The boxes not in storage are mostly unpacked now. We are installed at Meadowbrook Apartments, on the second floor, waiting not-too-patiently for our new home to be renovated. It’s a nice apartment, looking out into a huge oak. Although ours is located next to the hospital it’s quiet. I haven’t seen a meadow or brook, but the West Trenton line runs though the woods beside our parking lot; the train thunders cheerfully by now and then. The whole complex is full of old trees, consequently squirrels. Also a clowder (a glaring?) of well-fed stray cats. The cats, and the old lady who feeds them, remind me of Berith, a force to be reckoned with, who loved her cats and dogs.
Berith C. Acton was my mom-in-law. She died suddenly, just as we entered the enormous effort of packing our house. I have hardly Had time to think about it. But when I see the prowling kitties, or when Owen wears his bright orange SunCoast tshirt, it aches to be reminded of the empty chair and puzzle table in Treasure Island Florida, just a block from Sunset Beach. Mom did not approve of our move. She let us know that it was “very sad” that we were leaving our home in Maryland, which she had visited so many times, to help after babies came, to witness Halloween, to help us get our tree and bake cookies for Christmas.
One of the early statements Mom made to me was regarding living on a barrier reef island – “terrible for the environment. No one should live on a barrier reef island.” But she did, and loved being so close to the Gulf. She loved living with her sister Gwenda, her travel partner all over the world, who also drove her nuts. She was always complaining about Gwenda. And I am cetain Berith drove Aunt Gwenda just as nuts. Mom loved classical music, Gwenda didn’t care for it. Mom disliked air conditioning, Gwenda liked it. Mom loved sci-fi (Star Wars!! StarTrek!!! even Buffy the Vampire Slayer), while Gwenda enjoyed romance novels. Mom loved cats, but didn’t have one for years because Gwenda hated them. Of course all my information comes from one point of view. When Mom took over the downstairs apartment, each sister had her own floor of the tiny beach house. Then cats could enter the equation.
Berith Acton passed from one life into the next life at noon on June 17th, with her boys all standing near. Even if it had been possible for me to be present, it would not have been appropriate to enter that sacred intimate family space. I would not have wanted to invade Edward’s and his brothers’ time with her, but I wouldn’t have minded a moment of my own. All summer, in the spaces between packing up our house, I have been trying to process the hole that Berith leaves behind, in my life, and in our family’s. Part of that story is also the story of the loss of my own mother, so many years before.
Under very different circumstances than Berith’s my own mom, Marianne Nicholson Gladish, died just before Christmas in1984, when I was twenty-one. It was sudden, the result of an aneurysm from her cancer drugs. She died as the medical staff tried desperately to save her life, no family members were with her. Afterwards my grieving dad dealt with the whole thing himself, on auto-pilot. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been for him. We had no opportunity to say farewell to her body, and it was not a time for cozy family remembrances of her. We desperately carried on all Marianne’s traditions, in an effort to keep some normalcy in our shorn lives. It is no exaggeration to say that the loss of my mom has affected my marriage, and the lives of all my children – for good as well as for bad.
One of the effects of that loss of my biological mother was that I needed Berith in a way that I would not have, otherwise. And over the years, I would find myself trying to plug Berith into that “Marianne void” with very poor results. My mom and my mom-in-law were very different women, with very different stories, and very different life experiences. The kind of open, warm affection that was natural to my mom (and dad) was foreign to my mom-in-law — I suspect that she never received it herself. Her family was more shy, and in Marianne’s family emotional wounds hung out there. My mom was the “golden child” in her family of origin, my mom-in-law seems to have been the “problem child” of the family — with a super-achiever older sister keeping her in line. Would Mariane have enjoyed knowing Berith? I think so; my mom had an excellent sense of humor, and wonderful social skills — something her daughter has struggled to learn.
The first time I spoke to my mother-in-law was by phone from University of Chicago, on pretext of finding a book, since she ran a book shop. Berith could sniff out a “pretext” a mile away, and did not care for polite chat. She was very uncomfortable talking to me, and edgy, and basically let me know she didn’t understand why the hell I was calling her to ask such a question. I was not prepared to be completely rebuffed. I wasn’t prepared any of the subsequent times it happened either.
By the time I met her, Mom-Berith had a long colorful history expressing herself boldly, loudly, and heartlessly, in defiance of the niceties of social life. Everyone in the entire extended family including Edward’s dad seemed to have stories of outrageous or hurtful things she had said, at one time or another. But then the whole family Is a loud, boistrous group, protective of each other and connected, but much more comfortable drinking together than talking about emotional wounds or repairing them. Not a good place for bleeding hearts. Or, is it?
But my mom-by-marriage doted on her cats. Mom told her cats all the crazy, affectionate, and silly things, in a loving voice, that she couldn’t say to her loved humans. (She is known in Treasure Island for yodeling at the top of her lungs to call the kitty home for bed.) To her human children she sent her love by mail — packages for every holiday, cards with money in them for every birthday of every son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. Elaborately wrapped gifts arrived at Christmas with lots of handmade bows, and later hefty checks when shopping became too much. She loved her family, yet she could not express her love for her family. The first time she echoed my “love you!” at the end of our family phone call Edward said that was the first time he had ever heard her say those words. Did I mean it? Did she?
Each Decemeber for many years Mom came to stay with us to bake her famous Christmas cookies. I would take her shopping, and let her take over my kitchen, mixing, rolling, baking, then wrapping each one, and packaging them in boxes to ship out to the family recipients. It is challenging, letting another woman take over your kitchen, and every year it started smooth then got uncomfortable, as I inevitably chatted too much and about topics that made her uncomfortable, and she prickled and took contrary views apparently just to pick a fight.
Looking back it reads like theater: Right at the time of year when my psyche was preparing for the anniversary of this blow the loss of my own mother, into my life I invite a woman who is famously undemonstrative and difficult. Usually Berith would not have wasted time on someone of my personality, nor I on her. We were complete mis-matches. And how much more so at Christmas time, season of family and pain, fullness of heart and emptiness, of loving and loneliness. She and I floundered and frustrated each other, year after year. Certainly she wanted to know her grandchildren and connect with Edward, even if she was not able to tell them the things she really wanted them to know. Instead she rolled cookies with them, argued about politics, drank her gin on the rocks, and watched the news.
The dark humor here could have been the end of the story. But looking back, I see that it is not. In her last years, loneliness softened her, and Mom-Berith expressed care for me, possibly to enjoy my company, or at least trust that I cared for her and was not a faker. And I learned to be better at loving safely, creating the required boundaries, and not to pour my heart out.
I remember how hard my own mother tried to teach me these social skills, with little success. I took my psychic wounds seriously; I bled. Mom-Marianne tried to teach me teen social skills, too: how to talk to my peers, how to stand, to appear nonchalant…she was very gifted at putting things into words. But I didn’t get it. Poor Marianne! She worried about me (which of course was no help). Later my wonderful husband showed me how, by loving me and being a fantastic example of social ease. But Mom-Berith showed me in her own way, brutally, but not brutal on purpose but because that is just the way she had always functioned. Reflecting on this makes me laugh out loud, as I am typing it. How we confused each other!
And, I loved her. I feel protective of her. Edward came back from Florida saying “My mother had a hard life.” I believe that she had no tools to say what was in her heart, and so she grew a thorny, hilarious, dramatic, prickly shell over her tender side to protect it. I long to hold the little girl she was, to tell her all the things that were special about her. That is my way. But I expect that little girl might have stamped on my toe and told me to cut it out. That was her way.
What makes us who we are? Nature? or Nurture? You have enriched my life, Mom. I am amused, and improved, and in the end warmed by knowing you. I am sure you are giving them fits in heaven. XO