“It’s not a parent’s task to apologize for what they did. It’s your task to forgive. If you don’t, you’ll carry that bitterness to the grave.”
My mother has been gone for 20 years, but a new documentary, “Look at Us Now, Mother!” brought her memory back — big as life and twice as mean.
Gayle Kirshenbaum, a filmmaker in her 60s who seems to have footage of her entire life from birth to the present day, made this documentary about her real-life journey to forgiveness with her own abrasive, hypercritical Jewish mother who, it happens, is very much like my own — except hers is alive and kicking at 92 (and touring with her daughter to promote the film.) My mom was almost a carbon copy of Gayle’s mom Mildred, with some intellectual pretensions thrown in. Seeing “Look at Us Now, Mother!” gave me some insight into why she couldn’t help being the way she was.
“One of the reasons I wasn’t nice to you was you were a bitchy little girl,” Mildred announces to Gayle in the film without a hint of self-consciousness, after having told her daughter to get a nose job, straighten her bushy hair and lose her Jewish accent. My mother wasn’t quite as outrageous—or funny—but she was far from easy. I had a straight nose and straight hair, but my weight was a constant thorn in her side, especially my refusal to try to lose it. Pictures of me as a young teen show me pleasantly plump. My mother, however, did not consider plumpness pleasant. Since she spent her life on diets, she assumed I should do the same. She also tried to teach me to be more feminine, “stop chomping” when I ate, talk more softly and not be so tactless.
We’re all products of our time. As women of a specific generation and a particular time in history, our mothers—Gayle’s, mine, maybe yours—were trying to mold us according to an image they considered socially acceptable. In the 50s, Jews, like other immigrant groups, were desperate to assimilate. World War II wasn’t very far in the past and there were still pockets of virulent anti-Semitism in America, so a Jewish nose, big thighs and lack of social graces were to be avoided at all costs. For Gayle’s mother and mine, looks were everything.
Our mothers were dynamic, ambitious women in an era when it was almost impossible for a woman to achieve her dreams. In the 1950s and 60s, women were supposed to conform to rigid social norms of femininity. My mom, a math whiz, wanted to be a statistician. Instead she became a schoolteacher, and focused her considerable energy on getting me to fit in. Maybe if I looked more like the American ideal I could be somebody—or at least find a husband who was. Gayle’s mother wanted to be a lawyer but wound up arguing with her daughter instead. Like a lot of mothers at the time, they channeled their ambitions into trying to mold their rebellious daughters into acceptably pretty and feminine girls who would find suitable husbands and provide them with suitable grandchildren. Neither succeeded.
Gayle’s journey to forgive her mother takes them to a therapist, where Mildred conveniently “forgets” all the many offenses she committed against her daughter and at one point jokes acerbically, “why don’t you waterboard me and I’ll confess.” My mom also had conveniently forgotten her offenses — like the times she told me I had a “big ass” and how no man would ever want me. I remember trying to talk to her once about “our relationship.” She got hysterical, terrified I was going to accuse her of being a bad mother (which in fact I was), ran into the next room and slammed the door.
My mother never apologized for her bad behavior, which Gayle’s mother eventually did in one of their therapy sessions, but I forgave her anyway by understanding that she genuinely did do the best that she could. She was brought up by a cold, critical mother herself and had no idea how to be any other way. She might not have been great at traditional mothering, but unlike some other moms of my friends who weren’t there when it was important, she was loyal, steadfast and true—always there for me when I needed her. She sent me money when I was broke, showed up when I was sick or needed help, read all my articles and put my artwork on her walls, and although she never said “I love you,” I never doubted that she did.
For me, the epiphany came during a crisis. I was very upset after being fired from a job because I didn’t suck up to the bullying boss. “Why weren’t you nicer to your boss?” she said accusingly. “Maybe if you’d gotten there on time every day you wouldn’t have been fired.” Instead of defending myself — my usual knee jerk reaction —I chuckled to myself and said, “Mom, I’m having a hard time, you’re my mother, you’re supposed to be comforting. How about you try that for a change.” She thought for a minute and responded, “Comforting, comforting, how do I do that?” She was genuinely bewildered.
I learned on my own what Gayle learned in therapy with her mom — that barring real abuse or neglect, it’s not a parent’s task to apologize for what they did. It’s your task to forgive. If you don’t, you’ll carry that bitterness to the grave.
In my case, my mom mellowed considerably after my dad died. Never happily married in the first place, she resented being his caretaker for 15 years before he died of Parkinson’s. For her, his death was a getting out of jail card. She spent her own final 15 years having a great time hanging out with her girlfriends in Florida’s Century Village. When I visited, I became one of the “goils” and spent some of the best times of my own life with her and her buddies. I am incredibly grateful that we had those years together. We healed our relationship, and that healed me.
What kind of relationship did you have with your mom? If it was contentious or estranged, did you ever forgive her?