The day we missed out on watching hot air balloons with my mother’s side of the family is a perfect example of when they made me the villain and punished me for it. And I participated by feeling shamed.
It’s hard to put into words just how awful this was, but it remains vivid to me as one of the many, many times I was held in contempt by my family and blamed for having a rocky relationship with my mother. They delivered that message clearly many times over the years.
This was in the years before cell phones, FYI; I think I was in my mid-20s. Here’s the story: Our group of cousins and aunts met at one place (probably for lunch) and then headed to an aunt’s home for an afternoon of chatting. I was following other relatives because I didn’t know the way to my aunt’s new home, but my mother assured me that she did and, besides, we could see the others just ahead of us.
Those family members drove like bats out of hell (20-30 mph over the speed limit) and soon left us far behind in the dust. I got anxious and irritable because I hate being lost, and I felt pressure to arrive at the house with the others and not be the poky idiot who couldn’t find her way there. As usual, my mother didn’t help my nerves, because she clutched the armrest with white knuckles if I got close to the highway speed limit, and she gasped and flung out her hands toward me if anything startled her (another car’s brake lights, a signal light changing up ahead, another car changing lanes, or someone speeding past us). This was the typical road experience with my mother … fraught with tension. I’m sure my blood pressure was through the roof.
Pretty soon I was a nervous wreck, and I got mad at her. We were arguing while I tried to catch up to the others without giving my mother the vapors over the car’s speed.
Yes, I know there were other solutions: I should have stopped letting her ride with me years earlier. I should have always had a map in the car with me. I should have been better prepared, but I wasn’t. Or I should have pulled over to a drive-through, ordered diet Cokes for my mother and me, and used a payphone to call my aunt’s house for directions. But I didn’t.
I kept trying to stand my mother for years to come. I kept thinking my mother would be a safe person to be around, just like I keep thinking today the same kind of thing about my husband.
After an eternity, we got to my aunt’s house and to our surprise were the first ones there. We were baffled and just sat in the car for a few minutes, wondering what the hell we should do next. In a little while, the others pulled up too and asked why didn’t we pull over along the way as they did, to watch people at a festival filling up their hot air balloons and going aloft.
Oh, drat. I hadn’t even noticed that because Mom and I were in the thick of it and I was so stressed as we drove past. I also hadn’t expected to stop. And if the others had kept to the speed limit — or even close to it — I would have seen them pull over and followed suit. This left me feeling foolish and set up for failure.
Feeling a little embarrassed, I said I was sorry for pulling them away to check on us. Let’s go back, I suggested.
They shook their heads no — we had already left that area (no more than 10 minutes away), and that opportunity was shot. We had ruined that. Let it go. We were here now, and we weren’t going back. That was their punitive response to me.
A cousin’s husband said something like, “We were watching the balloons when you two flew by, your jaws just a-flapping, looking mad as a wet hen. We laughed and laughed at you.” He laughed then in a nasty, derogatory way, and he looked right at me (not my mother) while he said it. He walked away, shaking his head, still chuckling. Not chuckling like he was genuinely amused; it was more like contempt for me.
Here are some things I have thought about that scene since then:
- It takes two people to argue. But only I was blamed.
- We could easily have gone back to the field and watched the beautiful hot-air balloons fill up, but they chose to withhold that experience from me because I didn’t see them on my first pass. Apparently, there was only one chance to have fun. No second chances. It was not possible for me to redeem myself.
- There was no justification, in their eyes, for being angry and arguing with my mother. I was a bad, disrespectful, unreasonably angry, spoiled brat of a daughter. They blamed me for not putting up with my mother more gracefully. Well, more accurately, they didn’t see anything wrong with my mother; the problem was me. They saw my mother as a delightfully daffy, opinionated old cuss and me as just a self-centered asshole. (This is not me projecting; this is years of experience with my family’s views.)
- I could have gone back to the festival’s field and watched the balloons without them, but I didn’t think to do so. Instead, I felt both shamed by them and ashamed of myself.
- They didn’t know what it was like to be my mother’s daughter.
It was just another day that taught me to feel helplessly angry, to feel judged and found wanting, and to feel hatred and shame for being myself.