Linda C. Wisniewski
I slid a pan of cornbread into the oven and blessed it, like my mother, who made the sign of the cross over every cake, bread and pie she baked.
In middle age, I took up the practice in homage to her and because I could finally do it without cringing. I believed I had put down the heavy load of pain she handed me through a religion I now saw as outmoded and rife with meaningless ritual.
In my eyes, my mother was a long-suffering martyr, verbally abused by my father and devoted to a fantasy of happiness in the hereafter. She read books about saints who endured hideous torture, and quoted their stories to me, her little girl. Suffering earned points with God, and justified staying in a bad marriage. Even then, I didn’t buy the message. My friends’ parents were loving, their homes quiet and safe, and they went to church too. I thought it should be easy for her to leave and take me with her.
I saw her as cold and uncaring. When a big girl pushed me against a locker in junior high, I came home after school in tears and told my mother. She shook her head for a second in sympathy then told me to get over it and went back to cooking dinner. She had to, after all, live the life she had chosen. I planned my exit every day. I would leave for college and be free and happy, nothing like her.
Although she told me to get over my hurt, I don’t think she ever let anything go. No insult was too small to add to her storehouse of suffering. Bitterness colored the stories she told as far back as I remember: My father stood her up when they were dating. Her mother told her to marry him before he changed his mind. He tried to hit her and knocked off her glasses while teaching her to drive. As I listened to her woeful words, I disappeared to myself and became her sounding board, for she had no close friends. Her own mother often told her, albeit in gentle Polish phrases, to calm down.
In the era of women’s liberation, I recalled the walk on our knees down the aisle of the church on Holy Thursday to kiss the feet of the crucifix. To me, a young woman now, we were the image of humiliation. I didn’t know then that humility has the same root.
Now I bless my bread, knowing there was more to her, each memory another facet to her complexity: Her merry laugh when her brother Johnny told a joke. Her worn hands making me pretty dresses after sewing all day in a factory. The Saturday mornings she led me through five stores to find the right Easter shoes. The grocery list she filled for her elderly mother every Wednesday. And the way, in her own old age, she tried to learn and grow.
She shared her disappointment in her lifelong friend.
“Agnes is so prejudiced. She hates the Puerto Ricans on the East End.”
“Didn’t you live there when you were kids?”
“Yes, I guess we were the ‘spics back then. She just can’t see it.”
One Christmas Day she made all the food herself. With a full serving dish in each hand, she whispered: “I feel like I’m going to pass out.”
“For heaven’s sake, sit down.”
“It’s okay, we love you.”
Her eyes filled. Horrified for making her cry, I carried dishes from kitchen to table and cleaned up afterward.
When I was a young wife, I could barely stand to be around her. She was so anxious, so eager to please and so easily cowed. She offered me leftovers to take home.
“If you don’t take them, I’ll have to throw them away.”
“So you’re giving me your garbage?” My disdain hit its mark.
I winced at her downcast face, never dreaming I would ever be like her.
Now she is gone, and I know just how hard it is to change. Lifelong habits, even as they hurt us, even as we are aware of that hurt, are easier to continue than to act in a different and completely conscious way. I chase after my grown kids with bags of leftovers as they leave my house. I grab stuffed toys and children’s books to entertain my nephew’s children, to keep them with me just a few minutes longer, believing those minutes are all I need to make them like me. It doesn’t cross my mind that they already like me. Even love me. There is always more for me to do. By myself, without the gifts and the doing, I am never enough.
When my baby cried in his crib, my friend asked if he liked to be picked up. Yes, I said, staring down at him. When she held him, he turned his head to me.
“He knows your voice.”
I didn’t believe her.
When he fell, at three, and shrieked in pain, I frantically asked him what happened. His little playmate spoke up.
“Why don’t you just give him a hug?”
A smart and easily-bored teenager, he kept his nose in his Game Boy for days, making me look like a bad parent to my friends with high-achieving kids.
“Go outside, call a friend,” I said.
A quiet and bookish girl myself, here’s what my mother said to me: “Why do you always have your nose in a book? Go outside and make some friends.”
She must have felt inadequate. Her child was not popular enough and it was her fault. Now it was mine.
With cornbread in the oven and my apron folded over the back of a chair, I long to take her hand.
“Let’s sit,” I would say. For just a moment or two, we could step off the treadmill of worry, and stop caring whether we are working hard enough, doing enough, being enough.
God knows, now that I’ve been all the things I didn’t like about her, I understand. It took a lifetime of therapy, meditation, being loved, and actively, consciously loving others who are fraught with worry, just as they are patient with me.
I used to worry about my son. We rarely talked. He clammed up around fifth grade, the year I had major surgery after painful bouts of diverticulitis.
“Who will take care of me if you go in the hospital, too?” he asked his dad.
That same year, my mother was a widow sliding into dementia hundreds of miles away, and I could do little to help her. My marriage hit a rough spot and I criticized my husband at home, not caring to hide it from our son, believing I was sticking up for myself. Unlike my mother.
During those anxious years, I pushed my boy to be more like the active, popular children of my friends. I made him volunteer at the theater and join the track team. At dinner one evening, I snatched a Left Behind novel from his hands. What I knew of those books was fear and punishment and not being saved. Judgment and suffering for choosing the wrong faith.
“You’re not reading that crap,” I said.
He rolled his eyes but did not argue. Now I am haunted by his downcast face. I want to go back and have that helpful parent discussion, the one where I let him read the book and we talk about it, but he’s 25 now, and living on his own.
The other day, I pressed his number into the keypad on my cell phone. As before, our conversation had long pauses but I let them be, recalling the long comfortable silences between his father and I when we were dating. When my boy finally spoke, I imagined reaching into the phone, touching him.
“I’m sorry for asking you to repeat yourself. My hearing is getting bad.”
“No, it’s all right. I was mumbling.”
In a long sweet flow of words, he told me about his girlfriend, his work, and his plans to travel. It took a long time for him to say these things, and a long time for me to listen, breathing.
“It was good talking with you,” I said.
“Love you, too.”
Mother Teresa said: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”
Before my mother died, I told her about the work I do at my church, where all are welcome. Because I just can’t stop going to church.
“You’ll have a special place in heaven,” she said.
With heat and time, dough rises, transforms into a loaf. The oven timer pings. I open the door to a miracle.
Linda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in beautiful Bucks County, PA. She writes for a weekly newspaper and teaches memoir workshops. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Visit her online at lindawis.com. Email: lindawis[at]comcast.net