Remembering Mom and The Endless Cold War (edited)
I started writing an essay about the longing of not having a mother on Mother's Day back in early May. Three half-finished drafts later (I think the garden needs to be weeded right this second and I need to bake cookies says ADHD), Mother's Day came and went a few weeks ago. So I decided to write something over Memorial Day weekend to share my grief and the circumstances of the loss, even though the only victorious battle she fought and won was getting custody of me at age three, then disposing of the body at seventeen. Every time I start writing about memories of the relationship her, the first thing that would come up in my mind is the abandonment-- the haunting mystery, the But Why and pain from a wound that never healed as I can't make sense of it without blaming myself.
As I would start to write the story, my throat would close up and my head throb as I held back the tears. I've told my therapist this week how frustrating it is that after years of self-help books, meditation and group workshops on love and acceptance, I still have overwhelming emotion wash over me when I just casually try to talk about it, like it just happened yesterday-- the mysterious and cruel incident that happened 35 years ago. I told her about the last time I saw her in person-- 1991, she was willing to meet me over lunch at Trump Tower (her choice of venue) after not seeing me for four years (all her decision.) During our meeting she never told me the reason she left in the first place and made it clear there would be no acknowledgement of reality or she would walk out on me right there in the restaurant. I had to run to the bathroom several times get out my tears as if I had acute diarrhea. It felt as if I had a gun pointed at my ribs under the table and I was told to look natural and happy or she would pull the trigger. After the lunch date, she resumed the no-communication-ever rule again. I've searched my mother's name on the internet every few months to see if she and/or Helen (her wife, technically my second stepmother) are still alive or if there's any news about them. I found out a few years ago she sold the apartment in the East Village we moved into when I was nine and they moved into a smaller studio a few blocks away.
I was elated when in 2019 I finally found my first bit of news, it was a published story about my mother being a caretaker for Helen who now suffers from Alzheimer's disease (of course it was sad to hear about their circumstances, I was just in awe to see evidence of her existence for the first time in years.) It was surreal to see what they looked like three decades later and read my mother's interview. I felt a strange pity for her, the stressful role being the full-time caretaker for her wife whose mind (and most of who she is) isn't there anymore. I was also happy for the both of them being in a committed relationship (and the assumption of a happy marriage) for 36 years and the support they found in their local community.
But then the rage and tears hit me.
She erased me all over again, publicly sharing her story that she had no family. You had one child and it was YOU who cut me off, remember? You also kept your married name of Mermin, a family you have nothing to do with since your divorce fifty years ago.
She also claimed her parents disowned her for being gay--she actually never officially came out to them, but I do recall my grandmother winking at me that she knew my mother's girlfriends were more than just "friends", right before her death.
Then another feel-good story of our LGBTQ elderly heroes came out during the pandemic: Committed, loving partners who've been together for 36 years. One of them is a caretaker full-time for the other. They both were shunned by their families for being gay but they found support in their local community. Sympathy for the heroes: how families can be cruel and abandon their gay children for being who they are (the sheer irony of that part of the story made me cackle through my tears.) I felt empathy, a little sadness for my mother's caretaking position and my personal rage all at the same time. A few members of Helen's family reached out to tell me they always loved and supported her, they never disowned her for being gay. More tragically, they said Helen cut off her own family shortly after meeting my mother in the mid 1980's. Apparently my mother is the leader of her own cult and she needed only one member to be in it.
Imagine if she said the whole truth in that interview; that she did in fact have a family. A daughter from her previous marriage. When her daughter was 11 years old she gave up custody to the father because of her alcoholism and her daughter wasn't safe living in Manhattan with a single mother; her daughter had been assaulted on the streets due to negligence. A few months later the mother got sober and her daughter would take the train onto the city to visit her every other weekend. They actually got along better than ever as the mother became less angry, more loving and started dating a woman who would eventually become her wife. She and her daughter had a close and happy relationship but the mother wasn't ready to come out to her daughter (or anyone else in her extended family) as a lesbian. The mother also secretly resented that her daughter didn't come back to live with her after she got sober and felt like the daughter took the side of who she viewed as The Enemy, her ex-husband. When the daughter was approaching adulthood around age 17, she started acting cruel towards her and tried to gaslight her into believing she was a selfish daughter and a bad-to-the-core human who wasn't even worthy of a mother's love (and it worked!) She tried breaking up their relationship because didn't know how to express her hurt and fear of rejection if her daughter found out she was gay. So the mother's behavior grew more and more bizarre and she started acting like her daughter was a stranger to her. After a few months when the daughter graduated high school that year, she stopped answering her phone, ignored all her letters and the daughter never heard from her again. The mother also cut off contact with her parents, siblings and all other relatives with no explanation.
The mother is now a full-time caretaker for her wife of 36 years who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and it has taken a toll on their relationship. She claimed they were both abandoned by their families for being gay so they have no one to turn to for help, but they found support in the elderly LGBTQ local community.
(This is my version of the complete story. Missing is the chapter where we find out why she cut off her family and cut off Helen's family remains a tragic mystery.)
I certainly never disowned her for being gay or disliked her for who she was. I was always in awe of her strength. I remember her as a 5'2", 95 pound badass warrior who went after anything she wanted and got it. Played the piano, oboe and French horn in an orchestra and was also a wiz at math. Smoked a pack-and-a-half of Benson & Hedges a day, never had any health issues. Failed the New York State Mental Health licensure exam four times until she passed the on the fifth. She reminded me of iron Nurse Ratched when she spoke to her patients, stern and cool (when I eight, she once brought me to her office at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.) To me, she could stare down a monster and laugh in their face; I was always powerless and small hiding behind her. How ironic that she disowned me before I even explored my own sexuality, I didn't really have a concept of what 'gay' relationships were until my twenties-- I was a very late bloomer in some respects (it's kind of fitting I became a sex educator, a sex worker and queer later in life.)
Seven years after that surreal lunch date at Trump Tower, Ellen DeGeneres came out of the lesbian closet in her character on the show and in her real life, shocking at the time for middle America. She was a trailblazer as more openly gay characters were developed after that time and same-sex marriage would become legal a few years later state by state. Maybe because of Ellen coming out, that was the year my mother called me out the blue and told me over the phone, "Helen is my...my...life partner." I remember leaning in as she said those words, waiting in bated breath silence for her to continue so I could exhale and congratulate her. I didn't realize coming out was the sole reason for the call-- I assumed she knew that I knew all along (they moved in together when I was I was in high school but we never had a conversation about it.) ln the silent pause after she said Helen is my life partner, I imagined her saying this:
I just thought I would make it official...Oh right, I also wanted to let you know the reason I pushed you away. Remember when I was really cruel to you in your last year of high school, when I told you I couldn't attend your high school graduation because traffic would be bad on Friday? Remember when I stopped taking your calls, told you I didn't love you anymore when you tried to visit me, then I completely ghosted and blocked you from my life? Ok, ok, so here's what really happened! I had a brain aneurysm that I was recovering from and I didn't want to tell you about it as I knew it would upset you. It affected my cognitive abilities and hurt many of my relationships, not just ours. That's why I cut off everyone except Helen. I was also going through menopause at that time and I went through huge mood swings and depression. But being the amazing psychotherapists both Helen and I are, I finally diagnosed myself and was prescribed Welbutrin, Lamictal and got on hormone replacement therapy. Now I feel much better and myself again! Sorry if I messed up your head a little, kiddo. Will you forgive me? Why don't we all go out for ice cream this weekend and be a family again?
She didn't say any of this, of course. I was still in the dark and scared she would hang up on me if I even asked for a hint about the disappearance. After I congratulated and let her know how much I loved and supported them both, she told me how relieved she was. I kept thinking to myself, Really? You had no idea that I didn't know all these years? They shared a bed when Helen moved in and she told me it was it because the apartment didn't have enough space for two separate full-sized beds. Helen was just a friend and roommate helping to split expenses. I sort of believed it in the beginning as I never saw my mother be affectionate with anyone ever, but I also had a hard time believing that mom and Helen lived as buddies who shared a room like Bert and Ernie or Laverne and Shirley.
My head was spinning, all coked up on joy and the future possibilities of having a mother come back to life from the dead. Was this the simple reason she abandoned me? Have I just received the answer to the $64,000 question?
After she exhaled with relief, she did ask me if I wanted to be a family again, sort of.
"I would love to have you come for Thanksgiving next month. I'll just have to ask Helen but I'm sure she'll be fine with it. I'm so excited to see you again!"
This was moving crazy fast. In five minutes over the phone I went from estranged unloved daughter to being invited to spend time with mother for the first time in years while taking part of the most pressured family holiday. I was totally overwhelmed with emotion, but of course I said yes.
As my coked-up joy high began to come down over the next day, the reality set in. She never once acknowledged the split or her actions. I was happy for them both and yet I was still in pieces-- hurt, confused, angry. So, I decided to write her a letter, which probably took me three drafts to get it just right. You have to speak to BPD narcissists with kid gloves on, like handling delicate china. I spent most of the letter praising her and her bravery for coming out, telling her how much I look up to her. That was the wrapping to soften the blow of what I really needed to say: I was truly thrilled to see her again with tears of joy but this was so moving fast. I really needed to talk to her first about the elephant in the room, the abandonment that happened eleven years prior. I didn't let any of my anger seep into my words, I just tried to be as rational as possible and I ended the letter with more praise.
Four days after mailing the letter, I received a voicemail from my mother:
"Hi Melissa. it's Cindy, your...mother. Um, Helen will be in surgery Thanksgiving weekend so we won't be able to host you. But it was nice to talk to you on the phone and maybe we can get together anytime time. Ok now, Bye-bye."
She put up the wall yet again and didn't speak to me for another 13 years.
The front part of my head is pounding and my teeth clenched tight as I write for the first time of what I call my Core Wound story. The story that I haven't been able to let go of, the story that shapes my relationships with friends and lovers-- the fear they will abandon me and not tell me the truth, which I've managed to unconsciously manifest. (link to why can't we be friends) The trauma has shaped my Achilles heel--I have the most difficult time letting go of anything, good or bad. On the positive side, I'm a natural empath for others' pain which has enabled me to be an effective counselor and sexuality coach for clients who struggle with shame and secrets. I'm a "sensitive type"-- certain songs, pieces of music, art, poems, stories can move me to tears of joy and sorrow in seconds.
I'm writing my stories to get them out of haunting my head, launching them publicly into internet space so they can be witnessed. I hope sharing my stories will connect with readers who feel all alone in their head and inspire them to let go of their secrets and share their truth. It's scary to be this openly vulnerable but I believe it's where healing lives.
Melissa, you claim she's a narcissist with Borderline Personality Disorder. Has she been officially diagnosed? If you know this about her, why can't you accept that as the ending to the story and move on? She has a mental illness and she simply can't give you what you need.
She may have been diagnosed but has never admitted it. I've read so many behavioral psychology books; I gave her that diagnosis as she matches up perfectly with all the symptoms. It's also helped me to reason with my pain and rationalize what happened. She's still alive and kicking at 82, so there's always this deep down hope she will come back before she's permanently gone. It's like having a loved one who's in a coma. Hope is a four-letter word that keeps us waiting and wanting.
"How long has it been seen since you saw her in person?" my therapist asked me.
It's been 30 years. But a wait, I almost forgot to tell you this other crazy story. In 2019, my partner met my mother face-to-face and had a one minute conversation with her. He was going on a business trip to New York and said the office was a block away from mom and Helen's new address. "Try not to run into them at the Pret A Manger when you're on your lunch break." I joked.
When he came home from the trip he told me casually, "Oh by the way, I met your mom. I went to her apartment."
I was upset, shocked and thrilled all at once. He told me he went to check out my mother's building as he was curious and took some pics with his phone outside to show me later. Then on impulse he decided to go into the building where he was greeted by the doorman. He explained he's was there to see Cindy Mermin and the doorman simply told to him go right down the hall to her apartment (that doorman is probably fired for that now.) He walked down the hallway, pressed record on his phone and stuck it inside his shirt pocket just as he rung her doorbell.
(Full Story and audio for Subscribers here)
Tags: Lucinda Mermin, Cindy Mermin, Coming Out, Gay parents, Therapist parents, Mothers who leave, Motherless Mothers Day, Borderline Personality Disorder, Childhood abandonment, Narcissist mothers