In 1980, I fled from New Jersey to California. Attending college supplied the excuse I needed. I could have enrolled in an equally prestigious university closer to home, but the Golden State provided a three-thousand-mile buffer from my mother.
My mom did have many positive attributes. For example, she could be creative when attempting to control my sister, Cindy and me. She taught us the Who Can Be Quietest the Longest game. Although usually competitive, I quickly recognized this was a no win situation for me.
She cautioned us about the large green containers at the supermarket, “Until you girls turn five, I can put you in that bin and send you back to the Used Kids Store. Some parents do it for no reason at all, but I will only return you if you keep disobeying me.” When Cindy and I ignored orders or talked back, my mother would holler, “Don’t make me ship you off to the Used Kids Store.”
Sometimes when she seemed particularly close to the edge, I would warn my sister, “Knock it off! She’s going to throw us in the car and drive us to the Used Kids Store.” Other times, I would threaten Cindy, “If you touch my doll one more time, I’m going to tell Mom to drop you at the Used Kids Store.”
One day before shopping at Two Guys, I ran to the green bin. I stood tiptoe, pushed up the heavy rubber lid, and peered inside. I swung around and placed my hands on my hips, “There’s no kids! Just clothes.”
My mother smiled, “Those are donations for the used kids.” I still chuckle when I see similar bins with a sign seeking contributions for foster children.
Although child psychologists might not recommend these techniques, they paled in comparison to her more frequent behavior modification methods. One day when I was thirteen, I returned home from school. As I closed the door, footsteps charged toward me. From the length of the stride, I knew Mom approached. I turned into the kitchen, planted my feet, and braced for impact. She slammed a book across the left side of my face. A metal clasp grazed my cheek and I realized she held my diary. A paralyzing tingle raced down my spine as my mind reviewed the contents.
“What is wrong with you? You stupid sleazy idiot!”
“Mom! What? What?”
“How could you let a boy touch your breasts?”
As her arm swung toward me again, I leaned backward and avoided the blow. Momentum pivoted her to my right. I squeezed past on the left. I bolted through the house and into my bedroom. She followed, screaming, “whore” and “slut.” Woozy from the panic coursing through my body, I staggered to the narrow gap between the twin beds. This trapped me but also limited her movements.
My chest heaved as I waited. She barreled around the corner, panting from a combination of fury and exertion. I tilted my head downward and covered my face with my arms. She slugged me on the shoulders with the diary a few more times.
“Mom! Mom! Knock it off. It was just a story.” After I said this four times, she calmed down. I straightened up, looked her in the eye, and repeated my lie. “It didn’t happen. I made it up.”
Her beet red visage began to return to its natural alabaster and her breathing slowed, “You should be more careful about what your write.”
She huffed out of the room and never mentioned this again. No discussion about the risks of early sexual behavior. No expression of concern about reputational damage difficult to overcome in a small town. Nothing.
Two years later, when I was fifteen, she insisted I break up with my boyfriend, Will because I constantly missed curfew. The next day I hitchhiked to his house. As we listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd in his living room, we heard gravel fly when a car peeled into the driveway. Footsteps resonated across the porch. The storm door banged open. Three long rings of the doorbell startled us into action. I jumped up and gripped Will’s arm to steady myself.
“I know you’re in there! If you don’t come out now, I’m calling the police.”
Will mouthed, “What do you want to do?”
I released my grip, closed my eyes, and rubbed my brow with my hand. Will leaned down and kissed the top of my head. A few tears filled my eyes before I could stop the flow. I turned, grabbed my coat, and rested my hand on the doorknob.
Mom stepped left to peek in the window. I threw open the oak door, exited the house, and sprinted to her blue and white Ford LTD. I sat in the passenger seat and tried to zip my jacket with shaking hands. She glared at Will and returned to the car.
My mother smoothed the trim of her faux fur coat and checked her lipstick in the mirror. She started the car and adjusted the heating vents. She paused then twisted her head toward me, “Why can’t you ever just do what I say?”
Although nearly nauseous from terror, I maintained an impassive expression. I turned to look at Will standing in his yard. My mother reached over and clutched the back of my skull with her right hand. She forced my face toward her. She smashed my forehead into the steering wheel twice. She pushed me away, “Maybe next time you’ll listen.”
My upper body swayed from side to side. Sparkling stars swirled around me. I lowered my head to my cupped hands and sobbed into my mittens. Anger and frustration welled up from my belly to my throat. To prevent further escalation, I swallowed my feelings and my tears. I stared out the window, ignoring her continued tirade on the drive home.
So I arrived in California to attend college, three years later, a damaged young woman. I cannot blame my mother for all of my pain. Compared to my stepfather, she was a nurturing parent. But her behavior contributed significantly. Throughout college and into my twenties, I struggled to heal from these wounds.
By my thirties, I had managed to build a successful life. I spent thousands of dollars on therapy, attended numerous support groups, and began to describe myself as, “mostly recovered.” When my mother moved to nearby Arizona, I even visited regularly for the holidays.
As I progressed professionally and financially, she began to view me as an ATM. Atlantic City blackjack had contributed to her first bankruptcy and this gambling addiction followed her west. She needed me to offset her losses, although she always tried to justify the request by citing house or car repair bills.
I once declined to wire $500 because I knew she had recently visited Las Vegas. In hysterics, she shouted, “Well since you clearly don’t care about me, I might as well kill myself.” I did not believe she would carry out the threat, but called the local sheriff’s office and asked them to check. An officer phoned back an hour later to report they had found her washing dishes.
A brief respite occurred when Mom received an inheritance from her mother. However, instead of paying off her mortgage, she gambled away the funds and within two years confronted foreclosure.
She insisted I purchase her house. Instead, I researched her local real estate market and encouraged her to downsize to a smaller home. I located a realtor, explained my mother’s requirements and budget, and reviewed options. I flew to Arizona to spend a weekend house hunting.
As she dressed, I noticed an unopened envelope on the kitchen table, “Mom, you didn’t review the packet the realtor sent?”
“Why bother? I’m only doing this because you’re making me.”
“If you don’t want to move, that’s your choice. What alternative plan do you have? Other than me borrowing against my house to buy you out? Because that is not going to happen.”
“Why? I can pay you instead of the bank.”
“But you don’t pay the bank.”
She glided out of her room. She looked her casually elegant best, with well coiffed yet slightly too-blonde locks and full make-up. Her white slacks and satin blouse suggested upscale Scottsdale rather than the remote edge of Phoenix. In this costume, she intended to charm the realtor’s attention away from her financial straits.
I grabbed my purse and headed to the rental car. Once inside, I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. She slammed the passenger door. I turned toward her with a sideways grin. “Really, Mom? How about you don’t break the car?”
As I drove, I mentioned a few of the listings. “The larger one in Apache Junction has a good floor plan and a deep lot.”
“Apache Junction! You want me to live in the ghetto!”
“Ghetto? It’s a working class town. And it’s not far from our family in Mesa.”
“You are so selfish. Fill out a few papers and they’ll hand you the $120K. I’d be happy to sign a contract with you. You could kick me out if I don’t pay. I wouldn’t even argue. You reject this simple solution. You refuse to help your own mother.”
My mind considered various rational responses. However, my reserves already had been depleted, “I’ve paid your bills in the past and it doesn’t solve the problem. Plus, it’s not my fault you gambled away your inheritance.”
I glanced over. My mother’s eyes widened and then hardened into a harsh squint. Her mouth opened and closed as she sputtered incoherent sounds, “YOU — FUCKING — BITCH.” I activated the turn signal and peered into the left mirror. I moved us into the middle lane of the expressway. A punch landed near my right ear. I closed my eyes as my head bounced forward from the blow. She pounded my skull with both fists twice more. My mind screamed, “Jesus Christ! Not again!”
I hit the brakes. I lifted my right arm to protect my face. The car behind us screeched to a halt. The horn blared. She grabbed a clump of my red curls. She pulled hard. My neck jerked toward her. Searing pain. Extracted hair floated in the air and glistened in the sunlight. “Mom! Mom! Knock it off!” I grabbed her left arm. We were rolling forward. I released her and threw the car into park. Awash in fear and frustration, I wanted to punch her. But she was my mother. I swiveled toward her with both hands upturned in a defensive posture.
A driver forced to go around us screamed, “Get off the road! You crazy idiots! You’re going to get someone killed.”
She pounded her feet on the floor “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
My every muscle contracted. My chest heaved. Her fists turned to open palms. She indiscriminately slapped me several times. She lowered her arms. She whispered, “I’m the mother. I’m the mother.”
I scowled at her and shook my head. I put the car in gear and maneuvered us into the right lane. I pulled into a parking lot and exited the car. I paced back and forth. My shoulders rose and fell as I struggled to control my rage.
My mother jumped out. She raced around the back of the vehicle and toward me. I turned to face her. I straightened my back and stood tall. I held my hands by my side. I clenched and unclenched my fists. She stopped three feet away from me.
I stared at her. She had attacked me when I was driving fifty miles per hour on a busy thoroughfare. Her rage had overcome even her basic survival instincts. And her furor could be triggered so easily. I could not trust this woman ever, on any level, “Do that again, and I will have you thrown in jail.” She glared at me before returning to the car. Neither of us spoke as we continued the drive to the realtor.
In the following weeks, I realized my comment spurred the assault. I often could not predict when she would fly off the handle. This time, though, I knew that referencing the lost inheritance would upset her. Striking back satisfied the angry little girl inside me, but then I suffered the consequences. Moreover, even though I spoke the truth, no positive outcome would result from such a discussion. She would never admit to a gambling or money management problem.
Once my fury subsided, I had to acknowledge the sadness. Taking a beating from my 55 year-old mother eliminated any remaining hope of a deeper relationship. The geographic distance was not sufficient. I decided to disengage from her emotionally. I needed to accept that my mother would never transform. She had created an unhappy existence for herself but her misery did not have to flow into my life.
I would control my words and my actions. I would choose to approach her with civility while establishing strong boundaries. I would not retaliate when verbally barraged. I would have her arrested if she again struck me.
Although it took years to perfect, I learned to ignore her, laugh off her comments, hang up, or leave the room. I helped her financially but only when necessary. I refused to engage in debate when I said no. I sometimes helped resolve her chaos, but did not allow the insanity wave to overcome me.
I could not change my mother. I could only change myself. In the long run, that was enough.