Monday, June 16, 2008


In this message from my mother, she's totally frantic, close to tears because someone called her from the blinds place and told her they hadn't received the full payment and they were going to take her to collections. She says I totally lost it with that woman over the phone and now I need you to call me, I'm beside myself because I know I paid for the first half because I have the canceled check here and I've never been sent to collections in my life I always pay everything on time and if this happens it'll ruin my credit and there will be serious consequences for all of us -- I know I sent you a check for the second half but I can't find that canceled check and I don't know what to do.

This is one of those moments when I wish I didn't ask my mother for anything, for a few minutes I'm already planning how to get out of it, this situation that brings me financial assistance but not safety. Maybe it makes things worse just having to deal with my mother and I should get rid of all my things and leave San Francisco and find somewhere really cheap to live and try to be okay. At first I think of calling my mother right back, but then I realize I’m frantic too so maybe I should wait but probably I should call anyway or I'll just think about it too much.

I call, my mother doesn't answer so I leave a message: I have the check right here, they were supposed to pick it up when they installed the blinds but the installer ran out so fast I didn't have a chance to give it to him and then I called the store to ask where to send it but they didn't call back so I figured I'd wait to give it to them when they came back to fix some things. I don't mention that the blinds don't block out all the light, that the installer cracked one of my windows, and that even though the blinds help somewhat with the light they're totally toxic and it's poisoning me. I don't mention that it's ridiculous to get so upset just because someone threatens to send you to collections, I mean that happens all the time to most of us.

I call Rose in the hospital to see how she's doing, she answers the phone but her voice sounds tinny, she says I'm having a blood transfusion. Oh, I say, I was just calling to see how you're doing, but I'll call back later. When I get off the phone I feel scared for her frailty, I don't want her to die or lose her ability to do the work she wants since she fell in her bedroom and broke her hip. Even if she's the most annoying person to talk to, always insisting on her absolute knowledge of everything she knows nothing about. Except when she's having a blood transfusion.

My mother calls: I'm so glad you called me back but now I can't even think I'm under a lot of stress just a lot of stress and I can't even think. I say that's from Rose. She says you're right, that's from Rose but it's also from you and from Allison. I say what part of it is coming from me? She says let me think -- well, first of all, you never followed through on disability.

My mother, with the 4 1/2 million dollars, wants me to apply for disability. She gives me the number again, some 1-800 nonprofit that's always closed for the day when I get around to calling. What else, I say. I can’t even think, she says. I'm glad you called but I can’t even think.

I say well, what you stress me out about is when you're always asking me to cut back on my healthcare, every month there's a new crisis and I've told you over and over again that what I'm looking for is financial security, which is different than access to money it's not the same thing. Growing up, there was always money but it was just used to control us -- it never felt like safety it was just the way Dad used power. We never got the message to relax, things are taken care of, there was always this fictitious crisis and it was all lies.

My mother says he didn't use money to control everyone. I say well I don't know about everyone, but you, me, and Allison. My mother says that's everyone. We always paid to send you to the best schools. I say well that was about you, not us -- we never asked for that. My mother says you're right, you never asked for it. I say that was about attainment, not security or safety.

My mother says well I know he used money to control me, but I don't think it was that way with you and Allison. I say it was that way with everyone, he would argue about the smallest items, like if I needed money to take a cab home from a bar on the weekend because I would be drunk, he would say that we didn't have the money for a cab. And I knew we had that money -- it was obvious. My mother says I don't remember that. I say well you're probably blocking it out, because it would happen every weekend in the family room and we'd be screaming, or he'd be screaming at me and I'd be acting like I was totally calm but inside I was screaming and I don't remember where you were, maybe you were in your room trying to pretend it wasn't happening.

My mother says that's possible. I say well it happened all the time, and sometimes maybe you weren't around, like when Dad and I would go out and he would tell me about the college accounts, but he didn't want you to know because -- and I know you don't necessarily agree with this, but there was a misogynist dynamic in your relationship. My mother says oh definitely that's true, I've never said that's not true. I say well that's good to hear.

My mother says but there wasn't always money, there wasn't a lot of money until much later, after you kids weren't in school. No, I say, maybe there wasn't money when he was still a resident but definitely by the time I was six or seven there was plenty of money. There was always plenty of money. It was his mythology that there wasn't any money. My mother says but he was always worried about losing patients, in private practice he never knew if he was going to be able to keep pace with expenses. I say that's what he told you, but it was a lie. I knew there was money, even as a little kid I knew there was money and later we would argue about it because he would say we were middle class and I would say no, you’re rich. My mother says: and then what was his response? I say well he would start screaming, because that was his response to everything. Eventually he agreed that we were upper middle class. But it was obvious. We would go to the Philips house, remember that? And it seemed like they were poor. My mother says you're right. I say but they both had stable jobs, and they owned their house, and both kids had their own room, and the Philips had two broken-down cars but they were struggling, that’s middle class.

My mother says you're right that we had a lot of expenses, and maybe you don't know this, but Dad was always worried about being the sole provider -- some men take a lot of pride in that role, but he never wanted it to be that way, and once I got my LCSW he was hoping that I could contribute to the family, but that was unfortunately never the case. Maybe you don't believe this, but I loved him. I say I believe that. She says he was the love of my life -- I wouldn't expect such a difficult person to be the love of my life, he was severely difficult but also extraordinary. He was extremely sensitive and he couldn't tolerate feedback or criticism. I say that was obvious.

My mother says he was difficult to be around, it was difficult for him and it was difficult for me and it was difficult for all of us. I thought about leaving him for a long time. I say I remember that, because you are always arguing, and I wanted you to leave him. My mother says maybe you don't know this, but the people I consulted at the time said that there was a chance that I would have lost you kids, you had more fun with him and given the choice it would have been absolutely bloody. I was never good at fun, and I was worried that you would choose to stay with him. By the time I was about 51, I decided I was going to stay with him, the reality was that it wasn't going to work out if I got a divorce.

I say how old are you now? 62. I say then you decided to stay with him right after I confronted you about sexually abusing me. She says yes, that sounds about right and I'm not sure what it was but after I decided to stay with him he trusted me more. I say he trusted you because you decided to stay with him after I confronted him about sexually abusing me. She says I don't think so, but you could be right -- it wasn't the reason, but he could have thought so.

My mother says well now I'm worn out and I think I'm going to go drink my beer, I'm so grateful that you called me back -- you couldn't imagine the feeling I was so anxious they were going to take me to collections. Thank you for a very enlightening conversation.


CaroleMcDonnell said...

Wow, you're sooo good at this discussion thing! I was utterly useless with discussions with my mother. Too afraid to upset her. Still utterly useless with discussions with most people.

I totally understand the stress collectors bring on a person. Sure they do it to everyone, but there is something about the nastiness on the phone and the way they put you in the if you're morally lacking....(after all, money is definitely the sole purpose of the US and those collectors DO have power issues) well it just goes deep into the soul.

Great post. Definitely gonna love your novel.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Carole, thanks so much -- I try I try I try with this discussion thing...

So Many Ways to Sleep Badly is a bit different in style and tone, although there are certainly discussions... much of this writing on the blog will probably make it, in some form or another, into the next novel...

Love --

grantatee said...


i am touched by your ability to confront your mom, and to honor what you need and want.

i too, am so touched by how loving you are towards her, especially considering the complexities of the relationship.

love you lots,

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Really? I seem loving! Actually I hadn't thought of it in that way, I think of it more in terms of accountability balanced against some strange care that seems more about her needs than mine and maybe a continuation of her abuse inside my emotional terrain, but of course at the same time I'm constantly reminding her what I want (and what she promised), not allowing myself to be silenced or silent, so yes it is complicated! And I see what you mean about the love part...

Love --

keidy said...

You act very loving towards your mother. I would not be so nice. If i were to have a discussion with your mother the blog readers would accuse me of having a potty mouth.

keidy said...

Your dad would also get mad at you for spending too much money on books. You would fight with him about money when I was there.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Keidy, a potty mouth! I haven't heard that phrase in a while...

Oh, that's right -- too much money on books! And that's interesting that he would fight about money even when you were there, I mean because when anyone else was around well that was their best behavior!

Love --

michele said...

what impresses me most about this exchange with your mother is that you seem able to stay focused on your own needs in the face of her extreme neediness. also that you don't appear to get too worked up or angry. i'm curious how you feel after you hang up the phone... (i avoid speaking with my mother because the emotional aftermath feels like i've been run over by a truck).
thanks for sharing your experiences so honestly.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Michele, that's exactly it -- I'm trying to stay focused on my own needs in the face of "her extreme neediness."

I think I'm most angry when I'm not speaking -- like, when I got my mother's message I immediately went into panic mode and really just couldn't believe that I'm forced to deal with this person. And, in our conversation, before I said anything I felt totally clenched up but then once I was able to speak I felt a lot better -- especially when I'm able to listen to her but correct the things she's saying that are wrong, I think that feels good to me.

Although then sometimes later I do get frantic again, frantic and overwhelmed and angry, frantic and overwhelmed and angry and hopeless, because it all circles around and sometimes I don't know if I'm getting anywhere.

Thanks so much for your insight and understanding.

Love --