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Mom Talk: How My Mother Taught Love, By Default

Written by Cathy Shields

Photography by Cathy Shields, 5 years old, and her mother in 1957

Today’s essay is proof that no matter your age, the presence of one’s mother can still loom large. Miami-based writer Cathy Shields, who is 70, writes poignantly about how her mother (now 98) taught her how to love—by the love she tragically withheld from her children. A disability advocate and mother of three grown daughters herself, Cathy shares her story below. 

My cellphone vibrates from inside my pocket, but I ignore it as I continue to jog up the street. Just one more block. When I reach the end of the road, I stop, lean against the bars of a driveway gate, and check my phone. Four missed calls from the nursing home. It must be important. The phone chimes. This time I pick up. The caller tells me my mother had a fall, and the doctor wants to consult. I agree to come in as soon as possible. 

The line goes dead. I should turn around and head back. Instead, I focus on the padlock twisted between the rungs of the rusty gates. An abandoned mansion sits among overgrown weeds, and a familiar longing rises in my chest. I want to feel something other than a vague sense of obligation. Children should love their mothers. 

But mine was always difficult to please. It’s hard to forget I was the inconsequential child. Mom was like a rigid exclamation mark, pinpointing the things I couldn’t do right. Now the sharp edges are smoothed by dementia; the brittle bones so softened with age; she can no longer stand. Her body curls like a question mark. Hidden within is the answer to a question I asked hundreds of times:

Do you love me?

An early memory comes to mind. One week before kindergarten. Mom held my hand as she led me up the steps. I gazed at the imposing building where I would attend my new school. As we walked inside, I breathed in the aroma of scented markers and sharpened pencils. Mom dropped my hand as the teacher came forward and lowered herself to my level. I clung to my mother’s skirt, pushing my face into the soft curves of her body.

“Cathy’s bashful.” Mom nudged me forward. “Come on, honey. Don’t be such a baby. What’s wrong with you?” She turned to the teacher and apologized. 

I shrank further behind her, refusing to budge. And cried.  

Another memory arises. Six years old. Home perms were the rage, and Mom sat me on a rickety stool in the kitchen, applying a rancid-smelling concoction to my stick-straight hair. I cried as Mom admonished me to sit still, to wait for the timer to ding. She told me I had bad hair.

As I head home, I think of an incident when I was in second grade, the day I wet my pants. The teacher noticed the puddle beneath my desk, the shorts plastered to my legs, the yellowed socks. As the class lined up for recess, she took me aside and reassured me. “Don’t worry, we all have accidents.” 

I followed her to the office, where she called my mother and asked she bring a change of clothes. Then the teacher placed a hand on my shoulder and slid a worksheet across the desk. “Do this while you wait for your mom.”  

I kept my eyes lowered. Tears dripped onto the page, and the numbers swam like blurry gray watercolors. When my mother arrived a half-hour later, she scolded me and demanded answers to her questions. 

 “Why didn’t you ask to go to the bathroom? Why on earth did you wet your pants? You’re too old for that.” 

I hid my shame beneath loud, convulsive gasps. I couldn’t tell my mother how hard it was to raise my hand, speak, or ask the teacher for permission to use the bathroom. She wouldn’t have understood.

When I arrive home, I seize the car keys and drive to the nursing home. Music blares from the radio and I lower the volume. I call my daughter to explain why we must reschedule our shopping date. Before we hang up, she reminds me she feels lucky to have hit the jackpot when it comes to the mom department. She always tells me this.

At the nursing home, the automatic doors leading to the memory care unit open with a whoosh. I stroll past silver urns overflowing with artificial flowers. Moans and whispers float from the atrium, where I see a frail woman slumped against her daughter. I know it’s her daughter because they resemble each other. Although the daughter is slightly heavier, she looks like a younger version of the mother. The older woman clenches her hands and moans. Tenderly stroking the wispy white hair, the daughter offers quiet reassurance. “Shh, Momma, I’m here. I love you so much. Don’t worry.”

I feel the tug of envy, then picture my therapist, Dr. Reisman, the way she uncrosses her legs and leans forward to pose questions. Her voice echoes like a ghostly whisper, and it lifts the curtain of resentment.

Have you ever heard of a psychic sunburn? I coined the phrase because I’ve seen so many patients with mothers who lack empathy. You had a toxic mother, whether she was dismissive, critical, or self-involved. I suggest you protect yourself when you see her. Cut the visit short when she criticizes.

Nina, the assistant director, is in the hallway speaking to one of the blue-uniformed aides. When she sees me, she offers an air kiss, along with an apology.

“I’m sorry if we made you race over. Dr. Wetter had another emergency and had to leave. We called him after an aide found your mother on the floor and couldn’t get her to stand. He examined your mother, ordered the x-rays, and saw nothing broken. She appears to be fine.” Nina’s tone sounds cheery. “Let me take you to her.”

She strolls beside me, her high heels clicking like castanets. Her voice drops to a whisper. “When the aide asked your mom why she got out of bed, she said James was on his way. Isn’t James your father?”

“Yes. He passed years ago.”

“Of course.” Nina attempts a thin smile, although the sides of her mouth remain frozen in place. The expression reminds me of a plastic doll. She taps her watch as we face the dining room. “I’ve got to run, but Yamile, your mother’s assistant, is with her, over at the back table.” 

I maneuver around the maze of tables through a sea of blank faces. As I make my way across the dining room, I snatch a cookie off the dessert table. Before I reach Mom, I’ve already shoved it in my mouth. I plop on the chair beside her. The running shorts barely cover my legs, and my thighs stick to the plastic chair.

“Cathy, where have you been?” Twin lines crease Mom’s forehead. “I waited for you all day. I thought you weren’t coming.”

Typical Mom. 

Even though the words make me bristle, I believe she’s happy to see me. Although my mother’s love came with generous helpings of criticism, it created a sort of alchemy. What sustained me was my promise to myself to be the exact opposite when I grew up. I’m a devoted mother and a woman who treasures her tight-knit family. 

Mom holds a soup-filled spoon in her trembling hand. I wrap my fingers around hers. Amber liquid spills onto the plastic bib. I grab a napkin, but Mom swats it away.

“Cathy? Why are you wearing those shorts? Can you at least dress decently on the days you come to visit?”

“Mom, when they called about your fall out of bed, I came as soon as I could. I didn’t have time to change.”

“I did not fall out of bed,” Mom counters—the folds of loose skin around her mouth pucker. I have trouble understanding why she’s so rigid. Her mother, my grandmother, wasn’t like this. I wish she were still alive.

“Mom, do you remember visiting Grandma in this very same dining room? You used to come here every day. Grandma told stories about her life in the old country.” The memory makes me smile. 

Quiet, Mom stares at the chipped polish on her nails. Years earlier, she wouldn’t have left the house until she looked flawless. The staff beauticians try to maintain the elegance that once defined her. They polish her nails and style her hair, but somehow, Mom looks as woeful as the abandoned mansion I passed on my run. 

“Mom,” I shake her arm. “Do you remember the visits with your mother? Grandma sometimes told me stories about crossing a bridge. She said God wouldn’t let her cross.”

I lean forward. “Mom, did you ever hear this story?”

“What story?” Mom’s paper-thin lids flutter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The servers are clearing the tables. One of them comes to remove the tablecloth, but Mom snatches it and twists it with her knobby hands.

“Stop, Mom. Let the man take the tablecloth.” Like a tug of war, I pull my end, but she holds tight.

“No, I need to fold it.” Mom struggles to match the ends. “Help me with this. I need to fold it. I can’t get the ends to meet.”

“For goodness’ sakes, Mom, it’s a tablecloth. You don’t have to fold it, just give it to the server.” I tug. She refuses to let go, then narrows her eyes.

“Don’t you know how to fold anything? Where’s your father? He’ll do it.”

Don’t you know how to fold anything? Mom said the same thing while we folded my wedding invitations into envelopes. She repeated it the first time I attempted to swaddle my newborn. Don’t you know how to fold anything?

I release the tablecloth and brace for more criticism, but Mom has already forgotten. She smiles and caresses my cheek. I cover her hand with mine.

“Mrs. Stone, let me help you.” Yamile deftly folds the tablecloth, hands it to the server, then unlatches the locks in the wheelchair.

In the crowded activity room, residents sit slumped in their wheelchairs. A young man struts across the room, tossing a small multi-colored beach ball. His animated voice resonates throughout the room.

“I’m not supposed to be here.” Mom shakes her head, then shivers. “I don’t know where I am supposed to be. I need to get out of here. It’s cold in here, isn’t it?” She hunches forward and clutches her hands around skeletal arms.

Yamile pats Mom’s shoulder. “She gets cold after lunch; I’ll run to her room and get her jacket.”

Maybe it’s time to leave. I feel like a fraud going through the motions, pretending to be a loving daughter. Then Mom lifts her puckered brow. Her eyes beg for help. “I’m so confused. I don’t know what I did with my papers. Did you take them? I saw you put something in your pocket. Did you take them? Where did you hide them?”

“No Mom,” I sigh. “No, I don’t have your papers. Why don’t you play toss the ball with the others?”

Mom’s expression twists with annoyance, her angry witch face. “Don’t tell me what to do. Why don’t you ever listen? What’s wrong with you?”

Shaking my head, I remember my therapist’s words. “Your mother’s toxic criticism caused a lot of pain, but you used it to your advantage. Visit your mother, but if she criticizes, it’s your signal to leave.”

I wave to one of the blue-uniformed aides. “Can you come over here? I need a hand.”

“Be there in a minute,” she replies.

“Hey Mom, I’m going to find your papers.”

Distracted, I back into a parked wheelchair occupied by a shirtless man. His eyes reflect terror and confusion as he addresses me.

“Hey, you!” he shouts, waving his white T-shirt above his head like a flag. “Get me out of this place!”

The aide rushes toward me. She shakes her head while insisting the guy is harmless, then places a hand on the man’s shoulder. I hear snippets of the words she murmurs in his ear. Shirt. Getting cold. Frightening nice lady.

Mom isn’t the only one here who’s lost. I brush my lips to her cheek. The skin shifts like a sheet of tissue paper. “Mom? I have to go.”

“You’re leaving? But I’m the one who’s supposed to leave.” Mom presses her palms against the sides of her head and screws her eyes shut. “I’m confused!” she wails. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. Can you help me?”

“Yes, I will. I’ll come back.” I reach into my purse. The jangle of keys reminds me of a line from an Eagles song.

“Don’t worry Mom,” I murmur, “anytime you like, you can leave.”

When she does go, I expect to feel the loss, yet I wonder if it’s possible to miss what was never there. 

Maybe I simply couldn’t see it.

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