My mother always held something back. I saw it from the time I was a little girl but didn’t know what it was. Some topic would come up and she would press her lips together and look away severely. I began to think she was sending me a silent message, a warning, but I did not know why.
I knew she feared physical dangers. I never had a bicycle because my aunt, a nurse, had told her about the injuries she would see in the emergency room. I had cats as pets but there were not allowed to be in my bedroom because she had read about diseases they carried. I never learned to roam, to explore, because of the menaces she was convinced were lurking. As an adult I came to believe that she was protecting me from something that had happened to her.
She wrote an account of her childhood in rural Virginia during the Depression, an account that I made into a website (Growing Up Country). In it her mother and aunt, who lived with them, grow and preserve food to feed the family. There is suffering from a lack of money and heroism and a kind of romance in the pattern of life they led but there is a glow over it all. It is idyllic. When I was editing this account and putting it into html, I asked her if there wasn’t a dark side to all this pleasantness. She said no, there wasn’t. When I waited for more she frowned a little and said, “Oh mother would tell us not to talk to such and such a man ….” But then she shrugged. Shrugged it away, I thought. It was a familiar shrug. When she did that I knew I would get nothing more from her. She had decided what she wanted me to know.
Many years later when my husband’s parents had moved to an assisted living facility near us, his mother was confined to a wheelchair. As her physical condition deteriorated I began to think that she was tormented by something. After dinner she would release the brake on one side of the wheelchair and rock the wheel back and forth, back and forth. I knew she wanted to say something and I tried to get her to talk. We did not have a trusting relationship – I was nice enough but an obstacle between her and her son – so I did not succeed but my son did. She told him a dark secret that she had held for decades, telling no one. Now, as she approached death, she clearly feared she was going to hell. We did what we could to comfort her, to absolve her of guilt. I do not know if we were successful.
I shared this story with my mother, thinking it was a story of the pain of a repressed memory as well as the possibility for healing. I did not expect her reaction. Her face clouded and her mouth tightened.
“It is better not to talk about some things,” she said angrily. “You must say, ‘well, that happened’ and go on.”
If something did happen to my mother, something that tormented her all her life, I never learned what it was.