Bills on the Bed

My mother, Jane Roberts in our living room around 1968
My mother, Jane Roberts in our living room around 1968
After my mom and dad divorced in 1965 (when I was 10, see “Jane & Eric Get Divorced”), and as I advanced into adolescence, I became more and more my mom’s closest confidante, not always totally willingly. She would invite me into her room and I would sit on the rocking chair opposite her, she sitting on her bed, often with all the family bills spread out on the comforter, triaging what to pay and what could be put off until the next month. I think trying to pay the bills with too little money was particularly traumatic for her and having someone else in the room to vent to made it somewhat more bearable.

She shared with me her residual anger with my dad. He had promised her that once he got his PhD and his teaching position that she would be able to continue her education and find a good career position for her self, but now, in her state of anxiety and single-parenthood, this was very difficult. She shared her understanding of some of the sexual details of his affair with their mutual acquaintance, and her continuing anger at his conduct, much to my discomfort.

She shared her frustration and anxiety with her (what turned out to be) successful attempt to quit smoking. Her cessation of smoking was followed by a lung infection that continued for several months of medicine and long coughing jags during the day or keeping her up at night. Maybe it was her own body, through the illness, creating an environment in her lungs where she could not comfortably smoke, until her nicotine cravings subsided. I witnessed her courageous and successful effort, and all the angst that went along with it.

She told me about her growing concern about the Vietnam War and my own vulnerability to being drafted when I turned 18 a few years down the road. I saw the passion of a mother protecting her young and the pragmatic activist cursing all those liberal male professor friends and acquaintances who were not lifting a finger to stop the war.

She worried about my younger brother and his weight problem. How it was affecting his social life and self-esteem and could affect his physical health as well. (FYI… my brother, pretty much on his own, successfully lost that extra weight during his high school years.) She shared her continuing rage at her own mother, for never loving her and the huge hole that that lack of love put in her self-esteem. During this time she had sent a letter to her mom (at the suggestion of a therapist) strongly telling her mom off for all these wounds. My grandmother shared that letter with my Aunt Ruth (my mom’s brother John’s wife) and then a couple weeks later my grandmother died of a heart attack. Ruth sent my mom a letter accusing her of killing her mother, which my mom shared with me.

With every story, every confession, every rant, every vent, I would see her more and more as a real person like myself. When I was younger I had somehow seen all adults as having always been adults and never really a kid like me. But in her stories, particularly those about her childhood, I saw that she was in fact not profoundly different than me, just aged. My iconic, bigger than life, (always with a better argument than mine against her) mother, was a grown up kid still struggling with her self-esteem, still trying to unravel and rationalize her relationship with her parents, still trying to figure out a path forward for her own development.

In retrospect, some would say that she probably laid more on my shoulders than she should have. But even though it was stressful for me to hear all this stuff about her, about my dad, about my own behavior, I was glad to be treated as a full-blown person, not some semi-functional “child”.

After several years of those sessions in her room, our relationship began to transition from the classic mother-son thing to something more akin to comrades or even war buddies. More and more, we were interacting with each other as two people sharing a less than ideal situation and trying to help each other make the best of it, or at least get through the day. It was a quiet but profound shift, and I am today a transformed person because of it.

5 replies on “Bills on the Bed”

  1. I love the cool,* detached tone of this piece as well as the content. To speak of rants without ranting is an art I respect. Nicely done.

    *The warmth of your affection and appreciation for your mother seeps quietly through your objectivity. It’s “cool” like jazz, not like heartless.

  2. Sandra… Thanks for the nice comment and good to hear from you after all these years and reconnect with you on Facebook. For me as a writer, just finally getting up to speed at my craft, it is so important to get that kind of feedback from a reader. Plus I really liked your musical metaphor!

  3. Cooper,
    I appreciate you sharing your story, and may I say, that you write beautifully. I lost my dad at a young age and my mom never remarried. She and I have been close all my life. Your story reminded me of that.

  4. Thanks Peter… I think we both share that moving beyond the formal hierarchical “us and them” relationship between adult parent and youth to a more direct sharing between two souls. Souls are always equal.

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