It was June of 1955. I was twelve and my sister, whose wedding was just a week away, was out on the patio talking with Mom. I was surprised, since neither my sister nor I had ever had a conversation with our parents, and couldn’t resist the temptation to eavesdrop. Betty was speaking very harshly with Mom, spewing out all the frustrations we had experienced growing up. “All I ever learned from you,” said Betty, “was how not to be a wife.”
As the conversation developed it became ever more one-sided, with Betty doing all the talking and becoming increasingly cruel. I was excited to hear all our pain put into such strong words and could hardly keep from loudly cheering for Betty. At last Mom is getting what she deserves!
That was sixty years ago. Now I am 72. Mom is long gone and my sister has led a hard life, living in institutions almost continually since 1965. By the grace of God, I have muddled through and made some positive contributions in my day.
Today I would not cheer for that long-ago conversation. I have seen lots of lives come and go and learned many years ago that there are no perfect human beings. Now I wish I could speak with Mom and tell her I forgive her and am grateful that she did her best for Betty and me.
And I would ask Mom to tell me her story. I’ve pieced together enough of that story over the years that I think I know much of what Mom would say.
Her family moved from Louisiana to California in 1922, when Mom was 11. She was teased at school because of her accent. Shortly after that, her big brother — her hero! — was murdered by an unknown assailant. She became, however, the darling of the women at church, who saw her as the only strong Christian among all the young folk in church.
But when she was 16 she became pregnant by a fellow in his mid-twenties with a drinking problem. Her strict Baptist parents must have been ashamed of her. They married and the baby was born shortly after Mom had turned 17. They named the baby Cleo Thelma, the father’s name and my Mom’s.
Two months later Mom found the baby lying motionless in her crib, cold and lifeless. No one knew about SIDS then. Such deaths were always assumed to result from parental neglect. The father left, only to return four or five years later, when Mom accepted him back and my sister was born. But during this second pregnancy, the fellow began drinking again and Mom sent him away. For a long while, she didn’t seek a divorce. When there finally was a divorce, it was formally granted on the day before she married the man who was to become my father.
So far as I recall, my Mom never touched me when I was a child, except for one spanking when I was three and disobeyed her by playing in the nearby creek. By the time I was ten Mom was locked into alcoholism, which I thought was some form of inexcusable cowardice and escapism.
It never occurred to me to ask what she might be escaping from. And I didn’t then know any of the things about her early years that were so painful for her. Now my heart breaks when I think that my sister and I, who should have been her great joy, simply added to her pain by being angry at her and ashamed of her.
A couple of years ago, I remembered that, when we moved my widowed Father out of the house he and Mom had shared for nearly half a century, we had brought home a box with some baby clothes in it. I found the box in our attic and opened it up. Expecting to find my own baby clothes, I was surprised to find these were the tiny clothes from 1928, the clothes of little Cleo Thelma. There was one photo of her, wearing the same clothes that were in the box. And there were a couple of dozen small cards that must have accompanied gifts at a baby shower. Most of the signatures on those cards were also on another set of small cards, cards of condolence for the loss of the baby.
I looked slowly through the box, my eyes filled with tears (even now as I write), saying again and again, “Oh, poor Mom!”
I was never left hungry, never wore dirty clothes, never slept in an unmade bed, never saw dirt in the house, never was reprimanded or scolded (after the spanking that I had deserved). True, I was never touched and I never had a conversation with my Mom but now I know she must have been terrified every day that maybe her love would kill me. It must have seemed to her, at least since age eleven, that there was something deeply and awfully wrong with her.
I think she protected me from what have seemed to her a toxic touch. The twists in her heart were no fault of her own. I grew up with that same feeling, that there was something way down deep inside me that was so awful that even my mother could not stand me. It’s a heavy load to bear.
But now I understand. I wish I could tell Mom that a couple of years ago I found the unmarked grave of little Cleo Thelma and had a gravestone installed. It said, “More loved than ever. . .” It wasn’t just Mom’s pain that got built into me. It was also her love, including her love for that first little baby.
By the grace of God, on the other side of the grave I will meet Cleo Thelma