I’m Not My Mother

I recently celebrated my birthday, which reminded me that I need to send for a copy of my birth certificate. Somewhere among Fort Dix, West Germany, and Michigan it was lost.

My birth certificate is something of a puzzle to me. I have five siblings, all with a first and middle name. My first name is Mary Jane but I have no middle name. My parents told me it was because my first name was a double name and a middle name wasn’t necessary. When you’re different from your siblings, you’re simultaneously proud of the distinction and hurt by it.

I accepted their explanation until I was about 17 and signing up for driver’s training at school. I had to produce my birth certificate and asked my mother to give it to me. I took it out of the envelope and read the details of my arrival, noting that I was born in the morning. But looking at it a second time, I noticed that it listed my first name as Mary and my middle name as Jane. Middle name? I don’t have a middle name. I’m Mary Jane, or “MJ” to family and friends. I’m not Mary. My mother’s name was Mary.

Surely, the folks who printed the birth certificate had misunderstood and listed my name incorrectly. A typo, that’s all. I would have to correct it. We were living in a different state at the time and this was long before the age of the internet, so I had to write a letter explaining my problem and send it via snail mail. A few weeks later, I received the necessary form and filled it out. My mother seemed a bit miffed when I asked her to sign it, though I didn’t understand why and knew better than to ask. I then had to mail it to my father for his signature, as my parents were long since divorced. I have no idea what his reaction might have been.

A few more weeks, and I received a corrected birth certificate. I had them list my first name as “Mary-Jane”, adding the hyphen to prevent confusion in the future. It never occurred to me to give myself a middle name. I was just MJ, as I had always been.

Had my mother not reacted the way she did when I asked her to sign the form to correct my birth certificate, I might have forgotten all about it. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know my mother and I had a very bad relationship. It didn’t start when I was a teenager. She just didn’t like me, let alone love me, and I knew that from the time I was a very small girl. Why, then, would she give me her name? I have two older sisters, one of whom was her favorite. Why didn’t she name her Mary? I find myself wondering about it. By the time I came along, my parents’ marriage was falling apart; and by falling apart, I mean they were openly hostile to one another. Did she name me Mary just to piss off my father? Did he then insist everyone call me Mary Jane instead of Mary, just to piss off my mother?

I can only speculate about my mother’s hatred for me, since it was always present. Her first child was a boy, followed by my two older sisters. Was she hoping that her next baby would be another boy? Did she think that would make things better with her husband? It was the early sixties after all, so that sort of thinking wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Her sister had given birth to a boy just a month earlier.

The funny thing is that my father doted on me when I was very small. He said I was a beautiful baby who was born with a head full of dark brown hair. I used to sit in his lap. There’s an old home movie of him feeding me ice cream when I was about two years old. We used to take naps in his rocking chair. I wonder if my mother was angry because he didn’t hate me, because he wasn’t upset that I wasn’t a boy, and yet her marriage was still a disaster.

I’ll never get any answers, as both of my parents are dead now. By the time I was five, our apartment had become an emotional minefield. My parents never spoke and my father began to disconnect himself from his children. At least I know that he loved me for a few years.

To this day, it irks me when someone calls me “Mary” (no offense to all you Marys out there), and I’m lightning-quick to correct them. I’m MJ. I am not Mary. I am not my mother.

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Unless Love Builds the House

Found an old photo of yours truly with the stuffed dog I discussed in this blog post.

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Each year, I stand before the rack of Mother’s Day cards, searching for one that doesn’t make me want to projectile vomit. I don’t know who writes these things, but their concept of motherhood is somewhere north of the rainbow.  Father’s Day cards aren’t quite as bad, but they still promote the image of a very good father.

I’m not a sentimental person, by nature.  I grew up in a family that didn’t show affection.  Nobody hugged.  Nobody said, “I love you.”  Good grades were expected.  Bad behavior (real or imagined) was brutally punished.  You got by with what you had and didn’t ask why you did without the things other families had.  My parents didn’t speak to one another or to us unless they found something to yell about.

It wasn’t always that way.  I can remember things being quite different up until I reached the age of five.  We used to wait in front of the apartment every evening for my father to walk down from the subway station so we could all give him a hug.  I remember the smell of cigarettes and the feeling of the winter cold clinging to his black overcoat.  Before I went to kindergarten, I would wake up early in the morning while my father was in the kitchen drinking his coffee and listening to the radio.  I had a little white toy dog that was stuffed with sawdust that I carried everywhere.  Eventually, a small hole opened in the bottom and left a little trail of sawdust wherever I carried him.  Sitting on my father’s lap, he would pretend to be horrified by the dog “pooping” all over the kitchen table.  It was the same routine each time and I always laughed. I remember sitting on his lap in his recliner and falling asleep with him.  There are old home movies of him feeding me ice cream.

Sometime in the mid to late sixties, my parents’ marriage came unhinged.  They never spoke unless they were arguing.  He took to sleeping in the recliner most nights.  I don’t know what happened, but I think my father got caught having an affair.  He became a very angry and abusive person.  He drank a lot.

I have no warm memories of my mother, not even in those early years before she and my father decided they hated each other.  She doted on the boys, tolerated my oldest sister for her housekeeping skills, and lavished affection on my other sister.  She reserved her hostility for me.  Everything was my fault.  Things would be so much better if I weren’t around.  No one would ever love me and I would die alone. The words were more damaging than the routine beatings.  In later years, my oldest sister would say I took the brunt of the abuse because I was the strongest of the six of us.  I was the one she couldn’t break.  The result is that I have no emotional connection to my mother.  Even worse, my father joined her in taking his anger out on me.  He’s the reason I never wear yellow, but that’s another story.

For about ten years, I had no contact with my mother at all.  About two years ago, I attempted mending fences and managed to get most of the siblings in one room with our mother.  She’s old now and doesn’t remember much.  Even so, I only see her about once a year and never go over there unless another sibling is with me.  I guess I still expect her to unleash one of her ugly tirades on me and want a witness there so she can’t call me a liar later on.

While we weren’t on speaking terms, I didn’t bother with the charade of sending her a Mother’s Day card.  This is the second year since I have resumed the practice.  You see now why the gushing sentimentality of those cards makes me feel sick.  I go through card after card, looking for one that is respectful but not full of praise for a job well done.  It’s hard.

Why am I telling you this?  I don’t know.  I guess I want you to realize that this is a tough day for some of us.  I read Facebook posts today offering sympathy to those who have lost their mothers; but nobody talks about having had a bad mother on Mother’s Day.  It’s sort of taboo.

I have tried to be a good mother to my sons, though my short fuse has made it difficult at times.  I’m very close to them both and I know Mother’s Day doesn’t hold the dread for them that it does for me.  Still, I wonder if all of our lives would be better if things had been different in my family.

It’s tough to build a house without the right tools.

Thanksgiving Misgivings

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Thanksgiving should always be wonderful. What could be better than a day that is celebrated by the consumption of roast turkey? The orange and yellow leaves of autumn have turned crunchy brown, the remnants of a fiery blaze. The sky is a heavy gray, the air frosty.  The biggest turkey I could find at the supermarket (somewhere around 22 pounds) is softly sizzling away in the roasting pan, filling the house with memories carried on the scent.

But then there’s the other side of Thanksgiving. The part that involves family. The feuds. The divorces. The questions of allegiance. Which parent to spend the day with? Whose turn is it to eat at Dad’s house with his second wife? Which siblings are no longer on speaking terms? Is it safe to serve alcohol to that cousin?

I hate that part.

When I was a kid, we ate most of our Thanksgiving dinners in our tiny apartment. My mother, by her own admission, hated to cook, so my grandmother would come over early in the morning to stuff the turkey and put it in the oven. With a tiny kitchen and no dining room, dinner was eaten in the living room. Just imagine six kids and four or five adults squeezed together around a long folding table in an 8 x 10 foot room. Our coffee table served as a bench and could easily seat five small children. If you got stuck sitting on the couch, you had to reach up to get the food off your plate. After dinner, we sat in the dark watching home movies. Sounds just like the Waltons, right?

Of course, there was the time my mother, as a young bride, forgot to clean out the turkey before putting it in the oven. Or the time my grandfather, as the legend goes, got tired of asking for a dish to be passed and upended the entire table. The first time I prepared a turkey as a young wife, we were stationed in Germany. We lived out in the countryside, renting the top floor of a private home. The stove was electric. Thanksgiving not being a holiday in Germany, the landlord had an electrician in that day to repair some wiring downstairs. This required him to cut the electricity to one side of my kitchen. I was not told about this. I don’t know how long my turkey was in the oven before I realized there was no power going to the stove. Nothing like trying to guess when your turkey is done when you’ve never prepared one before. Truth be told, it could have been cooked a little longer. I remember one year being terribly sick on Thanksgiving. I forced myself to eat (we only ate like that once a year, after all) and later puked my guts up while watching Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on TV. The Gene Wilder version, not the Johnny Depp version. The Depp version would make anyone retch.

In spite of it all, I still look forward to Thanksgiving. Times are especially rough this year, but I have a roof over my head that doesn’t leak and we’re all in relatively good health. The things that are wrong will get better.

And boy, can I make delicious turkey gravy.

I’m Hiding My Blog

My friends and family (with the exception of my very supportive husband) don’t know I have a blog.  Most don’t even know I write stories and want to be published.  We have a long tradition in my family of being as unsupportive of one another as possible.  Sad, I know.  I put a story up on my Facebook page a while back and left it there for a few weeks.  I got one “like” from a cousin, but nobody else bothered to read or comment on it.  I should’ve known better, I guess.  I actually dread what they would say in the comment section of this blog if they knew it existed.  Makes me very grateful for those of you who follow here and hit “like”.  For my part, I’m reading as many blogs as I can, though their number sometimes overwhelms me.  So much to choose from.

I’m puzzled by the motivation of people who consistently tear other people down.  Is it jealousy?  Is it because we have the guts to stick our necks out and pursue our dream and they don’t?  Are they afraid we might actually succeed?  Maybe they think their harsh words serve as a reality check, intended to prevent us from going too far with this writing thing and getting knocked on our asses.  Do they think they’re doing us a favor?

I have a very simple way of dealing with people who want to sow destruction and discouragement into my life.  I simply limit my contact with them or cut it off entirely if the situation is bad enough.  Creativity is a delicate thing.  It’s most easily crushed by those closest to us.  Sometimes what they offer is not an honest critique but an emotional response based on our relationship with them.  Recognize that.  I think we sometimes confuse the two and end up with an unfair and unrealistic assessment of our work.  It takes time to recover from something like that, time that would be better spent writing.

What has been your experience when sharing your work with family and close friends?  Do you face derision from them or do you get encouragement?  Are they too supportive, afraid to give you anything but praise?  How do you handle it?