Did I Fail My Mother?

Sherry McGuinn

All the things I should have said, but didn't.

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My mother was a beautiful woman. Achingly so. Beautiful and funny and smart…and desperately unhappy. Others might have a different impression. But I know what I know.

When I was growing up, there were signs — so many signs of just how miserable my mom was, but, as a kid, I didn’t know what to do. Or maybe I didn’t pay enough attention. I was too busy birthing my own demons, many of which took root in the often horrific shit going on in our home, behind closed doors. That is a story I’ve been meaning to write, but I’ve been holding off. Soon. I hope.

In spite of outward appearances, our family was anything but “typical.” Yes, we were middle-class. Yes, we lived in the suburbs. And yes, we put on a good front. We were adept at pretending. Unless things got really out of hand, we kept our skeletons where they belonged: Hunkered-down in a back closet.

Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I could hear them wail for release.

Don’t get me wrong: We had great times, too and I have the memories to support them. The rest…I’ve pretty much shut out. Unless I can’t sleep. Then, the “other stuff” comes flooding back.

My father, a Jew, and my mother, Italian and a gentile cared for us kids the best way they knew how. I was the oldest, followed by my brother, four years younger, and my “baby” sister, who was a full ten years younger than me. She was, in fact, a “mistake.” But I thank God for that mistake every day because I don’t know what I’d do without her.

However, this story is about my mother. An enigma to me, even now, I wish I had known how deeply depressed she was. I mean, I knew she wasn’t happy, but I didn’t understand how ingrained that unhappiness was.

Both my parents suffered from depression, during a time when people rarely spoke about their emotional issues. It just wasn’t done. I wonder now if we had talked about it if meds could have eased their pain. To the best of my recollection, I never brought it up. Not once. And that’s on me. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

If I told you that my mom and I had the perfect mother/daughter relationship, I’d be lying outright. Oh, we loved each other very much. In fact, I adored her but I think I sucked at showing it. Something…some invisible gauntlet kept me at arm’s length.

My sister never had that problem. Both my parents doted on her and she deserved their unconditional love. When they were both diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, my sister moved them into her home and cared for them with a dedication that took my breath away.

Twenty is hella young to have a kid. How much did my mom give up to have me? To raise me? She was just a kid herself and my dad was only a year older.

What were her hopes? Her dreams? How could I not know these things? Where was I all those years?

I didn’t know because I didn’t ask.

Mom came from a big Italian family. She had four siblings, three sisters, and an adoring brother. And they, along with my grandparents spoiled me rotten when my mother and I went to live with them after my dad was sent to Korea. In fact, he was in Japan when I was born.

I didn’t learn, until years later when I was grown and married that when my mom was growing up, she and her siblings had to be “parceled out” to other family members because they were in dire financial straits.

My grandmother came from money, from what I was told. And her family didn’t like the fact that she’d married a common truck driver, so, when they ran out of cash — I mean, five kids after all — my grandmother’s family refused to help. They were strapped and desperate, so my mom and her siblings lived with other family members temporarily, until their situation improved.

When my mom told me this story, my heart broke for her. I actually ached at the thought of what she must have experienced. After she told me, I was stunned that I hadn’t known this earlier.

My mother had her secrets.

Both my parents were drinkers. I hesitate to say “alcoholics,” but the time for denial has long passed. And most of their friends were drinkers. Together, that made for a pretty raucous bunch. And some of the parties at our home were wild, boozy affairs where the police were often called. It was a damned good thing that my folks’ best friend was a cop and was always front and center at these brawls.

Then, after everyone went home, in the wee hours, my mother and father fought. Viciously. More about this when I can summon up the guts to write it.

Before my mother accepted a job outside the home, she took a lot of “naps” during the day. I’d find her passed out on her bed more times than I care to count. She looked so vulnerable. And she was.

But, again, she drank. A lot. The booze, as it is for many of us, was a cushion. Something to keep the monsters at bay.

I’m sorry, mom. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I need to get this out. Because I love you.

My mother was a strong woman. She proved that almost five years ago when she was dying of lung cancer, but she was also a deeply wounded woman. I think part of that was due to her never realizing her full potential.

What did she want to be…to do? Did I ever ask her? I should have tried harder. I had the key — and I dropped it and kicked it under the bed. Like a petulant brat who’s gotten tired of her toys.

My sister has a stunning, framed photo of our mother hanging on her family room wall. It was taken when she was named “Miss Motorola.” Sometime in the fifties, I believe. My mother worked there. I don’t know how long, or even, what she did.

The giant purveyor of TVs, radios, and other electronics of the time had a beauty contest and my mother won. We kids used to giggle about it, as ignorant children do, but it meant something to her.

And we never talked about it. My sister probably knows. She helps me with the “blank spots.” Some of her revelations have been stunning.

What if my mother had taken a different path? Hadn’t met my father and gotten pregnant with me?

As I got older, we argued frequently. She had a nasty temper when she’d had too much to drink, as did my father. Unfortunately, I inherited that particular gene, along with depression and OCD and I have to be ever watchful…ever vigilant…that I don’t turn into my own version of my parents. That sounds terrible and I don’t mean it to as I inherited a healthy helping of the “good stuff,” too. But I have to be honest with myself or I will sink like a stone.

There are days when I think I’m becoming my mother. It’s the oddest sensation. I’ll move in a certain way, or say something just as she would have said it. And when I cook, I make far too much food, just as my mom did. Although that’s where the comparison ends because she was a fantastic cook.

Still, it’s like she’s inhabiting my body. I know many women can relate: We feel like we’re becoming our mothers. We laugh about it. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, it’s more than a little scary as I see my mother’s face. I used to take after my dad, but as I’ve aged, I’m my mother all over.

So, yes. I have regrets. A boatload. I wish I had done more for my mother. Said more. Questioned more. Does she know how much I loved her and still love her?

Wherever she is, I fervently hope she does know. And I hope it’s anywhere rather than in that cold, hard ground next to my dad. I pray they’ve both taken flight, together.

Finally, I have one last thought: Why does everything come to us so late?

© Sherry McGuinn, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Sherry McGuinn is a slightly-twisted, longtime Chicago-area writer and award-winning screenwriter. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications. Sherry’s manager is currently pitching her newest screenplay, a drama with dark, comedic overtones and inspired by a true story.

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Chicago, IL
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