"Mothers are all slightly insane," Holden Caulfield says at one point in The Catcher in the Rye. I always knew what he meant. It was never a quote that I puzzled over. In five words, he nailed it.
Yes, mothers are all slightly insane, some more slightly than others. They're insane because they can never be certain, ever, that their child(ren) is(are) completely without harm. They are on some kind of alert twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Some part of them never sleeps. You can't be that attentive and worried for that long and not be slightly crazy. Combine this worry with powerlessness—as soon as the boy or girl steps out of the house (out of the room, actually), they can't do a thing to protect them.
|My mother holding me, age 7 weeks|
Of course, the more children you have, the nuttier you become. And let me add that raising four or five children will make anyone a bit nuts. But I don't think that is the kind of nuts Holden meant. I think it's the unbearable helplessness of protecting someone you would die for, twice and thrice over.
So, they act strange sometimes. They say strange things, ask strange things, do strange things. It seems like they've lost it sometimes, their basic intelligence goes out the window. They repeat themselves. They make inconsequential remarks. They approve of almost everything. They lose their balance. They reach out a hand. They begin a sentence. They look around the room. There's no one there.
|Holding her twins with me pondering. She had three children within eleven months|
I cannot imagine that pull, like the moon pulls at the tide, that you can never free yourself of as a mother. The pull toward the child you gave birth to.
I think of my own mother, of her difficult life, and of her living alone after her divorce. For years. I think of all that she tried to do with that ache and pull toward her children. I think of her carrying that pull and the ache of loving me and that love unrequited, and how can you stand that day after day year after year? I think of her probably thinking she hadn't been a good mother, and how that must have devastated her after worrying about us so deeply and so continuously.
|In Old Greenwich sometime in the 1970s|
It's too late to tell her that I love her. I'm not here to say anything silly like, tell your mom you love her before it's too late. I'm just here to say to you, Mom, that you deserved better. But I can't. Because you're dead.