I was stunned.
My mother had rarely spoken about her childhood. She grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin. They did not have hot water and she and her three sisters and two brothers took baths one-by-one in a tub in water that had been warmed on a stove. You wanted to be the first in line to get the cleanest, warmest water, she used to tell me. They didn’t have much money. They worked hard. They churned their own butter.
I could not recall her ever speaking about her father – my grandfather, who died when I was very young. About all I knew was that he drank a lot. So I asked. She rattled off stories – none of them happy or funny. He took all six kids to school in the morning and then started drinking. She had seen him drunk, sitting on a curb. She was so embarrassed that if she needed to go past his watering hole she would take a different route to avoid seeing him.
He took the money she had saved to buy herself a car. When she announced she was going to college – the only one of the four girls in the family who did – he kicked her out. Women didn’t need a college education, she recalled him saying. She went on to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
One night my grandfather went to play cards. The next morning she got up and the family’s mule, which she considered her pony, was gone. No one explained what had happened but she knew her father had bet the mule and lost. He never said anything to her.
When her eldest sister got married, he could not be found to walk her down the aisle. She recalled him showing up for Mass drunk, sitting in the back of the church. And so on and so on.
I tried to change the subject to make her recall some happy times. I asked about my father and how they met. They met in a bar where he was a bartender. There were no happy stories about falling in love, being swept off her feet or a romantic honeymoon.
Every single story was sad. No matter how hard I tried to pry a happy memory out of her, I could not. She only laughed when she told the story of a priest who got so drunk he lost his dentures and offered to pay the kids a dime if they could find them.
She told me that if she could have she would have left my father, who was also “a drinker.” But in the early 1960’s a Catholic wife did not leave her husband. Besides, she had no way to support us kids.
I wanted to ask more questions but could see that both of us were growing sadder as the stories poured out of her. I couldn’t take it. I told her I had to return some movies we had rented.
I know there was joy in her life. It was her three kids – my brother, sister and me – and her grandkids. Over and over she would say she just didn’t want to leave us. “I just want you to be happy,” she would say, over and over as she lay in her bed at hospice. No matter how many times we told her that we would all be okay, she just didn’t want to leave us.
But she did.
I so much want her legacy to be that of a happy, loving mother and grandmother. Indeed, she was a loving mother. No doubt. But happy, no. It was not until us kids were grown and she had grandkids that she finally seemed to find happiness – joy. But overall, when I think back on my childhood, I do not recall my mother being happy.
My mother was never diagnosed with depression. It didn’t really exist in the 50’s and 60’s. Still, I believe she endured many years wrapped in a form of depression called dysthymia, a low-grade, persistent depression. In some ways, I think dysthymia is more heinous than major depression.
Dysthymia is like having a low-grade fever. You’re not quite sick enough to call in sick to work and so you slog on, day after day, year after year. Next thing you know, you’re lying in bed – slowly dying – telling sad, sad stories about your life.
Nearly two years after her death I slipped into the darkest depression I had ever known. I fought like hell to get out of it. I took medications that I did not want to take. I did therapy that I did not want to do. I went to endless 12-Step meetings.
I wanted to be happy – not so much for me but for my mother and my daughter. Slowly, I learned that it is not possible to be happy for others. You have to be happy for yourself. You have to be selfish and want happiness all for yourself. Being happy for others doesn’t work.
This was a very, very difficult concept for me to accept. My mother and the nuns at school taught me to always do for others – to make others happy. In fact, it was sinful to consider your happiness before another’s.
Today I know this is not true. Your own happiness is just as important as the happiness you want for others – especially your children. Someone recently told me that she believed happiness is overrated. I was shocked. How could happiness be overrated?
It’s all my mother really wanted for me.
<small><a href=”http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-141509170/stock-photo-sad-stickman.html?src=1kSnjQF9gbeK54zdP6VbcA-1-104 “>Sad stick figure</a> available from Shutterstock.</small>