Grief is a sacred journey

My Lover’s Mama and the Negative Mother Archetype

2
img160

Vic’s Mom, 1969

After I’d known him almost a year, Vic took me to Connecticut to meet his mother Virginia. I was a love-soaked girl of twenty-two.

“She can be rough,” Vic warned me. “She has a temper.”

“It will be fine,” I said.

I came from a family where no one yelled. I knew how to get along with boyfriend’s mothers. No problem.

Vic had a beard by then. I cut his black curls into a soft Afro. I had long straight hair, pierced ears, short skirts, and no bra. It was 1967.

Virginia was polite at first. She put me in the upstairs guest room with Vic two floors down in a dingy basement bedroom. After she went to bed, I commuted.

The next morning, she started on his beard. She was a beautician and wanted her son to look like her idea of a graduate student. Then she turned on my hair. Long with damaged tips from an old bleach job. Then, my weight. Then, the length of my skirts.

Vic defended me.

img158

She was happy when he looked like this…

img155

…instead of this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She responded with a burst of Italian. She screamed puttana and more words I didn’t know. There are many ways to call a girl a whore in Italian. She called Vic bastardo. She spit Italian insults interspersed with English sputtering while her finger jabbed the air, pointing mostly at me.

img156I had ruined him. I had soiled her perfect son. I had led her unstained boy down a path of sin. I was the enemy in her Matriarchal drama. I was Psyche attacked and tested by Eros’s mother Aphrodite. In the Latin story from the second century AD, the love goddess becomes decidedly unloving when her son (Eros or Cupid) falls for beautiful Psyche.

Vic and I backed away from his mother which, of course, made her madder.

Virginia with David, 1970

Virginia with David, 1970

Virginia was still angry at our wedding, although by then I knew she could be charming with friends. I wasn’t one of them. She wanted a big wedding for all the relatives. We wanted something small and didn’t give in. When I gave birth to two boys in the 1970s, there was temporary peace. The first grandchild had to be a son. I passed that test. She loved the second grandson madly, but wanted a third. A girl. Named after her.

“I’ll pay you,” she said. “$10,000.” It wasn’t funny then.

With Virginia, David, and Anthony, 1977

With David, Anthony, and Virginia, 1977

“What if I have a son?” I asked. “Are we going to give him away?” There was no third pregnancy.

She faced Vic’s illness with her go-to defense against what hurts. She was mad at Vic, at me, at the doctors, at God.

Two years ago, when she was ninety-eight, her memory and balance grew shaky and she became less angry. Now when she asks me repeatedly why Vic died, she weeps a little. She doesn’t blame me, but confides: “He was the only one I truly loved,” as though I didn’t know.

None of the issues between us were discussed or resolved, but as she softened, I softened, too. The hardest memories became funny stories.

When I show up at Virginia’s apartment twice a week with my dog Willow, her face lights up. They spend a few hours sleeping and eating while I shop and do errands. It used to drive me nuts when Virginia let Willow eat off her plate. Now I laugh. So what? They’re having fun.

Virginia & Elaine at her 100th birthday party

Virginia & Elaine at her 100th birthday party

It took forty-nine years for Virginia to accept me as a friend rather than a competitor. Peace was worth the wait.

***

Have you had a power struggle with a parent or in-law? Many advised me to stop helping Virginia after Vic died rather than put up with her anger. I couldn’t walk away. Partly because I had told Vic I’d take care of his mom, even though he didn’t ask me to do that. Mostly because I needed to dissolve my own knot of resentment toward her. I stayed for her sake and also for my own. For other articles about Virgina and me, see Mother-in-Law Blues: Lessons in “Don’t Bite the Hook” and Disbelief.

2
30 Comments
  1. In her blustery days, Virginia reminds me of the Dragon Lady featured in Disney movies, always with scarlet lipstick and a killer tail.

    You have made a killer tale out of how to deal with a difficult woman for almost a half century. I’m glad you make yourself and your readers laugh now in retrospect, especially with the line: “I’ll pay you,” she said. “$10,000.”

    Loving “by faith” is hard, but you did if for all the right reasons: “I stayed for her sake and also for my own.” With this riveting story, you win the prize as the Queen of Peace, and I’m not kidding.

    • Maybe I should have bargained with her a little, Marian. 😉 A daughter would have been great. After I posted this and before it went out to anyone, Virginia was found wandering around her apartment building on the wrong floor at 5:30 am. She wanted to go to Connecticut where she lived about 35 or 40 years ago. She was frightened and confused. She’s 90% blind and never leaves her apartment alone, but when she wants something, she can still make things happen. Unfortunately she wants the impossible. I’m visiting my sick brother this week, so after this incident, I hired many extra hours of health aid care while I’m gone. I don’t want to worry about her wandering around and doing something unsafe.

  2. Dear Elaine, I love how you recall, being a ‘love-soaked girl of twenty-two.’ This is an excellent article, deeply thought-provoking, with such wonderful photos included. Oh my goddess, how testing it must’ve been to endure Virginia (Aphrodite herself) for many a year! In looking to the myths for answers, I also find they help me enormously to make deep sense (and save my sanity!) in despairing, and painful times. In the myth of Persephone for instance, only now, in my middling years, can I relate with ‘each’ individual character in the mythical play, including Hekate. In fact, without the myths, I think I’d be completely lost or just plain crazy!

    While I sit and reflect on the enormity of your forty nine years of fighting, struggle and conflict with Virginia … with small battles no doubt, won here and there. I can’t help but feel that those years were preparing you well for what was to later come. How through your relationship with this fierce goddess you honed your courage, strength and your own wildness in preparation for the death of your beloved Vic. And who better to help with this task, than the one who loved him so greatly, his mother.

    Dissolving that knot of resentment released the negative mother archetype. ‘Peace was worth the wait.’ These words are beyond beautiful. A thousand blessings, Deborah.

    • Yes, as you know Aphrodite gave Psyche four tasks or labors, so each one made Psyche wiser and more able to reconnect with her feminine self and her lover. And, as in the Inanna myth, Psyche was helped by other compassionate divine forces. Virginia gave me many psychological tasks. I wonder if I can map them to Psyche’s four labors?

      I love Hekate in her many guises and the older I get, the closer I feel to her.

      I’m not sure I ever won a battle with Virginia. I’m not sure anyone did. Yet she can be entertaining and, like her son, had a great sense of humor in her day. I secretly imagined she and I might find a meeting place in grief for the same person, but this was not to be. Grief for me was about longing and allowing the heart to be open and raw. For Virginia, it was the opposite. it’s only been in the last two years that she expresses grief about Vic instead of anger so we can talk about him in a healing way. Yes, it was worth the wait. love and gratitude to you, Deborah.

      • I think you’re an incredible woman Elaine, with more patience than that of a saint! It would be amazing if you could ‘map out’ Psyche’s labours … now there’s a new book in the making! 🙂

        • Our mythology class spent over 2 years working on that myth together. We explored every labor carefully and I gave two workshops on the Labors of Psyche in (I guess) the 1980s. A powerful story, but I haven’t done that mapping. Interesting to imagine that.

  3. You have the patience of a saint, Elaine ~ and the wisdom to match. Your MIL is blessed to have you in her life ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. I never consider myself a patient person, but didn’t see any choice. Virginia was an attentive grandma and the kids loved her–although I had to shut her down when she was critical of them. Like everyone, she wasn’t all bad and much of her worst behavior was directed at me. Her lessons helped me get along well with my son’s partners. I had a long “do not say this” list.

  4. Ah, me, Elaine. As I struggle, week-in and week-out, with my own flesh and blood, I am amazed at what you have been able to accomplish here. May I be so blessed.

    • Paula, I did one thing. I didn’t run. She doesn’t test me as much as she did a few years ago, but she said something nasty the other day and it rolled right off and became another funny story. I wish you well with your family. Unfortunately the older they get, the more they need.

  5. I’ve been following your journey with Virginia, Elaine. You’re more than a pillar of strength, and your love and promise for Vic to stay and keep taking what she dished out is more than commendable.

    It’s interesting that it took her 98 years to finally soften. Her angry temperament reminds me of my own mother’s. My mother died a year and a half ago at age 74. She was bitter, hateful and resentful for her own demise until the day she died.

    I can’t help but wonder if she’d lived another decade or so if she would have ever softened.

    • Debby, I did tell him I’d take care of his mom (he didn’t ask me to) and he well knew that wouldn’t be easy. I’m sorry your mom couldn’t come to a softer place. Virginia’s seems related to a kind of helplessness she feels now because she can’t remember things and is dependent on care from others. I wonder what would have happened to your mom, too, but unfortunately you’ll never know. I’m sorry, Debby. I know the Mother Wounds never entirely heal.

      I’m visiting my brother who is in the hospital and very ill, but may rally again. I’m behind on what’s happening with your husband. I hope things are getting easier for both of you.

      • Thanks Elaine. I just read your current post about your brother. I’m sorry for what you both have to endure, and sending healing prayers. Hoping he may come out victorious once again.
        Regarding my mother – people make choices. She was bedridden for the last 2 years of her life with no great quality of life, and even still, managed to let my aunt know she had no regrets chasing her children out of her life and had torn up every picture of her kids. That’s what made me sad, that she was a sad and bitter, lonely, sick person with no love coming in or going out. I know that somewhere in her heart she was a very sad person, but would not even allow herself to admit it. I hurt for her, not for me, for I never really had a mother. 🙂

        • Debby, the stories of your mom are so hard, especially because she never softened or had regrets. We always hope for healing changes at the end of life and sometimes they come, but not if the dying one clings to every negative thought. Your mom must have been hiding tons of grief and sadness behind all that bitterness. And even if you don’t hurt for you, I hurt for the little girl who wanted and needed a loving mother and didn’t get one. I’m fortunate Vic’s mom let go of her anger toward me and toward life. This is not something I could change in her. She had to change and let go of something. I had to do lots of forgiving.

  6. Thank you Elaine for this your story. I would have loved my husband’s mother to have been my mother-in-law but she died sadly before we were married. She would have been a delight I know and would have spoiled her grandsons to the nth degree. You don’t say so but there must have been something within you to say to yourself, ‘don’t take this personally’ which must have helped considerably. Some people are just simply, difficult. And of course you had Vic’s presence to withstand the hurtful words. It’s a lesson in how long it can take for someone to soften – and a lesson especially Elaine in your fortitude and courage. Peace? worth the wait anytime! Good wishes for your upcoming visit to your brother Elaine … look after yourself too.

    • “Don’t take it personally” was always the key, but it took a long time for me to stop reacting. It’s a wonder how someone can persist with anger when it didn’t get her what she wanted. We humans are a mystery. His most effective weapon was avoidance because she loved to fight. When he refused the battle, she would sulk a week or so and then call as though nothing happened. There wasn’t a way to deal with this effectively and as I’ve said in other comments, she does have a fun and engaging side, but difficult was the right word. I can see it all as an archetypal drama and that helps.

      I saw my brother for a few hours after I arrived yesterday and will spend more time with him today. They fix one thing and another thing shows up, but they may be able to patch him together again for the short-term. I’m not in the decision making loop but in a support role. I’ll be there today while his wife is at work. I have no idea how long I’ll stay, but Willow is here so I don’t have to decide. thanks for including me in your blog. I haven’t read it yet. So now the quandry? Do I go back to a few before “L” that I missed while packing or traveling? I think I’ll dive right in at L.

  7. Amazing how you put up with her, and even more, how you both softened with time. I remember, Elaine, before you introduced me to Virginia, you warned me about her, in much the same way as Vic warned you. Funny how life turns out. I thank you for taking care of Virginia. As another bereaved mother, it feels good to know someone is visiting and caring about her. Losing one’s child can make one cranky, cantankerous. It’s good to know someone might look after you with kindness anyway.

    • Thank you, Robin. As with all of us, there were other sides to Virginia. She had a generous side, especially toward her grandkids. It was also always clear that my life was easy and protected compared to hers. I knew her life story. I knew she had no opportunities and was forced to leave school and go to work at 14 or 15 and then married a man who deserted almost immediately. She worked hard to take care of Vic and was devoted to him. I can’t imagine how painful it must be to have a child die, especially a child who is so important. She taught me a lot about the damage that can be done with anger and unconscious words. Most of us need to be forgiven for that.

  8. I find it incredible to think of how many caregiving tasks you have in your life right now. Period. And then you write a brilliantly narrated and distilled post like this one in the midst of it all.

    You must have some Athena in you also.

    I agree with your other readers. You have a book here. It could be a memoir, a novel, a nonfiction mythology book with personal narratives to illustrate it.

    Now you are a love-soaked wise woman drawing on all the other female archetypes, dissolving the knot of resentment with the only lasting solvent. The one that was there from the very beginning.

    Sending you prayers from another valley.

    • It’s a bit much, Shirley. But it happens sometimes. My brother is stronger each day (short-term because of nature of his illness) and we spend many hours together in his hospital room. There is a tenderness and intimacy in this time together. He’s beginning to walk with what I call his caravan. He doesn’t mind if I take photos of this process. He doesn’t mind that I’ve written articles about him. He leads the caravan with his walker with one or two nurses behind him with IV pole and oxygen tank. Today after one loop he said let’s do another. By late afternoon they experimented with no oxygen and he was fine without it. He wants to make it to his big bash retirement party in two weeks. I think he will.

      I was well schooled in Athena values by our mother. It’s hard to imagine a book or any project at the moment, but that time will come. I take notes of conversations with my brother for now (he appreciates that I take notes on everything doctors and nurses say about his complex situation and doesn’t mind that I take notes about other things I find interesting). I will likely write something about our conversations this week if I find the time. I don’t take my computer to the hospital so I can focus only on being with him. Yes to love! And yes to prayers. My brother says he doesn’t know about prayers, but he often closes his eyes and becomes very quiet. I asked him if it’s like meditation (which he practiced some about 40 years ago). He said that it is like that. Very quiet. No agitation. Deep peace with some floating imagery. I’m glad we can experience this together.

  9. Beautiful, Elaine. You are the epitome of a forgiving heart-centered person. I had mother-in-law issues as well. Interestingly, those were mysteriously resolved after her son, my first husband Gene, died of cancer. A complete reversal…where she had been critical, she became a staunch advocate. Where she had been cold, she became warm and loving. Gene’s death broke her heart wide open and let the light shine in, as they say. I think part of her new acceptance of me was due to my caring for Gene at home until he died. Whatever, I came to think of her as the mother-in-law I always wanted. She even gave me away to my second husband, Harold 11 years later. Well, at least our karmic relationships with these formerly difficult women were healed in this lifetime, and we don’t have to worry about coming back with them to try and get it ‘right.’ Hugs, Jenna

    • Jenna, they taught us what not to do to our daughter-in-laws. Immediately after Vic’s death, Virginia was at her worst. While he was sick there was some appreciation for my caretaking, but that dissolved into blame. I’m glad you experienced that reversal with Gene’s mom. I’ve finally experienced it, too. It’s beautiful to think of Gene’s mom “giving you away” in your second marriage. And I agree about the karma of it. I knew it was damaging to harbor deep resentments toward my husband’s mother but didn’t know how to change things for many years. So life sometimes takes care of these messes if we stick around.

  10. I am so glad you have had some of that special silence with your brother.We seldom realize that later on these moments become timeless like a living door into our memories we can enter any time we need to.Alot has been changing for me but my new eyes do seem more gentle and more in awe of the world we live in.For you to just be there.To just be, is a gift,too.Thanks for sharing all that you do.Be gentle with yourself.We can forget to just be but you are doing it.And what better acceptance can you give your brother?I am actually happy for you,that you are getting these memories to take home with you.Be safe . MY HEART IS GLAD TO KNOW TO KNOW YOU.

    • I agree, Alicia. While my brother closed his eyes yesterday, I wrote down words and images from our conversations that felt significant to me. I did the same with Vic. If my brother continues to improve today, I’ll drive home tomorrow and then return here in a little over a week for his retirement gathering. It means so much to him. It’s not easy for me to nurture myself in a city environment, but it’s good to have my pooch with me and she’s waiting at the moment for a morning walk. There are also many beautiful flowers in postage stamp size yards here. The weather is spectacular, but the hospital environment isn’t easy for anyone. I’m grateful to have these days with my brother. Precious gifts in this life. Thanks for your kind words of friendship and support. And thank you for reminding me of my other worlds.

  11. Beautiful writing about this difficult and often fraught relationship. You have shown that you can match one’s contentiousness with patience and kindness. This is something I find so difficult, in my own life. I want to defend myself, point blame, spew the anger back at the person that is spewing it at me. I am glad that your relationship has softened a bit, and that you have found a way toward love.

    • Thank you, Tricia. I haven’t always been patient and I want to do all those things, too. In many ways, she’s been an incredible teacher, but especially in dealing with anger. It was not possible to win an argument by meeting her anger head on, at least without sinking so low that I detested myself. I’m grateful for the philosophic, psychological, and Buddhist teachings that came my way when I was young. I couldn’t pretend it was only her anger when I was having a big inner response–even if I didn’t act on it. Life trains us, as you know, and sometimes it takes a long time.

  12. Oh Sweet Friend, I wish I were closer to give you a hug and just sit with you to hold space for you. Sending love from the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

    • Kay Marie, it’s good to have a big wide circle of holding. I’m grateful for your love. I have more health aide hours arranged for my mother-in-law because she’s having more problems with anxiety and forgetfulness. My brother is holding for the short-term. I’ll return to Boston next week to be with him again. Love to you from the Finger Lakes. I hope your health holds and spring helps.

  13. I love your description of being a “love-soaked girl of twenty-two.” Your mother-in-law sounds like she was a true terror–although I did laugh at her offering you all that money to have a girl. 🙂 I’m glad you were able to make peace with her.

    • My mother-in-law was a terror, but at the ripe age of 100, she’s usually sweet and still has a sense of humor. Yesterday I took her to the doctor (who has nothing to offer except reassurance that she’s doing fine). She patted me a few times and told the doctor, “Elaine does everything for me. I don’t know what I’d do without her.” Peace has been restored, and it wasn’t something I did other than wait around for her to get older and for the rage to soften. I am lucky and so is she, because people often go to their grave tightly clutching their resentments and anger. Thanks so much for your comment, Merril. I appreciate it.

Leave a Reply