The real question is: What can you do when you’ve had a mother who was, on one hand, a genuine Great Soul, and inspiring source of wisdom to many, with charm far exceeding her portion of beauty. Yet, on the other hand—a hand almost completely hidden from the world…you experienced something, as her daughter, that undermined your integrity and could only—after much avoidance of that term—be considered evil.
My mother never became famous, but her radiant qualities, combined with her extraordinary life story, compelled me as her surviving child to record her unique story for the ages.
As a young woman in the wilds of 1920s New Zealand, she refused to let the onset of chicken pox keep her from attending a dress ball. All she had to do was conceal her condition from her mother, a former head nurse, pack her gown and dancing shoes in saddle bags, and ride horseback over an hour in a thunderstorm.
When she returned from boarding school she realized that her rustic family home, on a sheep station, was unfit for social gatherings. She decided to learn how to hang wallpaper, but all the farm had for this job was a wobbly pole ladder, which she stabilized by inserting its slidey ends into an old pair of rubber boots. She then persuaded her father, sister, and some curious Maori natives to level a patch of land for a tennis court. The station became a hub of lively tennis parties attended by all classes of people. At the parties her younger sister met her future husband.
Not inclined to marry or take over the sheep farm, my mother left home to train as a nurse. A tubercular spot and a romantic betrayal forced her out of hospital work, so she took a position as nurse companion to a wealthy woman. A vacation trip with her patient’s family in 1939 brought her to British Columbia, Canada. Unaware of the occult shenanigans that took her across the border to Washington State, she was introduced to a cult leader, my father. Too quickly, he convinced her to marry him and abandon the man she later told me was the real love of her life.
A freak accident resulted in my father’s premature death, and my mother was suddenly a widow with two young children, my brother and me. As I grew a bit older, but still a child, I began to witness a dark side she showed only to me. With my stepfather and brother making themselves scarce, I was captive to many-houred harangues, to my mother’s rambling, singsong repetition of platitudes that I could neither deny nor escape. Once, when I begged her to let us both get some sleep, she screamed as she closed my bedroom door, “If I die it will be your fault!!!”
When I earned my first set of straight A’s in high school, she tried to convince the school counselor that I was seriously deficient at home. When the counselor heard about the household chores I managed to complete along with my studies, music, and sports activities, he advised my mother to encourage rather than criticize. She accused me of betraying her, declaring that I may be an A student but in her book I was an F daughter.
She was never physically abusive, still I had to enclose myself in a protective shell emotionally to survive these tirades. Perhaps in response, my mother accused me of not loving her, which was woundingly untrue. Therefore, though I felt blessed that such an otherwise wonderful being was my mother, on a singular level she was invalidating the truest thing I knew about myself: that I loved her totally. Her consistent disbelief that I loved her eroded my integrity and potential for happiness. The blessing, in other words, came with a curse.
Let me be clear. My memoir is not a case of Mommy Dearest. Readers of the book will come across moments filled with great tenderness, joy, deep insights and my first-hand discovery of her courage and grace.
The memoir also explores my difficulty identifying what I felt wordlessly—the trauma I had to acknowledge and heal from in order to take ownership of my life. The book traces this process, culminating in the time I spent with her while she was dying, and my discovery of a cache of old love letters after her death.
Making sense of my life as her daughter has been the most daunting challenge to what I’m writing about in Attending Metaphysician. It is said that we all have our crosses to bear, or perhaps our curses to lift. How else are we to bear or lift them, unless we utilize a form of energy dark enough and powerful enough? Simone Weil called attention “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And generosity, like its synonym charity, begins at home. Weil also wrote that we have to try to cure our faults not by will, but by attention.
The problem I had to face with my mother had an element of evil so bewildering that all I could do was follow Weil’s advice about dealing with intractable problems. She advised one to withdraw one’s sense of ‘I’ and “project the light of our attention” indifferently on the good and the bad. Only then would the good win out. As Weil put it, “therein lies the essential grace.”
That’s what I’ve tried to do with my mother’s story. Writing the memoir over several years, revising and reconsidering what others had to say about parts of it…put this most difficult part of my life under the light of attention. The ‘dark energy’ of this process felt, eventually, like a form of grace.
I hope my memoir, Love, Rachel, finds a publisher, and that others will benefit by applying the light of their attention to it.