Preferred Citation: Krieger, Susan. The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Four The Passing Down Of Sorrow

The Passing Down Of Sorrow

MY MOTHER HAS ALWAYS seemed big to me. I used to think she looked like Marilyn Monroe. As I got older, I thought she looked more like Ingrid Bergman, which means that I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. When I was growing up, we would ask my mother why we had to do something. "Because I am your mother," she would say, and I would think she must not feel she was our mother if she had to say this. My mother seemed to me a person who felt absent apart from the role she played, or from the reasons she gave for things. These were not her reasons, or her wishes, but something outside herself—"Because it needs doing … Because it needs taking out … Because that's the way we do things in this family."

Of my two parents, my mother was the more volatile. My father expressed his emotions in a subdued way and seemed to me more rational, more simple, more obvious. He was slow and general compared with my mother. He did things with persistence, guided by principles. He was more directly affectionate, while my mother had a harder time expressing her positive feelings for others. My father loved my mother and felt she was wonderful. I think he steadied her emotionally while he was alive. My mother moved abruptly and was quick and smart. She seemed


to know about everything and to be good at all she did, but she felt inadequate. She repeatedly told me that "Nothing happens for anyone in our family without their working to make it happen," and she seemed to be referring especially to herself when she said this. I could hear the hurt in her voice, as if she felt the nothings she had to work for should have come to her without work. There was the implication in her tone that she was not born lucky, or favored, as was her older brother, a first-born Jewish son. My younger brother, like her brother, she used to say, was born lucky. He had mazel. That was something never said of my sister or me, or of anyone else in our family.

My mother's feelings of inadequacy, like her feelings of sadness, were beneath the surface and not immediately apparent to others. Her surface behavior was often a display of just the opposite of what she felt. She would get proud or angry when she felt scared or hurt, and she would push people away when she wanted them close. I think my mother wished to be above having frailties and needs and to be knowledgeable and respected, and she wanted her children to be that way too. I also think that my mother felt, and still feels, very much alone, and that a person who feels alone acts differently than someone who trusts others.

My mother often speaks as if she is lecturing, rather than in an interactive way. I think I learned, as a child, to be silent when she spoke, or to fight with her in order to have a connection with her. I also learned that my mother might cut off contact with me suddenly. Something I might say would scare her and she would get quiet and withdraw. As an adult, I find I often say goodbye to people several times in order to check that they have not yet left me. I also need to get very close to people because my mother was so distant. Only by getting close do I feel that I exist and that others, and myself, are not the same as my mother.

I am the oldest of three children. My sister is three years younger. My brother, who was seven years younger than me, killed himself as an adult. My sister and I suppress our emotions and dampen our affect when we speak, wishing to escape being emotional like our mother, or being hurt by her or someone like her. My sister was the quiet one in our family. My brother was the baby. I was the one who fought back more. I always felt that my family was unusual because of the socialist political


beliefs my parents taught us, and because my father was a writer. Otherwise, it seemed traditional. My father had his world, my mother hers, and as children we moved between the two, learning about male ways of being from my father, about female concerns from my mother. There was much distance surrounding each person in our family. We discussed things intellectually, rather than speaking of our personal feelings. Much that was important was said indirectly, or left unsaid. Much about my mother's moods was not explained. Growing up, I reacted to my mother's surface behaviors and I often did not know what she really felt. Now I am drawn to speak specifically about my mother—from out of my family constellation—because, for a long time, I have been unwilling to do so. I have feared that to speak of my mother would be to speak badly of her, and I have wanted not to hurt her.

I am sure I do not have a proper perspective on my mother. In my mind, she is either too bad, or not bad enough at all, and the issues are very much of good and bad—was she good or bad to me? I usually think about my relationship with my mother in order to explain inner difficulties I have, why my life is not easy for me—a version, perhaps, of my mother's complaint, "Why was I not born the lucky son?" I do blame my mother for my troubles in this way. Not to do so would be to grant her less importance than she really has had for me, and to grant inflated importance to others—my father and the rest of the world—to imagine others have enabled me to escape my femaleness. That growing up female is, for me, largely about growing up my mother's daughter makes a surprising sense, and one that I did not, at first, expect to see. That what has been handed down to me—as well as how to set a table, clean a house, or not lose the family silver—is an inner trouble of an entrenched and depressed sort also makes sense to me. Not that I think that only mothers, or women, hand down emotional troubles to their children, and especially to their daughters. But I do think that women internalize much emotional pain and that mothers pass this pain on to their daughters. I think that the passing down of inner sorrow is an important strand in the persistence of female gender. This essay is about sorrow, about expectations of irrationality among women, and about how internalizing trouble is part of femaleness.


My Mother's Pain

That my mother was hurt long before I came into the world is hard for me to comprehend. She once wrote to me, "I have known few moments of true happiness in my life—once when you were born, and several times as you were growing." I liked especially being told that my mother was glad when I was born. I usually feel I cause her nothing but unhappiness. Yet my mother's comment has a mixed meaning for me. On the one hand, it makes things seem normal and glowing: here is a mother happy to have a child. On the other hand, it says my mother rarely feels this way. She goes on in her letter to tell me that she does not value happiness. Other things are more important to her, such as working for progressive causes. I am left feeling that, for my mother, something that I have learned is good and normal—happiness—is not so for her.

The mental image I have of my mother is of a woman brooding. She is sad and about to cry. She is sad because I am not there, and because my father and brother are gone and no one cares about her in the right way. She is also sullen, which means there is anger in her sadness.

My mother used to tell us that the point of seeing a good movie was so we could have a good cry. Often, when there was a conflict in our family, my mother cried. I grew up feeling that being sad was more real than any other emotion because, for my mother, that was so. Not long ago when I visited my mother, I disagreed with her in a conversation and she responded by feeling hurt and crying. When I asked her not to cry, she insisted she preferred to cry. I felt miserable for making her so miserable. Our disagreement was over the fact that she thought being a lesbian ought to be kept private and in the bedroom, while I felt it should be talked about. She also thought a single woman who purposefully got pregnant to have a child was a whore, and I felt differently. My sister says my mother has a hard time agreeing with me, as I do with her, and that when I contradict my mother, she gets unusually upset. I feel awful for contradicting her, and I wonder why I do it.

I have, all my life, tried not to be like my mother, probably because she was not a man. I wanted to be like my father. I felt he had more


admirable personal qualities—rationality, an even temper, an ability to feel content—qualities I did not then associate with his gender. In many ways, I have been successful in being like my father, doing the same kind of work he did, adopting his habits of gentleness. But the ways I am like my mother feel more at the center of me. They are more internal and they seem to have happened without my knowing.

When last I went back to visit my mother, things flared up between us, not atypically, but to a greater extreme than usual. My lover, Judith, had come with me to buffer the effects of my family on me and to place my life with my family in the context of our life together. Along with visiting, we planned to pack up my aunt Jessie's silverware and a decorative chest it was stored in and ship these back to our home in California. When Jessie, my father's sister, moved into the nursing home, my mother had stored the silver for me in her basement. Part of the difficulty of this visit was that my mother felt I kept leaving her to go off to see my aunt, and she did not understand what I was doing in the basement when I was packing up the silver.

The day on which most of the trouble occurred was tumultuous from the beginning. My mother had stored others of my aunt's possessions in her basement—clothes Aunt Jessie no longer needed, old medicines, miscellaneous photographs. My mother wanted me to go down to the basement with her and sort through Jessie's things and decide what to give away and what to keep, and then load the giveaways into her car and take them with her to a thrift shop. That morning, I was slower to get up than my mother wanted, or she had extra energy. I remember she left hurriedly in her car to mail a package right after the post office opened. This was the day before I was to leave to return to California.

When Judith and I went down to the basement later that morning to sort through Aunt Jessie's things, my mother was already fired up, like a brew in a cauldron ready to boil over. We descended a set of stairs off the kitchen to the basement—a large, semifinished room with walls on three sides, a white composition ceiling, a white linoleum floor. There were two guest beds, bookshelves against the walls, a small desk of my mother's, some file cabinets, and a closet in which my mother keeps her out-of-season clothes. Behind doors lay a furnace, washer and dryer, and storage shelves. But the main feature of the basement for me is that


all around are reminders of my family's past and especially of my father—pictures of him, one of his father, paintings by him, books he wrote and collected, and copies of advertisements he designed for the Ladies' Garment Workers Union, one of them framed on a wall. This is the house my mother moved to after my father died and the basement seems to me full of all the items too weighted with emotion to keep upstairs.

When I visit my mother and sleep in her basement, it is hard for me to get ready for bed—to place my flashlight above my head at night in a bookcase I know only too well from its placement in my father's study over many years. In my mind, this is the original bookcase, the one all others are deviations from. On the top shelves are now books of my mother's and, above them, a soft-looking photograph of my mother's younger sister when she was in college. This basement is, at once, familiar and foreign to me. It is familiar because it reminds me of my father, and foreign because my mother's things are now in places where my father's once were, and because my mother has decided where to put his things—down in the basement in exactly this way, some placed carefully on the walls, others not carefully stored, like drawings by my father that are mildewing in a large accordion envelope near the furnace. The thought of these pictures poorly kept always bothers me. Why does my mother not take better care of them? I feel. I do not feel, Why does my mother not take better care of me? Life in our family is indirect. Worries about oneself are expressed as concern for other people and for things.

Upstairs, my mother's house is more fully hers—more tied to her present life—than the basement. There, too, it is full of reminders of my family's past, but these are more specifically my mother's surroundings—her dining room table, her pots and pans, her white glass lamp throwing a soft light opposite the front door. The house upstairs reflects my mother's way of organizing external space. She leaves clear surfaces and makes rooms feel restful. It does not reflect the inner turbulence I associate with my mother.

When Judith and I arrived downstairs, my mother began taking out large plastic bags and several suitcases that had Aunt Jessie's clothing in them, tossing these containers abruptly onto the beds or asking me to


life them. Then she lit into the contents, pulling out the garments with rough motions and coming to sudden decisions about whether to give away a sweater, or pair of slacks, or hold on to an item and send it to Jessie for reconsideration. The vengeance with which my mother attacked the bags was very familiar to me. I had seen it in action many times before when she would march into my sister's or my room, or my brother's room, and decide it needed to be cleaned up, the closets and dressers sorted through and anything extra tossed out. She would attack as if suddenly the confusion of the room, or of someone else's sense of order, had become too much for her, or as if suddenly she needed a target. She needed to be rid of something. Cleaning out a linen closet was a similar experience, although the object of attack was less tied to an individual person's things than to more generalized towels and sheets. Still, her movements frightened me. I hated those attacks. Once when I was already grown, I remember feeling like crying for my brother when his orderly, but jam-packed, teenager's room was suddenly torn apart by my mother. My father stayed in his study, keeping out of my mother's realm, and only I seemed to feel like interfering, as if it was wrong for my brother to be unprotected. In my family, I usually feel hurt for someone else—for my mother, or father, or brother, and less often for my sister, perhaps because she is closer to me.

When my mother attacked Aunt Jessie's things, I felt hurt for my mother, because she was upset, and for Aunt Jessie, whose belongings were thrown around. I also felt hurt because it felt tragic to me. I felt this was not supposed to be happening. These tirades and launchings into other people's things were supposed to be in my past, in my childhood. My mother was supposed to be better now, to have grown out of it, to be less angry, not more so, to be more happy, more restrained, not less controlled. Further, I felt that I was no longer supposed to be treated as an object of her attacks. Even if I only looked on, I felt attacked by my mother because I knew she was angry at me. If she felt burdened by having to take care of Jessie, and thus struck out at Jessie's things, she was also including me in her striking out. She was telling me she felt I was not doing enough for her. Often, my mother strikes out at absent people to make statements to those present. When hurt, she identifies


all of us as sources of her pain. She feels we have wronged her, or let her down.

Judith and I tried to cooperate with my mother in sorting through the clothes. We wished not to anger her further, nor to come into conflict with her, and we wanted to get this over with soon. I felt embarrassed that Judith was witnessing my mother acting in an aggressive way. While as a private event, my mother's attacks on objects and people seem undesirable to me, they do seem normal in terms of my mother. To an outsider, however, I felt her actions would not seem acceptable.

I describe my mother's physical actions rather than her words here because, for me, they summarize her way of relating and give a graphic image of it. Her words have a more painful feel and are harder for me to remember. Although some of my mother's speech sounds beautifully musical to me, her words are often harsh, critical, or ridiculing of other people. Growing up, I learned what my mother felt were desirable, and undesirable, characteristics of people from hearing her sharp comments about others. I wanted never to be the person who had such a fault as my mother would see in others and comment on sarcastically. My mother felt that Jessie, for instance, was at fault for feeling uncomfortable about wearing certain clothes and thus rejecting them. My father was at fault for thinking his work had value when the world might not. Children were at fault for being crybabies and wanting their needs met right away, adults for being upset, or anxious, or for having specific desires, or for having fears. My mother often ridiculed people for worrying. I think she experienced most human vulnerabilities as faults, perhaps because they left another person exposed in a way she did not want to be exposed herself.

She wanted to be strong, impervious, above it all, and, to some extent, she was. When I think of my mother, I do not see a small, weak woman but a big, strong one, a proud woman concerned about her dignity. I think my mother covered her troubles with pride and with an affect of superior intelligence. Yet her habit of striking out at people has made my own inner world harsh. My mother's criticisms of others are often ways I accuse myself. Her tone of ridicule is the tone I most fear from the world at large. I expect that world to tear me up, as my mother


tore into things verbally and physically. I have learned only slowly, over time, that it is not wrong to say what I want, or to care about particular things, or have needs.

I helped my mother put into the trunk of her car the clothes she decided to give away. She took them by herself to the thrift shop. While she was gone, I returned to the basement to pack up Aunt Jessie's silverware and to measure the decorative chest. While downstairs, I also looked around for other mementos of my family I might like to take. This, to me, is a sign that I am more willing than I once was to include evidence of my past life in my present one, to admit that I did not emerge fully grown as myself, but came from this particular family, these parents, whom I have often wished away. In recent years when I have visited my mother, I have usually taken back with me a painting by my father. This time, I had in mind a drawing of a baseball player he did in pastels; two brown bowls, now gathering dust in the basement, that my sister once gave my mother; and a blue and white bowl of my mother's that she thought she had already given me.

When I visit her, my mother is always telling me to take something, anything. She says she wants to simplify her life, that she is going to move into a smaller house soon and she does not need all these things. On this visit, she made her moving seem more imminent than usual. She said she needed to clear out the basement. I should take what I wanted and my sister would rent a truck and take the rest. Therefore, I now considered the bookcases lining the basement walls. All around in the shelves, sticking out from the books, were little white labels I wrote the last time I visited my mother, when she asked me to go through the books and advise her about what to give away and what to keep. Most of these books had been my father's. Many were old books he had bought at flea markets and in used bookstores—labor histories and biographies of American reformers. Some were picture books about artists. There were several nature books, a couple of books about how to raise a dog, two copies of my father's high school yearbook, and a couple of my old college textbooks. My mother had not given away any of the books yet. I thought I would ask the shipper, who would be coming that afternoon, what it would cost to ship the empty bookcases after the books were gone. I was interested in four of the broad sturdy ones.


When my mother came back from her errands, I planned to borrow her car to visit Jessie in the nursing home and say goodbye to her. My mother objected, as she had each time I had gone to see Jessie during this visit. She looked hurt and angry and conveyed to me that she felt my leaving her was wrong. She was my mother. Who was Jessie? Who comes first? she implied. "You don't have to see Jessie," she said. "She calls me about every little thing. She will have you wrapped around her little finger." Since my father died, whenever I have visited my mother, I have also gone to see Jessie, and my mother has never felt comfortable about it. I think that Jessie is a continuation of my father for me. She is also herself and is more direct than my mother, and seeing her is thus a less emotionally fraught experience for me. I am always surprised when other women, like Jessie, are not like my mother. I usually feel something is missing inside of them. I wait for the anger and the hidden meanings that I look for when I am with my mother.

I came back from Jessie's in time to meet with the shipper in the basement to weigh, and get prices on, the items to be sent. I told my mother not to come downstairs. I did not want her to confuse me about my decisions and I felt she should not have to be bothered with this. I then sent off the silver, the chest (which was the size of a small dresser), the baseball player picture, the various bowls, and two small woven rugs that my mother wanted me to take—one my sister had brought back from Mexico, and one that I had previously given my mother. "They will just get worn out if I keep them," she said. I did not entirely understand her comment. Why would the rugs get more worn out in her house than mine? I wondered. Did my mother fear seeing the rugs wear out if she kept them? Were they too delicate for her, or just something extra to worry about? Would she rather I have something special like this? Why waste it on her? I often do not know which of her many possible meanings to pick in interpreting my mother's statements. I do not really know what motivates my mother. To understand her, I have to put much effort into deciphering her actions.

I also got an estimate for shipping the bookcases, along with a small, honey-colored wood desk of my mother's. Rarely used and now in the basement, this desk reminds me very much of my mother because, to me, she has always had it. Wherever we lived, there would be a corner


with her desk in it. My mother would sit there, paying bills or writing a letter, occupied in a way that felt safe to me. She was doing something during which she would not strike out at me, or indicate her unhappiness. Over the years, I have repeatedly asked my mother to hold on to her desk for me and not give it away, but she has never once indicated she comprehends that I might value it because it is hers. She simply says the desk is junk and not worth shipping—that it did not cost much to begin with and the wood and glue are dried out. But I associate it sentimentally with her as I associate the bookshelves with my father.

It seems to me that, in my mother's view, whatever I want to take from her house is the wrong thing. When I ask her for something, as I recently did for a labor movement drawing of my father's, she is suddenly not ready to part with it, although she cannot say so directly. She simply pauses and looks for a long time at the drawing and comments on the trunk it was in and the set of pictures it is part of. When I took the blue and white bowl, she let me know that she really wanted me to take some glass plates that had belonged to my father's mother. When I asked for a silver ring she had offered me years before, she wanted, this time, to keep it where it was, in a flour canister in a kitchen cabinet, along with other pieces of jewelry she values but does not usually wear. In this canister are the jewelry her mother, and my father's mother, once wore, kept safe in this woman's version of a vault.

When I take things from my mother's house, I have to expect that although she has told me to take anything, she will not want to part with her belongings, and she will be unsatisfied with my choices—as if they indicate I am valuing the wrong kinds of things about her. I am speaking not only of taking physical items from my mother's house, of course, but of all the takings—the modelings of oneself after, the ways I have chosen, or not exactly chosen but learned, to be like my mother. There is, I think, an admonition in every exchange between us: "Be like me in this way. Value me for this, but not for that. Do not take my diseases, my woman's ways, but my strengths. Don't take my troubles. Above all, do not take my unhappiness." I have long noticed that my mother never wants to hear that I have troubles, especially emotional troubles. She needs to be the only one to have a problem, or if I have a difficulty, even a cold, she has to have a worse one. I have assumed this


is because she must always be the focus of attention, but it is possible she simply does not want to see her problems reproduced in me.

When I thought about my mother's comments about her desk, I thought about how often when I value something and tell my mother so, she is quick to attack it and devalue it. I usually try to keep what is special to me away from her, and not tell her about it, for fear its specialness will be destroyed by her. It may seem odd, or wrong, that I grant to my mother the power to destroy what is mine. But I think she actually has such power. She has an instinct for the kill. What is odd, it seems to me, is that I keep telling her what matters to me, that I do not keep myself altogether hidden from her. I think that my mother strikes out at things I care about when she feels she is losing me, or losing my attention to her needs—when something else seems to claim me. She also threatens to disappear at those times if she feels I am going to strike back at her and hurt her. I will look into her eyes and feel she is threatening to break up inside and no longer be there. This is camouflage, like animals use in the jungle. I often wonder why my mother is so attacking. I think maybe she feels herself under attack in an inner way and is striking back at those inner forces.

Inner Struggles

My mother often speaks of her mother with love and reverence. I remember after her mother died, she took her mother's bathrobe and kept it in her closet without washing it, so it would still have her mother's smell on it, the gentle scent of her mother's body and of the toiletries she used. Eventually, I got that light blue bathrobe and used it until it wore out. I remember my grandmother as small, lovely, and calm, and as having her own very definite mind. My mother was proud of the distances her mother swam in the ocean during the summers. When I visit my mother, she still takes me back out to the shore to look at the big rock out in the water that her mother used to swim to. We pull up the car and sit and look across the water at the rock and watch as if her mother is still out there swimming.

My sister remembers my grandmother as cold, which, to me, means distant. I know she was strict in terms of household order, like keeping


a clean house and keeping things in their place. I think my mother felt her own mother was highly competent, and that she felt incompetent by comparison, or perhaps because of things her mother said to her. I think my mother wanted to be like her mother and that it was hard for her to be different and, especially, to be less even tempered. I have an image of my mother, when small, being alone with her feelings. Whatever she felt inside may have attacked her, or confused her, and it still does. That is why she attacks and confuses me.

I often think of my mother and me as chicken and egg. I see us in the hospital right after I was born. My mother, then twenty-three years old, is looking at me. She fears being rejected by me, and so she pushes me away, or holds me at a distance, as she was held at a distance. It is not clear to me if she rejects me first, or if I reject her first. I suppose a baby is mostly reacting to her mother, but the infant can be a bundle who evokes fear in the mother. I think my mother was afraid of my needs. She needed someone to take care of her needs. She may have been at a loss when confronted with me, and she may have resented me. This image of me as a baby in the hospital is not just about being an infant, for me, but it summarizes my relationship with my mother over all time. To me, everything in those first few minutes, the pattern, is as it has always been. A central theme of my relationship with my mother is that I feel responsible for her. If she rejects me, I think it is because I have rejected her. Whatever is wrong with her, I feel I have caused it, and that is why she is so angry at me. Maybe some people have a relationship with their mother that changes a great deal over time, but mine has not. I feel there is a force within me that is my mother and has a life of its own and is never resting and often rejecting of me. I talk back to this force to get it to stop attacking me, as my mother, perhaps, talks back to her inner forces.

I think my mother repeatedly tells her internal forces that she is not a bad person, that her actions are justified, that someone else is at fault, that she has been sorely deprived and is frightened, and that she is trying to gain control. I tell my forces, too, that I am not bad, and that I am doing the best I can, against inner odds, to maintain the ways of a normal person, that I am not to be ridiculed or torn into, that it is all right to be vulnerable. In having inner forces to contend with, my mother


and I are alike. In how we deal with these forces, we are different. My mother's solutions to her problems are often external; mine are internal. It seems to me as if my mother lives amidst much self-protective external scaffolding. I have spent much of my life trying to find her inside that scaffolding, which is one reason I am so internal—I keep looking for my missing mother.

I think my mother is missing for me because she deliberately pulls away. She has often told me she thinks it is best not to respond to a child when she calls, or cries, because then the child will always expect you to respond, and you will be controlled by the child and not be free. As an adult, I consciously tell myself to respond as requested, and right away, when others ask something of me, so deeply learned is that other instruction not to respond. My mother often responded differently from what children wanted. She would give a different present, serve a different food, tuck the blanket in a different way than a child asked for, or she would strike out verbally, or with a sudden gesture, or by hitting. I think she wanted to make the difficult need go away. She also wanted us to know who was who—who was the mother, who was the child, who was in charge. I think that a child calling for her mother, or asking her for specific things, or getting upset (I learned to cry and throw tantrums) is trying to take care of her own needs. I know my mother fed and clothed me well. She overfed and overclothed me as the first child. She sang to me in bed at night when I was sick, explained things to me, took me places, made sure I got the kinds of things children need. Yet because she saw my needs as threatening to hers—and, therefore, pulled back or struck out at me—and because she saw herself as less competent than she wished to be, I felt in danger. I still have that sense of being in danger—a sense of terror that I will be hurt by others, or by myself, when I am in need—although I have learned to take care of myself quite well.

My mother seems pained when she tells me about how I learned to tie my own shoes early on, saying to her, "Mommy, let me do it myself." I think she felt pained because I was taking myself away from her. One of my father's paintings shows a mother bending down, encircling a child, tying the child's shoes. When we look at it, my mother tells me I was not like that. She views my father's paintings of mothers holding


infants with a similar discomfort. She has often told me she did not like that early period of dependency of child on mother—and, I think, mother on child—and so she does not like those pictures. I think such a dislike is not unique to her. Many mothers may not like that early period. What is unusual is that my mother says so. In addition to her feelings about dependence, I know my mother did not like being locked into stereotypical ways women were supposed to act and be. She did not want to be a frilly, sweet, little woman who had less stature than others and stayed home and raised kids without going out to work. She was raising children at a time when the women around her were staying home, influenced by a Freudian psychology that my mother did not like, that held mothers responsible for their children's ills and made women feel guilty for their own wants. My mother wanted to go out and work with kids in nursery schools and do creative things with them. That type of work made her happy. I think she was best when she was not around us all the time. The problem was not that she was absent when she was gone, but what happened when she was there.

As much as I have had troubles with my mother, I want the world to be sympathetic to her. My mother's younger sister views my mother kindly. She sees her as a daughter of immigrants who has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and improved herself with formal education, self-education, and an interest in arts and reading. My mother's mother came from Russia, her father from Poland. He was a wholesale fruit dealer. My grandmother took care of the house and children and members of her extended family, was active in a Jewish women's organization, kept kosher, and, unusual for a woman at that time, drove her own car. I sometimes think my mother has traditional expectations about how children should behave toward their parents because of her past. She grew up in a house where her maternal grandmother, who spoke only Russian and Yiddish, lived on the third floor, and in a town where members of her mother's extended family had settled and lived all around. She feels children should still make a place in their homes for their parents and not go too far away from them. I think it is hard for her to experience my living far away, and my not getting along well with her, not only because she worries about what will happen to her when she gets older, but because this is not how it is supposed to be. I sometimes


think she feels disgraced by me because the children of other members of her extended family visit their parents more often and get along better with them.

When my mother's expectations of normal family life are broken, I think she feels lost and unprotected. I know her mother did not live with her, but her mother died in her arms in the bedroom in the house where my mother grew up. When my mother worries about my getting serious physical diseases, it is her mother's diseases she expects I will get. Thus, I expect that too. When I think of my own death, I see my mother's mother dying. I may, indeed, be the mother she once had, who did not help her enough, and who might yet do so. Such expectations of who is supposed to be who, and how we are supposed to act—expectations of continuity—layer over every visit between my mother and me, although we speak of other things, such as what to have for dinner and what to do with items in the basement.

Leaving My Mother's House

After the shipper left, I went with Judith to the grocery store to get supplies for dinner and to the liquor store to get a bottle of wine as a present for my mother. This would be our last dinner together and I wanted it to be special. I also wanted to get cartons from the stores to pack up the books in the basement—to make it easier for my mother to dispose of the books and ship the shelves, since she has bad knees and has trouble bending. When I got back, I unloaded the groceries and went downstairs. For the next hour, Judith and I packed up the books, attaching the labels to the boxes, while my mother prepared dinner. For dinner, we were going to have rice, shrimp, and green peas, and we were all looking forward to it. When the packing was done, I came up to tell my mother we were through. The shrimp was simmering in a frying pan on the stove and smelled good to me. Even the rice smelled good. It was invitingly warm upstairs.

But my mother suddenly became angry. She had been having a drink and reading a newspaper in the living room, but when I entered she stood up, looking at me incredulously. She quickly became enraged, irrational, livid, full of tears, full of sentences no one could talk back to,


speaking her own kind of sense that I am slow at understanding. Who did we think we were? she asked. What were we doing down there? All day, we had been going off by ourselves and telling secrets where she could not hear us. We were plotting to keep her from finding out that we were taking the books off the shelves. Now no one could see them. What if someone wanted to buy the books, how could they know what was there? I only gradually grasped that my mother thought I was taking her books, that I had packed them up to take some of them with me. "But I told you what I was doing," I said. "How can anyone see them if they're in boxes?" Our conversations are often like that. My mother speaks in a rush that keeps me from speaking, and when I speak, she says something seemingly unrelated, and implicitly hostile to me, which is an indirect way of asserting what she needs.

Judith and I went back to the basement and put the books back on the shelves. There were seventeen cartons of them. We put them in their original groupings along with their labels—"Okay to give away." "Save for Mother." "Save for Susan." When I came up to tell my mother the books were now back on the shelves, I expected her to be relieved, but she was tearful and still incensed. She had a martini in her hand—it was not her first—and in the hallway off the living room, she tossed what was left of it at me. Instead, it hit Judith in the face and on the front of her sweater. Judith felt the alcohol sting her face. She turned to me and announced, "I am not staying here tonight."

I went into my mother's study and started packing our suitcases. Judith called a friend of hers who lived nearby to see if we could stay there overnight. We would leave directly for the airport in the morning. My mother became more agitated. She said Judith should not feel offended because the drink was meant for me, and it was almost finished anyway and mostly water. Finally, why didn't I grow up? She said many things I do not remember because she said them sarcastically. I think sarcasm is one way she strikes out. She also cried and wanted me to feel sorry for her, which was painful for me. I know that when her words got to be too much for me, I stood in the corner of her study and put my hands over my ears. Twice, I tried to get out of her study and my mother stood in the doorway, angrily barricading me inside. That was the most disturbing


part for me. I was surprised when I tried to go by her the first time and she did not yield to let me through. I felt that if I had pushed her to make my way out, she would have pushed me back and we would have had a physical fight. I have never bodily fought with my mother or anyone else, and I did not want to start. I saw images of women in movies fighting with each other and I did not want to be like that. I also felt that if it came to a fight, my mother would win. She is bigger than I am, but more importantly, she would fight harder.

I was frightened, both by a past—when my mother was, indeed, much bigger than I was and physically struck out at me—and by the present. I felt held by force, as if I might soon be in physical jeopardy from my mother. I considered calling the police. I felt there was a point beyond which my mother should not go in her actions toward me. But I did not think she had reached that point yet. More than frightened, I was horrified that my mother would be doing this, that we had an audience, that things had gotten this much worse.

I think that my mother barricaded me into her study, and became so desperate, not only because I was leaving her, but also because of all the other people who had previously left—my father, my brother, her mother. A close friend of hers had died recently. That day was, in fact, the anniversary of my father's death. In retrospect, it should not seem strange to me that my mother barricaded me into a room, or that she threw a drink at me. With the drink, I think she wanted to startle me, to wake me up, as from a nightmare. She had to wake someone. Why not me, her oldest daughter, upon whom so much has always rested, so much that is conflictual? If she could not wake me, then at least she could keep me. That my mother did this in the presence of Judith was hard for me to experience. It made it seem especially crazy and definitely wrong. Judith's presence was supposed to keep my mother within bounds, to keep exchanges between us semiformal. But my mother was disregarding Judith. She was treating her as if she was of no value, and as another person to be struck out at. I could not help thinking this disregard had to do with the fact that Judith was a woman. My mother would not have thrown a drink at my sister in the presence of her husband. But then, she would not have thrown a drink at my sister, period.


Still, I think a woman does not provide as strict a sense of personal boundary as a man does. More emotions come out in the presence of women only, flowing across the boundaries.

It seemed to me we were arguing in my mother's study and in the hallway outside it for a long time. I did not want to be hysterical like my mother. I did not want to be saying how awful I felt, and crying, and accusing other people of not growing up. Earlier, when I was in the basement, putting the books back on the shelves, I had heard my mother on the phone talking with the man she is close to about what a terrible thing I had done. She was crying and hysterical. When my mother gets hysterical, I get stoic. I become withdrawn and deliberate. I speak with little affect. I am guarded. I try not to feel. I think a lot. Sometimes my mother has accused me of being cold and calculating, which hurts me because I know I have feelings.

I left my mother's house wishing not to go. I faced a dilemma. On the one hand, I felt I had to leave because Judith, who had had her fill, would not stay, and because my mother had thrown a drink at her. On the other hand, it did not seem right to me to leave my mother prematurely, to hurt her the night before I would be leaving town. I knew that in my experience with my mother, this scene was not unusual. However, my mother did not usually throw her drinks (I did not remember her ever having done so before); she had not barricaded me into a room before; and her disturbances did not normally last this long in such an active way. By now, she usually would have become withdrawn. She would be back into herself, unhappy but no longer striking out. I kept telling myself that people who are victims of violence stay with their attackers when they should not. But I was not sure if I was one of those people, or if I was simply a woman with an upset mother, and this was what happened in families, and you did not just leave.

While I felt that Judith should not have to stay in a house with a woman who had just thrown a drink at her, it was harder for me to see that logic applied to myself. Would I be leaving if my mother had thrown her drink and it had hit only me? I was not sure. I thought my mother might settle down in time and become more peaceful. But what if we stayed, and after we went to sleep, something else happened and I woke up and my mother was like this again? I thought I should not stay


around and find out. Thus, I left without being sure I was right to go, but feeling afraid and that I had no other choice.

I felt terrible leaving my mother. I picked up my suitcase to go out in front of the house and wait for Judith's friend, who was coming to pick us up. As I walked though the living room toward the front door, I passed my mother sitting on the couch. Her male friend had come and was sitting with her, his arm around her. She was crying. He looked at me and said in a tone aimed at shaming me, "How could you." I felt my father would not have said that. He would not have wanted to divide my mother and me further, and although angry, he would have tried to get me to stay. I felt I just had to walk out. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I have left my mother many times, sometimes quietly, sometimes in tears and conflict, but this would be the first time I would leave her in quite this way, so alone, so distressed. Yet always when I leave my mother, it feels like this. Each leaving feels like new, and each is hard for me. Each time, I feel I am not supposed to leave, and that I am making my mother unbearably sad. I feel I will never see her again and that I take her sadness with me and it will haunt me later.

It was dark outside as Judith's friend drove us away. The other houses and the streets outside seemed harsh and cold to me. I felt there was no reason for me to be anywhere else but in my mother's house. Only once before when I visited my mother did I not stay in her house. I stayed in a motel because the house was too full with my sister's family. Given how Judith felt, I feared I might never stay in my mother's house again. I knew I would leave in the morning without calling to say goodbye to my mother.

The saddest thing I felt as I left, however, was that I was leaving, uneaten, the food my mother had prepared for us. The shrimp, rice, and peas were still in their pots on the stove when I walked out the front door. I feared my mother would get mad at them later and throw them out, feeling in them the pain of my going. But perhaps she would put them quietly away, as a normal person might—a person without the kinds of feelings we have, my mother and me. It is hard for me to say that I myself missed not having had that dinner, harder yet to say I miss not having had a relationship with my mother in which she could have made me happy. I usually think of what my mother misses, not what I


miss. I think it is my mother who is most hurt, whose life is most tragic, whom I am most sad for. I do not usually think I miss my mother, but that I miss other women—friends and intimates I know in the present, whom I did not grow up with, who give me a cleaner slate than my mother ever did. These are women who do not respond to me in my mother's hostile ways. Through my relationships with them, I try to find for myself much that was missing in my relationship with my mother. Still, I miss my mother with a sadness that is hard for me to comprehend because my mother's goodness—her generosity, her giving—was so mixed with rage. It is hard to miss someone who hurts you, but I do.

Maybe those mothers exist who serve cookies and are sickeningly sweet to their kids, the good mothers, and the good enough mothers. I had primarily a real mother. I think she gave to me as best she could and that female giving is a complex experience. My mother gave me sorrow and trouble and, eventually, her silver ring. She gave me more anger than I have often known what to do with, and a sense that the world will slight me, and that no one can be trusted, and that something is wrong with me. She taught me how to keep house and to cook, and told me to do the dishes as you go along, and never to leave a milk carton on the table. I learned, from her, to wear sturdy clothes, to be bigger than all the pettiness around me, and to fight back—to be resilient. I learned to be resilient because my mother was, and because she needed me to be that way in relation to her.

My mother, like me, likes to go to the ocean. I like to go because the sea is rough and raging. The turbulence out there is like the turbulence in me, and it reminds me of my mother. She is like that, and she often took us to the shore, as her mother took her and as my sister now takes her three girls. I know some people look at the ocean and see peace and enjoy basking in the sun. I fear the sun. It is too still for me. I like watching a storm and watching the clouds changing. I know that when I meet a woman who hurts me in my mother's familiar ways, I wish to jump in and change, or save, her, and turn her into the mother who loves me unequivocally. I have to remind myself to hold back, to avoid this woman like the plague.


Female Grief And Strength

What makes the sorrow my mother has passed down to me peculiarly female? What makes it not unique to my mother and me? When I came home from that visit with my mother, I stopped to pick up my cats from the woman who was taking care of them. I told her about my experience back East and she told me about recently seeing, on a street corner near her, a mother fighting with her daughter. The mother was swinging her cane at the daughter and yelling at her. The daughter was wrestling with her mother to get the cane away. The daughter, it seemed, had come back to help her mother pack up her furniture and possessions so she could move to a different house. After they had done most of the packing, the mother decided that the daughter was there to steal her things, not to help her. Out on the street, she was swinging her cane and yelling at her daughter that she was a thief. The daughter was trying to stop her mother by wrestling the cane away and arguing with her.

At least we don't fight like that, I thought upon hearing this story. I would rather have my mother throw a drink at me. Nonetheless, I was struck by the fact that I did not have to go very far to find an experience similar to my own, and I was shocked that I had found one so similar. I was also reassured because this other mother and daughter seemed much worse than my mother and me. We would never fight physically and never out on the street. My mother might think I was taking her books, but she would not be as deluded as to think I was stealing all her things. However, I knew she probably had felt I was, and that our situation was much the same as that of the mother and daughter in the street.

In a similar manner, I think that others might view my story of my mother and me with a desire to distance themselves from it. By my story, I mean my tale not only of my mother throwing her drink, or of my taking things from her basement and leaving her, and of her leaving me, but also my general story of the extremeness of my mother's sadness and hostility and my own vulnerability to her, my story of the effects of my mother's inner life on me. This story is more extreme than some others. It is, I think, an illustration of what happens to women in situations


of unusual grief and stress, but it is also an illustration of how female gender may be centered in grief. One of the most difficult things for me about my mother is that, at first glance, and even later, she appears normal, or like others, and like the image of a well-adjusted, congenial woman. She does not speak an unintelligible language, or dress oddly, or look bad, or cry all the time, or swing objects in the air threatening people with them. She is pleasant in appearance, perceptive, emotionally appealing, highly knowledgeable in conversation, dutiful, hardworking, and self-sacrificing for others. She speaks about her good times and suppresses her unhappiness and considers herself lucky compared with others less fortunate—all of which hides, if thinly, the extent to which she is inwardly angry and hurt.

Similarly, I think, women generally hide the extent to which they are different from a happy or well-adjusted image. Women internalize a great deal. I think this is because much of the labor that women do is emotional and because of the subordinate position of women. Women have traditionally had few important external resources (such as armies and brute power), and so we have learned to use internal resources well. We learn to be valuable by taking outer world conditions into ourselves and converting, or improving upon, those conditions. As caretakers of others, for instance, we absorb the hurt and misery others feel and convert these internally into the strength needed to help others. As teachers and as raisers of children, and as intimates of men who die before we do, we invest a great deal of ourselves in others, only to see those others leave us. We are hurt by the world both because we are not men, and thus are viewed as second best, and because we are women, and thus vulnerable. We are hurt because we are an underclass and are exploited without regard for who we are, and because we are expected to be accessible and thus do not develop barriers against being hurt. Often, women are viewed as responsible both for what is wrong with others and for fixing it. On the outside, we often maintain a facade that is reassuring to others who depend on us. Part of being female, I think, is to weather adversity, to persevere despite what is asked of one, because one must. The expectation that women will be strong and will carry a great burden, but not show it, is one reason why a woman who strikes out,


like my mother, is so unsettling. She is showing the strain of what she feels.

Yet I am sure my mother is not alone in her ability to bear a great deal of pain. Women often learn to absorb the injuries, the many small humiliations, the violence against others and themselves that they experience and to ignore these and carry on. We learn not even to realize our discontents with our subordinate status, which is why there is no female revolution. I think that the sadness women feel is often so deep, and its source seemingly so inexplicable, because the injuries done to women are minimized, or are invisible, and because the strength women develop in order to survive obscures the extent of our troubles. When a woman is made fun of as a child because she is a girl (as I know I was), when she learns to view herself as not smart enough or not good enough (as my mother learned), when she must look over her shoulder and see herself as an object to be attacked, when she is addressed disrespectfully, when she must dress like a plaything or a decoration, when she cannot get a job because she is a woman, when her anger is ridiculed and she is not paid for her work, when she hurts for her mother and fears for her daughter—these are only the more visible slights in a long string of experiences in which the subtlest glance of deprecation is extremely hurtful. Women are often depicted as weak when just the opposite is so. I think only very strong individuals could absorb as much pain as women do.[1]

In my reading, I have found female sorrow to be a recurrent theme despite cultural differences. Amy Tan, in The Joy Luck Club (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1989), speaks of the passing down of sorrow across Chinese female generations: says one auntie, "I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way! Maybe it is because she was born to me and she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way" (p. 9).

Nancy Mairs writes of her mother, "What I didn't see, and maybe she didn't either, was that behind her anger lay the anxiety and frustration caused by her helplessness to protect me from my pain." Mairs speaks of a "reflexive maternal guilt" felt by her mother and by herself, a guilt that seems to say, "I'm sorry"—"'I'm sorry I can't keep you perfectly full, perfectly dry, perfectly free from gas and fear, perfectly, perfectly happy. Any mother knows that if she could do these things, her infant would die more surely than if she covered its face with a rose-printed pillow. Still, part of her desire is to prevent the replication of desire," in Plaintext: Deciphering a Woman's Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), pp. 74-75.

Marianna De Marco Torgovnick writes, "The line between [my] worries and my mother's is the line between the working class and the upper middle class. ... Now, as I write ... I recognize that although I've come far in physical and material distance, the emotional distance is harder to gauge," in Crossing Ocean Parkway: Readings by an Italian American Daughter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 10-11.

Patricia J. Williams, writing about her mother encouraging her to go to law school, recalls: "My mother was asking me not to look to her as a role model. ... She hid the lonely, black, defiled-female part of herself and pushed me forward as the projection of a competent self, a cool rather than despairing self, a masculine rather than a feminine self," in The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 216-17.

Sara Lawrence Lightfoot speaks of her mother being "determined that her children's experiences would not parallel hers." She "promised herself that her daughters would wear colors—bold, intense colors, colors that would show off their beautiful brown skin," rather than the dark colors she had been taught to wear by her mother, in Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1989), pp. 309-10.

The narcissistic wounding of a female child by her mother is discussed in Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); de Lauretis suggests that "In a culture perversely homophobic" and gendered (so that females are both less valuable and less desirable), the mother wounds the daughter with a sense of "lack of a loveable body" (pp. 242-43).

Other relevant personal accounts include: Nancy K. Miller, "Coda: Loehmann's, Or, Shopping with My Mother," in Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 139-41; Kesaya E. Noda, "Growing Up Asian in America," in Asian Women United of California, ed., Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women (Boston: Beacon, 1989); pp. 243-51; and Carolyn Kay Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

For theoretical views, see Nancy J. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978) and "Family Structure and Feminine Personality," in Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 45-65; Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey, eds., Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency (New York: Routledge, 1994); and Adrienne Rich, "Motherhood and Daughterhood," in Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1986), pp. 218-55. A recent review of feminist literature on mothering that includes works of French psychoanalytic feminists is Ellen Ross, "New Thoughts on 'the Oldest Vocation': Mothers and Motherhood in Recent Feminist Scholarship," Signs 20:2 (1995): 397-413.

In this vein, I think there was no one life event that caused my mother's sadness, but that her trouble was internal to begin with, and compounded by her experiences, and that her very strength caused confusion. Because she could endure so much, she felt she could bear anything, which was not so. When she broke down, she was disappointed, as was I. She blamed her disappointment on forces outside herself. Yet I felt not that the outer world had let me down, but that my mother had.

I think that women are often like my mother in that we are sad inside beyond telling, hurt beyond consolation, and driven out of our minds. We do not know our own needs and limits, and we are often strong enough to persevere despite much self-denial. We feel alone and deprived,


yet we still do the emotional work expected of us, especially that of caring for others. I think that the pain women feel gets hidden in different ways in each woman. No woman entirely avoids this pain, and women pass it on to each other. It gets passed down especially to girls, who learn to be women in important inner ways from their mothers and from other women. It gets passed on among women each time we teach, and help, one another to bear our respective pains. My mother may have had less protection against her inner sadness than some other women do, and more of a desire for freedom from it, which was why she raged. Her rage has made it hard for me to proceed on the surface as if nothing were wrong with her, or with me, or with a world that looks at both of us and tells us to keep our pain hidden.

With an intensity that I rarely notice because it is second nature to me, my mother has taught me lessons she did not wish to teach about how pernicious, brooding, resentful, and persistent inner female struggles are. I cannot see my mother and not see the female condition. If ever I thought I could overcome what is female in my mother, or in myself, a glance at my relationship with my mother reminds me I cannot. My mother wounded me deeply. I daresay that is what mothers do to their daughters more generally. Such wounding is unavoidable in a world that devalues women, and it is why girls often so need to leave their mothers, which then produces pain for both. Yet oddly, there is nothing sought after more by mother and daughter than to relieve the other of her pain.

I never took the desk or the bookcases from my mother's house. I did not want to take any material item from her that she did not wish me to have. But the items of real value are not material. As I hope my discussion has shown, I think that the very commonplace things in a woman's house are part of a language in which mothers talk to their daughters and let them know about what is important in their lives. I learned from my mother that happiness is a rare experience. I learned from my mother that there is a great deal of pain involved in being female.

Four The Passing Down Of Sorrow

Preferred Citation: Krieger, Susan. The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.