By Dena Landon
Women are stronger together. Without each other, without our support, I don’t know if any of us would make it through life. From raising our children and helping out with carpools and drop-offs to girls night out and crying into our wine when we finally make the decision to leave an ex, I am forever grateful for the bonds between the women in my life. They are all so worthy of praise. But, of all of them, it was my mother who got me through my divorce the most, though not in the usual way.
My mom passed away in 2009 at the age of fifty-eight. I can’t pick up the phone and call her. Can’t plop down on her couch, grab a magazine from the coffee table and chat about life while making fun of ridiculously overpriced clothes. Most days missing her has faded to a dull ache but some days it’s just as sharp as the day I got the phone call that she’d gone.
I’d just got out of the shower and was standing in front of my closet, naked as the day as I was born, when my cell phone rang.
“Do you want me to pick that up?” my now ex-husband asked.
“Sure.” But I walked out of my closet and sat down on the bed next to him when he picked up the phone. I sat there and watched his face and knew. It wasn’t a surprise, the doctors had said she wouldn’t even make it to my wedding. I still collapsed into wracking sobs, curling into the fetal position and mourning the woman who gave me birth.
It’s an unbreakable bond, mother and child, no matter the relationship that follows it. Ours had our ups and downs, though I wasn’t a rebellious teenager. We were just a lot alike. Same tendency to avoid conflict. Same desire to smooth things over combined. The willingness to stick with something that really wasn’t working, holding out for when it would get better. Trying to believe it always would.
She stayed with my father for fourteen years, even though he’d already cheated before my fifth birthday. And, even after they divorced, she rarely said anything negative about him. “He’s your father,” a shrug and a change of topic, was her common response if I brought him up. During the months after she left I didn’t understand so much. Why she moved out in the middle of the day, when he wasn’t home. Why she had a safe place to live already lined up, and why she wouldn’t give him her address for a few weeks.
If she can do it, I can, became my mantra.
My father took advantage of that lack of understanding, a thirteen year old girl’s confusion and pain, to hurt her. He’d send me over to her house with an envelope and bills of items he claimed that she owed him. He’d pump me for information when I came back from a weekend with her, plant ideas in my head and use me to harass her verbally in his stead. At one point he shipped my brother off to a boarding school outside of the country without telling her, tried to make her pay half the tuition, and cost her tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to get my brother back. He made her life hell, and I was just a pawn. There was no consideration for our relationship, or the damage he did to me by interfering and not allowing us a health relationship. It was all about him, and punishing her for leaving him.
Even still, I felt a lot of guilt after years went by and the pieces began to click into place. I treated her horribly, and even though she must have known who it was really coming from, it can’t have been easy to hear his words coming out of her daughter’s mouth.
To me, she embodied grace and forgiveness. I’ve gained a lot of understanding of her life since leaving my ex-husband, including the utterly impossible choices she faced.
I didn’t have her to talk to during my recent divorce, but I had my memories of her strength and courage. Every time I felt like giving up and going back to him just to make the constant round of verbal and financial abuse stop I’d think of her. If she can do it, I can, became my mantra. She dealt with constant verbal and financial abuse from my father after her divorce, too. Anytime he saw her, he got nasty.
At my wedding I only made one request of him. “Don’t talk to Mom. Leave her alone.” She was in a wheelchair and in pain, having reduced her usual painkillers in order to be more aware of what was going on. Her caregiver had strict instructions not to let him near her. But, at one point during the afternoon, her caregiver had to go to the bathroom. My father swooped in, clutching photographs of their life together and insisting that they talk and find closure before she died. Always about him, ever the narcissist. According to friends who were there I high-tailed it over to her side faster than the huge princess skirt of my wedding gown made truly possible, and got him away from her. She protected me when I was child and, the last time I saw her alive, I protected her.
I haven’t seen either of my parents since that day. My father because, after his behavior, I was done with him. Her because she passed away eleven months later.
Tis the season for thanksgiving, a better interpretation of the holiday than its deeply problematic roots. Families of all types, blended, married, divorced, separated, will gather and eat and hopefully get along for at least a day.
My mom wasn’t much of a cook and, frankly, neither am I. Thanksgiving turkeys were usually dry as bone. The stuffing came from a box. Green bean casserole a gelatinous mess. I hit forty this year and am proud to say that, thus far, I’ve not once had to make a holiday meal. The people that I’ve shared those holidays with have no idea how lucky they are. The fact that she didn’t teach me how to cook is okay. She gave me more important lessons.
Strength. Courage. Determination. Grace. Forgiveness.
Without her I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. And I am so thankful for everything she gave me.
About the Author
Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Narrative.ly, Salon, bust.com, and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children’s Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram and Facebook.