Mommie Dearest

Last night they searched our bags as we entered the building, which is unusual when you are going to a movie in a London suburb. The film was ‘Look at us now Mother’ and it was being screened in JW3, a Jewish cultural centre.

Gayle Kirschenbaum made this documentary about her relationship with her mother, Mildred. I was determined to see it because the trailer (which came to my FB feed via The Forgiveness Project) struck me like a thunderclap.

Gayle’s family, from what one could tell, was not so unusual for middle class Jewish New Yorkers of the time. The home movie footage showed holidays by the pool, and big events with dancing and evening dress. Except that the mother really did seem to be – in the words of one of the contributors – ‘a piece of work’.

On the face of it, she was similar to my dad. My father was a New Yorker (who left the US as a student, never to live there again) and a (non-religious) Jew.  So the voices in the trailer, like chalk on a board, were familiar to me from some of my extended family. Not just the accents but the manner. The humour was aggressive and cutting, even if the people themselves did not mean to be unkind.

I remember as a teenager, I’d flown from the Middle East with my family to be at the bar mitzvah of a cousin. We arrived, dazed and jetlagged in the middle of the night and the first thing my uncle said when he saw my little brother (who like the rest of us had been spruced up for the big event) ‘Show me da guy that cut dat kid’s heh and I’ll break his fingers!’ I daresay it was meant affectionately, but we were terrified.

I was good in school, regularly came top of the class, but if I got 98% in an exam, my dad would ask ‘what happened to the 2%?!’ and when I once got 100, it was ‘why didn’t you get 150?’ I know NOW that this was a joke and that though he was unable to say so, he was very proud. But at the time I didn’t quite get it.

Both the director and her mother were at the screening and there was a Q&A and a sort of workshop afterwards. Gayle talked a lot about being Jewish (and thinking that her new boyfriend wasn’t going to last because he is not a Jew).  So what astonished me was that although everyone there talked about Judaism, and although we can all agree that Mildred seemed genuinely heartless, abusive and cruel, nobody suggested that this aggressive, critical manner, expressed by virtually all the characters in the film, might be a cultural means of deflection; a kind of gallows humour not uncommon amongst people who have survived great hardship, and perpetuated in succeeding generations. As the only shiksa in the room (and an anti-theist), I wasn’t about to bring it up, and anyway, it’s not what we were there to talk about, which was forgiveness.

Gayle has apparently learned or decided to forgive her mother for the abuse doled out to her as a child, and is on a mission to teach us all to do the same. Her trick is to see, in the annoying or cruel antagonist, a wounded child, and to encounter that child as your own younger self. Gayle says what I have always believed also: that people behave badly when they are hurting, and that the way to react is with love.

I was feeling like a tent with guy ropes pulling in every direction. I looked at my own situation as a daughter, and a mother, and in terms of forgiveness I of course had to cast a thought or two in the direction of my ex whose behaviour continues to try the patience of a saint.  I have to forgive myself, as well, for some of my behaviour towards him during our marriage, which sometimes had tinges of the Mildred about it.

Mildred is still there for Gayle to show forgiveness toward. Gayle talks about changing one’s behaviour to the person one has decided to forgive. Mildred seems completely oblivious, but at 93 is enjoying the movie star attention and the travel, as well she might, and the relationship appears to be easier than it was.

My dad is dead and I forgave him long ago without even thinking about it particularly.

My daughter – well, I wonder what she really thinks about me. Would she see me in Mildred? I think it would be a distortion of the truth, but what is the truth? She may well see me as having been overcritical: children tend to think that of their parents anyway.  There were times of course when I criticized. Though really there was nothing to complain about beyond ‘Tidy your room!’ She, like her siblings, was always well behaved, funny, smart and kind. Of course we had the odd strop or row but remarkably few. Mostly I was cuddling her, reading her bedtime stories and loving her absolutely for the way she was, and telling her so. She seems now to be a very angry and armoured person, which is diametrically opposed to the way she was before. Unlike the other two who are more reserved, she was bonny and blithe and good and gay. Completely open, astonishingly warm, confident and empathetic. I remember writing in my journal that my only worry about her was that I didn’t worry about her. She was absolutely perfect. The other two, being socially awkward when little, required more support and I was conscious that she got a little less attention as a result. One needed a speech therapist, the other, occupational therapy, and she was the only one who never needed prompting to arrange to see friends, to ask for something if she wanted it, or to say so if she was unhappy.

But this was a film about mothers, and I realise I haven’t said anything about mine. My mother is, I would have said, the antithesis of the mother in this film. An innocent German girl, 11 years younger than my dad, not educated, not Jewish, probably somewhat in thrall to this American divorcé and I think also a little in awe of her children. Seemingly a gentle peacemaker, a stay at home mum, all cookies and lenience verging on martyrdom.

But for all that, when I saw the trailer, and Mildred defiantly/defensively made a face at the camera, what sent a chill down my spine was that I saw my mother there.  I need to come back to this.

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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

3 thoughts on “Mommie Dearest”

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