[This is a reprint of a short story published in a literary magazine. Anyone who has read “Who Got Liz Gardner” will also recognize portions of it from the book. But, there are differences, so please enjoy.]
Radiance by definition: the quality of being bright and sending out rays of light. Radiance was also my mother’s name. Yes, her real name; christened so by my forward thinking grandmother in 1925. Beginning life with such a spectacular label proposed challenges, but Radiance was up for them.
Mom was beautiful, theatrical, vivacious, creative and high-maintenance. She aspired to be an actress but her career only bloomed locally on the community stage. She was, however, magnificent. She was my role model, my support, my fan club and my best friend. She was also my antagonist.
I was the final product of Mom’s fifth and last marriage. Amongst this woman’s many loves, she captured the hearts of five men who found her too irresistible not to marry. Conversely, each one was eventually overwhelmed and blinded by her brilliant light, ultimately leaving her to shine alone.
But role model she was. I observed my Mom’s technique to suffer, beg compromise, negotiate and manipulate men – my father in particular. And I learned. I watched her desperate attempts fail to produce the results she sought. And I learned. I watched my Dad try to smother her with a pillow and I believed her when she caught her breath and calmly told me and my brother they were rehearsing a scene from a play. I watched her survive. And I learned. Radiance was nothing if not a warrior. She had dreadful judgment regarding which battles she picked, but she fought valiantly and she survived.
My parents divorced when I was twelve years old and I lived with my father for the next four years. By sixteen, I was terribly in need of maternal love, attention and guidance. Much to my mother’s elation, I returned to the warmth of the womb. What I didn’t anticipate was the role reversal; Radiance was just as needy for the same. She became helpless and clingy. She displayed weakness, dependency and anxiety with regularity. I became impatient and angry with her behavior. I felt overwhelmed; not safe and secure as I had anticipated. She was forcing me to surrender my childhood to become her mother! Ah, there’s that blinding light that drives everyone away!
I was a terror throughout my teens and blatantly tortured my mother. I showed her utter disrespect; I spoke harshly to her without reservation; I avoided her; I told her I hated her. I broke her heart countless times and each tear she shed empowered my aggression. But somehow she survived my attacks and belligerence. She never gave up on me and she never stopped loving me. And I learned. I learned what unconditional meant.
I didn’t lighten up on my Mom until I came home one day from high school to an ambulance parked in front of my house. There was a small crowd of neighbors all whispering that the “little lady who lived there had jumped off the roof.” We had a two story house. I was charged with the intense level of fear and terror that adrenalin can stimulate. I pushed through everyone to my Mom being carried out by paramedics. She was alive but crushed. She didn’t jump off the roof of our house, she fell. She lost her footing while – brace yourself- vacuuming leaves off the roof. Radiance didn’t always employ the most sensible judgment when it came to certain ideas. This was clearly not one of her smarter plans. But she survived and I learned.
Don’t vacuum leaves off the roof!
Once we were past the crisis, I collapsed emotionally, rattled with the panic of how close I came to losing Mom. Amazingly, she recovered from a collapsed lung and multiple fractures. Eventually my fright gave way to appreciating her, but before long, the conflicts were queued up again.
By the age of seventeen, I was dating a thirty-two year old divorcé with two small children. I moved into his house, but Mom tried everything she could to keep me close. That summer, his eight year old daughter, Debbie, was visiting. My boyfriend had to go out of town for a business trip leaving Debbie fatherless with a teen guardian.
I tried to plan fun activities and called Mom for suggestions. She had planned to drive to Atlanta to see my sister for a few days and asked if we would like to come along. She sweetened the deal by offering to pay for a day at Six Flags over Georgia. This was ideal timing. It would be nice to see my sister too.
I can’t remember the last time I was in a captive situation for hours with my mother. We were all going to be in a car for at least seven. I tried not to anticipate the worst, but Mom did not disappoint. Debbie and I packed a few things, swung by to pick Mom up, and began our trip to Atlanta in my Gremlin.
Ninety minutes out of Tampa and Mom is already languishing from the heat. I ran the air conditioning but it wasn’t freezing enough for her.
It starts. The more she whined and overdramatized how she was melting, the more she amused Debbie, who had never seen a grown woman bellyache so much. The hilarity would be short lived as my Mom would morph very soon into a shrike (a brown or gray songbird with a screeching call and a hooked beak that eats insects and small animals that become impaled on sharp objects such as thorns.) We pulled over and bought a bag of ice so Mom could dab a washcloth into the ice water and use it to keep her cool.
We had only driven as far north as Gainesville when we stopped for dinner. We’d lost an hour of drive time, so Mom decided we should stop for the day and stay at a hotel.
The evening was relatively uneventful. Mom was in total fantasy land as she regaled Debbie with tales of our wonderful relationship. In the morning, we had breakfast and hit the road again. No more than twenty minutes crossing the Georgia state line, Mom started to bristle her quills. We had been playing word games like Password, twenty questions, etc., and Mom decided to introduce a really fun concept…Let’s name the presidents and state capitals! I was a pretty decent student, but I couldn’t name presidents in order (still can’t), and truth be told, I’m still challenged with at least half the state capitals.
The game began. Mom zeroed in on Debbie and started grilling her. Debbie tried her best, but with every incorrect answer, Mom made her feel stupid and insignificant. Mom had a mean streak in her that was rarely shown, but when she was bad, she was horrible. I had grown up with her so I had the tools necessary to handle her episodes. Debbie, on the other hand, was a complete innocent. She didn’t understand what my mother was doing or why.
So once Radiance was on a roll, she wouldn’t stop. She criticized Debbie, her education (or lack of it), her parents, her looks, her weight… She surpassed the boundaries of tactlessness and indecency.
Had my dear mother completely forgotten what this little girls’ situation was? Had she forgotten the purpose of this trip was to cheer her up since her dad ditched her?
I drove while this assault unfolded. Debbie was weeping and Mom literally told her to suck it up. I was desperately trying to stop the attack, but Mom ignored me. She had her fangs deep into this victim and was intoxicated with the taste of blood.
Debbie was my responsibility and I had to protect her. Mom wouldn’t stop. It was weird—like an avalanche that couldn’t be thwarted. Debbie was pleading with me to make her stop and kept imploring, “Why does your Mom hate me??????!!?”
I pulled over on Interstate 75 and stopped the car.
We stopped on the median. That shut her up. I demanded she apologize to Debbie. She would not. I felt like a mother tiger protecting her young. I told Mom to get out of the car. She turned pale (as did Debbie) and then started to laugh (as did Debbie). I wasn’t kidding. And she knew it. She had gone too far. At that point, I didn’t care if she apologized. I wanted this toxic troll out of the car. She had spewed her venom for the last time.
I was livid and even though she became penitent, I was too far gone. Again I insisted that she get out of the car. Mom gave me an adrenalized stare and then tried to get tough.
“You can’t do this to me. I’m your mother.”
“I know who you are. Get out.”
She wouldn’t budge. I took the keys from the ignition, got out, and walked around to the passenger side. Mom locked the door and held the handle all the while screaming, “Stop it! Lizzie, honey, PLEASE!”
I put the key in her door and firmly pulled the handle while turning the key. She fell back away from the open door as she clutched her purse. I grabbed her arms and literally pulled her out kicking and screaming. (My adrenalin was pumping too, but she only weighed about 90 pounds, so the extraction wasn’t too difficult.) Once she was out, I locked and slammed the passenger door shut. Walked around to the drivers’ side, got in, and drove off.
I’m sure Mom thought I was bluffing in order to scare her. Debbie sure thought I was. Until I picked up speed and really drove off. I briefly saw Mom in the rearview mirror, shocked and defeated. We were too far away to see the transition to fear and panic.
The expected thing to say now would be, “I’m not proud of what I did,” but that would be a lie. I was very proud of myself, then and to this day. At such a young age, my maternal instincts had kicked in, and I did what I believed necessary to protect my young. I will admit that tossing my mom out of a car (at least it wasn’t moving) probably didn’t set a good example for Debbie, although she idolized me as a result. She was somewhere between stunned and exhilarated from my actions.
Even now, I teach my teenage daughter about abusive relationships. Regardless of personal or professional, it you are in an abusive relationship (physically, emotionally, psychologically), try everything you can to heal it. If it cannot be healed and you remain in danger, remove yourself from it. Period. Both parties must be willing to do the work; you can’t do it all. Besides, you can’t heal the abuser. That’s not your job; it’s theirs. If you can’t see clearly, remove the obstacle. God, I hope my kid doesn’t throw me out of a car some day. Now that would be karma.
* * *
Mom was fine. I never had a doubt her resourcefulness would see her through this little adventure. Someone picked her up within minutes (I can just hear her telling that story) and took her to a gas station where she called a taxi. The cab took her to the Atlanta airport; she booked a flight home and was back before dinner time.
Debbie and I went on to Six Flags and had the time of our lives. Being Radiance’s daughter, I was resourceful too. I had brought cash, just in case.
By the time we returned to Tampa, Mom had left nearly a dozen messages on my answering machine. They all said the same thing: “Please forgive me.”
Wow! I dumped her like garbage on the side of the road and she asks my forgiveness. I suspect this was some weird twisted reverse psychology, but I forgave her. We would talk about this episode for the rest of her life. She would continue to ask me, right up until the moment before she died, if I had really forgiven her.
Radiance did her best. She was the best mom she knew how to be. She had learned from her role model and hers before her.
Mom died before my daughter was born, but the baton had been passed. I knew what kind of a mother I hoped to be. Radiances’ legacies were her survival skills and unwavering love. She had an insanely high pain threshold and, while she would wince, she would always rise above. In fact, even in death, she lives on. Her brilliant light did not go out when she died; it’s just shining somewhere else.
Whenever my daughter mouths off to me or says something hurtful, I turn to the light and I know Radiances’ granddaughter still loves me.