Growing Up

The downstairs of the house I grew up in was smaller than my current kitchen. Mr. Blandings thinks I’m stretching, but he only saw it through the haze of my stress and grief over my mother’s sickness and dying. He wasn’t looking at the house. Condo. Duplex. It wasn’t charming. My mother purchased it after an extended stay, and possible breakdown, at my grandparents’ house following my parents’ divorce.

The light was fairly good and the space was very livable. New construction, it was still unfinished when she bought it.  Being the early ’70s my mother chose orange carpet throughout except for my room, which had yellow and my sister’s, which had green. The wallpaper in my bathroom was silver with very large white flowers on green vines. This may seem unlikely based on what I’ve just told you, but my mother had an unfaltering eye.

The odd thing about our house (condo, duplex) was that it was so incongruent with what she loved. My mother loved old houses. I think she could have afforded something old and small; I still don’t know what drew her to the duplex. My guess is that if she couldn’t have something old and at least largish she preferred to pass altogether. Perhaps the thought of maintaining a home without a husband seemed daunting. Maybe she thought it was temporary. It was not. She spent the rest of her life there. The decor evolved. The orange and yellow and green gave way to beige and white and navy. Except for my room with the yellow, faux bamboo furniture, which stayed exactly the same until she could stand me no more. Then it was empty.

The house was a sadder, less well-kept version of itself when I came home to Tulsa to see her after two years of not. She had been standing on a ladder painting the ceiling an orangey-red (it was genius in the small entry, but did not go well in the larger living space) when she felt a pop in her left breast. The doctors mentioned many times that there was no known explanation for this sensation. She had a tumor the size of a golf ball on her left chest wall.

My mother’s best friend, Sharon, called to tell me my mother had breast cancer. My mother met Sharon roller-skating on the sidewalk in their neighborhood when they were in third grade. It was a typical post-WWII neighborhood built to accommodate the returning GI’s and their brides and broods. In her gentle, melodious and measured tones Sharon told me I needed to go home. I needed to make up. Two years was too long in any case, and things might not end well.

My relationship with my mother up until that time had been tumultuous. Throughout the sickness and the treatment, the diagnosis and the dying we put aside the past. Her moods my whole life swung from peppy and cheerful to dark and low and cruel. It was disconcerting to know that after she had forced me from the house to go live with my father the summer just before I left for college, that a few of my friends still went to see her. For them she was a confidant. Incredibly funny and bright, she could listen to their almost-grown-up crisises and triumphs and empathize or celebrate like a friend in a way their own mothers could not. Them she did not judge.

She chose different personas depending on the situation and the one we got at home, whether it was truer or not, was coarser than the one she showed the world. She lived in her own version of reality and would tell stories and recreate conversations that only happened in her imagination. My younger sister and I would stand by, watching, silent, complicit in the lie. Just as she conjured her character, she crafted our roles as well. For the brief stretch of our childhood we were clever, creative and, above all, connected. By adolescence we were hateful, defiant and drug addled.

She turned my uneventful adolescence into a roller coaster ride. She was frustrated at my unwillingness to provide the drama she was yearning to suffer, so she created her own by fabricating eating disorders and substance abuse issues. Desperate to maintain stability I cajoled and reassured as much as I could, but descended into eye-rolling distain in the end. In a final flourish, she created a scene and sent me into the world on her own schedule.

For cancer she put on a cheerful and courageous face. She became something of a saint among her co-workers, this single woman whose children had turned their backs on her. They cooked for her, raised funds for her and applauded her when she removed her hot and itchy wig in the Midwestern heat. When I would go to visit and we would run into her friends I could see the query behind their eyes, “What’s wrong with you?” 

In the end she could not live alone. I was 26 years old and living in Kansas City. Working in not-for-profit, I did not have the means to care for her myself. Healthy, I abhorred her; sick she terrified me. Sharon took her to her home in Savannah to care for her while she died. We found a home for her dogs and cleaned out the refrigerator and locked the door.

I was with my mother when she died in Sharon’s house. We had been taking turns keeping watch and Sharon had to wake me for the end. She was in Sharon’s eldest daughter’s room, a woman my age at the time not long gone from her childhood home, and I can still see her high school paraphernalia on the shelves that I committed to memory while I sat, too weary to read, while I waited. It’s not difficult to be with someone when they die. It seems it should be, but it isn’t. My only regret was that I hung back. I should have been nearer. Closer.

When I called to tell Mr. Blandings that she was gone, his receptionist chirped back, “He’s in a meeting.” “I understand he’s in a meeting; I need to talk to him.” “He really can’t be disturbed.” For some reason I was sick at the thought of telling this woman that my mother had died – my mother had died just five minutes ago – before I told my fiancé. I told her it was an emergency and to have him call me right away.

We arranged to have the body flown back from Savannah so she could be buried in Tulsa with her parents and her brother. Sharon and her daughter were at my house when I arrived. “We thought you could sleep in your mother’s room,” said my peer as I carried my bag up the stairs. I paused at the landing in confusion, overwhelmed with emotional vertigo. Then I realized that I had relinquished any authority, any ownership, when I had abandoned my responsibility for her care. This had not been my home for a long time.

Planning a funeral is an interesting and surreal chore. It really could not come at a worse time. When we went to the church the priest who had been there for many years, a friend of my mother’s, was still in charge. My grade school was associated with our church and I attended Mass there at least twice a week, and sometimes more, under the direction of this man. He met with me in the conference room of the church offices. “In the Catholic Church,” he instructed, “we generally have a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament and then a Gospel reading. Then I will give a homily.” There to pick readings and hymns for my mother’s funeral he took the opportunity to offer his disdain.

After the funeral, the house was filled with people. People who had known her her whole life. People who had lost touch, who had not known she was sick. People she had alienated with her erratic behavior. People who said I looked just like her. And the next day they were gone and I was still there with Sharon.

When my mother died, I felt untethered, a little looser in the world, like being in a car without a seatbelt. My mother had been a poor safety net; in fact, she was the thing from which I felt I needed the most protection. Still, once she was gone her absence was palpable. As it turned out I didn’t really want her to be gone; I wanted her to be better.  Sharon, her friend, now my friend, had done a heroic thing. Unselfish and noble it was something that I could not manage myself, which might have had less to do with age or location or finances than I cared to admit.

Sharon stayed to help me close up the house. There were things I wanted, and things I did not. My sister took nearly nothing. But it was awkward to leave things behind. “Someone should want these things. These are the things of her life.” But as we sat in the downstairs-smaller-than-my-kitchen I knew that I did not want them and that I did not want to be reminded of her life or mine in that house.

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61 thoughts on “Growing Up

  1. omg patricia – you are amazing. you have an amazing gift – thank you for sharing it. I feel we are going to be reading you – and probably on much grander pages – for years to come. mr. b and the boys are so blessed to have you as their mother.

  2. What a beautifully written account. You seem at peace with the whole drama that it must have been, and that is the most important thing to have achieved.

    When my own mother died I was utterly relieved. Utterly relieved that she no longer had pain. We had a year to cry and talk and say nothing but mean everything. It was time for her to go; she wanted to, and we wanted it for her.

    I still miss her dreadfully sometimes, and it’s over 6 years now. But one of the things I wrote to her, (I couldn’t say it, for fear of upsetting us both too much), was that I was so glad to have been born her son.

  3. Gulp, kerplunk (tear) and all hard to swallow what life has in store for each of us. I just knew deep down somewhere that you had to have endured some sort of life altering experience, something that made you the person you want to be and are.
    Again, I see in my crystal ball a book on my shelf by you, no, a “series” of books and they are all insribed by the author, you. Your words leave me speechless and craving more.

  4. This reminds me of my sister’s and my childhood. I thought as I got older and moved away, I could erase some memories. But they come back. I fall between guilt, anger, fear, and love.

  5. My words escape me… I don’t know quite what to say. Thanks for sharing your heart and your life, I know the thought that went into this post had to bring some pain, thanks for going ‘there’ to let us all know a little more of the Mrs.Blandings we love. Your eloquence makes it all the more powerful. You are a brave woman and by sharing this story I know you will be blessed.

    AND, I think you should write a book.

  6. Oh, Mrs. B., what a beautiful and powerful story. I related very much to parts of your story. The one thing that stood out for me was the power of beauty to heal. It sounds as if, despite her severe imbalances, your mother’s “unfaltering eye” still showed itself. That’s probably the profound gift she gave to you. And it is to your credit that you ran with that instead of some of the other examples she offered you.

    Sorry to get so deep in a comment, but I am absolutely moved by your story and what it says about the role of beauty in our lives. I also had a tough childhood and, in retrospect, I know that the art museum, a love of books and music were saving graces. Train a child’s eye to see beauty and you give them a chance to focus on beauty rather than pain as they grow.

    This is why I love your blog. Yes, you talk about things you would like to have, but you routinely go much deeper than that and help your readers to keep our eyes on the underlying beauty and aesthetics of life. You ought to write a book!

  7. Now the line “Mrs. Blandings builds her dream house” has a deeper meaning.

    I think this is way up there with your best personal columns. Beautiful job of using the house as metaphor. And now when you mention wallpaper and vines I’ll think of an added dimension.

  8. It was helpful for me to read this. It is so confusing to be the daughter of the lovely, charming person who is the confidant to the world when that isn’t what happens at home with her own daughters. This way more common than one would think. Thanks for talking about it.

  9. Beautifully written post about a painful subject. Honest thoughts and emotions are always beautiful I think. The post portrayed a very balanced viewpoint of your mother,– your thoughts and the thoughts of others, and underscored how complicated we all are. Also how important our friends are, we all need a friend like Sharon in our lives and need to be a “Sharon” to others if we can.

  10. I am so fortunate. I grew up in three rooms. I shared a bed with my sister in my parents room…the only bedroom…til the day I married. Post depression, WWII, that is how everyone around us lived. It was a wonderful warm home that was more than presentable. My mother had very good taste and was a wonderful seamstress. She made all our clothes and many were from Vogue patterns when we were older. I never knew we might be considered poor. I was very, very fortunate. My home was a refuge,

  11. This is probably the most beautifully written piece I’ve ever read on a blog. I think it may even top your post where you talked about the questions every married person has about their marriage, their partners, their lives. Very moving. Very touching. Thank you so much.

  12. wow…i have read your blog for a long time but never commented until now…i think you will find many daughters share these mixed feelings about their mothers…i am one but i try so hard not to be that kind of mother to my 2 girls….this was truly powerful. thank you

  13. Mrs. Blandings,

    How fortunate you are to have had Sharon. She sounds like a rock.

    Thanks for sharing this part of your life.

  14. I have only recently found your blog and I agree with a previous commenter that the title of your blog has deeper meaning now.

    I could identify with many parts of this. After my parents divorce we moved from a bigger home to a small home and my Mom and I have a very difficult relationship—in some ways she is like yours and in others not. She is alive and I do the best i can but I long for a relationship that we will never have.

    Thank you for sharing. You touched me today.


  15. Your most beautifully written post to date! Thank you for sharing it. There is a book in your future and we, the readers, are the lucky ones!

  16. I thank you for your brutal honesty. No matter what we all went through as kids, it’s up to us to make our future our own. It looks like you were a success at that! I adore your writing and I look forward to the book, as well!

  17. This is a lot more common than you may think–my story is a close mirror to yours except that my mother is still living. I do what I can to overcome the past and merge our lives a few times a year for the sake of the grandchildren. However, there is a part of my heart that can never belong to her again, unfortunately. Our lives make us who we are, so in the big picture we can all be thankful.

  18. Dear Mrs B,
    So moving and sad and revealing and, though I don’t know you and can’t ask, I will wonder why this Friday was the day you chose for this post.

    Know that you have touched many hearts today

  19. Beautiful, and very moving.
    It confirms the theory that it is far more difficult to
    reconcile oneself to the death of a person for whom our feelings are unresolved. Those are the losses that haunt us most.

  20. Thank you for such a straightforward and honest account of your complicated relationship with your mother. I can relate. You ARE quite a writer. I wish you the best as you explore your fine talent and share it with us! I am a daily reader of your blog and love it!

  21. How brave and cathartic to put your story out there. What you have gone through has made you the strong person you are today. You survived and created your own beautiful family. You are a gifted writer and I very much enjoy reading your blog daily.

  22. Patricia, such a very honest and touching stoty of life and death with your Mother. I still have mine, she has had more health issues recently, and I am trying to get closer to her and yes, also leave past hurts behind.

  23. Our relationships with our parents are so complex. Thanks for this post. It gets me thinking.

    I wish I liked my mother more than I do. I love her, admire her in many ways, call her nearly daily, and she is important to me. But I don’t really like her all that much and she feels the same about me.


  24. it seems to me the emotional betrayal by a mother is always the most devastating–and a mother/daughter bond that is broken is tragic

  25. Oh my goodness, I am so glad I checked your blog today. Your post is amazingly well written. I wish you would write a book about your life. I would buy it immediately.

  26. Patricia… you’re incredible. A true heir to the Dee Hardie genre of telling tales of real lives. I admire your courage for sharing.


  27. How fortunate for your boys that you are not inflicting similar turmoil.

    And fortunate for you that one day you’ll rest in peace, which I’m sure is not the case for your mother.

  28. I am stunned into silence by this eloquent, sparse, and painfully revealing tale of loss. Whether created at birth or divorce hardly matters.

    How fortunate for you to have made your way to an unapologetic understanding, free of rancor, pity, or blame.

    I, too, grew up with a mother who presented a different face to the world, rendering her more of an actress than a relative.

  29. mrs B- ( i love you )

    you have no idea, how straight to my heart this has hit me.
    i have never heard anyone else speak so honestly ,
    ( but you spoke eloquently ) about a subject so difficult.
    I have been the daughter of it sounds like the same woman.
    my mother has recently recovered from stage 3 colon cancer, but it looks as though it is back, just in another part of her body.

    my posts that i did while in maine this xmas vacation, were incredibly painful. my face is smiling in the photos, but my heart is bleeding.

    she is not speaking to me again.
    i did nothing wrong, i don’t have to .

    i am not alone-
    neither are you.

  30. I came back today to read this again because it brought me comfort this morning to know that I am not alone in the way I feel in my own relationship with my Mother.

    I also wanted to congratulate you on your nod in House Beautiful. mine arrived today and I saw your room in there.

  31. P: you are one strong girl to put it all out. Courtney was so right – this does explain the perfect house. Your boys probably have their grandmother to thank for having such a good mother, who learned exactly what not to do. I think some of the best parents are the ones who learned what not to do. I feel so bad for that young girl you once were.

  32. Your honesty is staggering. Isn’t it a shame that some Mothers/Grandmothers push away the children that will love them the most?

  33. Patricia, for two days after I read this I have tried to think of what to say. Everything seems trite in comparison to the depths of emotion you have shared with us here. It was a very brave thing to do and hopefully a very healing thing.

    Like Joni, I want to reach out to the young girl who was hurting, and like all of your readers, I applaud the lovely woman you’ve become. If anything, what you’ve shared demonstrates clearly the importance of not judging situations about which we only know one side. That’s something to give us all pause.

    When the day comes that we cease to see in a mirror dimly and the thoughts of all hearts are made known, this will be cleared up for you. In the mean time, I pray that sharing it will help heal the heart of that young girl to whom I’m sending much love…


  34. Thank you for sharing a piece of your past…it must have been very difficult to keep all that pain to yourself for so long. I, too, have a difficult relationship with my mother and it has been this way since I can remember. Who knows what we have lost? But I do know that we have come through life much stronger and perhaps our mothers resent(ed) that, too. I never had children for fear of being like my mother! But life has gone on and I have been blessed, as you have, with a wonderful husband and a beautiful home and friends and lots of other good things.
    On a more positive note – loved the House Beautiful mention!

  35. Thank you all for your caring and lovely comments. My mother died over sixteen years ago. Time, and a lot of therapy, did, indeed heal all wounds. It is a painful story, and was surely a painful experience, but it was not difficult to write. Writing remains the easy part. I appreciate your indulging me in these little side trips. Patricia

  36. When we know better, we do better. Your sons are fortunate to have you.
    You are blessed and we are all blessed after reading your poignant
    recount which must have been such a lonely time in your life.

  37. Eloquence, thy name is Mrs. Blandings.

    I’m a man and my difficult relationship was with my father, but I could relate completely to your tale, especially about other people not understanding why you had problems with your “wonderful” mother. I’d meet people who worked with him (a few), knew him from a civic organization (many) or were a drinking buddy (legion). They all spoke so highly of him that I had to wonder why he squandered whatever personal charm he had before he came home to his wife and six kids and retreated behind the dour, disapproving persona he presented to us.

    Anyway. Thank you for sharing your wonderfully written tale.

  38. Mrs B, thank you for sharing. I was emotionally abandoned by my mother a long time ago. I wear it every day. It hurts. Your post really moved me. A-M xx

  39. This is an amazing post. Thank you for writing it. I was starting to laugh at the 70’s era decor you describe – remembering our own – but you brought me back to ground.

    I am sorry for the pain your relationship with your mother caused you, while at the same time I admire your ability to work through it.

    My brothers and I just recently uprooted our mother from her home and moved her into an assisted living facility – which is totally a good thing, given her increasingly precarious health while living alone. We have temporarily shuttered her home, and will soon focus on sifting through things in order to sell it.

    Although she is still alive, and in better straits, the contemplation of breaking up all those possessions almost feels like death. I think we are all shrinking from it.

  40. I came here from the paris apartment thinking I was going to find more frenchy things so imagine my surprise to find this post. I spent 10 years (23-33) away from my family and thankfully, we were able to find our way back to each other before anyone died or got sick. It is my father I stumble around with and now my mother is 82 and a bit angry about everything. Mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters…all strange, painful and enlightening relationships. Thank you for sharing your story so beautifully.

  41. Patricia, thank you so much for sharing your poignant story of your relationship with your mother. I know it had to be painful but to put it in words (so beautifully written) must be healing in a way also. My heart is pained thinking about that little girl (you) and makes me realize even though my childhood was by no means perfect, my mother was a steady force in my life with an alcoholic father who really could not be depended on. For that mother, I am very thankful.
    You really do need to write a book, Mrs. B… are such a gifted writer!! xoxo……..Lee

  42. Wow. So much of that could have been written about my father. That is a beautiful and honest post. I too don’t understand the people who remain friends with him or his persona, and they likewise, look down on me and my siblings. Thank you for sharing.

  43. I am up way past my "curfew" But I have to comment. I have not read any of the others. this is a response just to your post.

    this took great courage for you to write. It is a beautiful post….and makes me even more certain there is a "great book" in you!
    Thank you for sharing!

    The best news is this: (in my opinion) You have become the mother you wish you had!

    that, to me is a triumph in life. How lucky your boys are to have a mother who turned it all around!

    think of it! Just picture yourself as one of your kids….You are exactly the mother you wish you had!

    Maybe you already knew that…..if not…..I hope this idea makes you happy and proud… you deserve to be!!


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