The featured photo is a picture of Mom and me in Sousse, Tunisia, over the New Year’s holiday in 1978. I was five years old. We lived in England at the time, so it wasn’t a super long journey.
Last week, I tried to call my mom a couple of times. I had forgotten that she was going to be having knee surgery. She had told me about it in March, I think, and it slipped my mind. My mom lives alone in a senior apartment community in Hampton, Virginia. The community was formed out of what was once a grand hotel. It overlooks the Chesapeake Bay. She has a wonderful view from her two bedroom apartment, where she’s lived since 2009. My dad shared the apartment with her, until he died on July 9, 2014.
My mom is going to be 85 years old this year. She’s still quite independent. Her mind is sharp. She still drives, though not as far as she used to. She doesn’t go out much, though, so I was a little worried when I called her three times and didn’t get an answer. Our neighbor’s mom is my mom’s age, and she’s been having some problems lately. She broke her leg, and a few weeks ago, she picked up the wrong keys to her house and got confused. Not being able to reach my mom caused me to to worry a little. I hoped she wasn’t suffering with the same things our neighbor’s mom (who is also a neighbor) does.
I sent one of my three sisters a private message on Facebook, asking her if she knew if Mom was okay. She reminded me about the surgery, but then contacted another sister– the eldest of the four of us– to confirm. Oldest sister said Mom was doing fine. The sister I contacted also called Mom’s apartment community to check on her, and they confirmed that Mom was okay. So that was that.
This sister and my mom have always had a lot of interpersonal issues. I don’t know what they stem from, but they’ve had difficulties for as long as I can remember. It’s too bad, too, because both my mom and my sister have things in common. They are both extraordinarily artistic. My mom can do almost anything with needles and thread. For years, she owned her own business, in which she sold cross-stitch, knitting, needlepoint, and other supplies. She taught many people how to do these needlecrafts (although I’m not among them). My mom, even in her 80s, has made some extremely beautiful things by her own hand. When I was little, she used to make clothes for me. She also knitted sweaters, hats, socks, and scarves.
My sister, likewise, is very talented with needles and threads. She sews and does needle crafts, like our mom does. She’s also a legitimately gifted artist in the way most people think of artists. She paints, draws, and creates true works of art through many different mediums. In addition, she’s a skilled writer, having earned a master’s degree in journalism, and she has excellent taste in music. My sister introduced me to some of my favorite artists, including Kate Bush.
Really, though, my sister is probably best known as an artist. I’ve been to a lot of art museums, and I can tell you that I would expect to see something my sister did hanging in an art museum. Below are a few examples of her work:
You’d think my mom and my sister would get along famously. They have some things in common. But they don’t really get along. My sister seemed to mesh better with our dad (most of the time). I, on the other hand, have always gotten along with our mom. My dad and I fought a lot.
Back in July 2007, while Bill was in Iraq doing his “patriotic chore”, I attended my paternal grandmother’s funeral. Granny was almost 101 years old when she passed. She was much beloved by everyone in her community. I had to bring my dogs with me, because it wasn’t possible to board them. Consequently, when I stayed at the Natural Bridge Hotel (for the last time, it turned out), I got a room in the “cabins”, which were motel rooms on a hillside. My uncle ran the Natural Bridge Hotel for years, and I’ve stayed there many times. The last time I stayed, it was pretty uncomfortable. I think they’ve renovated since 2007, but I haven’t been back… in part, because it was uncomfortable, and in part, because of something my sister said to me that brings back traumatic memories.
After Granny’s funeral, my sister and I were talking. She was also staying in a “cabin”. For some reason, she chose that time to tell me that she’d always believed I wasn’t my dad’s daughter.
Keep in mind, we had just buried our grandmother, who was my father’s mother. If I wasn’t his daughter, that would have meant that Granny wasn’t my actual grandmother. She was pretty much the only grandparent I’d ever known, since my other grandparents died when I was very young. I do remember my mom’s father, but he had severe dementia when I was conscious of meeting him, and he didn’t really know who any of us were. I also met my paternal grandfather’s mother– my great grandma– but she was also very elderly and died when I was about nine years old. I didn’t have much of a relationship with her. So, as you might realize, Granny was very important to me– more so than she would have been in any case.
When my sister made that declaration to me, I will admit there was a part of me that wondered if what she was saying could have been true. My dad and I fought a lot. I don’t look much like him. Instead, I really favor my mom’s side of the family. But I only wondered about it for a moment…
My sister was telling me about how she formed this idea that maybe I was a “bastard” child. She said our mom was friendly with a neighbor in Hampton, Virginia, where I was born. She said he had blond hair and blue eyes, like mine. My dad had black hair and brown eyes.
I decided to gently challenge my sister. I say “gently”, because I didn’t want to fight with her, especially at Granny’s funeral. I asked her how it was possible that our mom could have had an affair. At the time, our dad was away on Air Force missions a lot. They had three children– my sisters are 13, 11, and 8 years older than I am. How would our mom have the time for adultery?
Also, our mom is painfully honest. I mean, she’s honest to a fault. I just couldn’t see her cheating on our dad. She isn’t the most demonstrative person, although she’s definitely friendlier and more demonstrative now, than she was when our dad was alive. There are a lot of things a person might say about my mom’s rather laid back mothering skills. The truth is, she was kind of neglectful to me– and she’d probably be among the first to admit it. I think she would have been better at mothering had she not been married to an alcoholic during the Vietnam War era, and had she not had four kids. But she has a strong moral compass and a very deep sense of loyalty and duty. She took excellent care of my dad until the bitter end of his life. I know she truly loved him, too, even when he wasn’t very lovable.
Finally, I suggested asking our mom point blank about it. My sister very quickly backpedaled, and said she had a wild imagination. It was clear she didn’t like that idea. Uh huh…
Still, for a long time, I wondered if there was any truth to my sister’s theory, because it was true that my dad and I had a rather contentious relationship. I didn’t know the people who were our neighbors in Hampton. I was a baby, and we left Hampton when I was about six months old, and moved to Dayton, Ohio, where my dad took a job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I only have the barest memories of Ohio. It’s probably a blessing. 😉 Dad and I didn’t share very much in terms of physical similarities. Now that I’m older, I think bone structure in my face looks like his, somewhat. Actually, I think I look a little like this particular sister, in terms of facial bone structure. She looks more like our dad, though, while I am very obviously my mom’s daughter.
Years later, I submitted my DNA to both 23&Me and Ancestry.com. I saw that a number of my DNA matches came from my dad’s side of the family. Obviously, I am his daughter.
Which brings me to last night’s chat with my mother. We’d been talking for about an hour and were about to ring off. Mom said the surgery and the drugs she was taking were causing her to need the toilet more frequently than usual. Before we finished our conversation, I asked her if she’d watched the coronation of King Charles III. Mom loves watching British ceremonies. She said she had, and that led to another rabbit hole of discussion.
The topic turned to Prince Harry and Meghan, and she brought up their children, Archie and Lilibet. I said that some people were speculating that perhaps the kids weren’t actually conceived between them (not that I believe that myself– it’s not really my business). I added that since everybody is getting their DNA tested these days, it would be hard to lie about something like that.
My mom said, “Well I want you to know that your dad and I are your parents.”
I thought that was kind of a weird thing to say, and before I knew it, I said “Well, thank you for that. There was some doubt at one point. But then I got my DNA tested.”
Naturally, Mom wanted to know what I meant. So I told her about that toxic conversation I’d had with my sister back in 2007… right after Granny’s funeral. I didn’t mention her name… but Mom quickly guessed who had said that to me. It turns out my sister had directly accused our mom of having had an affair. Mom thought maybe she was talking about the young Black male nurse who had been helping to take care of Dad in his last years. At the time, the nurse was an 18 year old nurse’s aid, and our mom was in her 70s. Dad had accused them of having an affair; he had severe dementia at the time. The idea of Mom having an affair with a teenager was ridiculous and laughable, and she did laugh about it. But no… my sister said Mom would have had an affair with a white person.
For sixteen years, I never mentioned to my mom that conversation my sister and I had. I hadn’t meant to mention it last night. To my mom’s credit, she was pretty cool about it and even apologized to me that my sister had said that. It was pretty hurtful.
And maybe I shouldn’t write about this here… Some people would find it inappropriate and too personal. On the other hand, abusers thrive on secrecy. They say and do mean things, counting on their victims remaining silent. In spite of what some people might think, I’ve been silent about a lot of things. It’s not really my nature to be silent, either. One of the gifts I inherited from my mom were, after all, the gifts of music and communication. Actually, I inherited both of those from my dad, too… Music and writing are a couple of a few things I got from him, even if I don’t resemble him physically.
I’m not angry with my sister. I don’t know why she has these issues with our mother. Some of the things she says seem rather fictitious to me… and in fact, she often reminds me of other people in my life with whom I’ve had to do battle. Perhaps dealing with her is one reason why I am so “saturated” when it comes to narcissistic types, like former landlady and Ex. My sister, by the way, thinks she’s an empath. Personally, I don’t really see it. Bill is an empath. I am not, and neither are any of my sisters.
I’m not sorry Mom and I had that talk. Thanks to DNA tests, I already knew that my sister’s conspiracy theory was utter bullshit. I never really believed her theory, even before I had my DNA tested. However, it was good to hear it from my mom, who even told me about the time I was conceived. Apparently, it happened after my dad had taken a “round the world” trip in the fall of 1971, escorting generals to different embassies. Mom said they used to joke that they were going to name me “Ethiopia”. She said she’d told me about that once, and I thought it was “terrible”. I swear, though, I don’t remember the story. She also said the person my sister thought she’d been messing around with was just a neighbor who, along with his wife, had kids the same age. They were just neighborhood friends. In fact, the wife of the couple recently sent Mom a letter. She’d tracked her down in Hampton.
We ended our conversation on a really lovely note. Mom said she loved me, and reminded me that I’d been a good kid who never got into trouble. I guess buying me a horse worked… (and my sister tried to take credit for that decision, too). I wished Mom a happy Mother’s Day, and said I’d call her before we go on vacation next month. It’s a gift to me that she and I can be friends now. She might be one of the few people in my family with whom I would probably choose to be friends, even if we weren’t related.