I love featuring guest bloggers here, writer friends who have written things that touch me and stay with me over time. A few years ago, I came across this piece in Relevant Magazine on Mother’s Day, written by Penny Carothers. And then I had the privilege of actually meeting Penny at the movie premiere of Blue Like Jazz in Portland. (In case you’re familiar with the book, Blue Like Jazz, Penny is Penny from the book.) Every now and then you meet someone, and you just know you instantly like them. Penny is one of those people. I love her authenticity; her spirit and wisdom. I met her, and I knew she was someone I wanted to get to know. Below is a reprint of her Mother’s Day piece from 2010, shared with her permission. You’ll read it and want to know Penny as well. And when you finish, there’s more to the story on Penny’s blog here.
I used to hate Mother’s Day.
The mylar balloons, the pink cards, the stories on everyone’s lips about their plans for taking their mom out to eat or to a movie. They all seemed to taunt me in a sing-song voice: look what we have and you don’t.
After a headlong flight from my stepfather at the age of eleven, the mother I knew disappeared, retreating somewhere deep inside. In her place, a withdrawn but angry woman rose up to take over her beloved facial features and voice. By the time I was a teenager I had stopped caring, and stopped listening to the woman who birthed me.
When I was sixteen, the severity of her condition hit home when a social worker drove up in a yellow Volkswagen bug several times a month. But there was still no explanation as to why Mom seemed to be losing her grip on reality, why she thought her mother was trying to kill her and the neighbors were Soviet spies. But at least there was this: the tall and kind woman who met with my mother gave us hope, “In my entire career, I have never seen anyone work so hard to get better.”
But her hard work didn’t matter; the illness was just too much for her. Fifteen years ago, after threatening my grandmother with a knife, my mother became homeless and has gone without medication for the paranoid schizophrenia that had been taking over her mind since her twenties.
I did a fine job ignoring it—it’s easy to do when there’s no hope for recovery–and when I graduated from college, I planned to just get on with my life. My mother wasn’t in the picture anywhere, except for a visit here and a visit there. I wanted to be normal, like everyone else. At least I did, until my sister convinced me we had to help somehow. That’s how I ended up in Seattle, having lunch with my mom every week, for eight years now.
A typical lunch will include odd comments, but rarely any threats.
She’ll hand over something she’s picked up off the ground: “Here, take this rock/bottlecap/pamphlet. It’ll pay your rent.” Or she’ll hand me a piece of paper covered in handwriting and symbols, little snippets that read like code. “Put this in the reader [garbage can] outside and you’ll get fresh groceries delivered to your door.”
Whenever I think, “Oh, I wish I had a mom like yours,” (and I do), I remind myself that Mom does the best she can with the flesh and blood and mind she was given. I used to have high hopes that I could save her, could help her get medicated and an apartment, but now I just let her be who she is. Because here’s the thing: Most of the delusions that tear apart her mind are about us, her children, and about keeping us safe. Nearly every day, she faces obstacles nightmares are made of, fighting against the fear and the chaos to care for us. Because that’s what a mother does.
In many ways, she is the most loving mother I know. And this Sunday, I’ll bring her flowers and a cheesy card covered in cursive writing, telling her so.
From Penny Carothers: When I was eleven my mother had a psychotic break. Ten years later I discovered the Jewish Jesus. I write about coming to terms with my mom’s condition, the itinerant preacher who changed everything and nothing, and all that came after.