For me, February 11th is not a good day. But that’s going to change.
Today is unimpressive by most standards. Roosevelt signed the Yalta Agreement, and Nelson Mandela was released on this date in different years. If anything, it’s remarkable in its lack of bragging rights. With 364 other choices in a year, it is still greatly overlooked by big events. However, it is an important day for me.
My mother was born on February 11, 1938. In case you are doing shocked math in your head, she had me when she was thirty-eight (the product of her second marriage). This year she will have been gone for fifteen years, but that’s a deceptive number. Really, she was gone long before that and it’s because of this that I had such a hard time figuring out what to do with her birthday. It’s not like I’m never not going to think about her, so what is the best way to mark the occasion? That question has plagued me for almost thirty years.
My mother was a huge influence on the person I am today. That can be said of just about any mother, but in my case her influence was more cautionary tale than inspiration. So little was known about depression and mental illness in the 1980s that we grossly mistreated people who just needed help. While I am not qualified to diagnose my mother, I am uniquely qualified to understand how she was. My mother suffered from mental illness and grew up terrified of being judged and hated for it. Mainly because that’s exactly what happened, though the people in her world simply wouldn’t have known how to support or help her even if they had wanted to. When I was eight, she disappeared for almost five years without a single word. When she returned, she was an entirely different person. Then she moved away, and yet again turned into a third woman who was nothing like the first two.
She always had a great love for life, a spark that I admired. When in the right mood, she could make anything fun. She took belly dancing lessons in her forties and threw a hip. She once (inexplicably) took to wearing a jewel on her forehead for weeks, and just for kicks drove five hours to be in the same building as Elizabeth Taylor. She loved mobsters. She busted her ass on the Bolivar town square trying to demonstrate how to walk in heels. She wanted to be famous but feared crowds. She laughed hard, and she had crazy whims of inspiration that my husband would recognize all too well. She painted, sang beautifully and finally found her true creative outlet as a writer. I got my love of writing while sitting beside her, listening to her talk out plots and comparing it to writing techniques. I can still spot a ten-point Pica font from a mile away, and to this day I maintain that the Oxford comma is an abomination.
But it wasn’t always fun. Over the years, her problems grew worse and nobody knew how to help her. She wouldn’t accept that she needed help, and I learned how to recognize the panicky fury of deep denial from talks when we would ask her to please, please see someone just for a checkup. Over the years, her spark faded and she became bitter and angry, lost in a deep depression where nobody could reach, not even the children that she never stopped loving. She killed herself in 1999, after a long year of escalating problems. All these years later, what has left me sad is the realization that I ultimately never knew my mother and I never will. And every year, there’s this day I can’t not associate with her and yet have no clue how to spend honorably. Every woman is afraid to grow up to be just like her mother. Most find comfort later in knowing they don’t, yet carry some traits that bind them. I am no different in that regard, but I still sometimes flinch when I look in the mirror and I see her face. Or when I’m nervous and I flutter my hands just like she used to, or when I catch myself standing just like she did when she was angry. I look just like she does in my earliest memories because I am only a couple of years younger than she was in my earliest memories. Our resemblance isn’t just remarkable, it’s downright uncanny. I usually say I don’t mind it, that I just hate it when it sneaks up on me. For the record, that’s bullshit. It bothers me big time and I have never gotten used to it. I never will.
We are told to honor our parents. That’s hard to do when you scarcely knew them. But I can do something; it just took me a while to figure it out. I can stop mourning for her and celebrate her. I can give her the good place she has earned as one of the voices I try to hear when I think about women who never stood a chance, as one of the faces I think of when I reach into my past. I will honor her by being true to myself, a luxury she was never allowed but would want for my sister and me. I won’t let someone tell me how a lady should be; I’m a lady and I’ll be how I please. I will love fiercely and let my heart break without letting it break me. I will wring every moment out of life, laugh hard and I will say fuck a lot and refuse to apologize. I will be honest about my worries and fears and shortcomings and nobody will make me ashamed, and no small town gossips will run me through their hoops. I will write and work for suicide prevention causes and be an advocate for mental illness awareness and all the issues that come with it. I will be compassionate to people because you never know who needs kindness the most. And most important of all, when I get the urge to stick a jewel on my forehead or dance wildly, I’m going to do it. Every time.
But today, on her birthday, I will celebrate her by nourishing my soul. I’ll never know her better, but by loving my life and myself I am doing all I can for what I have left of her. I am entering the prime of my life, the result of a journey that made me tough and smart and brave, and as I become the person I was meant to be I will thank her for her role in it. When I miss her, I will dab my eyes and go do something that reaffirms my love for the world around me. So tonight, in honor of my mother, I am going to my favorite coffee house with a good book, one to read just for the fun of reading it, and eat something delightful. I’m going to sit in the anonymous buzz of a public lounge (which I find hugely comforting and is social by my normal standards), and think about the people I love. I have to think that if she wanted anything for me, it would be that I enjoy my world and be mindful of my path. So that’s what I’ll do.
And I’m still too young for belly dancing lessons, so we have that to await with sweet anticipation.
Until next time,