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more on mothers

I am reading The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. Several months ago I heard part of an interview with Walls on the radio. She read the opening of her book, about being in a taxi in Manhattan and seeing her mother, homeless, raiding a dumpster. From there she recounted a bit about her life with her family, how chaotic it was. She mentioned being in the hospital when she was three and how orderly it all was and how much she liked that.

The interviewer zeroed in on the parents who subjected this woman to childhood chaos, to leaving in the middle of the night, being hungry, living in hellholes. At that point I got irritated. Blame the parents. Don't think about how they might have grown up, what made them what they are, just blame them. Of course I was projecting. I didn't really want to read the book.

But I forgot about the interview and later read about this book and decided I wanted to read it. I am now immersed, over half-way through, having some mixed feelings but overall positive. And I came to a part that reminded me of my childhood.

In this chapter Jeanette's mother is leaving to take some special classes to regain her teaching credential. She leaves 13-year-old Jeanette with 200 dollars for food and bills. Jeanette sees this as the time to show she can be a strong woman and will not make the mistakes her mother makes. She sees it as a time she can stand up to her alcoholic dad and make ends meet.

Her dad comes by after several days' absence and asks for five dollars. Jeanette doesn't want to give it to him but she does. A few times more she caves in, ultimately destroying her carefully-designed budget. She comes to see that her mother does indeed have a tough time meeting obligations.

When I was about the same age my mother often took trips to be with my brother, who had been badly burned when leaning over a hot stove, wearing a highly-flammable shirt (later taken off the market, that material). Chris was in the hospital in Ann Arbor, about 500 miles from home. One time my mother gave me her checkbook and told me to juggle the bills, pay only the urgent ones. I was glad to have control of the finances at last. I wondered why we were always running out of money and having to get credit at a small grocery for weeks at a time. With me it would be different.

It wasn't long before I realized that my zealous bill-paying was going to mean we would run out of money rather too soon. I loved paying bills but discovered that if I paid them all we wouldn't eat.

Walls' story is far more dramatic than mine. Not many people spend a childhood on the road, getting stars as birthday presents, learning to read at age three, thinking that sleeping in a cardboard box is an adventure. A lot more people deal with alcoholic parents, clearly a part of Walls' picture but not the whole picture. Yet reading her story has made me think about mine.

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