My mother had no common phobias that I knew of, growing up. She didn’t like mice or insects, but disposed of them with a minimum of fuss. We never encountered snakes. I don’t remember her having any reaction to my fears, which are heights and bridges. But she was wildly afraid of birds.
Birds. All of them. Even the tiny finches that populate my bushes in hopping swarms, hunting bugs on branches before they flutter off. She feared the bright-beaked chickadees and fat-bellied robins, the overbearing jays, the comical crows.
I love the songbirds and the corvids, but I can understand a healthy wariness of raptors. They have a focused and lethal beauty, but I am not a mouse, a shrew, or a field rat. I am completely beside the point for a raptor. And now that I no longer have to watch for owls when I let small dogs out at night, I can let myself admire the owls.
Talking birds are a little iffier for me. Very large tropical birds have talons and beaks. They speak. This is an uncanny combination, and unsettling even to me. But the smaller talking birds? The wee parrots, parakeets and budgies? Oh, I adore them.
Mom was terrified of them. All of them. Every single bird.
My parents were both educated, literate people. They were passionate about politics, art, music, literature. They raised us to be the same.
Our house was alive with conversation.
When they lived in Missoula, my parents rented office space in the Wilma Building. If you’ve never lived in Missoula, this means nothing to you. If you have lived in Missoula, you know what an adventure that was back in the 1970s, when Bob and Eddie presided over Missoula’s small gay culture from their lavish apartments on the Wilma’s upper stories.
One day, while waiting for a ride down, the elevator opened on Mom’s floor. Out stepped Bob (or maybe it was Eddie), a small green bird riding on his shoulder. My mother went white and flattened herself against the hallway wall. She let him pass without a word. Mom, I told her, that was a parakeet.
It didn’t matter. A bird indoors was her worst fear.
I need to make it clear how much I loved my mother. I longed to spend time with her. She was my favorite person in the world.
I believe most phobias have an origin. My own fear of bridges happened after Mom had a friend—I’d describe him as an arrogant jerk—who took us out on his huge sailboat. He had a daughter close to Lauren’s age who had grown up on this boat, and he laughed when I asked for life jackets for my two children. He accused me of not trusting his expertise.
I spent the entire sail around the Sound watching Lauren in an eagle-eyed panic, with one arm tightly wrapped around baby Rachel, and the other looped into the strap of a floatable cushion. I was sick with fear the entire outing, trying to figure out how to save two children if we went into the icy water. How long would we last? Would Lauren’s swimming lessons pay off? Dear God, would it never be over?
During this sail, my mother was serene and joyful, as she was on a boat. When we docked, she alighted, refreshed and exuberant. My knees shook so hard that I almost couldn’t walk. I vowed to never back down on an issue of safety again, but the damage was done. For the next twenty years, I approached any bridge with hammering heart and prickling armpits, gripping the wheel, determined not to let this new phobia get the best of me. It has mostly abated.
Where did Mom’s bird phobia come from?
My mother’s mother, Grandma Lucille, had representations of birds throughout her home. There was a pair of large ceramic chickens on the side table in her breakfast room. There was a framed print of a nesting robin on her dining room wall. There was a ceramic cardinal, because she lived in South Dakota and my grandmother loved a cardinal. And there were two porcelain robins, a pretty one and a fat, grumpy one. I loved him.
But I discovered my favorite of Grandma’s birds in her dressing room. It was California pottery by an artist named Kay Finch, who specialized in figurines of birds and animals with signature curling eyelashes. This little bird was ivory colored and trimmed with green. He looked so happy to me with his fat cheeks and feminine eyelashes. One day, while admiring him, I turned him over. Written on the bottom in girlish script was a loving message to my grandmother from my mother, who at some point had bought this bird for Grandma Lucille and inscribed it.
Later in her life, my mother gave Grandma Lucille two Limoges plates with birds on them. They were different than Grandma’s usual birds, more elegant and stylized, and Mom had found them in France. She was a bit defensive about this expensive gift, as she was defensive about so many things. But Grandma seemed happy with them. She displayed them in her hutch.
My mother grew up feeling unloved and unappreciated by her mother. According to my grandmother and aunt, Mom was furious most of the time. She was personally affronted by her sister’s slim beauty, and found her mother maddening. My grandmother was a deliberately oblique person, determinedly serene, who hid from life’s difficulties in Christian Science. She found her daughter exhausting.
They were an ill-matched pair, as far as a child’s needs and an adult’s capabilities. But I took comfort in these gifts from my mother to my grandmother, the plump bird, the elegant plates. My mother hated birds, but she gave them to her mother. This was physical evidence. They showed (to me, at least) a desire to love.
If I were to write a memoir about my parents, I would call it “Always Starting Over.”
My grandmother’s home was lovely. It was full of items my mother coveted. She spoke of it reverently, cataloguing the origins and perceived value of its contents. Grandma kept some items her entire life. My Aunt Elaine ended up with all of it when my grandmother died, and expected me to be upset about it.
I wasn’t. I have things from Grandma, I reassured her. I have a painting, bricabrac. I have some jewelry.
She still worried. When she and my uncle finally sold their home, my aunt specifically called to apologize for leaving behind Grandmother Lucille’s loveseat in her barn.
My mother had beautiful things, but she sold them because our constant moves would wreck them. Besides, we needed the money. So one by one, they went. A secretary desk here. A massive oak table there. Daybeds and chairs. Washstands. Headboards. All left behind in my childhood, shed like the sideboards and pianos discarded by early pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Raptors know that a comfortable chick will never learn to kill. So as soon as chicks are ready to fledge, the eagles begin to remove whatever made them comfortable. This is called “stirring the nest.”
My mother had therapy at different times in her life. The longest stretch came in her mid-fifties. This coincided with menopause, which finally brought relief from her PMDS. She didn’t have a medical diagnosis for this, only my armchair diagnosis, based on witnessing her day-long tirades every four weeks for most of my early life. Mom could fly off the handle at any time, but these rages were perfectly timed with my own period. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
I imagine their cessation was a huge relief for her. Maybe that’s why she was ready to do some work. Once she reached her fifties, my mother’s life was fairly serene, at least by our family’s standards.
She learned a few things in therapy. She was fascinated by a new idea that all events are neutral. She’d always interpreted every upset as a personal attack on her. But she started to repeat this like a mantra. “All events are neutral.”
Another revelation was repeated less often. I remember when she told me that she had a narcissistic personality. She wanted to share this information about herself, but she did it with an edge of her trademark defensiveness. “It means that I interpret every event in terms of how it affects me,” she explained. I’m sure it had not occurred to my mother that this was unusual, even pathological. She wanted me to understand that to her, it was only natural.
I listened, nodded. I treated the information as neutral.
My mother didn’t understand the anxiety that plagued all four of her children. We are riddled with it. It would shut down my older brother to the point where she and my dad would have to intervene at times. Pay his bills. Hold his hand. Even bring him to live with them for a bit, until he calmed down enough to take on life again.
But Steve was simply the most affected by anxiety. The rest of us dealt with it as best we could. Mom would shake her head, baffled. “I just don’t have that,” she would say. As if it were inconceivable that we would have something she didn’t. As if its very presence were a complete mystery. As if our anxieties could not be traced back to childhoods marked by her monthly tirades, her screaming arguments with our birth fathers, the divorces, constant moves, and social rejection brought on by always starting over. We always experienced financial insecurity, often to the degree of not having food in the house.
Those were our shared disasters, but we each had our own personal load to carry. My older brother lived with the torment of being extremely obese back when there were no fat kids. My sister was abused from a very early age by a trusted male relative. After the older kids left home, my younger brother was left alone repeatedly to fend for himself while my parents spent their evenings in coffee shops or bars. He was six years old.
And me? Well, in addition to what I shared with my siblings, there was the fallout from being put out at age fifteen to live in a different state with a physically abusive older boyfriend. That was terrible—with the first few months marked by profound loneliness and anxiety attacks that robbed me of my ability to breathe—but at least I could finish high school in one place. My parents lived in three states and six homes during my last two years of high school.
Besides, he didn’t hit me that often.
When I finally called my parents and told them what was happening, my mother said, “Just try not to make him mad, Honey.”
I have turned my own life over and over in my hands, trying to understand how it went so radically astray, trying to understand what it has done to me, what I did to myself. As hard as it was to be on my own at fifteen, I think it probably saved me. My worst misfortune was that I grew up in a house of volcanoes. I was the only calm person in a household of reactive, emotional personalities, screaming and crying and shaking and falling down in fits. This is its own kind of trauma.
So, yeah, we had anxiety. And Mom didn’t get it.
I wondered if Mom told her therapist about any of this, our U-Haul odyssey of a life, daughters shoved out too early. I doubt it. It would have blown her hard-won cover.
She and Dad had reinvented themselves on Bainbridge Island. They both worked at Boeing as technical writers. They owned bed & breakfasts. They moved a lot—eight houses in twenty years—but they stayed on the island where they had a group of friends, daily coffee meet-ups, the opera. Bainbridge was the base from which they traveled internationally. They went to live in Turkey for a while but came back to finish out their lives on Bainbridge.
I want that to be true. But it isn’t.
There was one more major life disruption in the works. My parents were actively planning to divorce when my mother found out she had cancer. They didn’t get a divorce, obviously. They clung together for the duration of her very short decline.
My father was gutted by her death, as were we all.
As I’ve said, I don’t know all that Mom worked on in therapy. I do know that Mom talked about her bird phobia with her therapist. At first, she thought it had to do with her own mother, something about Grandma Lucille’s love of birds, some aspects of her demeanor that were supposedly bird-like. But in truth, Grandma’s birds were simply knickknacks. After much discussion, my mother and her therapist decided it was something else.
Mom saw “The Birds” and never got over it.
During the Dust Bowl, crows built nests out of barbed wire. They built with what they had.
Once I learned that fact, I have never quite gotten over it.
I haven’t had a lot of therapy, but I have worked on a lot, mostly through writing. One thing I still work on is giving myself permission to write honestly about my life. This, of course, includes writing about my mother. It feels incredibly disloyal to tell the truth. It also feels incomplete.
I had a difficult mother, but I didn’t have a difficult relationship with her. I loved her. But more importantly, I always felt so loved by her. I never doubted her love for an instant, and her last words to me were, Oh, I love you. She feared being taken to task for the ways she had failed me, but I never had the heart to do it. I forgave her, completely, honestly, repeatedly.
I hope she felt my love flying from my heart to hers, constant and true to this day.
At a loss for words, Karen. In person, I’d just hug you.
I would so take that hug, Linda.
This post touches me deeply. Thank you for sharing your life experiences.
There’s something really important about having a comment like this from someone who went to school with me. <3
You share so openly in your writing, I feel you as a friend even though we have spent so little time together in person; most of that absorbed in watching whatever show we are attending. I hope one day we can spend more actual time getting to know each other. Until then, I will enjoy the glimpses you afford me of a lovely and strong person, working to overcome obstacles life has put in your path. Thank you for sharing..
Pat, we must have coffee one day! Seeing each other out at shows is not enough.
Thank you Karen for this display of honesty and love. Both qualities shine through. I am so enriched by our friendship. I love you, sarah
I love you, dear friend.