Photo courtesy of Maya Beano
A Mother, a Daughter, and
Grieving through Anger
By Danielle Pergament
Here at goop, we prize intimacy and honesty. We talk about issues that are important, affecting, and often highly personal. It is with that in mind that we will occasionally feature essays and letters from writers telling their own stories. It is our hope that these first-person pieces resonate with you, move you, and even make you think in a new way.
It’s hard to know where to begin, so let’s start with this.
Remember the time you told me that I would never win a beauty contest compared to K? Or, for that matter, to my other two sisters either? Do you remember when you said it? It was my wedding day. Funny thing is, we weren’t even having a fight. It was just delivered as fact. I’d like to tell you that this was the most hurtful thing you ever said to me. But I’m not sure that it was. There are just so many to choose from.
I remember when I was little, reading all these books and seeing all these movies that had the same underlying message: Mothers are sacred! The love of a mother reigns supreme above all other loves! It is from their very body that we are born. They sacrifice for us, they do anything for us, their life’s mission is to keep us safe and warm. I would see that stuff, even as a kid, and somewhere inside I’d think: Huh. It would take years for me to figure out why those mothers-are-hallowed stories never sat right.
I was the youngest of your four daughters. I think I was about five or six when I first remember people comparing us to Little Women. Looking back, I think King Lear would have prepared me a lot better. At least then I would’ve known that families could be torn apart by greed and money—or that love could be quantified by diamonds.
I don’t think you wanted to be my mother as much as you wanted to be a friend. But the kind of friend you became wasn’t the kind I could share my deepest fears or dreams with. It was the undermining kind—the mean-girl friend whose approval you crave but who also makes fun of your clothes. I was in high school when you called me “chubby” (to you, it was a fate worse than death). And I was in college when you told me I was too skinny. There was the time you said my natural part was “so ugly” that I should brush my hair to hide it. And the time you told me to flex my biceps to see whether I was as fit as my sister. You had a whole quiver of those verbal arrows, all crafted to injure and weaken but never actually kill.
And holy Christ did you want me to get married. It wasn’t like the “any man would be lucky to have you as a wife,” kind of thing. The way you put it was more “If your boyfriend doesn’t propose in six months, you need to move on.” It was like selling a car before anyone had a chance to figure out that it didn’t have tires.
I thought it was only me. But really it was all of us. As M, your son-in-law, who liked and loved you as much as anyone and was a far better child to you than any of your actual children were, said: “It’s as if she casually tossed hand grenades into every relationship in our family.” Not early on, and not all at once, but for half a century, you really perfected this skill until every last one of us was left smoldering in the ashes.
For a long time, the concept of forgiving you was foreign. It was foreign to our entire family. I had to learn it, the way a blind man would have to learn what “blue” means.
Just as I realized how very much you and I needed a real connection, that I needed to forgive years of hurt and pain and shitty comments, it was then, a year and a half ago, that you died.
To the outside world (and yes, to me, too), you were a diminutive, blonde, blue-eyed Swedish farm girl with an opera singer’s voice and a small child’s shyness. You saw art everywhere and tried to instill in all of us a love of Mozart and Verdi. You were soft-spoken, elegant, and incredibly sweet. It wasn’t an act; it was real. You loved my father, you loved us (in the way that was available to you), and you were unfailingly compassionate. Especially to abused animals and suffering children in faraway lands. It was enough to make me wish I were an abandoned racehorse.
It took me years to reconcile that someone so adorable, someone who, because of her accent, could never learn to say “three” without it sounding like “free,” could use that same charming Scandinavian lilt to tell me that I would never be as successful as one sister or as artistic as another sister or as good a gymnast, horseback rider, you name it.
I do not hate you. I have never hated you. We were symbiotic. For years, you were either the last person I spoke to before bed or the first person I called when I woke up. Right up to my thirties—and at least a few times a week after that. You always answered the phone—and to a child, that is so very important, that consistency so valuable. It was the actual conversation that usually left me shaking with rage or stained with tears or hanging up when I could take no more. But I’d always go back. And you’d always answer. Ours was a singularly painful codependence—but you were the only mother I had. And I knew that, even though you could hurt me, sometimes deliberately, you loved me.
You were beloved by so many people—and I could see why. You loved parties and champagne and dancing and laughing at men’s jokes and being a bon vivant and acting like a 1970s wealthy Westchester hostess who wore Halston (which was kind of what you were). People adored you, including and especially your children. In your own, often misguided way, you wanted to connect with me. It’s just that you ended up comparing me to my sisters (probably not such great parenting), and more often than not, I’d feel as if I had to defend my own worthiness against such a star-studded roster.
It would take decades for me to understand the extent of the damage. I was so young when I learned to compare myself to other women—to my own sisters! And when I found myself falling short (which I usually did), when I felt lost or alone or unloved, I’d break down. Your suggestion was as simple as it was impossible: “Stop being so sensitive.” Not: “What’s wrong?” Not: “Talk to me, sweetheart.” But: “Stop being so sensitive.” (Remember when you offered me a dollar every day I didn’t cry? Kids cry, so that didn’t work, though the Do Not Emote message was pretty clear.) Of course, your prescription backfired: My sensitivity, maybe it’s called hypersensitivity, is probably my defining characteristic.
I tried to do the sensible thing: I tried to repress the pain—bury it, push it down, lock it shut, and wipe my hands of every last hurtful remark, snide comment, gut-wrenching put-down, or unanswered cry from my childhood. It worked pretty well. Occasionally the anger would bubble up and I’d have to really muscle it down again like a suitcase that can’t…quite…close.
But then I had a daughter. And two years later, a son. I learned to be a mother—a highly imperfect, fiercely adoring, obsessively in love mother. I became so curious about my kids—who they are, what they like, what they dream of—that it made it all the harder to understand why you never seemed to care about that with your own children. Well, except for one, your favorite. If only you could have been dismissive of us all equally.
Then came a very dark day.
It was late afternoon, and there was a party at your house. We were all there, and someone casually asked you about your eight grandchildren. And you quietly slid the pin out of the first grenade: “Well, L’s daughter is my favorite.” There it was: Your verbal confirmation that you had a finite amount of love. Apparently, by the time you got to your youngest grandchildren, my babies, well, they could dig for scraps. That’s the part that makes me vibrate with anger: that you didn’t see, that you didn’t care to see, the beauty of my children. That was like an elephant sitting on that suitcase. Years of baggage seemed to zip pretty firmly shut after that.
Then you got sick. I couldn’t toss my baggage and run away. I was denied my escape route. Angry and resentful as I was, I faced the miserable task of sorting out your finances and your estate. Seems pretty clear that it’s a daughter’s duty, even an injured daughter. But one sister—let’s call her Goneril—the one you always said would win the beauty contest, didn’t seem to care all that much about you once you were sick. She didn’t contribute a dime to taking care of you. (I’m sorry to tell you, but she didn’t even come to your funeral. You were hardly perfect, but you didn’t deserve that.) So she peaced out. Grenade two.
In the long, difficult months before you died, your little women had dwindled to three. The bills piled up, and we sold things—your furniture, your crystal, your Halstons. We sold our things too—watches, artwork, treasures you’d given us as graduation and wedding presents. You were living in a mansion you could no longer afford to heat, I was buying your groceries every week, and we had sold valuables to pay your property tax.
Then that phone call and those six chilling words: “A lot of money is missing.”
I’ll cut to the point. You gave one daughter not just more love but more cash. Like: all of it. We asked you about it, and after days of denial, you admitted that yes, you’d given the last money you had to one of your children while the rest of us struggled to pay your bills.
Funny thing is: I’m not even mad about the money. I’m mad that you lied to me for years, and I’m even madder that you let me buy your food with my own money—money I would have liked to save for my own children. But you did. More grenades.
God it’s hard to forgive you. I shouldn’t be mad at you because you’re dead. Because it’s over. Because the last time I saw your body, it was the morning of your death—you were no more than a frail husk; everything alive had fled from you. You were so tiny, wearing that threadbare nightgown.
I know that it’s healthy for me to find forgiveness. The Dalai Lama says so. And I work at goop, the first church of the power of gratitude. And rage and grudges are probably not the shortest path to feeling grateful. But I’m still mad. I’m mad that you never wanted to know me. I’m mad that you never asked—not a single question in forty-three years—how I felt or what I thought. You never wanted to see the world from my point of view.
But the thing that I’m most angry about is that you dismissed my pain. You were Teflon—everything glanced off of you. You were so terrified to leave the tiny shell that you had built around yourself, so terrified to leave the comfort of your own house or your own frail point of view, that you never ventured out to where I lived.
I know it’s hard to forgive people who are dead. But the truth is I said it all. I spent the last decade of my life trying to explain my feelings to you. Sometimes it was more flame-thrower than olive branch. But sometimes I was pretty grown-up about it. It never worked. You got angry, you got defensive, you got hurtful, you got passive aggressive. (“Oh, well I guess I’m the worst mother who ever lived,” you’d say. Which, you know, did not make me feel understood.) I was going to you for the one thing a daughter needs from her mother and can’t really get anywhere else—unconditional understanding, acceptance, love. And I was turned away.
Remember what you said to me a few months before you died? I thought you were asleep but then, almost a whisper: “I never appreciated you.” It’s not the kind of thing you long to hear from your mom—it’s more like the last thing you want to hear. But maybe, in a weird, clumsy way, you were saying sorry.
So I forgive you. Of course, I don’t actually forgive you, but I’m saying it. Like how people say that if you smile when you’re miserable, it will make you happier. I forgive you. I love you. You gave me life. I think inside, you were no more than a terrified child yourself, the seventh of nine. You barely had access to your own parents when you needed it most. And you were so young when you fled—over an ocean, to a new country. You must have been scared to death for so much of your life. I know you were terribly insecure—those sad, quiet retreats to your room, overcome by loneliness, having no sense of self-worth. I’m so sorry. I could have been a lot more compassionate about many things.
We never made peace in life, you and I. We came pretty close to approximating it, but we were always hurt or angry or both. If there is one dream I have for us, it’s that I can give you in death what I couldn’t give you in life: understanding; forgiveness; true, unqualified love.
So: I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you. It’s still not working, but I’ll keep trying.