Confronting My Mother

Confronting My Mother
by Joann Shelton (Angela Shelton’s mother)

Love of back roads prompted a fall drive with my Mom yesterday along the French Broad River from Flat Creek, North Carolina through Madison County to Greenville, Tennessee.  She seemed to really enjoy the different terrains, telling the same stories about places, eating out, sometimes digging up vintage roses or Bridal Veil bushes in abandoned places and visiting the fruit stands for Greasy Beans and heirloom tomatoes.   These trips were a way to connect with her, or try too, in a way we both could enjoy.

Gina M. Henderson photography

During this drive, she told a story about a snake she found while working in the yard recently.  “He was under some leaves.” she said “A big ole brown snake with yellow strips.  I whacked him three times.  He made a whistling sound, flew up and went down into a hole in the ground.”  Being a lover of all life, I was speechless as she kills every snake who ventures within range of her three acres of hilly mountain land.   Like the Native Americans, I believe the snake is a symbol of transformation and healing.  The next day, I knew why the snake story was important as I decided to have a life changing conversation with my mother which was a huge transformation.

She answered the phone in a meek voice.  “Are you sleeping,” I asked.

“No, I’m reading the paper.”   She said.

“Can I come and talk with you for a little while.”  I asked.

“Yes.” She said.

Her late model tan Oldsmobile was pulled all the way under the right side of the huge weeping cherry tree in her front yard, one of the finest anywhere in full bloom.  It replaced the three huge mimosa trees I climbed as a child before my father carved out a level yard for her with a motor grader.   My mom has moved plants from one side of the house to another like she moves furniture.

Mom’s house has been remodeled from the money my father made in Vietnam, where he died as an excavating foreman.   If he hadn’t died there, she would have killed him or so I say.   She was sitting at the end of the rectangular room with brown hi-low carpet in her aqua lazy boy holding the paper she was reading.  Her short white hair was premed in a q-tip style like the church quilting ladies and like mine was as an adolescent.

As I walked across the room in my beige linen skirt, she said, “I can see slap through you.”

“Yeah mom, like the time you told me the neighbor across the street could see up my skirt if I didn’t cross my legs.”  She smiled.

Sometimes I would greet her by patting her face which still shows the Hollywood glamor of her youth, patting with both hands saying, “You’re such a sweet mom”.   She would flash a rare smile or laugh and I would too knowing it wasn’t true, but I didn’t do that this time.

“Can we sit at the table,” I asked.

She said “yeah; you can sit at the table.”

“Aren’t you going to sit with me, as I want to talk to you?”  I said as I remembered hearing from her many times “you’re gonna get a talking too”.

“Yes, I can come in there.” she said.  “I’ll get my hearing aid.”

She sat  in one of the four padded green chairs nestling the round table in the kitchen with its sliding glass doors looking out across the deck and the back yard  with fruit trees, thornless blackberry vines and bluebird boxes to the mountains in the background where dawn came each day.   This kitchen table was where she shot squirrels steeling seed from the bird feeder anchored to the deck railing with her shot gun.

We were sitting at the same table I tried talking with her thirty years ago but I didn’t have the skills then so I would get defensive and walk away.   Now, thanks to experience, therapy and the books I’ve read, I had a script to help me.

“Mom, did you have a good time on the drive yesterday.”

“Yes, I enjoyed it very much.”  She said.

“I didn’t.”  I said.

“You didn’t, how come?”  She said.

“After I went home and talked over our day with a friend,  I realized that when you reach to pull my hair back from my face while I’ve driving, I flinch because it reminds me of all the times you smacked me in the face.”  I said.

“Why can’t get over the past and move on,” she said glaring at me over her glasses.

“That’s why I’m here, Mom, to help me get over the past and move on with my life.  I was beaten with a belt, switches and smacked in the face and put down my whole childhood.  I have suffered greatly because of this abuse in my marriages and my jobs.  I want you to apologize to me and I want an authentic relationship with you”.  I said as I followed my script.

Her knotted arthritic hand tapped up and down on the Iwanna, a local paper to purchase and sell things, lying on the table.  She picked up one end of it and started to read squinting through her glasses.   I realized this was the behavior I grew up with: being ignored.

Waiting in the stale air while she read, I was thinking her car was in a different place because she must have gone out to get the Iwanna to place an ad for her house, “as is”, meaning, “the windows are dirty”, she had told me yesterday.  I finally said, “Don’t you have anything to say to me?  I want you to apologize to me and I would like to have an authentic relationship with you.”

“What does authentic mean.”  She said.

“It means we can be ourselves around each other.  It means you don’t tell me to put on a sweater when I’m wearing a tank top saying I need to cover myself up.  It means we can take art classes together.   We can do something fun and enjoy each other by being ourselves.”  I said.

“I’m sorry for the things you say I did to you, but I was treated that way too, everyone else was too; it wasn’t just you.”  She said.

“Yes, Mom, I know it was that way for you or you would not have treated me the way you did.  I am talking about what was done to me, how I was treated, just because everyone else was treated that way and you were too, doesn’t make it okay I was abused as a child and still am abused every time I am around you.”  I said.

“Why can’t you get on with your life and leave the past behind?   I guess you will be glad when I’m dead.”  She said.

“Mom, it won’t make any difference whether you are living or not, if I haven’t resolved this within myself.  I left here thirty years ago because of you.  I swore I would never come back.

I used to call you and be upset for two weeks because of something you would say to me, implying I wasn’t good enough.  When I was sixteen, I remember asking you if there was anything about me you liked.  I was ignored then too.   I love you because you are my mother, but I do not like you as a person.”  I said.

“Yes, I have known for awhile you don’t like me.  I have to be very careful what I say around you.   Don’t I get credit for anything?”  She said.

“Yes, you do Mom, but where is the love?  You did a lot for me for which I am grateful.  I am an amazing woman, I know you don’t think that, but I am because you are my mother.  I have learned many skills from being raised by you.  You clothed me, you made me some of the most beautiful clothes including two wedding dresses, you have fed me and given me a place to live, that doesn’t make it okay I was beaten, smacked and put down all of those years.

You are an incredible woman.  I tell people you are a master gardener, a master quilter, an artist, a painter, a writer and a poet.   You worked at the sweater factory, raised three children, cooked and canned.  You gave me five years of piano lessons which you should have given to yourself as you were the one who wanted to play the piano.  I see you as a bitter old woman who has not lived the life she wanted, you beat me because of your unhappiness, as I see it.”  I said.

“You need to get over the past; you should move on and get over it.”  She said.

“That is your opinion, Mom. This is why I am talking with you now, to move on from the past.  I shared one of the most important things of my life with you which took me the required twenty years to accomplish, my clergy papers and all you could say was it would be great if you were a Christian.” I said calmly.

“Well, it would be great if everyone was a Christian,” Mom said.

“I accept people for who they are, including what religion and what political values they have.”  I said.

“Then, why can’t you accept me for who I am, why are you trying to change me?”  She said.

“I do accept you for who you are, this is why I am talking with you.  Now I spend my time with people who I feel love and appreciate me.  I am not willing to continue our relationship the way it is.  I am not willing to have another day like I had yesterday with you.  Something has to change, and I know most people don’t change.  You tried to beat me up when I was thirty, the last time I lived here you accused me of stealing a quilt, you tried to take my child away from me.”

“I did not.”  She said emphatically.

“Yes, you did Mom, the family intervention with Angela and her father, who turned out to be a pedophile.  I’m confronting my abuser, just like Angela did.”  Her face broke its plastic spell, lips pursed, hazel eyes stabbing, reminding me of all the times I heard “don’t look at me with those beady Shelton eyes.”

“Well, if you don’t want to spend time with me, then don’t,” Mom said and went back to her paper.

“I’m not angry with you anymore, Mom, I used to be.  I feel sorry for you now.”  I said.

This interchange was broken by the ringing of the kitchen wall phone.  My Mom chose to answer it, getting up slowly in her mid eighty years, slim from a diabetic diet.   “Guess I should answer it.” She said.   Once again, she was putting something else before me.

Hearing bells, I figured my time was up.   Before she lifted the phone off its hook on the wall, I said, “Looks like we are through, Mom, I will be going.”  I was not willing to wait any longer.  We were through!  I felt like I had spoken my feeling with love and grace.

“Bye,” she said.

“Bye,” I said.

Walking out of my mom’s house into the fresh fall air on Windy Ridge where I lived from six until eighteen, a full twelve year cycle, a slight breeze found me.  I felt centered and strong just as I felt walking into her house.  There were no emotional feelings which surprised me.   My goal was to be graceful, with love and kindness while speaking the truth, while giving my mother credit and positive reinforcement for her accomplishments and me in mine as to who I am today.

Walking across mom’s yard, across the spot where she beat me with her fist while calling me a whore when I was thirty, past the For Sale Sign of the house where she has lived for a sixty year cycle, I was amazed it would take me this long to stop feeling guilty about trying to gain love from my mother.   It was time to stand up for myself.  Like the song I was hearing now inwardly in my head, the song I learned in church growing up, Stand up, Stand up for Jesus!   Well, who was standing up for me, nobody but myself?

Standing in her yard in the sunshine of this lovely mountain fall day, next to my Matrix parked beside her huge heart shaped flower bed where exquisite fragrant bearded iris grow in the spring; I called my daughter to tell her what had happened.  She said, It’s about time!  There is no telling what you will accomplish in your life now.”   A bluebird lit on the wire overhead and my heart was filled with love.

My mom had chosen to hide in the hole like the snake to not participate in an authentic relationship.   She whacked me three times saying it was time to get over the past and move on with my life.  She was right.  The decision to not have her in my life was the best decision I have ever made for myself.  She taught me by example of how important it is to do what I love and love myself.   This healing has been part of the change into the sixty year cycle of my own age, into a new beginning, a transformation of loving me more, as it’s never too late for love!

Joann Shelton

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