Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mother Mother

(This is an excerpt from a new essay Mother Mother)

I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides.
~ Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale to her mother in Now, Voyager

Ruth Alison Elliott stands in the center of her four siblings in a black and white photo, circa 1926, taken soon after her father died from respiratory complications due to mustard gas exposure in World War I. Her mother Peg-o sits on the far left in a dark dress with a dropped waistline, perhaps mourning clothes. She is a petite, young widow with thick dark hair pulled back in a bun. Her ankles, in dark stockings, are crossed. One hand is a fist in her lap, the other, held like a claw, touches her youngest child’s leg, but as an afterthought, the back of her hand touching by proximity. George, just a toddler, his light curls a halo around his head, sits on a stool next to Peg-o. Clary, the first-born son, stands behind George in a wool suit and tie, gangly and all ears. The oldest child, Beatrice, a good head taller than Clary, stands at his side, sporting a flapper’s bob. Her arm rests along the back of the chair where Joan, the middle child, sits with one leg tucked beneath her, her expression angelic. Ruth stands next to Joan, in front of Beatrice, in the center of all of them. Her hair is cut to just below her ears with short bangs that slant by the unsteady hand that wielded the scissors. Her chin is tipped down just slightly, and her eyes look up at the camera, as if she just got caught in a lie.
My mother’s lot in life, captured in this photo, made her rebellious, angry, misunderstood, and unlovable. She lost her father at a young age, but also she was not as beautiful as her sister Joan who had black hair that fell in sausage curls to her shoulders and brilliant blue eyes. In contrast, Ruth’s hair was thin and straight, caught between blond and brunet, and her eyes were a dreary gray. Her feet were crooked, and she had to wear ugly high-topped shoes that were buttoned using a crochet hook until she turned seven years old.  She ran with the young blokes in the neighborhood, boldly taking on all their dares. One time she bit a fat, white grub in half. Another time she played with cherry bombs after her mother warned her away from them, and one went off in her hand. Then she fell on her forearm while playing and the bone poked through the skin. She was left-handed but would learn to write with her right hand while her arm mended, and continued using it to write for the rest of her life.
I suffered the same privation of circumstance as my mother. Just as Ruth was the fourth of Peg-o’s five children, I was the fourth of Ruth’s five children.  I, too, was born left-handed and we were both born under the sign of Gemini, the twins. Further, she named me Dianne, the French variation of Diana, Apollo’s twin sister. If one believes in the power of the Zodiac, we were destined to communicate our agitations and fears loudly and often at one another while appearing vivacious, engaging and humorous communicators to the outside world. We spent our short twenty-five years together seeing the flaws of the other and never quite figured out they existed in both of us as if we were mirror twins, female versions of Castor and Pollux.
One day she screamed at me in a fit of anger, “Thank God you weren’t twins. The world wouldn’t have survived.”
I had my own set of twins just a year after she died and it felt an odd retribution because I was both triumphant and sad.

My sister Peggy, the oldest of the five Liuzzi children, recounted recently how my mother seemed disinterested when I was brought home from the hospital. Five months shy of turning ten, Peggy took on my feeding and diaper changing. She continued to care for me on and off until she left home for college. I admit to showing little appreciation for her effort, and remember, once, while lying on our ¾ bed together, perhaps just after she had finished reading to me from The Grimm Fairytales, I scratched her face and left a dollop of blood on the tip of her nose. The rich crimson fascinated me and smugness filled my heart for my perfect retaliation against a loveless world.
I called my mother Ma, not Mum, as she wanted us to. After all, that was what good children called their mothers and I was not good.  I was hateful, a banshee, as she once called me, haunting her with my wail and disrupting her day when she could have spent it otherwise, reading a good novel or serving coffee, while she drank tea, to the milkman, the insurance agent and neighbors.
The month before I turned four my youngest brother was born. His arrival lead to piles of clean, unfolded diapers heaped on the couch. While the three older siblings went off to school, I sat on the floor watching TV, in front of the playpen where Andy lay with a bottle propped in his mouth. His constant bottle sucking resulted in his baby teeth rotting, and he was hospitalized at age five to have them all removed.
Not many people spoke about post-partum depression back in the 1950s and 1960s when Ma was trying to raise five children on the meager weekly earnings Dad brought home. As a mother of twins, I felt overwhelmed at different times while raising them, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Ma. She was in a new country with in-laws who didn’t approve of her, in a tiny house with five children, and she had a quick mind that needed much more stimulation than dirty diapers and squabbling children. It drove her to drink.
In many ways, Ma’s neglectful rearing of her two youngest children, Andy and me, was the result of a cultural shift initiated in part by the famous childcare expert, Dr. Spock. Where parents had been encouraged to mold their children into moral and responsible adults and citizens through supervision and discipline in the past, the era we were raised in supported hands-off childrearing. Shari L. Turner, in her book titled The Myths of Motherhood: How Culture Reinvents the Good Mother says, “The goal of childcare was no longer to stymie the natural inclinations of the infant, but to give them free rein. Gone were the wicked urges or bad habits that mothers sought assiduously to tame…Now, the child’s spontaneous impulses were viewed as good, expectable, and sensible, and the child, instead of being a tabula rasa, actually knew, in some sense what was right for itself.”
This along with the fact that women were still having a lot of children but most of them survived unlike in earlier times when losing a child was common, put an incredible burden on women I only began to empathize with when I became a mother. Through my child eyes, I saw unfairness, rejection and abandonment.

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