Today would be my mother's 88th birthday, which is not so old, but my mother seemed very old eight years ago, when she died. She did not have a happy life. Her mother died when she was still a teenager, she went to work while her brother went to college, and she was painfully divorced after 23 years of marriage.
But she also had three children who loved her and four beautiful grandchildren, and the great tragedy of my mother's life was how little joy she seemed to take in any of us. She was way too anxious for that.
As a little girl, I tried so hard. I called her "Beauty" because that was what she strived to be, but I don't believe she ever really felt that way. And it ended up, as such things do, getting projected onto us. My sister was too tall, and I was too fat. Being smart didn't matter if you ended up without a man (and here I am). "No man will ever have you," my mother once told me, and I believed her. My mother was never without a man.
When I got raped, she called the next day to tell me I shouldn't tell anyone because people would think less of me (eventually, I told the world). When my sister got cancer at 33, she couldn't bring herself to fly to Chicago to see her. When my brother had open-heart surgery, she told me her legs hurt her too much to drive into Boston to see him. When my daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah, she decided it would be better (for whom?) if she didn't come.
I spent countless hours with therapists trying to figure out what to do when she called dozens of times a day, when she told me my miscarriage was harder on her than on me (she didn't have a husband at that second). It took a long time to get to the point where I could feel sorry for her and not angry with her.
But the thing is, my mother did not mean to be cruel or thoughtless or hurtful. I do believe she loved us, but that love was so intertwined with her untreated, maybe untreatable, anxiety that she could never enjoy us. We all made it to the funeral, despite the rape and the cancer and the heart surgery, and mourned the joy she might have had if she only could have not been so afraid of what might go wrong.
My sister reminded me today that the way our mother was with us was not how Helen was with others:
"I like to remember how others saw her, as it was so much better, bigger than we ever could. I was just in Chicago and spent a night with Debby (Goldman) Cohen. As a teenager, I liked to sleep until 11 or 12 whenever possible and remember stumbling down to the kitchen in the early afternoon to find Debby sitting there talking to Mother — I couldn't imagine anyone seeking her out voluntarily. Debby said Helen always listened to her and helped her with whatever she was dealing with.
"And remember Jon Rosen (a brilliant young lawyer who grew up nearby and whom my mother adored) and how close he and Mother were? He told me that Mother was like the fabulous grandmother he never had. And Joe (my mother's last beau) thought she was the best thing since sliced bread.
"Good lessons here. My interpretation has been that with us, with her closest family, Mother's anxieties and fears were at their worst and kept her from having any ability to enjoy any of us. She was always so worried that something bad would happen that she couldn't appreciate when it didn't, let alone deal with the challenges that inevitably came along. For me, personally, it has helped me learn to live with appreciation for each day, no matter the circumstances. And to remember to love each of us (including her and myself) no matter what."
I try. Rest in peace, Mom.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.