Monday, March 19, 2012

Rotten to the Core Mothers

Dante imagined the Nine Circles in Hades as a descending spiral at the bottom of which was Lucifer himself. Each circle confined certain sinners. Adulterers were at one level; prideful men and women at another. For me, the worst sinner, the ones who should wallow in the pits of misery next to Satan himself are absent, neglectful parents.

My own mother was the child of such a man, but it didn’t keep her from trying to be the best mother she could be. She planned meals carefully in order to balance food groups and use every morsel wisely. She was a diligent housekeeper and kept our home clean and tidy. For holidays and celebrations, she demonstrated an artistic flair for cake decorating, Martha-Stewart quality Christmas trees, and lovely, delicate pastel Easter eggs. As was the custom then, she also dutifully taught me to be seen and not heard.

But Mom, as this blog has shown, has flaws and deficiencies; foremost among them is something over which she has no control: Alzheimer’s. Others that characterized her youth include a quick temper and a sharp tongue to serve it. She also loved gossip and adores keeping secrets.

Still Mom is my mother, and for most of our years together, she has served me well. Some mothers in this world do not serve their children well at all. They are misguided and abandon their children when a parent’s influence could make a huge difference for them. Indeed, good parenting can shape the future as powerfully as bad parenting can ruin it.

I remember the mother of one of my students long ago, a parent who belongs in the deepest, darkest circle of hell.

Her daughter was a talented girl with a quick mind. As a sophomore, she read Shakespeare with ease, correctly interpreting images and meaning in spite of heightened, poetic language. Other students looked to her for insight and understanding.

Her writing was additional proof of her language gifts. She wrote sentences that flowed one from the other, setting up a rhythm and beauty that accented her meaning. She earned A-grades without effort--at least for more than half a school year. Then, in February, her grade began to slide as she fell behind in reading and writing.

I was quick to intervene and asked her to join me in my classroom for lunch. She brought her cafeteria tray while I dug into the contents of a brown bag.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “You seem tired. You’ve even fallen asleep several times, and you're not turning in assignments.”

She bounced her plastic spoon in the gravy well of her whipped potatoes as if counting down to her answer. At last, she said, “My mom’s through with me.” She didn’t look up.

“’Through with you?’ I don’t understand.”

She dropped the spoon and tucked her chin lower, hiding her face as well as she could.

“On my sixteenth birthday last month, Mom told me she was through raising me. She told me to go, to find some other place to live. One of Dad's cousins took me in, but he’s old, living on a fixed income 25 miles from here. I can’t really work enough hours to buy gas and make payments on an old car and save for a place to live that’s close to school and study for English or anything else.”

I’d never heard of a mother being “through,” of throwing up her hands and saying, “I’m done. I’ve put in 16 years and that’s all you get.” I just didn’t know what to say so I said,

“I’m sorry. You must be so tired.”

She lifted her face. On it, I saw raw pain or fear--I’m not sure which, and I saw tears for a grief that would never end, a grief that each of us feels when love abandons us.

Of course, I did what I could. I solicited help from a counselor and a nearby school district that had programs for teens who must live on their own. My student transferred and over time, she stopped looking back at the place of her sorrow, the place where she had believed she would graduate until her mother said, “I quit.”

Did that smart, bright girl with a great future stretching before her graduate at all? Is she working to put a roof over her head and gas in a car she never quite pays off before it wears out? Is she reluctant to have child of her own because she doesn’t want to fail her? Or is she one of the rarest of the rare people who succeed without the support of a long continuous line of family, teachers, and friends? And if she did not overcome and succeed, is she really the one who deserves blame?