I’m a mom, but I’m not one who gets all demandy and weird about Mother’s Day. I don’t need cards and flowers. My kids and my husband are wonderful, and that’s truly enough for me. Although I *do* appreciate the Xbox Live points I get from them from time to time, not gonna lie. Once my daughter spent her allowance on Xbox Live points as a gift to me. I basically exploded with joy.
My own mother was . . . difficult. She had a complicated childhood, and struggled with depression her entire life. She would veer recklessly from extravagant affection to vicious lashing out without warning. She refused treatment every time it was brought up. By the time we were teenagers, she was so deep into her depression she was barely functioning. She kept up appearances in public, and with the rest of the family, but at home, things were rough for all of us. We begged her to get help and she refused. When my brother landed his first big job and was making piles of money, he told her he would come pick her up, drive her to therapy, pay for it, and drive her home, and she refused. She wasn’t interested in stepping out of her depression. She believed that leaving it behind would mean she was no longer honoring the difficulty of her life experience.
She had stopped taking care of herself in every way that phrase has meaning, and would only take her blood pressure medication off and on. Eventually it caught up to her. Stroke, hospital, and a death that should have had the respect to come more quickly. She would have hated every second if she had known where she was.
My father is a good man, in every way that phrase has meaning. He left my mother when I was 12 and I was devastated. My mother lavishly excoriated him in front of me, daily, and instructed me to hate him. I did my best to comply. I was too young to understand that my father was escaping an impossible situation. They were 34 and 35. Babies. My mother decided she was too old to start over and that her life had ended. She deteriorated from that day forward until her death at 62. SIXTY-TWO. At the time, a friend of mine was dating a man a year older than that (who would eventually become his husband). It’s a shockingly young age to die.
The tragedy is that my mother was brilliant and beautiful, with a razor-sharp, irreverent wit and a lavish warmth. The monster that was her depression took most of that away much of the time. She never fully disappeared– the monster could never conquer her completely– but she was clouded over far too often with the person who felt she was the victim of a world designed specifically to hurt her. And so it went.
My father went straight into a new life with a new woman. My mother instructed me to hate her, and I did. For years. And of all the selfish, horrible things I’ve ever done in my life (and there are plenty, I assure you), this one hurts the worst. I know I was a child under the influence of a strong but very troubled woman I adored, but I still feel that I should have somehow known better, and understood who this new woman was.
My stepmother, Charlene, is– I’ve tried to type this sentence five times now, and I can’t get it out. I’m crying as I type this.
My stepmother, Charlene, is the best woman in the world, an enormous positive healing influence on me, a constant gift to my father, the linchpin of this entire family, and the most important woman in my life.
She sat patiently and waited until we figured it out on our own. She and my father never said a single negative word about my mother in my presence. My father to this day has not, and answers my direct questions evasively. Charlene is more forthcoming, but is still circumspect. But I know. Oh, man, I know.
Instead of giving up on us (a perfectly reasonable idea) and focusing on her own child (my awesome stepbrother who is awesome), she just . . . waited. She waited and she loved us. And that was all she did– loved us, and never stopped loving us, and waited for us to figure it out.
And we all did, eventually, one by one as we got into our 20s. As you do. My mother was wrong. She was trapped in a hellish fantasy of her own making. We had believed her. And we were WRONG.
The fact that it took me YEARS to figure this out is the worst thing I can say about myself. It feels like the worst kind of failure and stupidity. But I figured it out. It was like being struck by lightning. I remember the DAY, even, that it finally dawned on me as I sat, stretching out and talking to a friend before a dance class. Her mother was getting remarried, all three kids were flying out for the wedding, her parents had divorced when she was twelve, the new guy is such a sweetheart. And something about that conversation made everything finally click into place. It’s deeply humiliating to even talk about. I should have known years before, but the mythology I was taught at a young and vulnerable age was stronger than observation, stronger than logic. Still. I should have known.
There’s no way for me to enumerate all the things Charlene is to me, has done for me, and means to me in this blog without it becoming tedious, because it would take all damn day to list them. All you need to know is that whenever I reached my hand out for her, she was there. She’s one of the few people I know loves me unconditionally, because I was a SHIT to her as a teenager, and her response was to love me. I deserved a swift kick in the ass, and instead, she gave me everything she had to give.
Now that I’m a stepmother, I am overwhelmingly grateful that Charlene taught me how to be a good one. My stepson Jacob came into my life when he was 5, and I went through many of the same things Charlene did when she married my father. Charlene handheld me through it, without ONCE MENTIONING, “Well, at least your stepson isn’t a shit to you like you guys were to me.” She’d have every right. But that’s not who she is.
This is the paragraph where I should describe her in detail, right? And I can’t do her justice. She is wonderful. She is loving, and warm, and funny, and wise, and an AMAZING cook, and can fold a fitted sheet COMPLETELY FLAT (which is some kind of witchcraft, I think), and is everything I want to be. She can swear creatively and simultaneously make an elegant dinner party for 12 using nothing but an onion, a shoelace, and a Mr. Coffee. She was at Altamont, and my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and the birth of my daughter. When my mother was dying, she and my father picked me up at the airport and shepherded me back and forth to the hospital, sitting for hours in that crappy hospital cafeteria waiting for me. Every single time I’ve ever reached out for her, she’s been there for me.
You learn how to love from your mother, I think. My mother taught me how to love lavishly, openly, and wholeheartedly. It’s a good way to love. But Charlene taught me how to love unconditionally, and what it means to love someone enough to know that sometimes you put their needs ahead of your own.
Not that she neglected herself– she made time for herself and time for my father. She gave us an excellent example of what it means to take care of yourself and your marriage while still taking care of your family. To have balance. I had never heard of such a thing. I didn’t know what it looked like until she showed me.
She taught me how to be a mother, how to be a stepmother, how to be a strong woman. I’m still trying to live up to her example, every day.
So Happy Mother’s Day, Charlene. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without you. You came into my life and made EVERY SINGLE aspect of it better.
Once again, Melissa, you rule. Thanks for sharing this wonderful reflection.
Wow! That brought me to tears. Being a stepmom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. All I can do is love and wait. Thank you for reassuring me that it will happen eventually!
Melissa, thank you. This was not only moving and personal, but by writing it you’ve given me hope that some day I can put my relationship with my mother in some sort of perspective. This is the first Mother’s Day since she passed away, and it’s been a complicated day. I’ve sat at the keyboard a few times trying to figure out something to say, but I realize I simply can’t.
Your bravery and honesty really means a lot to me today. There’s a lot in your relationship with your mother that rings pretty true for me, as well. Maybe it will take time, but you’ve given me hope I can reach understanding at some point. (Just not today. Today I celebrate my sister, and my mother-in-law, and April.)
thanks for this. it is gorgeous.
Beautiful essay. You sound hard on yourself, though. Adolescence can be kind of a mental disease, and the effects carry over into the 20s, plus loyalty to one’s mother can make us act in crazy ways even when it’s misplaced. But she knew you’d figure it out. She sounds like a wonderful person. You’re lucky to have each other.
When I opened email today, I thought ‘really, another blog entry? This is the third one this week!’ So glad I read it. Great message. Thank you.
Your heart-felt blog entry says so much about what “mothering” really means…You are an amazing person to put all of this into words…thank you.
Melissa, this is a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to both your mom and stepmom.Thank you for sharing such great insights to your life and all that you’ve been through and learned. I want a Charlene of my own! The best part is that you know how fortunate you are and have quite a few years left to enjoy and appreciate your relationship with her.Those of us who have struggled with family depression know how crippling that can be to all involved.You are obviously stronger and more compassionate because of it! I feel even more honored to say I know you after reading this. Happy Mother’s Day!
Melissa – A wonderful and heartwarming read. Your Dad & Charlene are the best! It is a privilege to be your Dad’s “adopted” Brother, Charlene’s “adopted” Brother and your “adopted” Uncle. My life would not be the same without the Hillman family. You have my sincere love on this Mother’s Day
This is incredible, Melissa. Thank you for such beautiful, eloquent honesty. Truly a gift to read.