Yet not every story is a success story, as Barbara confides: "My mother did nothing for me and, so, I did everything for my daughter so that her childhood, unlike mine, would be 'perfect.' I didn't realize that in my effort to give her everything I needed when I was a child and didn't get, I completely lost sight of her. I was controlling and smothering her. It took the crisis of her adolescence and her full-fledged rebellion to make me realize I needed help in mothering her." These stories are particularly important because they permit us to look past the myths of mother love, with their simplistic formulae of this most complicated and important relationship. The stories of mean mothers aren't always the most uplifting of narratives but they have lessons to teach all of us nonetheless. In their own way, they cast a new and important light on the topography of the mother-daughter relationship.
When Hollywood tackles the mother-daughter relationship, even a difficult one, a happy ending is never out of sight. Even troubled mother-daughter stories – think Terms of Endearment, Postcards from the Edge, Anywhere but Here, Tumbleweeds – always end on bright notes of love and reconciliation. In real life, it doesn't always happen that way but, even so, it's so damn hard to give up on that idea of unconditional love, that bit of leftover paradise in an otherwise uncertain world.
One morning in February of 2001, my phone rang. I picked up to hear my brother's voice. "Mom is dying," he said, " I thought you might want to come see her." At that point, I hadn't seen or spoken to my mother for over ten years; in fact, I didn't know she'd even been ill.
"Has she asked for me?" I asked. There was silence, and then he cleared his throat. "No," he said, " she hasn't." "Has she ever mentioned me in the last months or years?" I asked. There was another pause and then the word "No." There was another pause and then he said, " I thought you might want to come to see her anyway. She's floating in and out of consciousness and it doesn't look like she's going to be able to hang on much longer." I thanked him for his call, wished him luck, and told him I'd get back to him.
I called friends, relatives, and my therapist and the verdict was unanimous: I should go. I owed it to her, the logic went, because she'd given me life and, besides, seeing her again and saying goodbye would give me "closure." My therapist – a woman I genuinely admired – was absolutely categorical, telling me I might never forgive myself if I didn't go. Closure, she said, was too important. The possible scene she described – one of final reconciliation and declarations of mutual love – brought me to tears in her office even though, back in cool winter air on the way to my car, it seemed more theatre than anything else.
My closest friends stressed that by performing this last act of filial duty, I would feel good about myself. Even if my mother had behaved badly through the years, through this gesture, I would prove once and for all that, in the most important ways, I was nothing like her.
Everyone was helpful, kind, and said what they did because they wanted me to be happy with my choice. I know each of them meant well. But not one of them had had a childhood or a parent like mine and, in the end, I understood that they didn't understand at all.