I am a motherless daughter. Betty Jean Cole Hogan died on July 19, 2006. She was 83.
Our relationship was as complicated as she was – and I am, for that matter.
I have a vague recollection of watching episodes of I Remember Mama – a fifties television series based on a memoir of a Norwegian-American immigrant’s childhood in San Francisco. Each episode opens with the daughter leafing through the family album. She remembers everyone pictured. But mostly, she says, I remember Mama.
My mother was not a Mama. She wasn’t Mother. She was Mom.
When I leaf through albums I see her at twenty wearing a swimsuit and riding a tricycle. In another, she and my father hoist a giant beer stein at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. In another, she lounges, one leg lying flat, the other bent with her foot flat on the couch, the back of her hand resting on her forehead. I think she was nineteen in that photo. It’s very sensual. I wonder what she was thinking at that moment.
In another photo, she stands with her arms around my brothers and me. She wears a coat, a scarf on her head, and dark cotton gloves. It’s the mid-fifties. We are waiting to board a plane – somewhere in Europe. Women dressed up to fly on planes in those days; they wore scarves and gloves and girdles and stockings with a seam up the back that took some work to keep straight.
Later in life, she told me that during World War II, when women couldn’t get stockings (either nylon or silk), they used eyebrow pencil to draw a seam up the back of their legs, so it looked like they wore stockings.
She also told me that at every airport she cupped her gloved hand under the mouth of one of us as, with no warning other than, “Mom, I need to throw up,” we threw up into the thick cotton. I guess she carried extra pairs with her.
The fifties and sixties were the TV era of perfect mothers. June Cleaver always wore pearls and a dress even when she vacuumed. I saw my mother vacuum while wearing a dress only once. We got out of school at noon because President Kennedy had been shot. She had been grocery shopping when she heard. The television was on when I arrived home. My mother was vacuuming.
My mother was not a vacuumer. And yet, there she was, wearing a dress and heels, pushing the Hoover upright vacuum forwards and yanking it backwards, making her way across the den. I was a freshman in high school. I had walked home with tears streaming down my face. But seeing my mother in her dress and high heels vacuuming in the middle of a weekday brought it home. Something profound had happened.
Mom was not known for her culinary skills. She did not bake. She claimed that margarine tasted better than butter because butter was too rich. But her beans and meatballs on a cold rainy night could not be beat.
Cook dry pinto beans according to the package instructions.
Add salt and pepper to a pound of hamburger meat.
Turn the hamburger into meatballs.
Throw the meatballs into the pot of beans and cook until done
Serve over store-bought sliced white bread (store brand works fine) that has been slathered with margarine.
Set out the bottle of ketchup because someone will want to put ketchup on it.
Things got complicated between us as I strayed further from the farm – the metaphorical farm that is – because there was nothing farm-like about my mom. The metaphorical farm was about limits; what a woman could do and what she wasn’t supposed to do.
My mother really didn’t want the limits, and stretched them pretty far given she was an Oklahoma-born Baptist – one who drank, smoked, and danced.
In the forties and fifties movies, Van Johnson married June Allyson. They had babies but no sex as far as I can tell. On the other hand, Bogie got together with Bacall. They clearly had sex, but never babies.
The movie version of my parents would have Van Johnson marrying Lauren Bacall. When my mother succumbed to the inevitable and placed my Alzheimer’s addled father into a nursing home, I gave my mother a vibrator. About a month later she took me aside to tell me how happy she was with her little friend.
Betty Jean was full of contradictions. Mostly we were close. But at the very end of her life we were not. I kept thinking we would bridge the chasm.
But for her to do that would have required that she take a stand about abuse – an abusive system that had become embedded for so many generations in my family that this abnormal behavior had become normalized. She did not physically abuse me, but she had learned to retreat in fear when the men in the family became abusive. Her son, my older brother, was one of those men.
His emotionally abusive behavior escalated over the years. In 1998 , in my mother’s house, he punched me in the jaw. Typical of the behavior – he blamed me.
She could not find a way to reject the abusive behavior without rejecting her son – and she could not do that. And so she left me to fend for myself with it, saying it was between my brother and me.
On Saturday, July 15, 2006, my younger brother got married. His wife had insisted that everyone had to be invited to the wedding, including the brother who had punched me. In her mind, I should take the high road because family togetherness trumped all. I had come to believe that sacrificing my safety to perpetuate a misguided story of family togetherness was not the road I wanted to take.
It was difficult. Some people called to tell me I owed it to my mother to go to the wedding – it might be the last time the family would all be together. I should take the high road. The high road came up a lot.
They didn’t understand the language I had learned to speak. I didn’t feel safe. It would not be fun or comfortable for me. I had to matter and the system didn’t allow for that. So I chose mattering to me. That was my high road.
As the wedding drew near, everyone felt uncomfortable, particularly my mother. We didn’t speak about it. I decided to bide my time. I figured that somehow, after the wedding, we would be able to bridge the chasm.
The wedding happened. I busied myself that day so I didn’t think about it taking place in the same town. Then on Sunday, the 16th she broke her hip
I went to the emergency room, wondering how I was going to deal with seeing my brothers. But no one was there. My older brother had dropped her off at the hospital then took off to fly back to North Carolina. My younger brother and his new wife continued their after-wedding party.
So I ended up having time alone with my mother. I saw the look on her face when the ER doctor told her that her hip was broken into four pieces. She was pretty much in end stage emphysema at that point, so recovering from a broken hip was an uphill battle that would lead nowhere for her.
I could tell she had made her decision.
I tried to ask her about it, but she didn’t want to talk. She took the morphine and drifted off.
I still held out hope we would have our final conversation, but she went in and out of consciousness the next two days. Then pneumonia set in. They moved her to the ICU. When I got there, she looked at me and said, “I thought I was dying.”
“Is that what you want?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
And so they stopped everything but the morphine. She died late that afternoon. Her last words came as they gave her the first dose of comfort-care morphine. “Give me lots,” she said.
Love and life and relationships are very complicated. I was pretty much devastated that we never had the chance to get back to intimate moments she and I had experienced over my adult years. It’s the kind of intimacy that comes out of being in the same place at the same time. We were together during my grandmother’s final days and my father’s. We had had intimate talks about how she wanted to die.
But in the very end, the intimacy went unacknowledged. That’s confusing at best, and traumatic at its worst. A part of me felt like a five-year-old girl whose mother told her she didn’t like her.
Mother’s don’t get off the hook easily. I think we might be more forgiving of our father’s foibles. It’s a real shock to find out that we are not the center and be-all of our mother’s universe.
At some point, I noticed that the wound was no longer open. I no longer felt like a bereft five-year old. Instead, I had become a grown woman who understands how complicated it can be to be a mother. How imperfect that love is.
I’ve learned how to receive imperfect love, and to understand that I didn’t need to be the center of my mother’s universe for me to become a woman.
There was a TV program in the sixties called My Mother, the Car. I never saw even one episode. I have no idea how “mother” was portrayed in that series.
But about a month after my mom died, Tom and I were having dinner on the patio of a restaurant. It was in a small shopping mall, so the patio butted up against the parking lot.
An enormous pickup truck came lumbering by the restaurant, a speedboat in tow. It made no sense. Why was this truck driving through the parking lot? Taking a short cut?
As the boat passed us by we saw its name painted on the side. Betty Jean.
I could see it. My mother reincarnated as a speed boat, heading out for a good time on the delta.
I think that perhaps the gift she left me was the imperfection of her love.