I recently watched my grandmother die. She was nearly 93, at the end of a long and storied life, and she had no pain. My mother and I were with her, alone together in the room as she left us. In offering condolences, the hospice workers commented on how sweet she was, how kind and loving. That wasn’t the Mimi I knew.
The Mimi I knew was a force to be reckoned with, a powerful self-centered woman who valued possessions and external validation above nearly all else. She frequently recounted the value of items in her home, dollar for dollar, and admonished any spending she saw as unnecessary. Nothing mattered more than the impression you created, and she often treated strangers far better than her family.
When I was six, she left me alone in her apartment for hours while she attended a nearby Butterfields antique auction. The doorman was aware I was alone, she explained, and children weren’t allowed at the event. I shouldn’t bother the doorman, she added.
When I was thirteen she sat me down at her typewriter to compose a letter to the current prince of Monaco. She dictated my letter, in which I was surprised to find myself offering to marry him. She reasoned that Grace Kelly made the leap from American girl next door to a princess, why shouldn’t I? We mailed the letter (who has Monaco’s royal family’s address?!) but never heard back. It cemented my position as a disappointment to her.
The facts of our common background never stopped her: when I married at 23, we had a make-up artist in before the ceremony. The woman kindly commented on Mimi’s complexion, and she replied it was because of her “Ming dynasty roots.” We are not Asian.
In the time I knew her, Mimi was Asian, French, fifth-generation San Franciscan, and related to royalty on all sides. We came to refer to it as the MEF, or Mimi Exaggeration Factor and used it liberally to excuse our own tall tales.
When I brought Lottie cross-country to see her, at six weeks, there was no gushing over her namesake. We went out to lunch to celebrate her 85th birthday, and Lottie began to fuss slightly. As I looked for the pacifier, she asked me to leave the restaurant and wait in the lobby. Diners didn’t want to be bothered by our newborn baby’s kitten cries. I nursed Lottie crouched in the corner of a bathroom stall to avoid embarrassing Mimi with any further crying.
These stories are amusing, to be sure, but don’t mistake this for a comedy. She could be very cruel. She was angry when I chose not to go to law school and revoked the antique desk she’d promised me, saying it would be wasted. She hung up on me when I told her I was engaged, pronouncing my marriage to Billy a mistake. She called me fat, said I’d be pretty if I made any effort with my clothes, and was terribly disappointed by my hair each and every time she saw me. On my wedding day, she offered to pay for cosmetic surgery to “fix my eyebrows.”
Other family members weren’t treated any differently. My sister and I quickly realized that whoever was with Mimi was the current subject of abuse, and was forced to listen to how amazing the other was. My sister was an amazing opera talent, the likes of which we’d not seen before, so willowy and gorgeous, so focused and brilliant until she actually visited. Then her haircut made her look like a man, according to my grandmother. Boys fared a bit better, but not much – my brother and cousins realized no one could live up to the expectations set, and visited infrequently after they became men.
But the person who bore the worst of it, for whom my grandmother saved her most potent poison, was my mother. Growing up in the country, my mother remembers spending long days out in the horse pastures, just to avoid the cruelty at home. Her mother told her she was fat, her skin was too dark, and she didn’t possess the brilliant mind of her older brother. She was worthless, she’d ruined her mother’s chances at a real career, she and her brother had been mistakes. By eight, she was making dinner for the family as her mom worked, by seventeen, she left home for good.
The abuse continued, not impacted at all by time or distance. Growing up, I remember my mother’s nerves fraying as we approached my grandparents’ ranch for our annual summer stay. She prepared us: cramming for the test, we reviewed manners, rules, and other customs for interacting with the queen. We always failed.
As Mimi aged, Mom was subject to endless email diatribes on ways she’d slighted her mother, other family members who were making Mimi angry, or endless to-do lists for her next visit. No gratitude or acknowledgment, except occasionally in a birthday card. Mimi’s negativity and vitriole to my mother were accepted known quantities in my family, and not at all remarkable.
What was remarkable is how my mother loved her anyway. She took her on trips abroad, emailed and called daily, and single-handedly moved her into three homes when Mimi, on a whim and well past 75, decided it was time for a change. Mom planned dinner parties and bridge luncheons when she visited, enabling Mimi to play hostess to her friends. She brought books and movies and mailed expensive perfumes and scarves she knew her mother would love.
When Mimi fell ill, she dropped everything to sit by her bedside. She told the nurses stories she knew were untrue, simply because her mother had started them and was too weak to continue voicing the lie important enough to be told as she lay dying.
Today I watched my mother caress her hair, whispering softly that she loved her. She moved the flowers closer so that Mimi might smell a garden. I listened as she played Mimi’s favorite music, ushering her out of this world. I am in awe of the selfless love I witnessed.
I once asked my mother, years ago, why she was so kind to Mimi. Why did she endure all that abuse? Why have any contact at all?
She told me she saw her mother for who she was, married young and pregnant early, and the child herself of a difficult mother. She could understand wanting to work and being stymied by a life lived in the wrong era and expectations that didn’t align with your reality. She’d understood her mother early and accepted what little she could give.
My mother told me she filled in the mothering gaps with other women: her grandmother, her teachers, her friends’ mothers. It was these women who showed my mother how to love deeply and creatively and without judgment. These women formed a composite of a mother that in turn, gave me my whole one, and Mimi a loving, devoted daughter.
I am indebted to the army of mothers I never met.
All those women who lifted my mother up, and loved her as though she was their daughter. All those mothers who taught her to be a loving presence for me and my brother and sister and our children. Those women who, by filling the gap and lessening the sting, allowed her to see and accept her own mother unconditionally. Those women allowed my mother to love wholly and without expectation.
They teach a powerful lesson.
I am grieving my grandmother, in her wholeness and with her faults, because other women taught my mother to love without judgment. She passed that quality to me.
The parallels of this other mother story and my own, as the mother in our blended family, are clear to me. I want to drink in that lesson taught by other mothers and love my daughters, by birth or marriage, deeply and wholly and in a way that strengthens them. I have a role to play, no matter how my children arrived in my life.
All mothers matter.