The following commonplace book entry was first published April 11, 2009.
“I didn’t like my mother,” Alyse Myers baldly explains in the prologue to her memoir, “and I certainly didn’t love her.” She continues, “I know she didn’t like me either. I can’t say whether she loved me, as I don’t remember her ever telling me so.” With these unadorned declarations, Who Do You Think You Are? hooked me in its first two paragraphs, and I finished it, swallowed it whole, the day it arrived.
No matter how you feel about your relationship with your own mother — or your daughters, for that matter — you, too, will likely find Myers’ narrative compelling… and memorable.
School is what saved me during those years. It was the one place I could go where I didn’t have to hear the two of them fighting. I couldn’t wait to get up each morning and go to class and forget about my life at home. But it wasn’t always easy to leave the house — and get to school — on time.
Reading was my escape into another place. As soon as I finished one book, I started another. I would eat dinner with a book on my lap, putting my fork down to turn the page. I spent hours in the school library and the public library a few blocks from our apartment building. I read everything the librarians recommended, and I would read the books I loved over and over so I wouldn’t forget them. I would also read anything my mother was reading — magazines like Reader’s Digest, or books she kept hidden in her pocketbook, like Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls. At night, I would take those books out of her bag and read them either in the bathroom or under the covers with the flashlight I took from the junk drawer in the kitchen and kept hidden under my bed. In the morning, I would sneak them back in her bag so she wouldn’t know I had taken them. I was always dying to ask her to explain some of the things in the books that I didn’t understand. But I knew she wouldn’t tell me. Books were where I learned about the places I wanted to go and people I wanted to meet. And what I wanted that I didn’t have.
My mother was always telling me to stop reading, to live in the real world. To go play with my sisters. Or watch TV. Put that book down already, she would tell me. All that reading would ruin my eyes, she would warn.
“And you won’t look good in glasses,” she would add.
I had always promised myself I wouldn’t have the same kind of marriage my mother had. That no matter what, I would not be with a man who couldn’t love me and take care of me the way I needed and wanted to be loved and cared for. I always felt sorry for my mother. After my father died, she died a little bit, too.
After I was married, my mother and I settled into a new kind of relationship. We didn’t talk about the past — we talked about the now. What my husband and I were doing that weekend. Where we would be going on vacation. What she was having for dinner. Nothing important, but it was civil. And I was glad.
Later, my husband asked me why my relationship with my mother was so different from that of my sisters.
They had a different mother, I told him. They didn’t see what I saw, they didn’t know what I knew, I tried to explain to him. She treated me differently than she treated them. I wasn’t sure he understood. I wasn’t sure I did, either.
From “A Conversation with Alyse Myers“:
I think the theme of her book would be “I did the best I could.” My mother was handed a tough life — and for whatever reason she just didn’t know how to use her difficulties as an impetus to do better. In many ways, she gave up. On everything. I wish I knew then what I know now.
From later in that interview:
I would not have been able to write this book if either of my parents were still alive. It would have been seen as the ultimate betrayal. We were not the kind of family that spoke about our feelings. We were very much a behind-the-closed door family. In a funny way, I also think the two of them would have been surprised to know that I knew and saw so much.
The best advice I can give to anyone who feels trapped in a dysfunctional family is to find something you’re passionate about — and focus on it until everything else is blocked out. Also, surround yourself with smart and loving people. If you don’t have them at home, you must find them outside in order to stay positive about yourself and the future. I worked hard to create the life I wanted, and I wouldn’t give up. I also did my best not to let my mother know how much she bothered me — that was my protection, too.