalk as friends idled at the curb in a car to make sure, ironically, that I got inside safely.

I smiled at my mother’s chocolate Lab-colored face behind our storm door, until I detected vehemence behind her forced grin. The second I stepped inside, she started to pummel me, her clenched hands landing heavily about my head and back. Stooping low, I peeked up to see my best friend staring incredulously at the situation, then take off slowly, pause, and pull away again.

“What was wrong with your mother?” she asked later. I mumbled an incoherent sound, embarrassed to the hilt, and once again took the shame of Mommy’s unresolved flashbacks of Daddy arriving home with the sunrise inside my own being, suffering in the Stockholm Syndrome-like silence of a captive protecting its abuser. I never fought back.

The proverbial “yes girl,” it’s no wonder why I eloped at 22, saying yes to a violent marriage, yoking myself to a man just like Mommy, as pop psychologists claim women often do. That turbulent union failed within three years. When I later married a good guy then buried the past as deep as Mommy’s body – with her heart literally and metaphorically hardened – I thought all was well. But after procreating and coming soul-to-soul with Mommy’s same frustrations – feeling entrapped by motherhood, marital disillusionment, career unfulfillment – my ghosts of the past resurfaced like ugly Night of the Living Dead monsters escaping their graves on floodlight-bright full moon nights.

My wake-up call rang the day I pinched my preschool-aged son so hard, I left a crescent-shaped scar in his flesh. Long after it faded from both his tender skin and my conscious memory, I crouched with my face on the pewter fabric embroidered with grape-tinged leaves covering a pew, sobbing at the chastising voice booming from both the space above my bellybutton yet floating way above the international flags and royal purple beams festooning my sanctuary’s ceiling. How dare you hurt My child!

After that, I tried to be good and behave my way into becoming a Donna Reed-type – but I knew I needed outside help. A motherless daughter, I’d seen the full trajectory of my matriarch’s life; I knew how her sad story ended. And I wanted better for myself. So the time came to break away from my virtual twin and her twisted logic.

Eschewing all misguided edicts to “keep private stuff private,” I joined a Grief Recovery® workshop and sat across from strangers propitiating as Mommy, while I read a letter filled with never-before expressed rage and joy over undeserved inane fussing to aforementioned thrashings. After nearly four decades, I finally forgave my mother and quit my job as co-conspirator in our silent partnership of sick secrets.

I’d like to say I’m perfect, but even after group therapy I still recreated the scene I’d enacted with my mother at that doorway years ago. I’m realizing that it’s a process to learn better behavior. When I feel myself losing it these days, I pound walls and wood doors.

And I no longer stuff everything inside and play nice for the sake of enabling others’ stuffed-down issues. Now I place my irritation squarely on the shoulders of whomever’s at its source – my husband, my sister, my own self…even God.

Continuing to suck up professional and lay counseling from wherever I can get it helps. Though my neighbors can surely attest to my screaming fits, I’m off the road that ends with children who flinch when you try to hug them. Because I know without a doubt that mistreated kids grow up, learn to write, then pen Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirs.

Paula Mooney is a freelancer writer who lives in Akron with her husband and two young children. Write to her at cpmooney@aol.com or visit http://www.paulamooney.blogspot.com/

This essay was originally published in the July 2006 issue of Akron Family and is available for reprints.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

In the Company of Mothers

I saw her in my pediatrician’s lobby: blonde and good-looking, too much make-up covering her 30-something magnetic face and slight jowl. Fighting time. As she leaned over to read to toddlers milling about, I surveyed the scene – and the dad who honorably gazed away from the fleshy humps uncovered by her deep V-neck. Another fair-haired lady threw her guarded glances.

This kind of vixen pops up often in my observations, student of human nature that I am. One surprised me with a honeyed lilt in her voice and never-before-seen smile in her eyes as she joked with a married man, ignoring the wife at his side. A different one angered me with her pink-bowed, charcoal-black unmentionable (with an intriguing cutout design, I must say) on display above her belt loop for all of Chuck E. Cheese to see.

Truth be told, I readily spot her type because I once was her – a vamp more concerned with the stomach-flipping advances of the male species than the soul-nurturing companionship (or glaring rage and hurt, for that matter) of their better halves. On my bad days, I still am her. The demons she fights are my own.

However, leaving the testosterone-rich soup of corporate America and becoming a desolate housewife helped change all that. In the ghost-town still of these mid-days, all my colleagues are women. Beholden to this corporation of mothers, my need for genuine female friendship (which requires being a respectable female friend) has swung the pendulum in estrogen’s favor. It’s a hard thing to look at your own ugly ways and yield to change, but that’s exactly what I did.

My reward has been a bevy of mommy buddies that I’m grateful to call friends, who reflect my own personhood. Distancing myself from the haters, gossips and fakes, I prayed for divine connections and got them in the following crossover, archetypical characteristics. I hope every woman – be she a mom or not this Mother’s Day – enjoys the same:

Fun-loving and Forgiving
Babs Uhl belongs on a Broadway stage, belting out her soaring soprano range beneath plumed headdresses. Our get-togethers are impromptu and varied, wherein she regales me with tales of drama. She is the paprika in my salt-and-pepper days. My other friend guffaws outright. Often accompanying this joyful quality is a turn-the-other-cheek nature, which forgives my judgmental, inconsiderate and self-obsessed faux pas.

Smart and Soaring
One has her doctorate, another is in law school. Others rest in the higher rungs of billion-dollar firms. But there’s also brilliance in my hausfrau comrades. Take Diane Vrobel, a former chemist who continually feeds the right side of my brain. Mention Proust or Keats and she won’t bat a hazel-brown eye. She easily discusses everything from mob mentality to DNA structure. These aren’t folks that raise my ire with icky feelings of one-upswomanship, but instead are the dangling, delightful carrots whose own intelligence and accomplishments show me what’s possible.

Thoughtful and Trustworthy
Without my day-to-day buddy, Erica Brown, Sgt. Paula’s Lonely Housewives Club Band (featuring moi) would be a whole lot lonelier. Her kind acts are numerous – from the first time she gave me a tape of the sermon I had to flee because of my wiggly kid to her babysitting rescues, Erica has truly come through for me. It’s beyond nice to have friends like her who ask, “How are you doing today?” and then listen to my response. A real woman’s woman, Erica’s pretty gorgeous on the outside, only made more beautiful by the heart within.

Honest and Honorable
My pal Maia Randle is good at telling me the truth, seasoned with love. Like a couple of other women I know, months may pass before we hook up, but when we do, there’s no need to pretend our lives are perfect. Maia’s best quality is her integrity; doing right is first nature to her. Female allies like her are the best because they don’t undercut your value to try and elevate their own positions in life, and they don’t seek opportunities to canoodle with your man.

A Comfortable Confidante
Being with friends shouldn’t be a chore. I like the relationships that grow and flow easily, like ripples over smooth rocks. They return calls. They initiate calls. We click. And though we all might leak minor tidbits on side roads, we don’t blast each other’s juiciest secrets on Front Street. Mine are locked in their vaults and their secrets in mine; we don’t hear our personal business repeated to us from other folks.

Sisterly, with Staying Power
Last but most cherished is my sister, Amber Dobbins-Jones. I love that she’s my best friend, but doesn’t have to be – one of the few long-term companionships I haven’t burned by relocation or backstabbing. I can be my real self in her presence. Everyone should hold dear -- and be -- a friend like all of the above: Someone who forgets who you were, respects who you are, and champions who you’re becoming.

Paula Mooney is a freelancer writer who lives in Akron with her husband and two young children. Visit her blog at www.paulamooney.blogspot.com

This essay was originally published in the May 2006 issue of Akron Family and is available for reprints.

Paula Neal Mooney