Mourners and Other People

My mother, Betty Jean Gregory, died twelve years ago this week.

When my mother passed away, my Dad, following wishes that she had stated many times, requested contributions to their favorite charity rather than flowers. Nevertheless, as always seems to happen in these circumstances, several people chose to send flowers instead.

Dad collected the cards from the senders to give me, since both of us knew that I would be the one writing the thank-you notes (because, after all, the donors needed to be able to actually read the notes, something that wouldn’t have happened if Dad, with his execrable penmanship, had been the one writing them!) But one card puzzled him. “Who could this be?” he asked, handing me the card.

“Betty was a remarkable woman” had been written on it, with only a first name below that sentence. But I recognized the name immediately as that of a woman with whom I’d been fast friends during high school. I explained the connection to my father, who had only the haziest memory of the friend of my youth, but conceded that Mom must have made a strong impression for her to have sent flowers to a funeral decades later, when we were both in our late 50s.

Yet there was another card from someone on whom Mom had made a strong impression, and that one I’m still relieved my father never saw. This was a purported condolence card which arrived in Dad’s mailbox fairly late after Mom’s passing and which he, not recognizing the return address and not wanting any more to deal with, just handed over, unopened, to me.

Thank heaven for that. Because this was not an expression of sympathy, whatever flowery sentiment might have been written on the stylized card. Included was a note from one of Mom’s coworkers of many years prior. The note expressed this woman’s complete elation that Betty Jean Gregory was finally dead. It vilified Mom with ugly names and shamed her with spiteful observations on her character, morals, and behavior.

I read the note with mild shock but little surprise. Mom’s mental illness and addictions had sundered nearly every good relationship she’d ever had, and earned her many enemies. It was sadly true that almost everyone who had attended her funeral had done so for Dad’s sake, or for my own; Mom died friendless.

I put the spiteful letter aside to deal with later and got on with the sad business of trying to find ways to help my father take an interest in life again.

Much later, I finally began to compose a response to the poison pen note. First, I explained that I was relieved beyond measure that my Dad had not opened the card and read her hurtful words; he, as an 81-year-old widower, did not need the anguish her spitefulness would have provoked. I remarked that I supposed taking vengeance upon a dead woman by saying these things to grieving survivors made the writer feel both powerful and vindicated.

And then I admitted, underlining the words, that I could not actually refute a single charge the writer had laid at my mother’s door. I was sure that Mom had treated her badly–worse than badly. Betty, I acknowledged, had been severely mentally ill. She displayed all the unpredictability, instability and cruelty of an alcoholic and addict. She’d probably wounded the letter writer to her very soul. I said that I was truly sorry that my mother had hurt her so much.

Finally, though, I took my own, perhaps cruel, definitely petty, revenge on the heartless writer, for I pointed out to her, “I’m sure that what you experienced with my mother was difficult. But you were an adult, a grown woman. If you think what you went through was bad, try growing up as a vulnerable small child under Betty’s authority. Consider what it was like being in her charge, helpless. That’s the person you tried (and failed) to injure with your malicious little diatribe—her already-wounded daughter. You didn’t harm Betty or her memory or reputation one bit. All you did was reduce yourself to her level.”

I slid my response into an envelope and mailed it. I never heard from Mom’s former coworker again.

Now, twelve years later, I must say in complete honesty that I did not actually mourn my mother. She, in her sickness, caused me too much harm; shamed me too much, hurt me too often. I felt mostly relief at her passing, coupled with a deep, aching regret that nothing between us could now ever be put right.

But I’ve thought many times about those two funeral cards, and the intense depth of feeling that each of them displayed: one full of unresolved fury, seeking reprisal for old injuries; the other honoring and memorializing.

And I’m glad, very, very glad, that my mother had at least one true mourner at her passing.

None of us are two-dimensional beings! I hope that you will read about my alternate, appreciative perspective of my complex mother in next week’s publication of this blog.

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