Friday, September 02, 2005

Looking Back on My Childhood - A Tale of Three Mothers by Saralee Sky

I have always been driven to reflect on all that has happened before to bring me to this place, this moment in time, in understanding and awareness. I now support new mothers and babies through my product offerings and articles, and I want to share with you some of the events in my life that led me to this chosen field.

My mother was sick before she gave birth to me in March of 1949. I was actually a doctor’s order. “You have too much time on your hands, Trudy,” said Dr. Bloom. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Go home and have another baby.” So she did – me. Many years later in therapy I would imagine her cells dying all around me while I sucked out what was left of her life force through the umbilical cord in her womb.

My mother’s condition – scleroderma - worsened when I was a baby and toddler and so I spent a lot of time at my Aunt Goldie’s house. Aunt Goldie was my mother’s older sister by twelve years. She loved Trudy as a daughter and I occupied a special place in her heart as Trudy’s little baby.

In September, 1952, I was having lunch in my high chair in Aunt Goldie’s kitchen. I was three and a half years old. The phone rang and Aunt Goldie went to the alcove in the stairwell to answer it. She listened, then threw back her head and wailed, a sound so primal and so full of pain it echoed in the collective unconscious of all humankind. I sat there in my high chair too frightened to cry and completely ignored. But I knew as I sat there alone, staring into my reflection in the silver tray: a connection was severed. My mother was dead.

Later that afternoon, I sat on the back porch playing with my marble collection. My favorite brown cat’s eye marble rolled off the porch and into the dirt below. I looked and looked for that marble for what seemed like forever, but it had vanished. I cried and cried, my grief inconsolable, the loss of my marble a tangible way to grieve for the mother who gave me life.

Before my mother’s death and after, I spent most week days at home with a house keeper, who left me alone to occupy myself for the most part. I was alone, but not lonely. I had this inner presence, this calm inner Self that kept me company. I was content with my own company and I had a rich fantasy life complete with many “imaginary” friends.

After my mother died, Aunt Goldie took the place of a mother for me. She made a promise to Trudy before she died to look after me, and she took that promise to heart. I spent every Saturday at her house until my father picked me up after work.

She would often spirit me away to the bathroom with her, closing the door and telling me about my poor, dead mother as she sat on the toilet. As soon as I cried, she would let me go, my tears her proof that I still remembered and grieved for my mother like she did. I was affected by the sorrow in Aunt Goldie’s voice, the tears in her eyes and the weirdness of being closeted in the bathroom with her. But the truth was that I remembered Trudy only through Aunt Goldie’s bathroom soliloquies.

Each week night, Uncle Sol would drive my Aunt Goldie to our house to bathe me and put me to bed. Uncle Sol would sit and talk in the living room with my father while Aunt Goldie and I went upstairs. This ritual was a very important part of Goldie’s and my day. Aunt Goldie gave me my bath and put me in my crib. Then she would talk to me, telling me stories about her day, about her family, talking and talking in a chair by my crib. I listened to her voice, the words unimportant, the sound a soothing invitation to sleep.

Fifteen months after Trudy died, toward the end of 1953 when I was four and three quarters, my father started dating Naomi. I have vague memories of Naomi being at our house from time to time. She began teaching me school-type things: she taught me to tell time, she taught me to count by two’s, five’s and ten’s, she taught me to read. She seemed pleased that I was such a quick study. Still, it was Aunt Goldie who bathed me and put me to bed each night.

On March 19, 1955, two and a half years after Trudy died and a week before my sixth birthday, my father married Naomi. The ceremony and reception took place at the synagogue. I wore a beautiful flowered dress. Pictures of that evening show a little girl with curly hair, a tentative smile and eyes full of uncertainty. Daddy and Naomi went to Florida for their two week honeymoon. Upon their return, the changes to my life began in earnest.

Naomi had more modern taste in furniture and home d├ęcor than did my mother, Trudy. Over the next few months the interior of the house was completely redone. Gone were the gauzy white curtains, the old-fashioned, overstuffed furniture, the maroon patterned carpet. In their place were floral drapes, sculpted, fifties-style couches and chairs, beige carpets and walls. Everywhere I looked was the color beige – bland, benign, boring.

All the pictures of my mother, Trudy, were taken down from the shelves and hidden away. I wouldn’t rediscover them for many years. I was not even permitted to have a picture of my mother in my bedroom. That was the past – the Trudy era - and this was now – the Naomi era. Still my Aunt Goldie came to put me to sleep each night. I clung to this ritual like a starving child to a crust of bread.

Daddy was willing and eager to let Naomi be the woman of the house. He handed me over to Naomi with a sense of relief and a symbolic washing of the hands. He never liked the role of father to a motherless child and now he could relinquish it by providing the child with a new mother. He was like the fathers in fairy tales - Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel - absent and unwilling to rescue his child from the new step mother.

Naomi was seemingly up to the challenge. A spinster in her mid-30’s before my father married her and took her from her parent’s home to ours, she had ideas and theories about how to raise children and I was her guinea pig. Only one major obstacle stood in her path: Aunt Goldie. Goldie was a constant reminder to Naomi that I was not her natural child. I don’t remember when the nightly bathing and bedtime stories stopped. I only know that they did stop soon after the redecoration of the house was complete.

Some of Naomi’s changes were for the better. After all, I was six years old and still sleeping in a crib. Naomi got me a big girl’s bed. She told me a few bedtime stories, then turned out the light left the room. No more voice of Aunt Goldie talking me to sleep each night. She also took on my thumb-sucking habit with great zeal. Soon that was gone as well.

Visits to Aunt Goldie’s house were reduced to Jewish holidays. She was no longer welcome in our house. I missed Aunt Goldie terribly, but was told I had a new mother now. Aunt Goldie must have been miserable, too. We were simply cut out of each other’s every day lives.

I started out calling Naomi by her first name, but was strongly encouraged to call her Mommy, which I soon did. I wanted a Mommy after all, even if I didn’t particularly want this mommy. The simple fact was that I really didn’t like Naomi and she didn’t like me. Naomi was unemotional and sarcastic, with anger and resentment seething just below the surface. Her eyes were cold and dead. They reflected no light. I was expected to kiss her good night each evening, and I could never hide my revulsion as I got close to her pocked, makeup-covered skin and her dead, brown eyes. My father never seemed to notice. But she did. She would turn her face away from me at the last moment so that I could kiss her on the cheek, not her mouth. She was as uncomfortable with this nightly ritual as I was, but insisted on it all the same.

One day, on the way home from First Grade on the bus, Bonnie L. yelled out, “You have a STEP mother. Saralee has an evil STEP mother!”

“I do not!” I yelled back at her, hot, angry tears flowing down my cheeks. I ran from the bus stop to our door, crying all the way.

“What’s the matter?” asked Naomi as she opened the door. “What happened?”

“Bonnie says I have a step mother!” I said between sobs. “I do NOT have a step mother do I? You’re not a step mother are you? Step mothers are EVIL!”

“Bonnie was wrong,” answered Naomi. “I am your NEW mother, not an evil step mother.” She let me cry myself out, my head in her lap. I was grateful to her for taking me seriously, for reframing the situation to be more palatable to a six year old girl.

I learned that day that when I was miserable – really miserable – Naomi would be there to comfort me. But when I was happy and independent and enjoying myself, she became disapproving and cold at her best, and downright nasty at her worst.

I was so upset with Bonnie because I knew in my heart she was right. I DID have a step mother and she could sometimes be evil. I had a big problem and that problem was trying to deal with a woman who could only handle misery. My natural, sunny disposition was a threat to her belief that “Life was one kick in the teeth after another.” She made it her main goal to teach me that life lesson, and I made it my goal to prove her wrong.

As I continued to grow up under her cold, disapproving eye, I tried my best to please her and always seemed to come up short. The calm inner Self that always kept me company disappeared from my awareness in my efforts to be the child Naomi wanted me to be. I held on to my belief that life was more than one kick in the teeth after another, but we were never able to openly talk about the tension between us or the dislike we each felt for the other.

The Jewish holidays I spent at Aunt Goldie’s house with my cousins and uncles and aunts remain strong and happy memories, especially Passover. I was the youngest for many years, so it fell to me to recite the Four Questions, and to find the Afikomen (the hidden matzah). We sang in three languages, Yiddish, Hebrew and English. I was coddled and loved and I soaked in that love to last until the next holiday, when I could be with Aunt Goldie and my “real” mother’s side of the family again.

My father died of a heart attack when I was 13. He died while watching the 11 o’clock news. I slept through the attack and the ambulance arriving and departing with my father inside. I awoke the next morning to be told I would not be going to school that day. Instead I would be attending my own father’s funeral. That was on a Friday. On the following Monday, Naomi insisted I return to school rather than sit shivah (seven day mourning ritual) with the rest of our family. When I protested vehemently Naomi said, “Life goes on.” and pushed me out the door. I was not permitted to grieve.

My father’s death left me alone with Naomi. She became even more angry and bitter. Life had dealt her a stunning blow, taking away her husband after only seven years of marriage, and leaving her with a teenager to raise. No amount of achievements or awards won on my part did anything to soothe her bitterness and resentment.

My connection to Aunt Goldie remained strong, in spite of the physical distance Naomi placed between us. I didn’t get to see Aunt Goldie very often, but when I did, our love for each other was evident. Naomi never understood that there was room in my heart for everyone, for all three of the mothers who were placed in my life.

When I became old enough to drive I would visit Aunt Goldie more often, especially for Friday night shabbos dinners. When I went away to college and came home a hippie with long curly hair, no bra and lots of tie dye, Naomi was disgusted. But Aunt Goldie welcomed me with open if disapproving arms.

After college I moved to California to be with the rest of the “kooks’ as my family called the “make love not war” generation. I had my first child, Joseph, at home with midwives in 1975. I was unmarried though living with the baby’s father. I chose not to circumcise him, which goes against Jewish law.

My step mother, Naomi, was ashamed of me. When I wanted to come home for a visit and bring baby Joseph, she let me know I was not welcome in her home (my old home). My Aunt Goldie again welcomed me, though she and Uncle Sol also disapproved of my decision not to circumcise Joseph. “If he isn’t circumcised, he isn’t a Jew!” Uncle Sol said.

I moved far away from the family that raised me so that I could seek out and discover my own ideas and beliefs. I needed to reflect upon all that had happened to me as a child, to finish unresolved situations from my past. The distance was necessary to be able to rediscover my Self, the calm inner presence that made me feel at peace as a child.

Now so many years later – Joseph turns 30 this year – I look back on the three women who were mothers to me, and to my own choices as a mother, and I realize that we all do the very best we can with the situations and experiences that are given to us in this life. Mothers were once babies themselves, and their life experiences shape the way they parent their own children. I tried my best to raise my children with the awareness that they have their own thoughts and dreams, their own inner Self and room in their hearts for everyone who loves them.

I have great compassion for all little babies born into this world, looking for love, nurturance and guidance. This article and my web site are my offerings to them and to the mothers who raise them.