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Mom’s been around a lot lately. She’s come and gone many times since she died forty years ago, always with the uncanny knack of showing up when I'm feeling lost. I suppose she’s mothering me now in ways that she did not know how to do when she was alive.

My mother was an icon of confusion—a beautiful, gifted, loving, terrified, ruined woman. Only recently did I realize how truly bipolar she was. Although I recognized her depression when I was small and beginning to grapple with my own, I didn’t equate her exhaustive charity work and compulsive cleanliness with mania. These days, I marvel at her control, and I finally understand how she became complicit in my abuse: She was so used up by her own battles and the rigors of living with my father that she had nothing left with which to shelter me.

Consequently, she paid penance by sewing and knitting and cooking and cleaning to create the illusion of perfection. Culture, too, was part of her restitution. She filled our house with opera, started my piano lessons when I was six, and kept an exhaustive library. Thank God, she provided escape routes for me when I could not escape into Nature.

I will always picture her standing in the tiny kitchen she hated so much, singing something from Rigoletto with her amazing voice, grief streaming down her face.

Ah, but that was only one side of her. The other side was haunted by the awful truths she knew and manifested as worthlessness. Nothing measured up, nor did anyone. Ever. The house was never clean enough. I was never clean enough. All the A's in the world could not draw mention in the face of one A-. She found my award-winning poetry maudlin, and my choice of hair-do once inspired such rage that I wore scarves for days to hide her handprints on my neck. Many a day, I went to school with welts on my cheek or bruises where she grabbed my arms and shook me. Grannyhood softened her greatly, for she spared my children her usual strict policy of “no compliment without an offsetting criticism.”

I am not whining, mind you. Nor do I blame her for my challenges. On the contrary, I am sorry that part of her grieved every day of her life, that her own childhood wounds were inconsolable, and that she died of regret, believing that she failed my brother and me. She did the very best she knew under circumstances that would undo most of us.

Besides, just before her life released her, my mother gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. “Kitty,” she whispered. “No one gives a damn if you vacuum every day.”


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