That is the question

by Jennifer on July 25, 2008

I noticed her from a distance. She headed toward us as we walked through the airport. If my mother noticed her, too, she said nothing.

The woman’s clothes were elegant, crisp and unwrinkled. Tasteful jewelry, expensive shoes, posture that was confident and unbent. Her hair and makeup were exactly right; her lipstick didn’t overstate its place on her face. I took in all of it as our strides closed the space between us, and my mind drew two columns. My mother at the top of one, this stranger at the top of the other. In that moment, it was impossible for me not to compare the two women.

When we passed her, she gave me a half-smile, neither kind nor unkind, only pleasant. And a thought skittered through my mind, unbidden, a dry leaf cartwheeling across the top of a thousand more, no bigger or smaller or more colorful than the others.

Why can’t she be my mother?

I thought I meant, “Why can’t my mother look like that?” But I probably didn’t. Not in that moment, not even now.

My mother had just come off a plane from England–for her, the trip of a lifetime.

She had saved for it and planned it for months, down to the smallest detail. The trip would feed her vault of information on our family’s geneaology and, for two weeks or so, she would see the sights. At the time, she was close to 60 years old, and it would be her first trip abroad.

We had visited each other only a few times in my adult life, after not seeing each other for 14 years. Our visits were spaced apart by years, by missteps and misunderstandings. By spaces of time when nothing was misunderstood at all, just unacceptable.

We were smoothing the wood of our relationship layer by layer, as with a plane, shaves of time falling away to reveal something new–with any luck, maybe even something useful. Even though we had been working at it for over ten years, it was too soon to tell whether what we uncovered would become beautiful furniture or a rough bench. Or nothing.

She flew into O’Hare so that she could spend a few days with us in Indiana before returning to her home in Kansas. After a long wait outside customs, I spotted her as she came through the doors, but it took me several moments to get her attention. When she got close, I opened my arms and leaned toward her to give her a hug.

She walked past me and through the doors to outside.

I stood there for a moment feeling like an asshole as my arms dropped back to my sides, their unreturned gesture all the more glaring in the sea of hugs and backslaps, among the chorus of “You made it!” and “It’s so good to see you!” and “How was the flight?” The waves of greetings swelled and faded and built again as another group of travelers burst through the doors.

I did the only thing I could do, the thing I had spent too much of my life doing.

I looked for my mother.

When I found her, she was smoking a cigarette outside.

“Where did you go?” I asked, stupidly.

“I just had to get outside. After being on the plane for that long, I just had to get outside.”

You had to smoke. Fair enough. Maybe you were going a little crazy, cooped up like that, I wanted to say. But how long does it take to stop and hug your daughter after you haven’t seen her for two years?

Splinters. This work between us was full of splinters.

She still made no attempt to hug me. I’m not a hugger by nature and, the fact was, my effort to embrace her was born of expectation and artificial emotion. My way of brushing a glossy stain over something unfinished between us, to give it an easy shine. So what right did I have to resent her for rejecting it? In that moment, an uglier reaction ran through me, pulled along on a string by my hurt feelings. At the last minute, she had asked us for part of the money she needed for the trip and we gave it to her. A nice thank you this is, I thought, even as I was ashamed of myself for thinking it.

I tried again. She did hug me back then, awkwardly, with one arm, her other arm holding her cigarette off to the side. Half of an embrace, a half-hearted embrace. Maybe half. Maybe that much.

We made our way to baggage claim (weren’t we carrying enough?) and toward the elegant woman.

I don’t hope or try to change people, not anymore, at least. That’s like betting on a bad horse. It never pays out. I believe that for the most part we can’t do much except to let people be who they are, and either take them for what they are or walk away. When I saw the other woman, my wish wasn’t that my own mother would take more care in her appearance. (And I knew that the other woman might possess none of the qualities I was assigning to her.) What I wanted was for my mother to be able to move through the world with greater ease, to use better manners, to treat people with kindness. I wanted her to treat me with kindness.

The elegant woman smiled, and my thought was, “Why can’t she be my mother?”

But I was asking the wrong question (a childish question, at that), and about the wrong person. The bigger question wouldn’t fully form until a year or two later, and I may never stop asking it, though nothing much comes of it anymore. It falls like a branch into a current of life that flows faster than the past can catch up to it. Maybe one day I will lose sight of it altogether and wonder why I ever bothered asking. I wish I knew more of the reasons why it cannot be, though I have a lock on a few of them. There’s little between us now but silence. The two of us–the woman who gave birth to me, and me–have passed each other, headed in different directions. The question lies between us, rough and shapeless:

Why can’t she be (why couldn’t she be) my mother?

And I can’t help but wonder if she asks a version of that question about me, if she ever wonders why I can’t be her daughter.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Louise September 5, 2008 at 4:43 am

What Emily and Flutter said.

I have met Jennifer’s mother once. She was not someone who showed any signs or warmth or nurturing, but I gave her EVERY BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT FOR JENNIFER’S SAKE.

Jennifer had a shitty life growing up. She got stuck in a family that is among the worst I have ever heard, but she’s not like that, and she’s not BLAMING them for what happened to her. Instead she is making her own life a better place.

What I see from “Jennifer’s Mother” is that she is exactly like the family in which Jennifer was raised. No more benefit of the doubt from this quarter. People like her are the reason women are referred to as f**k**g bitches.

Did I hear one word of remorse? NO!!!!!! Did I hear one bit of potential “wished things would have gone better?” HELL NO! I heard a person who has apparently been a selfish bitch her whole life obviously not have learned a thing from her years on the planet about how to love and be loved.

Louises last blog post..Late Summer Sky–SkyWatch

Madge September 5, 2008 at 6:56 am

Jennifer’s “mother”,

What Emily, Flutter and Louise said.


I am so damn proud of Jennifer. She has broke the cycle. BROKE THE CYCLE. She is a loving, caring, nurturing mother to her children.

You have a lot of nerve getting on here and acting like you are two years old. She is your CHILD. Do you know what that means? It means you don’t attack them. Some of us parents like to call it UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. It’s probably to late for you to grasp onto that concept but know this — there are some of us out here who are going to shower Jennifer with that unconditional love and take care of her as best we can and that’s going to include addressing each and every comment you decide to leave on her blog.

We’ve got her back.

Madges last blog post..Morning Forecast

A. September 5, 2008 at 8:38 am

Um…I’m just reading the question posed toward the end of your post and wondering if “your mother” let that sink in a bit. If she had, then I’m thinking that making this commentary would not have been the first thing that would have been topping her agenda.

I’m glad, for you sake Jennifer, that despite it all, you allow yourself to feel things and express them. I’m glad that in the future, you will never have to reflect upon your own parenting and blame your own transgressions on the fact that “your mother” was the hugging type.

I’m sorry that you’ve had to endure this visit. I feel for you there, as you know.

A. September 5, 2008 at 8:39 am

oops I meant she *wasn’t* the hugging type.

Jennifer's Mother September 6, 2008 at 12:13 am

Louise, if I ever met you, it was at Jennifer’s at Ducky’s pre-wedding get together to meet her intended’s parents. To Jen’s credit, despite being 2 months pregnant with the Girl and still suffering from *severe* morning sickness, she had spent Christmas week running all over town in the snow and cold buying silk flowers and such for the wedding (including several dozen yards of muslin to tie around folding chairs at the church) and this little get together. I know this because I was right there with her, trooping in and out of every store and wondering why Ducky couldn’t take a day off from work to do some of the running around herself. It was *her* wedding after all.

At any rate, *if* your were at that get together, then you witnessed Jen’s dad holding court in the corner, whining and lamenting how victimized *he* had been by Sue. You would also have heard how members of your family *knew* what Sue was doing to Jen and Ducky and chose to *do nothing* to stop it. Any one of you could’ve told a teacher or some authority (or better yet Jen and Ducky’s paternal grandfather who would’ve come in with the cavalry and run Sue out of town on a rail…IFhe let her live). But n ot one of you that evening asked Jen’s dad the obvious questions: “Why didn’t YOU stop it? Why didn’t YOU kick Sue out or take those little girls someplace where she could no longer abuse and torture them?”. ????

If your impression the one time you ever saw me was I was “not someone who showed any signs or warmth or nurturing”, it was because I’d promised Jen to be nice to her dad…even tho all I wanted to do was rip his guts out (slowly) with a fish fork for letting the girls be sooo horribly abused….and therefore was biting my tongue to keep from asking The Question myself.

Every one here seems to overlook or ignore the fact that *I* didn’t put the girls into this dysfunctional family – their adult father did. If I could go back in time, you bet I would’ve taken them with me when I left him, and they would’ve been surrounded by *my* dysfunctional family. In a 24-year-old’s “wisdom”, I ***truly*** thought they would be better off with their dad and HIS side of the family, all of whom did NOT allow children to be abused. There was no such thing as “joint” custody in Missouri back then. Had to be one parent or the other, but the custody agreement states I was to have unlimited visitation. In reality, “unlimited” meant “at the discretion of the custodial parent”, but again there was nothing I knew about him at the time to indicate he would EVER keep the girls from me. And he didn’t unil he met Sue.

Jennifer's Mother September 6, 2008 at 12:57 am

Very few of us get the mother we think we deserve. Or the one who fits the image of our grown-up lifestyle. As for the “elegant woman” you admired in the airport, come on. You were a nanny for how many years in Connecticut. You of all people know what kind of mothers “elegant” women are. Isn’t that why you sent me a copy of the “Nanny Diaries”, so I too would know how horrible and uncaring mothers-with-nannies *really* are?

I saw the disappointment in your eyes when we finally met again when you were in college. You were expecting a polished suburban matron like your friend L, and instead the woman who opened the door at the motel was just a jeans-clad middle-aged woman who obviously had NOT been spending her days playing bridge at the country club (altho I did play bridge regularly at one time), or lunching in cafes in Manhattan. Had you grown up with me in Podunk, Kansas, perhaps you would’ve been less focused on a person’s looks as a measure of “acceptibility”.

Louise September 6, 2008 at 9:29 am

Jennifer’s Mother,

The first thing I must say here is that this is about YOU, not about anyone else. I, and many other people are well aware of the miserable life created by Sue and allowed by Jennifer and Ducky’s father and covered up by Sue’s parents. I’ll address them in a minute, but the main point is that YOU have nothing to do with that other than leaving your children and going to another state. Twenty-four is old enough to make rational decisions. (You can drive when you’re 16, you can vote when you’re 18, you can drink when you’re 21.) Some people are not “together” by the time they’re 24, but those people have no one to blame but themselves. I dare say Jennifer and Ducky had a hell of a lot worse life by the time they were 24 than you did, and their decisions at that time did not alter the lives of others the way yours did.

You can blame their father and Sue and MY family all you want. But the fact is that you left. You moved to another state taking away your right to unlimited visitation, and you still, obviously to this very day, take no responsibility for your own actions and want to blame others–including your own daughters.

Although I’ve thought this before, I’ve never said it out loud, but now is the time. Jennifer and Ducky had two mothers in their lives that were equally bad. When I think of you, and I think of Sue, I only see selfishness. Selfishness leads to cruel behavior whether it manifests itself physically or mentally. I have never heard that you physically abused your children, so I do not accuse you of that. But I will accuse you with a finger in your face of mental abuse. And it still continues.

Do you know how I know this? Yes, I’m from that family that spawned Sue. My mother was Sue’s sister. My mother is dead because she was the nice one that came out of there. She put up with a lifetime of abuse from a mother (Sue’s mother) that is so similar to yours in statements and actions that I can hardly believe it. She died because she had chronic, clinical depression. She had one way to cope with her family (another “mother-type” figure to her), and that was taken away. Her jealous mother did all in her power to sever the relationship between my mother and her “true mother.” She eventually succeeded, and my mother fell apart Mind you she had a loving family of her own around her, but her mother figure was out of her life, and her own mother was acting like you have and are acting toward your children, and she could not cope. I will not go into details, but she was undergoing shock therapy and was a mess, and took too much of a medication. The overdose did not kill her, but it killed her brain. It took her nine years to die, and it was a horrible, undignified death. I lived my whole life under the shadow of Sue’s mother, my grandmother. She tried to destroy me as well as my father until her dying breath, but we apparently have better genes than my poor mother had. So I KNOW what you are doing because it is exactly the same as the thing my grandmother did. The same words, the same phrases, the same juvenile behavior. You are the same as THEM. The people you deride are who you are.

Now to some of the specifics of your comment. You first talk about wondering if Ducky could take off because you and Jennifer were working so hard. Well I wasn’t there for that, but my guess is that Jennifer was working hard and you were following around needing attention. Just a guess, so I won’t accuse that, but my guess is that I’m not far off. As for Ducky, it was her wedding. When I got married, I wanted to do things for the wedding to save expenses. I wanted to make this or do that. MY MOTHER (God blessed me with a good one) wouldn’t let me. She did not want to add stress to the life of a bride, so she limited what I did. At the time I just accepted it. Later I was grateful. For you to even mention this about Ducky is more evidence of your behavior that is like Sue and family.

No, I did not witness anything at the pre-wedding gathering about Jennifer and Ducky’s father lamenting about Sue or telling how people knew things and did not tell. First, to be honest, I have never had a lot of respect for him, either, because he was the one closest to the situation who allowed it to happen. I usually try to stay in the other corner of the room. But because I said that does not mean I hold him in the same esteem I hold you and Sue and Sue’s mother. I do not. Yes, I think he erred greatly. Yes, I think he was thinking only of himself. Yes, there is a lot of responsibility on his shoulders for what happened to your daughters. But the fact is that he does not treat them the same way you do. Not even close. Was he the best father on the planet? By no means. But does he blame them for what happened to them in their childhood? No. He has his issues, but he is not you.

Let’s address “any one of you (could have reported Sue).” First, there was YOU who was absent, but to my family… No, not any one of us could have told a teacher or the authorities. My nuclear family did not know about the physical abuse. I remember my parents saying, “I wish mental abuse was easier to prove. But we can’t do anything about this.” Sue was good at hiding the evidence. She never did anything physical that could be seen with regular clothes, and it was not until Jennifer was in high school that we found out about it. (I’m going to add here that it was ME, a teenager myself, who confronted Sue and her mother about how stupid they were which is when the rest of the information started pouring out.)
Before this I will say that teachers and authorities DID know things from different sources, and nothing was ever followed through. I am aware that at least twice state (or county?) officials were made aware, but nothing came of it.
And I will also say that if you had not left, they never would have been in the situation in the first place. YOU ARE THE ONE THAT WENT OUT OF STATE WHICH ENDED YOUR UNLIMITED VISITATION RIGHTS AND MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR THE FALSE PRETENSES OF THE ADOPTION TO TAKE PLACE. I fully agree that the adoption was improper. I will never defend Sue… EVER. But I will not, either, relinquish you for your responsibility in this. No, you could not have known how bad it would be. (Though I’m truthfully not sure it was much worse than had the girls been with you.) But you could have made more effort to be with your children. Bottom line is that you did not.

So being nice to Jennifer’s father makes it impossible for you to act like you care about your children at a social gathering? I don’t understand that paragraph at all. What I saw at that pre-wedding meal was that you needed attention. You were not an attending mother (which is somewhat excusable because you had not been in the lives of your children since they were very small), but someone who wanted the limelight.

And before you decide to “rip his guts out (slowly) with a fish fork,” it might be wise to look in the mirror first. Even though I do not have any amount of compassion or concern for you, in kindness I will say here that too many people in life spend their time blaming others for their own problems and the problems of people they love. It is fruitless. It makes one unhappy. Take some responsibility for your own life and decisions, and you will be a happier person. Maybe you ARE happy, but the tone of these comments on your daughter’s blog would suggest otherwise. Jennifer and Ducky are not dwelling on the horrible things that happened in their past. They don’t dwell on YOU. They moved on and make their live something worthwhile. (As did I because I grew up on the perimeter of that place, and it affected me as well.)

As for YOU not putting the girls in that dyfunctional environment, yes you did. A lot of people did including their father. But YOU DID TOO! Admit it, say you’re sorry, and go on. And truth be told, I don’t think it matters. As I said, your children don’t dwell on this. They don’t stew about it. They know what their life was like, they accept it, and they make a different life. I DO know at least one of them was willing to forgive and go forward with a relationship with you, but you made that difficult. Having had a grandmother that I’m not sure I would be able to distinguish from you in the dark, I can say that the most healthy thing to do with people like that in your life is distance yourself from them. No matter what happened in childhood, you’re not 24 now. If I were your children, I would want nothing to do with you. Life is too short to spend with people that are never happy with you or the world or are so much maintenance that they drag you down. Maybe we would be willing to go through some of the garbage if there was a foundation of relationship from childhood. But there is not. They owe you nothing, but your words indicate that they do. You seem to think they owe you allegiance as a mother. That’s crap. THEY. OWE. YOU. NOTHING. Jennifer was more than generous to not remove your selfish comments the second she saw them come to her blog.

As for your truly thinking your daughters would be better off with their dad, I’m sure you tell yourself that all the time. Like Sue and her mother, you tell yourself whatever it is you need to believe to get through the day. And even if you truly believed it (which I doubt, I believe you just couldn’t handle the responsibility), there were years and years where YOU could have been fighting.

If your daughters would have been better off with their dad when they were young, why are they better off with you writing selfish things on their blogs now? Here’s what I said to my grandmother in relationshship to my mother so many times, but it is aimed at you now. “If you really loved your daughter, you would leave her alone and let her live her life.”

Louise September 6, 2008 at 9:32 am

And to your last comment:

“Very few of us get the mother we think we deserve.” I would disagree with this. I believe most people get wonderful mothers. Often we are too wrapped up in ourselves to realize it, but when I have looked around me all of my life, I see mostly happy mothers and daughters.

As for L, I know her. Not like Jennifer does, but I have been around her. To call her a “polished suburban matron” is absurd. What makes her wonderful is the woman inside. It shines to the outside. And I doubt she ever played bridge; she was much too busy sinking her life into philanthropic work.

Jennifer couldn’t grow up with you in podunk Kansas because you left her in podunk Missouri. And she does not base her opinions of people on looks. She loved my mother (Sue’s sister), and my mother was a country tomboy. She loved my mother because she treated her with respect and kindness. She loves L for the same reasons. If YOU were a caring mother, you would accept this and leave L out of it.

Just for the record, I will not be addressing any more of your comments if you choose to leave them. My husband’s family likes to quote Mark Twain, “Never argue with a fool. Someone walking up to you might not be able to tell the difference.” I may have already crossed the line there. If I were Jennifer, I would block you from commenting on my blog. I would want you as far away from me as could be if I were her. But she is her own person and can do what she wants. So if she does not, I will just ignore your comments. You clearly do not understand. I truly hope you can one day. That will never happen if you cannot see past yourself.

flutter September 6, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Jennifer’s womb donor-

You are pathetic in every sense of the word. Take some personal responsibility. If you at all knew Jenn the way we who love her do, you would know that nothing you just asserted is even remotely true.

Have an axe to grind? Go start your own blog, better yet? GET A SHRINK. You clearly have antisocial disorder.

flutters last blog post..Rage at the Coffee Bar

Emily R September 7, 2008 at 9:05 am


I thought we all made this very clear already. Go away. We don’t want you here. Jennifer does not want you here. No one wants to hear “your side” because it doesn’t matter. This is Jennifer’s space, and if you gave two sh-ts and a raisin about her, you would let her have it in peace.

Emily Rs last blog post..In honor of tomorrow

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