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What Healing My Relationship With My Mother Taught Me

It was a tough but essential journey.

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healed relationship, mother daughter relationship
Mel Haasch
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Genealogy research is an increasingly popular way of preserving family history, but I discovered another purpose, one for which I am profoundly grateful. I uncovered the truth behind a painful emotional legacy that had been passed down to me through the women in my family. Discovering that story freed me as no amount of therapy had been able to do.

As a young child, I began to sense something wrong in my mother’s treatment of me. Sometimes she cruelly rejected me; other times she stood up for my rights. When the nuns at my nursery school (the only one in the neighborhood, so I went there, even though we were Jewish) sent me home with a note objecting to the way I kneeled when I prayed, my mother marched down to the school and told the head nun that I could pray as I pleased. But at home, when I wanted her attention, she would attack me for being needy. If I tried to slip my hand in hers, she would casually drop it. As I got older, her rejection took harsher forms. On my 12th birthday, she said that if I didn’t follow her rules, she would divorce me and send me away as she had already done to my father.

When I had my own children, I was determined to be a more loving mother, and so I sought the help of a therapist. Through that I came to understand one of the lasting consequences of my childhood rejection. Even as an adult, I relentlessly drove myself in an attempt to prove I was worthy of love. Therapy helped me be happier, but what it didn’t do, and couldn’t do, was explain the reasons for my mother’s behavior.

And so I put my skills as a journalist to work to look for an answer. When I interviewed my Uncle Bob, my mother’s brother, I began to get clues. He said he had been four, and my mother only two, when their parents’ marriage blew up in a scandal that made headlines in the New York City newspapers. Their father, a highly respected politician, had been discovered having an affair with their baby nurse.

My uncle said that from what he’d been told, the divorce didn’t need to happen. His parents were still very much in love and would have reconciled if not for the interference of his mother’s eldest sister. This sister’s husband had become extremely wealthy by investing in New York real estate. His wealth enabled his wife to wield control over her six younger sisters, who all deferred to her domination of the family.

When my grandfather’s betrayal was revealed, the eldest of the sisters hired what my uncle described as "the best divorce lawyers money could buy." He couldn’t tell me why she pushed through the divorce against his mother’s wishes, but he did say that afterwards, his mother was never the same. He recalls being spared the worse of her unhappiness and anger while, from a very young age, his younger sister, my mother, took the brunt of it.

With the demands of raising two children while working full time, I put my research aside. But when I turned 60, and realized that despite all my therapy I still needed to prove to myself I was worthy of a mother’s love, I knew I had to track down an explanation for something that continued to haunt me. According to my uncle, were it not for his rich aunt, the divorce that had such an impact on my grandmother’s treatment of my mother, and in turn on my mother’s treatment of me, wouldn’t have happened.

What made her do it?

I decided to dig further, this time looking for what I could turn up in the newspapers from that time. I typed my grandfather’s name as well as my wealthy great aunt’s name into the search box of "Chronicling America," a website with digitized newspaper databases going back more than a century. A trove of articles came up and led me to the true story.

As it turned out, my great aunt’s entrepreneurial husband had his own secret, one only she knew: he was suffering from a late stage form of syphilis, which would soon kill him. Needing someone to take over his business empire, he decided on appointing one of his wife’s sisters’ husbands — my brilliant grandfather.

Unfortunately, this choice posed a problem for my great aunt. She knew that her brother-in-law — a man known for his impeccable ethics — would never go along with her plan to hide the bulk of her very wealthy husband’s assets and avoid the millions of dollars in estate taxes that would be due when he died. When my great aunt heard about my grandfather’s affair with the baby nurse, it was exactly what she needed to deal with the threat he posed to her scheme.

By promoting the scandal, she was able to exile him from the family, designed to ensure that my grandfather would have no further role in her finances. My great aunt’s scheme succeeded. According to the newspapers, she paid almost nothing in estate taxes. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s marriage was collateral damaged, passed down to my mother, and eventually to my mother’s relationship with me.

Did we still have a chance to repair it?

I decided to travel to my mother’s home in Hawaii to tell her what I had uncovered. Famously cold-hearted, she listened with tears streaming down her cheeks. Then she said, “When I was a little girl, I loved my mother more than anything in the world, but from the day the divorce became final, she was gone to me. She made me her scapegoat. She rejected me then, and she rejected me for the rest of her life.”

Hearing this made me realize how wrong I had been as a child to imagine my mother rejected me because of something I had done. To off-load her pain, she had rejected me as she’d been rejected. It wasn’t her fault or mine, or even my grandmother’s. I felt allied with my mother as never before. I felt empathy as a new state of being.

Since I was a young child, I had found it impossible to tell my mother I loved her, which made me both sad and ashamed. But after our extraordinary conversation, it was easy. At age 89, she fell and broke her hip, and I was proud to be able to give her the care and attention she had longed for her entire life.

My mother died at the age of 93, in 2016. During our last years together, we became deeply devoted to one another, grateful for what we found before it was too late. We happily repeated again and again, “I love you.”

Have any of you had to repair a relationship with a parent? How did you do it? Let us know in the comments below.

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