Today is my mother’s birthday and although she has been dead for more than a decade I still think of her almost every day. At the time of her death I had not seen her for twelve years. Not by choice. After my father’s sudden demise my mother chose my children, her two adult grandsons to be her protectors, and dismissed me from her life, permanently.
When she died, my mother divided her assets evenly between my children and me, forcing her only daughter to live beneath the poverty level for the remainder of her life.
The final betrayal.
At the time of her death I was teaching Women’s Studies at the University.
As a child I adored my very distant mother and did everything I could to please her, including becoming a second mother to my baby brother at four years old. I remember tenderly holding him and giving him his bottles.
Is that why I became so devoted to the divine image of Mary, Queen of Heaven the moment I was exposed to her at the convent garden that I secretly visited each day on my way home from kindergarten?
Three years later my parents went to Europe for a year leaving me in the care of my great aunts. “Baba Anna” allowed me to stay with my very devout Catholic grandmother for two days (the only time I was ever allowed to stay with my father’s mother – my mother disliked Italian Catholics, though she married one named Mario). My very Italian grandmother told me stories about Mary…
When my parents returned from Europe my mother brought me a silver plated triptych of Mary holding Jesus.
Astonished, I decided my mother must have magical powers.
I adored Mary just as I adored my mother but Mary, unlike my mother, was always loving and kind…
I feared my mother’s wrath but it was her sphinx –like Silences that paralyzed me, turning me to stone. Medusa, she often called herself in jest.
When I first saw an image of Medusa with writhing snakes in her hair and a demonic look on her face the figure terrified me.
My mother introduced me to this frightening goddess by naming her, by her fear of snakes, and through her actions.
As an adolescent I discovered Mary Magdalene and because my childhood image of Mary as “virgin”* was at odds with my passionate nature, I turned to the “fallen woman” to find an image of myself.
I chose the “dark goddess” and split away from light without understanding what I had done.
My mother judged me harshly but no more harshly than I judged myself. As soon as I could, I married and moved to an island off the coast of Maine.
My first son was born in December two years after I graduated from college. From the beginning he was a difficult baby that had tantrums and screamed for hours – unless I held and nursed him.
My brother killed himself.
Every time I looked at the Botticelli image of the Madonna and child that I had placed on the mantle I wept.
Guilt and Shame dominated my mothering years isolating me and leaving little room for self – development.
I gave up the two Mary’s, god, and Christianity shutting the last door on Hope.
My relationship with my mother remained one –sided with me (desperately) trying to keep the door open between us because I needed her so.
After my brother’s suicide, she turned towards her grandchildren. And I was only too willing to give them to my mother whenever she asked, because I wanted to please her.
Some years she didn’t speak to me at all for reasons she never explained. In between her silences, I would discover that we planted the same flowers…
When my children left home Mary came back into my life. I found comfort in her presence as the Mater Dolorosa and began going to church again.
I also began a quest to seek the Black Madonna and found the first image of her in Italy, my father’s country of origin.
Open conflict now characterized my relationship with my mother who I began to see as a flawed human being.
I blamed my mother for my brother’s death and her abandonment of me. I judged her as harshly as she had judged me. I saw her through the eyes of Athena, the goddess that sprung from Zeus’s neck. (such an unnatural birth) Now what I feared the most was becoming like her…
As Fate would have it Medusa came to life in me as the raging unwanted daughter… I was forced to live through the same pattern that my mother did and to witness the slaying.
I left the church to become a ritual artist. Nature became my Muse.
Years passed. When my mother died I felt relief before the night closed in.
Gradually, painfully, and with great resentment, I learned to hold my mother accountable for her betrayals, and to separate my experience of reality from hers. As I sorted the seeds I learned to deal with my rage by containing it but not denying my feelings; I also discovered the power of humility (My mother had not been a good mother to either of her children but neither had I for the opposite reasons).
My mother’s greatest flaw as a parent and a person was that of entitlement. She lived her life as queen or goddess, “above” the fray, believing that she was better than others and believed that others should serve her. I lived my life below believing I was inherently flawed and therefore not qualified to be much more than a servant. Together, my mother’s life and mine comprise one whole. A sense of entitlement does not guarantee happiness any more than becoming a servant to others does.
I discovered Guadalupe “the Goddess of the Americas.” The Indigenous Guadalupe appeared to an Indian peasant and asked that a church be built on the same hill where Tonantzin, an ancient earth goddess first resided. The request was granted, and it is said that a spring appeared at the site. Many miracles occurred here.
I came to the realization that my mother and I both suffered deeply.
We both lost children.
Tragically, my mother and I were never able to see each other as two women who had lost access to their female roots, women who chose betrayal of one another out of pain and lack of awareness.
Recently, when I researched the Greek Medusa for an article I need to write, I discovered that she was one of three sisters –the only one that was mortal. In one version this unfortunate Greek goddess born of Earth and Water was a priestess to the goddess of war, Athena. After Medusa was raped by Poseidon, she lost her “virgin” status and was forced to leave Athena’s temple. Athena cursed Medusa, turning her into a monster whose rage turned anyone that looked at her to stone. She also banished Medusa to a desolate island. Later, Perseus killed Medusa, severing her head from her body (and from her female “roots” of earth and water). Perseus then gave her head to Athena who put Medusa’s face on her shield using it to turn others to stone. I was shocked to learn that Medusa was a victim of woman betrayal by a goddess that was often associated with wisdom…
Today, I choose forgiveness, for the mother who birthed me, and for myself.
Today, I choose Earth and Water as the elements that support me.
Today I see myself as a compassionate woman with integrity, one who continues to develop deeper insight as she ages, weaving darkness and light into one multicultural braid.
Today I acknowledge my mother as a woman who may or may not have been capable of loving her only daughter …
Postscript 2021 – I note that I cyclically continue to find myself holding my mother accountable for her betrayals – I honor myself whenever I uncover another way she harmed her only daughter – and unlike me she never acknowledged responsibility for wrongdoing. I no longer believe that we suffered ‘equally’ as I originally wrote in this narrative. I think I needed to believe that we did. Finally I deleted the word.
Today I give thanks for Guadalupe’s light, the light that shines during the darkest days of December, the month my mother was born.
* The word virgin requires explanation. Patriarchy associates the word virgin with sexual purity because of its need to control women through their sexuality. Feminists know that the word virgin means that a woman is self-contained and whole – one unto herself.
The first picture of the Black Madonna is European. There are hundreds of Black Madonnas in Europe especially in Italy, France Germany and Spain. There is also a startlingly similar Black Madonna here in the Catholic church of Santo Tomas at the Abiquiu Pueblo. The last picture depicts a “whitened” Guadalupe who occupies a niche outside my back door. I notice that many Catholic churches whiten their Guadalupe who is an Indios goddess.
This year in my personal life I have experienced three betrayals by women that left me stunned – dumbfounded. As I searched for commonalities between the three I suddenly had an insight. All three of these women suffer from entitlement. It wasn’t until I made this connection that I realized that a sense of entitlement was the primary issue that created the imbalance that doomed the relationship between my mother and me. It’s important to note that entitlement can be well hidden. It is prudent to pay attention to the difference between what a woman says and what she does. Entitlement guarantees that the woman in question will NOT attempt to work out differences and will block any attempt on your part to do so, probably by blaming you.
Mothers and daughters seem to have a particularly difficult time with betrayal. There are a number of reasons that women betray besides believing they are better than other women. Perhaps envy is the most common. But many women are also male -identified, by which I mean that these women privilege men over women. These women choose “power over” others as a way of being in the world. Patriarchy as a system of power over/dominance supports women who betray for obvious reasons. Women who are severed from their female roots are more vulnerable and more easily controlled… We can’t begin to change this behavior until we see it. My hope is that my mother -daughter story might help other women re-examine the way they treat each other.