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The Moment I Made Peace With My Mother

As a teen, I lashed out because she’d left me. It took a milestone of adulthood to realize she loved me.

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image_of_RebekahSager_and_mother_Forgive Mother by Chris Oriley_1800.jpg
Courtesy Rebekah Sager (Illustration by Chris O’Riley) 
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My feelings about my mother have been conflicted as far back as I can remember.

My parents’ 6-year marriage dissolved when I was 8 months old. As was the gender norm, my mother, a green-eyed beauty born in Bath, England, and known to have had the figure of a “Bond girl,” was awarded custody. My dad told me, years later, that she’d sashayed into the courtroom with a skirt so short you could see her panties. It was the 60s after all.

When I was about two, Dad visited our apartment and found me in my crib covered in vomit. My mother, out on a date, had left with me with a negligent babysitter. My father scooped me up, took me home, and shortly thereafter, demanded custody. My mother gave in without much of a fight. “She needed to find herself,” I was told when I was old enough to ask. And so began my journey of being raised by my single Black father.

I would see my mother on weekends or for short trips to visit the “Jewish side” of my family in Chicago. When these trips ended, I’d crash from the emotional high and grieve for days. Even now, when I see tearful goodbyes at airports, I recall little Rebekah in unkempt braids, holding Bobby, her teddy bear, unable to stop crying.

Unlike my father, my mother was lovingly demonstrative. She was the fun parent. She’d take me to movies, plays and museums. We went to Universal Studios and stayed with her best friend in Los Angeles. She would take me trick-or-treating. Once she dressed me as a “fortuneteller,” draping me in beads, adding clip-on earrings, a scarf and a long skirt (as we know, political correctness around ethnic representation wasn’t the order of the era).

Rebekah and her father
Courtesy of Rebekah Sager

My father, a busy taskmaster, didn’t have as much time for fun. His main concern was that I was safe, clean, well-fed and well-educated. Born in tiny Morrow, Louisiana, he held a Ph.D. in microbiology. He taught at medical schools and universities in the States, France and Israel, taking me along in the years before kindergarten. He had girlfriends but never remarried. To this day, friends and family muse about his unyielding dedication to raising me.

So, Dad was shocked, when out of the blue, my mother petitioned for custody. And he was floored when at 13, I chose to go. Part of my decision rested in the joy of being with her full time. But, also, I was blossoming in ways my father couldn’t fully understand. My mother would. She had just finished nursing school and had rented a little house in a Washington, D.C., suburb — settled enough, finally, to mother me full time.

Like many teenage girls and their mothers, we fought. I was usually the instigator, spewing insults about her selfishness and mothering skills. She had no interest in cooking, fashion, makeup tips or helping with homework. Our battles usually ended with her tearful apologies and my refusal to accept them. Torn, we’d also try to mend our differences; though I was far from ready. She needed to feel the pain that I’d felt missing her all those years. And I cut in ways that shame me today. Some of it I blame on hormones, but mostly, I was just mean. There’s nothing easy about forgiveness.

After I graduated college and later married, things between us spiraled further. Ironically, my son’s birth reenergized my resentment. I’d look at his little mocha-colored fingers wrapped around mine, his button nose and dark almond eyes and wonder how my mother could have walked away, because I could never envision leaving him. So, along with the joy of his birth, I felt emotional distance from her. When my first husband and I decided to move from the district to San Diego, it felt good to punish her a little and take her only grandson, age 2, almost 3,000 miles away.

In the years that followed, she’d visit. I saw how much my son loved being with her, as I had as a child. She wasn’t simply fun. She was great to be with because she had no agenda for who she thought you should be. She simply loved you as you were. She was a straight shooter and she did not suffer fools, telling the doctors she worked with if they were competent or not. But, she loved the people in her life unconditionally and fiercely. Although I judged her, she never judged me back. Watching her with my son made me see and understand her anew. She looked at him the way she’d looked at me — like he was the most beautiful and talented kid in the world. I became ready for a deeper connection.

Forgiveness is a process

The day my mother called and told me she’d suffered a heart attack and needed quadruple bypass surgery, I flew to Washington to care for her. Our talks, many about my marriage, had substance. She told me to “woman-up” and be honest about what I felt. “If not, what’s the point of being married?” she asked. I would divorce four years later.

Our time together felt meaningful. One night we sat for hours watching coverage of 60 Minutes anchor Ed Bradley’s death. He’d been our favorite host. I cooked her healthy breakfasts with egg whites and turkey sausage and grilled chicken and salads for lunch. For her 65th birthday, we ventured out to her favorite Indian restaurant.

“As it turns out, part of finding myself meant also forgiving my mother. I just wish I could’ve had more time with her without all the anger, because I would have cherished more of the laughter and less of the sadness.”

Once she was stronger, I gave her a hug goodbye, allowing myself to snuggle my nose into her neck and rest my head on her shoulder. I let her hold me tight and comfort me. I told her that this was the beginning of a new and healthier life; she looked at me as if she doubted it. Looking back, I think she knew her time had run out. Our time had run out. I told her I couldn’t wait for her to visit, and that we’d enjoy my favorite cliffside hike in La Jolla, overlooking the Pacific. But, she knew.

Rebekah and her mother
Couresy of Rebekah Sager

A week later, her best friend rushed her to the hospital, where doctors discovered a blood infection. While there, she had another heart attack. This one was fatal.

I was shocked and helpless, pummeled by waves of grief, anger and nausea. I developed a low-back pain that still flares up when I think of that period.

It would take me five years after her death, and the divorce from my first husband, to fully come to terms with my mother’s absence in my life, first when I was a child and now that I’m grown. My divorce laid bare what she must have felt leaving my father and me. Just as she had, I felt the struggle of needing to pursue my life’s dreams on the one hand but knowing that by leaving the marriage I would risk branding my son with his own feelings of abandonment. Incredibly, I was standing in her shoes and my decisions paralleled hers. As it turns out, part of finding myself meant also forgiving my mother. I just wish I could’ve had more time with her without all the anger, because I would have cherished more of the laughter and less of the sadness.

Mom’s legacy: Live life without limitations

My mother was a brave, sensitive woman with an unorthodox view of life. I know this now. Even though it was still against the law in several U.S. states, she didn’t blink when at 19 years old, she married a Black man in 1960 and then a woman in 2002, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal. She refused to live by societal “shoulds” and did what was right for her.

Mom once told me that people come into their own as they grow older and wiser. At the time she said it, I judged her for taking too long. But it’s taken me a long time too. Now, I understand the process. Forgiving someone means letting go of who you want them to be and accepting them for who they are. I love you, mom. Just the way you were. And I hope you know that I forgive you.