Many years ago I attended a couples therapy workshop with my then-partner. One of the exercises was to imagine a “bright shining moment” that we had with a primary caretaker. Because so much therapy work is based on healing or undoing harm perpetrated by our caretakers, the idea was to identify how you felt when your caretaker was at his or her very best. What was it, specifically, that made you feel that way? I will never forget my example on that particular day: my mother walking me slowly around the neighborhood asking me how I felt about the fact that my third grade teacher, Sister Davidica, had dropped dead in the middle of the school year. I remember walking up the street on the side where the Pollacks lived, past the house where “the black family” lived and turning around and coming back past the house with the no-one-goes-to-their-house-on-Halloween-creepy family’s place, and turning the corner around the hedges in front of the Gessners to go back into the cul-de-sac where we lived. I don’t remember what I said or what my mom said. I have a vague recollection that she may have been holding my hand. She was tall. I was still blonde.
Rewind, because I think I may have lost a few of you with “Sister Davidica,” and that does bear a mention here. Sister Davidica. The very thought of having a teacher with that name is traumatic enough, don’t you think? Seriously, though, she was an outlier, the last of a dying breed of pre-Vatican II nuns. All the rest of the nuns in our school had normal names: Sister Joanne, Sister Marie, Sister Carol J. Sister Davidica was old. She was grey. I have seen many people in various stages of their dotage, but I can’t think of Sister Davidica as anything but having a pale, grey hue to her skin. I don’t remember her being particularly harsh or mean, but she was scary. Scary because she was old, with a slight smell of dust or mildew emanating from her habit. Some old people scared me then. Not all, but some. Plus, Sister Davidica was also new. New to the school. New and old.
So it seems clear to me now, and I even have a vague recollection at that time, that school administrators had specifically asked parents to talk to their children about the death of this not-particularly beloved teacher. I think now of when a major school tragedy happens, Columbine, say, and how counselors are on hand to talk with students. So it was like that, I guess, only far less spectacular and horrifying.
I guess the other thing that may give one pause in that first paragraph was that this was all I could come up with as a “brief shining moment” with my mother. A little pathetic, isn’t it? And certainly my mother would object: there were so many good times! And she would be right. There were many good times. There were ski trips and beach vacations; there was Disney World, more than once. There were fancy outfits and fancier dinners at some of New York City’s finest restaurants. There were ballets and musicals and outings in The City. There was shopping at Macy’s and Bloomies and Bonwits. There were birthday parties for everyone, every year. There was an above-ground pool and then an in-ground pool. There were home-cooked meals every day, a fancy meal eaten on the good china on Sundays, and warm breakfasts. I am reminded of the final line of Chaucer’s prologue to the Knight’s Tale, and I paraphrase: It was a very genteel, perfect childhood. But anyone who knows the Knight’s Tale knows that it’s satire. He is a perfect knight except for the fact of being a superficial, womanizing mercenary. He is a symbol of gentility, except for the world was no longer genteel; his estate had deteriorated into corruption and greed, as had the others that Chaucer so brilliantly mocks. The Knight’s Tale is a farce, but there is a sadness lingering beneath: a mourning really, for something that was once, perhaps, not so terribly corrupt and hypocritical. It’s kind of like comparing a Blackwater operative to my Uncle John, an ordinary working man who waded onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 3, eventually earned two silver stars, came home, and went back to work at the Ford plant.
So beneath my very genteel, perfect childhood, there was something not entirely right. It was my mother’s mental illness. I can’t even make that claim, really. There is no diagnosis, no official doctor or therapist who has ascribed a DSM number to what made my mother tick exactly the way she did. There is only this:
Sitting in my therapist’s office at the age of 43, talking about some other frustrated or angry feeling I had about my mother. This therapist, Daphne, was different from all the others I had had in the preceding 20 years. After just a year, I felt like I was finally addressing some core issues. I didn’t know whether I had to do those 20 years of talking as a prologue or whether Daphne was truly different. I think it is a combination of both. I don’t even remember what we were talking about specifically. I only remember this: Daphne said, “There’s a book I think you should read. It’s called Understanding the Borderline Mother.” Now if this were a movie, you would see something like me, racing across a high mesa, in slo-mo, reaching out and screaming “Noooooooo” (speech appropriately slurred as befits slo-mo) as my psyche hovers near the edge of the cliff and is hurled over by some unseen force. Or perhaps Luke Skywalker writhing in agony as Darth Vader stands above him and tells him the truth of his parentage. Noooooo, Luke feebly calls.
Slo-mo and then no-mo and then, the rush. The chaos and tinkle of things falling into place. Imagine an intricate metallic device exploding and the pieces shattering into bits; and then imagine the reel run in reverse, in slo-mo, as the pieces find their way back into structure. Imagine the soundtrack . . .the metallic clicking and snapping as the structure takes shape again, and you slowly begin to see what it is. And it is your life.