My mother called Christmas morning a few weeks ago as my family was eating breakfast. Right away I put the phone on speaker and cheerfully called out, “Merry Christmas!”
Her tragic-voice reply: “Well, I hope you still think it’s merry when I tell you what’s happened.”
What horror had derailed this festive holiday? A death in the family? Some terrible health news? Well, no, nothing like that. I have to travel back a few weeks to set the stage.
Just before Thanksgiving, my sister called to bemoan that our 86-year-old mother had decided that her bedspread must be replaced. That unacceptable piece of linen was a quilt my sister had made for her some years ago. It looked fine to me the last time I saw it, but suddenly it was no good. And there is no talking her back once she has decided she needs something. Anne was pressured to commence quilting a new one at once. Anne, at her limit on all the demands my mother makes on her time, declined.
When one of us says no, my mother starts shopping among her remaining children. She called me to tell me to get her a bedspread for Christmas. The requirements:
- Light weight
- In the colors she likes (yellow, orange and aqua)
- Manufactured specifically for her (unneeded) hospital bed. (This is not actually a size, I discovered after a search. I guess no one makes a special bedspread for this bed since most people with hospital beds are too unwell to worry about decorative bedspreads. But still from 1434 miles away, I am supposed to make sure the fit is perfect.)
I found a fleece spread that I thought would fit and would be lighter and softer than a traditional bedspread. It was a subdued aqua with a cream pattern. I thought it was just what she wanted. I mailed it, along with some packages of homemade cookies she asked for.
But on Christmas morning, in a voice one might use after opening a box that contains a severed head, she reported that the bedspread was unbearable. It “dominates the room!” she cried. She explained that she never returns gifts or complains about them, but this room-swallowing spread was so upsetting that she must break her long-standing tradition. I knew I was meant to assure her that I would sweep away the offending linen and replace it asap with whatever the hell it was she meant me to get for her but forgot to call out in the list of specifications.
But I refused to bite. There was nothing particularly garish about the spread. The dark aqua was not neon. The pattern was not one that might trigger a seizure. I have no idea what she meant about the monstrous room-dominating quality of this fabric pattern. And, yeah, I don’t actually appreciate her saving a lifetime of “never complaining” about gifts to so heartily reject mine.
I told her I was sorry she didn’t like it and suggested she give it to my sister or her son. I could tell she felt ship-wreck-level abandoned by my unwillingness to champion her cause.
Later that day, I talked to my sister, who told me that when she and her son had dropped by that morning, Mother had been even more upset than she had been on the phone with me. The horror of the spread had ruined her Christmas! She was beside herself, yet Anne ignored the gauntlet that had been tossed in front of her. I have no way of deciphering how much of my mother’s emotional outburst for Anne was reflective of her feelings and how much was an effort to manipulate my sister into taking charge of the bedspread-replacement dilemma. But still Anne deflected. The spread crisis was left unclaimed. The horror!
My mother, perhaps because she has so little empathy, has zero friends. Her only visitors are a minuscule contingent of close family and a very kind man from her church who spends some of his retirement hours helping aged parishioners. It’s possible that her quilt is a little worn, but she is neither freezing at night nor left to appear to be a tattered mess to my sister and her church helper. She has zero fashion sense. Her ill-fitting wardrobe is from a polyester fashion empire that advertises in People Magazine. So what is the bedspread emergency? And why couldn’t she keep her disappointment to herself?
It’s been over a week since Christmas, and I haven’t spoken to my mother. She called once, and I let it go to voicemail (which I haven’t bothered to check since every voicemail from her is the same: “Oh, Sarah? It’s [fill in her current time, which I don’t need to know]. Give me a call when you get a chance.”).
I get that it’s frustrating to believe you are helpless, and I know it’s hard to manage the world with autism. But she has always been completely unwilling to solve her own problems. Never mind that many of the things she considers critical needs requiring the urgent attention of her children are not in fact problems.
Maybe the saddest part of the story is that some part of me is still that needy and neglected little girl who is trying to find some way to get a little love from the kind of mother who is too obsessed with herself to think of anyone else’s feelings. And, yeah, it torments me that by trying to please her I ruined her Christmas.
I know I sound bitter. Maybe heartless. Maybe low on the empathy that I criticize her for lacking. But what I feel, after all these years, is hurt.
copyright 2017. Sarah Meyer Noel