Dad and Midge

Dad and Midge

I’ve finally started writing about my mother. That’s been hard for me and the reasons are a little complicated. It isn’t just that she died fifteen years ago — just about anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you that time doesn’t seem to follow the rules when it comes to grief; it’s that for much of my life we were locked in a push-me-pull-you mother-daughter battle.

I’m not talking about fighting. (Although yes, we did that, oh boy did we…) I’m talking about what I wanted from my mother that she did not have the capacity to give. 

Before I was born, I had a sister who died of leukemia, three months short of her fourth birthday. Until about the age of two, her pictures were indistinguishable from mine. One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing by the kitchen sink doing dishes. She turned and looked toward me but I had the feeling she wasn’t really seeing me. And she was crying, something I never saw my mother do. I asked her why, and she told me she was thinking about my sister. Then she dried her eyes and finished the dishes.

This is an excerpt from what I wrote this week:

Was Midge’s death why my mother kept me at arms’ length? Did she wall off part of herself ? I wanted nothing more than to be with her, to drink her in, to devour her. I wanted to feel her inside me, to feel full to the point of stuffed, to finally feel satisfied. I wanted more of her than she could give. The more I clung, the more she pulled away. She would pick me up and hold me, I know she did, but only for a few minutes. It was never enough. Finally she would say, “Stop hanging on me.” She sloughed me off.

On Thursday night, I attended a book signing by a local Santa Cruz psychotherapist and book author, Alexandra Kennedy. She introduced an idea I’ve never heard before: generational grief. When grief does not heal, when it is stuffed down and sealed up, the old hurts do not dissolve. Neither does the love. Alexandra suggests that grief, and love, can be passed down through generations. She wrote:

Perhaps before you were born, your mother or grandmother lost a child whom she never fully grieved; perhaps your family in past generations experienced a significant loss or trauma that was never healed. When this generational grief surfaces, it is your work to be the sanctuary to simply embrace the surge of feelings as they emerge, to pay attention to any images that come to mind, and to listen closely to your dreams for guidance.

I realize, now, how the pattern I learned from my mother carried into the next generation, affected my mothering. 

My father, in his last years, revisited many old wounds — the love and acceptance he never felt from his father, the loss of Midge, the loss of Mom. When he died, he had no unfinished business. I can’t say the same for my mother, since dementia stripped away her memory, and lung cancer took care of the rest.

Maybe if falls to me, now, to heal — for her, for me, and for the generations to come.


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One response to “Inheritance

  1. Yes! Yes! Betsy, I see this in my husband and his children. A long story (as you know these things are) that it seems our daughter is finally, at 38, beginning to emerge from. She is at long last opening her heart so that she can accept who she is and own how truly beautiful and wonderful and deeply loved she is. Thank you for sharing. Your pieces about your parents always strike a chord in me and open my eyes to see things I have missed. It’s never too late for us to learn.

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