A close confidante and insightful friend of mine (ok, my therapist) once helped me to understand that my very stiff upper lip developed so nicely because I had an emotionally fragile mother.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I very nearly avoided crying all together. I would sometimes sob when completely alone, but never in the presence of family members. My mother was a cry-er. She was easily overwhelmed by the expectations of Catholic-American motherhood in the 1960s and 70s and would frequently burst into tears at the sight of a burnt meat loaf or an over-flowing laundry basket. She had five unruly kids and low self-esteem. My father, a benevolent dictator (unlike hers, a malevolent one), was at a loss for how to help her and, over time, explained her moodiness away by telling my four younger brothers and me that our mother was going through "the change." He maintained this alibi for at least twenty years.
What I came to understand was that tears required an alibi, and that the best way to impress my father was to maintain composure. He came to expect and depend upon my logically argumentative mind and my level headedness, my even keel.
I came to depend upon the shoulders of badly chosen boyfriends to cry on. I lived a life of emotional stolidity inside the house, and one of luxuriant emotional excess outside of it. My mother ended up with a seemingly aloof daughter whose cool disposition she couldn't possibly compete with. My father found in me the fine conversational companion he craved. What I got were parents who didn't really know me. I also developed a nearly debilitating need to lie in someone's arms and weep, or at least feel very, very safe with.
Badly chosen boyfriends can really do your head in. If you're fortunate, you live to tell the tale.
Fast forward to my late twenties. I find a wonderful set of shoulders to cry on, and, thankfully, the man attached to them turns out to be wonderful too. He is Irish and he becomes my husband and, after much painful deliberation, we move to Ireland two months after our wedding in 1993 and set up house.
Thus begins my life of goodbyes.
Thirteen years and two children later, and I have crossed the Atlantic ocean sixty times -- thirty times west, and thirty times east. This summer will make sixty-two. My pull to family, it seems, is nearly magnetic. My father's mild but recurring insomnia has made for lots of late-night armchair debates over the years, and my brothers and I have all enjoyed them, no less so in adulthood than in adolescence. As the day of my departure approaches (always much too soon), I brace myself to hold back the tears. I keep my sun-glasses on my head as, dragging behind me both suitcase and toddler, I head for the door. As we load up the car, I drop down my glasses to cover my eyes and when we say goodbye it's with a quick kiss on the cheek and a bit of confusion over whether the child seat is properly fitted. My father stands at the top of the driveway, waving with a sad smile as we reverse down the hill. Then I'm off to the airport with whoever is driving and with a great sense of relief that I have stemmed the deluge once again.
One of the trips home was to bury him five years ago. I think I will always be secretly grateful that he was unconscious as he lay dying. For several days we were able to come and go by his side in the hospice, big leafy plants all around, the gentle gurgling sound of morphine drips, soft bedside chairs. He couldn't talk, but, whenever I was alone with him, I could cry. When I said my final goodbye, it was with a heavy heart and the suspicion that I'd not be making the journey home so frequently anymore.
Turns out, my mother likes to talk. Also shop. So my kids and I, we go to church picnics with her, and to the mall, and every summer offers another opportunity to forge a little more openness, a little more candour. How grateful I am. She has not come out from the dense patriarchal ether of the church, as I wish she would, and seemingly small things still unravel her from time to time. But she never makes meat loaf. In fact, she's become a vegetarian. And if anyone has heaps of laundry to do, it's me. She gets quite a kick out of that.
These days when we're parting, I cry and cry. She hugs me tight and, I don't know why, but her eyes are dry.
mmo : october 2006