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.