As I was growing up, my mother would alternate between being effusively loving and understanding, and being harshly critical and emotionally cruel. She would be one way one day and different the next. It kept me confused and constantly off balance.
She was a charming woman, witty and intelligent, and also very musical. Our lives were full of music. She played the violin, and we all began learning an instrument as soon as we were able.
I loved music, and loved my mother’s spontaneity and enthusiasm, but I hated and feared her anger and criticism. She enchanted people, and I was just as enchanted by her as anyone else. That’s what made it so painful when she turned on me, just when I trusted her the most. It would make me feel like the most horrible person in the world.
Now, from the perspective of many years of living, my emotions about my mother, and about myself, are no longer caught on the horns of a dilemma. Now I see that she was misguided by her own need to compete and to excel, to make people love her, and to be in the lime light.
She must have had a tremendous need to convince herself, and others, that she was not just acceptable, but way above the norm. Her magnetic personality so overwhelmed me as a little girl, that I, in turn, found it hard to believe I even had a right to breathe, let alone excel.
When I was six, my mother took me on a trip to Massachusetts, leaving my brothers at home with Dad in Evanston. We went on the train to visit Mother’s twin sister, my cousins, and my grandmother in Cambridge. I loved the train. It was fun to sleep in the berth at night, after watching the porter make it up. It was exciting going to the dining car, where there were white tablecloths, gleaming silver, and fresh flowers on the tables.
I did my best to be good and everything went smoothly.
When we finally arrived in Boston, and took a cab to Cambridge, the house where they lived, an old two-story frame house, looked austere in comparison to houses in the Midwest, but when we went inside, it was full of life. My three cousins, Nancy, Persis, and Jimmy kept things humming.
The morning after we arrived, Gramma, who was very interested in appearances, took charge of me and fixed my hair with her curling iron. I was happy, because my cousins all had curly hair and mine was straight. She picked out a pretty light-green dress for me to wear, and ironed all the packing wrinkles out of it with a little iron she had right there in her room. I looked at myself in her long mirror. She had transformed me! I hugged her. “Oh, thank you, Gramma! I look so different!” She smiled. “You’re welcome, dear. Now you look so pretty.”
I was ecstatic. Norm had curly hair, Bob had wavy hair. Only Fran and I had straight hair, but he was a boy. Now, for once, with my newly created curls, I actually felt pretty as I went down the long narrow staircase to breakfast.
We children sat at a little table in the center of the kitchen. I was so proud of my hair and my green dress, happy and serene inside, comfortable in the pit of my stomach, where often there was a tight knot of fear.
My cousins, Nancy and Persis, were at the little table with me, and Jimmy was next to us in his high chair. We all had bowls of cereal. Jimmy kept putting his little bare foot under the edge of my cereal dish, lifting it to make it spill a little. “Don’t do that, Jimmy!” I pleaded, “You’ll make a big mess!” but he kept teasing me with his toes, and pretending he was going to do it again.
I was about to tell my Aunt what was happening, when Jimmy misjudged, and spilled my cereal all over the table and onto my clean dress. I was horrified.
Before I could say anything, Mother came in the room, saw the cereal on the table and on my dress, and assumed that I had done it. Her face darkened with anger. “Marjie, why on earth did you do that? A big girl like you! You ought to be ashamed!” “But I didn’t do it,” I protested, “Jimmy did it with his foot.” Jimmy shook his golden curls and smiled sweetly, “Not me!” Nancy and Persis were too afraid of my mother’s anger to speak up. My aunt hadn’t seen what happened. No one said anything.
Mother was furious. “You’re a bad, bad girl!” She pulled me out of the chair, slapped my hands, and dragged me up the long dark stairs to the bathroom. She took a comb, wet it under the faucet, and began to comb out my beautiful new curls. “No, no!” I wailed, “You’re ruining my hair!” But she kept on. “Bad little girls don’t deserve to have pretty hair.”Then she mopped off my dress, and wouldn’t let me change into a fresh one because I had been “bad.”
I felt a terrible pain deep inside. I felt ugly, and somehow tainted, even though I knew I had done nothing wrong. And now I had to suffer the shame and embarrassment of going back down stairs with my wet, straightened hair and my damp, mopped-off dress. I hated my mother for believing I was bad, and I hated her for humiliating me in front of everyone else.
Anger, pain, and humiliation, swirled within me, tearing at my insides, shredding my self esteem. The beautiful sunny day could just as well have been dark with rain. It no longer held any exciting possibilities. I was just an ugly little girl with straight, hair. Somehow, even though I was innocent, it seemed to be what I deserved.
I didn’t feel like playing with Nancy and Persis in the back yard. They were running around and laughing. I didn’t feel like laughing. I sat on the stairs that went up to the kitchen door, my chin in my hands.
An old friend of the family, “Uncle Kay,” came out the back door to greet me. I had always loved him and he had always loved me too. “Hello, Marjie!” he said cheerfully. It was hard to answer, or even look at him, even though he was one of my favorite people. I managed a subdued, “Hello.” He bent down toward me smiling and patting my shoulder. “How was the trip on the train?” he asked, “was it fun?” I looked up at him, and saw his familiar unruly red hair, kind blue eyes, and friendly smile. I wanted to smile back, but just couldn’t. “It was O.K.” I said, without enthusiasm. I could tell he was surprised—he was used to happy responses from me--but on that day, I just couldn’t be my real self.
When Uncle Kay went back in the house, I could hear him ask my mother and aunt “What’s the matter with Marjie?” Then I heard them telling him all about that morning. I put my head down on my knees and wished I could die.
Mother sent me to bed early, because I couldn’t eat. It was still light. For some time, I could hear the voices of the other children far away downstairs. I lay there in bed and watched the tops of the trees as the sky grew darker and darker, until I couldn’t see them anymore. In the dark I felt very alone. With all my heart I wanted to be good and kind and beautiful. Why couldn’t I do it? I loved people, and I wanted them to love me. Why couldn’t I make that happen?
In the morning, I was not hungry, but I tried to eat breakfast, so Mother wouldn’t scold me. It was hard. The cereal tasted like cardboard.
The doorbell rang, and when someone opened it, I heard Uncle Kay’s cheerful voice in the front hall. Soon Mother called me into the hall and told me Uncle Kay had come to take me for a ride in his car to see the lighthouse out by the ocean.
Suddenly, the day looked brighter. “Get your sweater,” she said, “it’s cold near the shore.” It only took a minute to get it from upstairs and I was ready to go. “You didn’t comb your hair,” said my mother, “for heaven’s sake!” “I think she looks fine,” said Uncle Kay, smiling at me, and I felt a little lifting of the heavy pain inside. He gently took my hand and led me out the door and down the walk to his car. He opened the door and held it open for me while I got in. I felt like a princess.
It was fun riding in his car. It was a convertible sedan, like our Franklin—a “touring car.” Since there were no windows, my hair blew every which way and I didn’t care. As we got near the ocean, I could smell the salty sea air. It was delicious.
After Uncle Kay parked the car on a bluff near the ocean, we walked over sand and rocks to where the lighthouse stood. It was gleaming white, tall and round, with windows at the top. Uncle Kay pointed up to where the windows were. “There’s a great big light up there and it sweeps around and around to warn ships at night or in bad weather.” “Why does it have to warn them?” I asked. “So they won’t run aground when they can’t see where the land is.” In my mind I could see a ship on a stormy sea at night, with men on board straining through the darkness to see the light that would save them from sinking.
On the way back to the car, we stopped and sat on a flat rock to rest a minute and look at the ocean. Uncle Kay handed me a little package he had been carrying. “Here,” he said, “this is for you.” I took it in my hand. It was wrapped in brown paper. “Open it,” he said. When I pulled the paper away and opened the box, there was a curling iron. My own curling iron! A tear splashed on it and glistened in the sun. I was overwhelmed.
Uncle Kay hugged me gently. “Oh, thank you!” I said, hardly able to talk, “Thank you so much!” Uncle Kay smiled. “I don’t think you need it,” he said, touching my hair, “I like the way you look. I like you just the way you are.”
I looked up at him, surprised. His red hair was bright in the sun, and his blue eyes warm and friendly. “If you want curls, now you can have ‘em, but remember, that’s just being pretty on the outside. I love you because you’re already beautiful on the inside, and that’s where it really matters!”
* * * * *
The gift that Uncle Kay gave me that day was far more than just a curling iron. It was the assurance from someone I really cared about that I was an acceptable person, worthy of being loved. During my growing up years, which were often painful and difficult, he continued to be my staunch ally. His unswerving, uncritical love and loyalty through the years often kept me going when I wanted to give up. He made me know that life is worth living, even when it hurts. That was his real gift.