Tag Archives: Mother with Aspergers

Romancing Norb

My pre-teenaged mother was enraptured by the idea of romance and at twelve documented her vision of married life and motherhood. Aspergers may have limited her ability to connect with other people, but it did not dampen her desire for love and marriage. She had two romances in her life, both with men who shared her lack of empathy.

My father was my mother’s first boyfriend and the only man in her life until her widowhood romance with my father’s friend Norb, an even drunker drunk than my father but a drunk who was still adaptive enough to flatter my mother and to pretend to enjoy her quirky interests – something my father had always refused to do. Norb, by then thrice-divorced and essentially homeless, was just manipulating her, of course, but she gulped it down like a woman who’d miraculously found a lush oasis after an exhausting trek in an endless desert and was not inclined to wonder how it materialized and whether it could last.

It didn’t last. Norb was so dedicated to drunkenness that he eventually left to get away from my tee-totaling mother’s efforts to subvert his only genuine interest.

As much as Mother could not see through Norb, she did know enough not to marry him. Though she thought they were soul mates, she knew he would not take care of her. She had already witnessed his callow treatment of wife number two and had cheerfully attended wedding number three a year or two later to her sad-sack friend Billie, a mother of four boys who somehow convinced herself that jobless drunk Norb was some kind of better role model than their absent father. Mother reported casually about the rapid dissolution of that month-long third marriage under the strain of Norb’s dedication to a 24/7 drinking schedule. She was little affected when, a few years after their affair, Norb finally drank himself to death in some dismal dive downtown.

Mother reminisced dreamily about Norb for years, though, never acknowledging his inappropriate behavior towards me when I visited, never disapproving of his inexplicable nastiness to my brother and never noticing that he did not have redeeming qualities to even partially offset his drunkenness and his Machiavellian behavior. She ignored my indifference to gushy stories about Norb reading her favorite children’s books aloud or gaily reminiscing about the music and movies of their youth. She did not drop the romantic cover or glance over at the memory tapes of his cruelty or his deceit or the detritus of his three marriages and his three overlooked children. He had filled a need, even if it was all a fraud.

When my sister and I cleaned out Mother’s condo recently when she moved to assisted living, I discovered a miniature trove of Norb memorabilia, including his high school diploma and a jumble of check stubs from some time in the 80s, the last time Norb was sober and solvent enough to have had a checking account. These keepsakes were tossed in a large metal box marked without irony for the convenience of burglars who never came, “Mementos. Nothing of value.”

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.


The Good Letters

My mother took what she could absorb from her parents’ careful upbringing and supplemented what was for her an indecipherable and arbitrary system for interacting with other people by developing her own guidelines. One of her favorite self-made standards is the good letters, which operate under rigid principles:

  • The good letters, which apply only to people’s names, provide a key to decoding other people’s characters
  • The good letters are L M E A R
  • L and M are the best of the good letters
  • The best names contain each of the good letters
  • Having lots of any one of the good letters – even L and M – is not as good as having one of each of them
  • Anyone whose name contains none of the good letters is to be pitied 
  • A name my mother doesn’t like (and she is quite judgmental about her standards of name quality) is somewhat offset when the name contains plenty of good letters (“Michaela! Ugh! What an icky name but full of good letters!”)
  • The good letters are supplemented by the presence of one of the good numbers in one’s birthday (having a 7 or 8 in the day is the ideal; year of birth and month do not count)

To get the best information on a person, you look at the letters in all their names (please try to find out the middle name to avoid shortchanging the person you are assessing) and, if you can get it, their birthday. Mary Ellen Lambert, born on the 17th of any month, or Allen Marshall, whose birthday is the 28th of whatever would surely be wonderful people who would never dream of criticizing my mother or expecting anything from her and would be delighted to satisfy even her most outlandish requests. Lambert, by the way, is in the rare luxury class of perfect names: all the good letters present in one sublime surname  – the given names, if they have good letters, are just a rich and flavorful gravy enhancing an already impeccable dish.

When she hears a name for the first time, my mother’s immediate reaction is to assess the name’s wealth or poverty of good letters. “John Cook! Oh! What a terrible name!  Not a single good letter!” Poor bastard. We can only hope he is hiding an opulent middle name.

After I became an adult, I found that one certain way to connect with my mother is to amuse her with names I come across that have either all or none of the good letters or that I know she won’t approve of or. She never gets tired of happily admiring a name full of good letters or expressing disgust over names she considers to be out of bounds – tacky or faux-glamorous or made-up. She does not admire creativity in naming.

After decades of regarding the good letter theory as just an oddity, I finally came to understand the purpose of the good-letter theory. My mother didn’t devise this scheme to privilege herself. She was born without an M or L, and her birthday is the 22nd. The point of the good letters was to formulate a pattern for judging other people, who would otherwise be so impenetrable on introduction. The good letters are like reading glasses – you can’t decipher the content until you put them on, and then magically everything is clear and settled.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

The Tomato Aspic Incident

In spite of her inattention to many other parts of our lives, my rule-loving mother was a staunch practitioner of the eat-every-bite-on-your-plate school, which was complicated by her inept cooking and some child-unfriendly food selections. Her view was that if she liked something, her children had damned well better eat every bite of it.

Typical dinners included La Choi Chop Suey (if you’ve never been subjected to this canned mockery of Chinese food, consider yourself very fortunate) and Sloppy Joes (her three-ingredient version: undrained ground beef mixed with ketchup and brown sugar) and her three-season Saturday night special for the kids: a casserole dish of canned store-brand pork’n’beans topped with a single thin fried pork chop for the four children to share. Every single time she boiled potatoes, she boiled them dry, so we were pretty used to the burnt bouquet of her mashed potatoes. Since she did not believe in draining anything or purchasing lean meat, beef dishes were a pretty greasy and crumbly affair. I cannot bear to recall her meatloaf.

We were also expected to quietly eat what we unanimously agreed were our two least-favorite foods: boiled rutabaga and, on the most dreaded occasions, tomato aspic. Don’t know what tomato aspic is? Count your blessings. At its heart is it tomato juice in an unnatural union with unflavored gelatin and crab. Mother made it with watered-down tomato soup instead of juice and added undrained tuna in lieu of crabmeat, producing a taste and texture the memory of which makes me shudder even decades later. If there is a devil, he invented this gelatinous abomination as part of his scheme to erode family harmony, and then he put the recipe in the hands of the material world’s worst cooks, a category that I believe includes my mother.

I don’t know why my mother, who loves to eat, didn’t notice how awful her cooking was or try to improve it, but she knew to withhold certain especially sketchy concoctions until my father was out of town on business. One such night was when I was eight, and the menu featured the dreaded tomato aspic as main course.

After dinner, as Anne and I cleared the table, my six-year-old brother Jim went to empty the kitchen trash. There, with the fervor of a junior detective, he discovered a napkin full of surreptitiously discarded tomato aspic and, indignant that one of his siblings had evaded the horror he had just choked down, he triumphantly alerted my mother.

This discovery catapulted my mother into apoplexy. She was so insanely furious, so hysterically enraged, that we were all terrified. Jim, the only one who escaped suspicion, soon regretted telling her about this crime against chilled molded salads and mothers with unbreakable rules. The irrational shrieking, the disproportionate threatening, the bitter wrath ensured that the guilty party, who I admit was, well, me, was too afraid to come clean.

After she stormed to her room to lie down, screaming out a livid ultimatum for a confession, I admitted to my siblings what I had done. The four of us worked out a plan – the only way we thought this could end without the beating of a lifetime (she was an enthusiastic all-occasion spanker). With his too-youthful consent, we agreed that we would tell Mother that the youngest, four-year-old Dan, was the guilty party. She would go light on him since he was the baby and she typically exempted him from her sternest rules. He did get spanked, but she was much calmer once she believed that the older kids were not defying her. I still feel guilty about this. I mean about hurling Dan under the bus to protect myself, not about throwing out the goddamn tomato aspic.   

Maybe there was something already troubling my mother that day, and the aspic-disposal deception was a last straw. But as a mother myself, I just don’t understand her catatonic reaction. Even under the stress of my marriage ending when my sons were pre-schoolers and I had a demanding full-time job, I have never come near to freaking out at my children like that over anything.

Mother took the Aspic Incident so personally, as though some sacred boundary had been breached. The extent of her shock and fury make sense to me only as an expression of her conviction that her children would always fit into her rules about what we would be. This unbearable action must mean that the world had suddenly scrambled into terrifying incomprehensibility and, as it crumbled at its very roots, threatened her sense of self.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

The Safe Side: Managing the Fear-based Life

My mother has created iron-clad rules to fend off her fears. While we her children are familiar with many of these fears and their ameliorating rules, there are probably more that she keeps secret. For example, we didn’t know until she was in her sixties that she had fear-inspired rules against elevators and escalators. She managed to avoid taking us anywhere that would force her to use either type of conveyance throughout our entire childhoods. Well, she managed to avoid taking us almost anywhere period.

The rules that we do know well include those for her notions of food safety and the essential life-preserving protection of constant refrigeration and early disposal. She loves food, but ironically food is a source of imminent danger with jackrabbit reflexes that can be controlled only through a ruthless vigilance. My mother’s food rules focus especially on the threat represented by comestibles that should be chilled but that have been recklessly left out of the refrigerator for more than a few minutes – risky but delicious items such as mayonnaise or god forbid a volatile tuna fish sandwich.

Sometimes she calls to get my confirmation on the wisdom of throwing away food, and not just food that the label commands be refrigerated after opening. Food age in general is also a life-threatening condition, and printed expiration dates are to be regarded as a provocation that teeters between an irresponsibly liberal suggestion and a bold dare.

I usually don’t think disposal is necessary no matter what challenging circumstances she presents, but she isn’t interested in my opinion. Any food she asks about is already tagged as seething with rapidly reproducing lethal bacteria and destined for the trashcan. She calls me because she needs someone to listen to her puzzle as an intermediate step between the emergence of her worry and the execution of her solution. She has never had food poisoning, but is certain this escape from peril has occurred only because of her hyper-alert security system.

Her children roll their eyes over the rules and her obsession with what she has defined as “the safe side.” There’s no point in trying to reason with her on the rules. She isn’t going to harm herself with over-boiled eggs or go hungry because she threw out perfectly good food when it has violated one of her safety rules.

Her rules never put her in danger; they keep her in an inflexible cocoon of excessive caution that limits her life experience along with calming her worries and reducing her perception of risk to herself.

Where her fear-first policy really does diminish her life is not when it revolves around suspect expiration dates or unrefrigerated mayonnaise or sinister elevators. It’s when she doesn’t travel, doesn’t meet new people, doesn’t try different things, doesn’t experiment, doesn’t open her heart. Not only has she missed so many wonderful experiences, she has robbed herself of sharing these experiences with people she should care about.

She robbed us too. I see other kids’ out-of-town grandparents at their graduations, their awards ceremonies, their plays, their big games or just at a restaurant and feel bad for her that she doesn’t want that involvement for herself or for her family. I feel bad for my kids that they don’t have that relationship with their grandmother. Surely life is more than safety, self-indulgence and fending off stress, but often that seems to be all that matters to my mother.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

An Impervious War of Attrition

Once my mother believes she needs something, there are no alternatives. And she can’t consider the benefits of deferring to accommodate someone else. It’s a straight and unbreakable line from the emergence of her need and its fulfillment, typically at someone else’s hand.

So when she asked me to do her laundry on my wedding day, I knew what to expect from her – she never stops until she gets what she believes she must have – and even though I didn’t have time to do her laundry, didn’t want to abandon my kids or my guests to do her laundry and could hardly believe she was insisting on this business in the midst of such an important day for me, I wanted to avoid the emergence of the frantic face and the escalating tone that suggest I was refusing to let her come in from a raging blizzard as a surging pack of snarling wolves snapped at her paper-thin jacket, ready to drag her into the dark and forbidden forest and eat her alive. It would take more time and effort to override Mother logic with any other point of view than it would take to just do the damn laundry. 

It was the same dynamic when she arrived for the wedding. She landed at rush hour on the Thursday before the wedding and expected me to pick her up at the airport. She could have taken a cab, but I knew if I suggested this transportation option she would panic and act like I’d condemned her to crawling to my house on her knees.

And when she announced that I needed to do her laundry, I gave up pretty quickly and washed her unsoiled clothes. And, yes, when she asked what I had done with the “special bag” she brought her clothes in, instead of resisting, I just went back down to the basement to get the stupid plastic laundry bag from the Marriott.

My compliance with this sort of demand is the core of my relationship with my mother. I want to protect my relationship with her even as I resent the terms. You’re probably thinking that I should stop enabling her and then complaining about it. But it has not proved possible for me (or anyone else) to have a relationship with her unless I am meeting her needs through tasks such as the laundry, through solving problems for her or through conversations that are limited to the topics she likes. I learned to love baseball because my sons did; my mother just can’t do that.  

We are all supposed to be glad to do things for her. It’s not bossy or mean-spirited demands. She is not Cinderella’s step-mother. She executes an impervious war of attrition against our needs and our will, the existence of which are invisible to her anyway.

We her children have come to realize that she just isn’t capable of thinking of what’s best for other people or what is too much to ask of other people. She becomes anxious and irritable and censorious when she does realize that other people expect something of her or if she comprehends that they are annoyed by her demands. Other people are supposed to understand that she isn’t able to be a giver. I know what I am writing is harsh; I know she means no harm. But that lack of intention doesn’t cancel the effect of her behavior and choices. We still cling like boat-wreck survivors in freezing waters to a desperate hope for just one sign that she would reach out for us and pull us to safety and warmth. 

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

Red Coat on White Snow

We moved from Atlanta to Greenville, South Carolina over Christmas break when I was six and in the middle of first grade. A few weeks later, one of the few snowstorms that reached our new hometown every year fell on a day when my sister Anne stayed home sick. Remarkably, my father drove me to school. He roared away from the school’s drop-off island in his tiny red sports car, not noticing, I suppose, that no one else was arriving.

Usually there were sixth graders, wearing intimidating white canvas sashes with badges, stationed along the long sets of concrete stairs to make sure no one skipped a step or ran or got out of single file. But the stairs were unguarded, and there were no footprints in the snow. Panic rushed through me as I climbed the stairs; I must be late and would be in shocking trouble.

The late 1950s one-story building had no interior hallways, and each room of Sirrine Elementary School was exposed to the world through a wall of windows. When I got to the first classroom, Mrs. Abercrombie’s third- grade class, a new terror wrung my heart: the room was dark. I pressed against the window to prove in the dim light of that overcast day that there was no one inside. Too afraid to touch the door, I rushed to the next room. Dark. Empty. The next one too.

I turned and raced down the stairs we weren’t allowed to run on and ran the six long blocks home, crying my heart out, too scared to go the long way to avoid that hated lunging dog who always barked furiously at anyone who passed his yard at our corner. My mother, with her amazing videographic memory, loves to tell the story from this point – the part that she observed – because she relishes recalling the image of my bright red coat hurtling towards her against the new white snow. “You look so cute! Red is your color!” she declared when I burst into the house, crying and gasping for air. She repeats that line indulgently every time she replays this memory, which is one of her favorite stories about me as a child.

Thanks to Anne noticing the neighborhood kids playing in the snow, Mother was already aware that school had been cancelled and that I would be coming back home. She placidly waited at the window for me to return, oblivious then and now, even as she savors the story of how cute that approaching coat looked, to how her sobbing child felt that day and how much a reassuring hug would have meant.

My mother lacks the protective impulses most parents are born with. It took decades for her children to understand that she doesn’t have a comforting gene because her brain is not wired for empathy. Though we tried to deny it to ourselves, we learned early that we were on our own. We just didn’t know why.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

Laundry on My Wedding Day

“Oh! Sarah!”

That evening, maybe an hour after returning home from my afternoon wedding and reception, my mother stopped me in the hallway while I was carrying a tray of wine and lemonade to the living room that had grown lively with my siblings and their families, some out-of-town friends, and my five- and seven-year-old sons from my former marriage. A wall away from my guests’ view, my mother and I paused face to face in front of the walnut-framed mirror that was handed down to me when my grandmother died. I imagine that on my mother’s wedding day more than four decades earlier, this same looking glass must have momentarily captured images of my mother as the excited bride. Perhaps she also paused there to share a moment with her mother.

But that day, my wedding day, my mother had stopped me not to offer sentimental wishes or memories or a wedding gift. Instead, she met me in front of the heirloom mirror, her voice light and sweet, to present me with a bag of her laundry.

“It wouldn’t be too much trouble to wash these things for me right away, would it?”

A lifetime of being my mother’s daughter should have conditioned me for this moment, but still I was blind-sided.  I forgot the tray, forgot the guests, forgot even my young sons. For a moment I was seven years old again, powerless and poised to do whatever she asked so I might finally secure some deep connection to her and at last merit the unveiling of love.

“It won’t take you long,” she purred.

The Special Bag

You’re probably thinking that there must be some back story that would explain her expecting me to do her laundry at that moment. Surely no one’s mother would seriously ask for this – or even think of it – without a compelling reason. Surely every mother’s expectations and every daughter’s compliance have boundaries. Surely she was suffering from dementia, grave illness, immobility, poverty, excessive activity since she arrived, or at the very least some insatiable mold was relentlessly marching across the contents of her luggage.

But, no. My mother was 68 then and but for some arthritis was quite healthy. She was not exhausted from everything she’d done leading up to the wedding. Instead, she had behaved all along as though the whole affair was really none of her business, displaying no interest in any details about the event and never asking about my dress or wishing to help me get ready that day – nor did she even want to observe this traditional mother-daughter ritual. And, no, she wasn’t opposed to my new husband. He was accommodating to her, and she was relieved that I would no longer be a single mother who might one day ask for her help.

My mother, who is without financial worries thanks to large inheritances, was returning home the next morning, three and a half days after her arrival. She could have packed enough for her short trip. She could have had the hotel where she was staying wash something for her if she’d really needed it. And she had done nothing while in town to soil any – never mind all – of her outfits; it could not be that she was left with nothing she could possibly wear the next morning on her flight home. Surely she could have made do. But that’s not how she works.

Two hours later, when I had finished the laundry and handed back the folded clothes, her expression registered alarm rather than appreciation.

“Where’s that special bag I brought it in?” she cried.

You know, that plastic bag hotels hang in the closet in case you want them to do your laundry. So I swallowed my exasperation and went back down to the basement and brought her that special bag.

You must be wondering why on earth I did the laundry, why I wouldn’t refuse to do her deferrable chores on my wedding day. Why I went back down to fetch the special bag.

My wedding occurred two years before I learned why my mother could see nothing wrong with expecting me to do her laundry that evening, two years before my siblings and I finally began to stop pretending to ourselves that she is someone she isn’t, two years before we realized that she has Aspergers Syndrome, two years before we even knew what Aspergers is and how it cuts off her understanding of other people, two years before we began to understand why we her children still respond  – even as we resent it – as though her needs are the center of the universe.


Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.