Monday, April 30, 2012

Happy birthday, Elizabeth

Today is my mother's birthday. I can't help but think of her with a mixture of happiness and sadness. She was certainly a woman of many contradictions.

She was my best friend when I was a child. We always had a number of interesting things to do. Every summer there would be a project for me to work on that involved biology.  She believed that learning could be fun, and she made it so.  I would hatch out insects and study the life stages. I would grow tadpoles into frogs. I had my own microscope and would make slides from my blood, onion skin, algae, etc. We went into the woods and along ponds and streams to collect and study various things.  I knew all the moths and butterflies in the area.  This was what she taught me.

She was a Latin and English teacher who loved science. She also loved history and wrote a book on history of our county. She graduated from college and took graduate courses, all things that women of her generation hardly ever did. She was an elected official and was in all sorts of clubs. My mother was one of the most interesting people that I ever met. She was also one of the saddest.

From an early age, I can remember my mother having a very closed view of our little world. She was a proper lady when she needed to be and could be very haughty and judgmental if she was put on the defensive. She was always in denial about our family.  Her sister was a recluse.  Her father suffered from depression.  My father drank heavily at times.  But she refused to see any of this.

Instead, she told me many times to "remember who you are and where you came from", referring to our family tree.  This was very confusing to me since I didn't think that we lived any better than anyone else or that we were any better than others. I liked just about everybody and to this day have an affinity for the people who aren't loved because they aren't good looking or rich or powerful. I am a friend to the underdog, I guess.

Anyway, my mother always wanted me to be the best. I had to have the best grades and succeed academically. She didn't have to push me much because it was what I wanted also.  All of this fed right into being affected by alcoholism because perfectionism in the midst of pain is how I coped.  I know that she was proud of my accomplishments though.

Mother could be very vain and put on great airs. In later life, those kinds of things could be excused, but they still bothered me. She suffered from severe depression from age 70 on. I made sure that she got treated.  My father didn't know what to do.  I can remember him crying because he could not make her well, and he didn't understand what was wrong with her.

She was treated with all kinds of drugs, but nothing seemed to work.  So after bringing her from Virginia to SC, she was put in the psychiatric institute where she began a series of shock treatments (ECT).  She had hundreds of ECT's over the course of her depression. She was hospitalized many times, and each time she was admitted, she would come out more mentally fragile than before. Anything could trigger a major depression such as getting a cold or not knowing how to work a microwave. But, when she wasn't depressed, she could have such  fun. Everything seemed to be a treat for her. It was as if life was a big candy store.

In her last years, she lived in a nursing center where she was the "social director". She always dressed beautifully and had a lot of friends among staff, visitors, and residents.  She became more beautiful with age.  If she approved of you, she could be charming. If she didn't, well, you never knew whether she would be cold or just neutral. I think that her depression had a lot to do with her attitude. Most times when I would visit her or bring her home, she would be busily writing or reading. She loved to make inventories of all the antiques and delighted in genealogy. I guess that the inventory I made on myself is probably one that she never thought about.

Mother died peacefully at age 95 in 2005. I know that she was an exceptionally bright woman who had inherited a terrible illness.  I don't know that she ever acknowledged how much my father drank.  I think that she denied so many things rather than face reality.

Depression robbed her of a lot because the ECT treatments wipe out short term memory. I'm just glad that her last years were spent being cared for well and being around those who loved her. Happy birthday Elizabeth. I still love and miss you.


  1. I'm sorry that your mothers last 25 years were so difficult. It sounds like she had a full and exceptional life. I think it was part of that generation's culture to feel set apart, or above other people. Being an educated woman was truly a big deal! She did a good job raising you Syd.

  2. happy birthday to your can tell how much she meant to you...and sorry she had a tough bit to end on syd...

  3. It is something that as we age and have a more varied life experience we can begin to see things that were invisible before.

    In my own mom I can see how she went through life with depression. She now suffers from another ailment but when I was younger it was just chalked up as mom being mom. She was a sad person, attempted suicide once and when dad died she has never really recovered from grieving.

    With less experience, I can remember telling her, "Mom, you just have to get over it." What little I knew then and how hurtful it must have been.

    Older and wiser, why can't we get this when we are younger.

    Happy birthday to your mother. She sounds like despite everything she was a gracious lady. You were lucky to share her love as a child.

  4. I am glad your mom received treatment in her later years. She seemed to have been able to accomplish quite a bit despite her illness. Thank you for your share.

  5. She sounds like a very interesting lady. I think our parents generation were well trained in denial.
    Happy Birthday Elizabeth.
    I'm glad you're a friend to the underdog Syd.

  6. I don't believe any mother is completely open with her children. For one thing, you don't burden them with your personal (adult) problems. The older I get the more I see I don't know my mother...she is a complicated person who grew up in a hard time. Her own mother was not nurturing. The mother relationship is so complicated. Like Dad wrote, I said many hurtful (stupid) things I wish I could take back now that I'm a mother myself.

    You write in a way that shows you know she loved more than anything. That is the best remembrance she could have left.
    And you have made her proud, rest assured of that.

  7. Oh Syd, Thank you so very very much for this heart-felt thumb-nail sketch of your mother. She certainly was a fascinating lady, obviously - just by the UNSPOKEN pride you have managed to express in this blog.

    This is also very heart-warming for me to hear. It's proof that, no matter who, what, or where an individual is from, we cannot escape the genes (meaning the effects of alcoholism). You as well as your mother managed to have and live very productive lives, which is wonderful to hear. There's hope for anyone who is willing to surrender to recovery in the 12 steps - whether or not there is a chemical involved.

    Hugs and much love to you,
    Anonymous #1

  8. What a beautiful post Syd. You obviously loved her very much and she loved you. As I read I thought how your mom was probably one of the first real homeschool mom's! :o) Even if it was just summer time....she taught you to love learning and look at where that took you!!

    My mom also had ECT when I was a little girl. I can remember going to see her in the hospital. Very sad. And Elizabeth is my H's middle name.

    I think it is so common that brilliant people struggle with mental illness...your mama sounds like she was so intelligent and probably sensitive...maybe her touch exterior was her protection.

  9. mother's name was Elizabeth as well....

    What a beautiful tribute...if one day Jackson could feel this way about me, I'd be eternally grateful.

  10. What a caring tribute Syd -- and an honest look at the impact of depression. You were a good son.

  11. Oh Syd, that was wonderful writing. As a mother I can only hope that my sons' will love me the way you love your Mother. Ditto what the other commenter said about our parents generation. Denial. Happy Birthday Elizabeth!!! She created you and I am sure she is smiling with pride from above...

  12. Thank you for sharing this.

  13. man Syd, what a loving tribute to mom... She must be so proud of you and thankful for the person you've become. Thanks for sharing her life with us.

  14. Such a long life she had. I admire your respect for your mother, Syd. Its evident that you loved her deeply.

  15. What a tribute! Your mother sounds like a beautiful person. I've been looking at my mother alot lately also. For me, it's easy to be angry at her for alot of things. But then I stop to think about what her childhood was like, etc ...... and I understand alot about her. I truly believe my mother did the best she could. And, I hope my children will say the same about me.

  16. I wonder why they continued the ECT when it was obvious it really wasn't doing much to help?
    I know it does help some profoundly depressed people for whom other therapies and medications don't. Carrie Fisher writes about her own ECT treatments.
    I am so very glad that she spent her last years, as you said, being cared for well and surrounded by those who loved her. You have that peace about her to keep always.

  17. But the ECT's did help. Otherwise, she would have been dead years before. It was the only thing that brought her out of the deep depression and made her recognize me and start living again. I see it as a life saver for those with severe biological depression.

  18. I agree, this is a beautiful tribute to your Mother. It sounds like she was an amazing woman.

    Thank you for sharing.


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