I dreamed the other night that I was telling Mom about this blog. She said she hadn’t read it, but wasn’t worried about it. I think I felt a little guilty about how I was portraying her. I promise to tell you some fun and funny things about her soon!
It’s unusual for me to dream about her. As I’ve mentioned, she hasn’t “visited” me since she died. I have always told myself that is because she is truly finished with this life, that she has no unfinished business. It’s a little hard to imagine that anyone but the saintliest person would have no regrets, no final tellings off, no last word, no desire just to reconnect.
Mom wasn’t a saint, but in the last years of her life, I really believed she had accessed some kind of fundamental truth about life, about people, about reality. This is a little ironic because truth telling was actually always sort of a problem for Mom.
Maybe it’s a Southern thing, or maybe it was the result of never feeling like she could even BE who she really was in her family of origin, but Mom built her life story day to day along a string of deliberate, benign little white lies. She rationalized and explicitly taught me that this was to protect people’s feelings. Grandmother would be hurt that we just didn’t want to go to church or come over after, so we’ll just tell her someone isn’t feeling well. You would never tell someone their dress didn’t look good on them or something they cooked didn’t taste good to you. When I didn’t want to accept the invitation from a boy to go to my first homecoming, Mom counseled just to tell him I had a gymnastics meet the next morning. That one required the corroboration of my best friend, who was also on the gymnastics team. I can’t remember, but I guess she didn’t go to homecoming that year either. (She was a great friend!)
For mom, this kind of fibbing was second nature. She never wanted people’s feelings to be hurt, and I guess in her calculation, the truth in these circumstances would have been hurtful. The truth of what she wanted would have been hurtful. Her desires themselves would have been hurtful.
I struggled with the automatic white lie for years. At first it got to be tiresome to have to make up an excuse and then remember it for perpetuity. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of mental work to keep everything straight, and for what? Stupid stuff. Finally I started to see how these little untruths were chiseling away at the integrity of my friendships and my own sense of self. Real friends would understand if I was just tired or if something just didn’t sound like fun. It took conscious effort and real dedication for me to break the habit.
I don’t think Mom ever did.
And over time, she engaged in more proactive make-believe. The truth of her life was hard and hurtful. Mom never lost her mind, she was never senile; but she definitely created a reality that she could work with, and one I think she thought would protect me from the truth of her life. In this way, she kept our traditional mode of relating in tact. Sometimes I think her escape into fantasy demonstrated how in touch with reality she actually was. She actively constructed a story to tell me (and everyone else) that would keep us from imposing the role of sick person or dying person onto her, or changing our way of interacting. She was the Mom and I was the Daughter.
Underneath the role play that was our “natural” way of interacting with each other lurked deep, dark, smelly fear… mostly mine.
I love that she made up stories that made life bearable. And I think she knew just what she was doing, like some skinny little blond buddha… living the ultimate koan, the illusion of truth, truth the illusion.
What difference did it make? It made all the difference. Because, you can’t fight over who’s reality is right. In the end, she set the terms, and I accepted them. She left this world, and now I make up the stories to make it bearable.