He always started such stories by telling me that he didn’t want to say anything bad about my mother — but then he would proceed to tell a story designed to make her look bad.
When I was a child, he seemed to see their children both as pawns of their arguments and also the prizes of the game. He was terrified of her winning custody of us, so he subtly poisoned our attitudes about Mother, all the while pretending to be sympathetic to her.
His stories about their college years centered around the narrative that she was incompetent and that everyone knew it. He implied that he was the respected one and that people laughed at her.
I grew up with their college yearbooks on our bookshelves, so I looked at them many times. But one of my sisters ended up with those books and I haven’t seen them for many years.
Last night, I discovered that Jacksonville State University has all of its yearbooks online, so I downloaded the books from the years both of my parents were there. I quickly found myself re-evaluating my narrative about my mother — once again.
My mother was a senior in 1955 and my father was a senior in 1956. He was three years older than she was, but he had been in the Army for a couple of years and taken a couple of years off to work as well. He majored in history and minored in English. She majored in English and minored in history.
In her senior yearbook, my mother’s name is all over the book:
— She was one of the women featured as “campus beauties.”
— She was a member of the Writers’ Club and had been a club officer.
— She was a member of the newspaper staff.
— She had been named to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities.
— She had been an officer of the Baptist Student Union.
— She had been elected an officer of her residence hall.
— She had been elected to the SGA Senate as a sophomore.
— She was one of a fairly small number of seniors who was awarded a “certificate of achievement.”
— She was a member of the college choir.
I had seen all of this when I was a child, but I didn’t have the adult experience to know how to evaluate all of it. As I see all of this in light of having gone to college and been around organizations all my life, I now see things completely differently.
My mother was popular. People thought highly of her. She was a leader.
My father painted a picture of a beautiful woman who just happened to be elected to an SGA post by accident. He claimed she was incompetent at that job, in fact.
One of his favorite stories was one in which he claimed that someone in a meeting needed some information from the notes of a previous meeting, but my mother turned out to have no notes — because she had no idea she was supposed to be keeping records.
Knowing him as I now do, I don’t believe his story now. There was probably a small grain of truth in it. She might have failed to record some specific thing from a meeting which was later questioned. That’s believable. But my father had a habit of taking tiny pieces of truth and building more elaborate narratives around them.
A college student who had already spent years on a campus of thousands of students would have developed a reputation for what she was. Looking at the evidence — and thinking about what I knew of both of them — I’m inclined to think she was a competent and impressive woman.
I didn’t know that my mother had been a writer. I was floored to see that she was a member of the Writers’ Club and had been one of the club officers. I knew that she created art when I was young — and had close friends who were artists — but nobody ever mentioned her writing to me.
How did that creative spark in her become extinguished over the years?
The only mention of my father in that year’s book — outside of his picture in the alphabetical class listing — was that he was part of the Wesley Foundation, which was an organization for Methodist students.
I turned to his senior yearbook, thinking that maybe he would be mentioned more often during his final year.
I found his class picture and a meager list of activities. That was all. Other than his history major and his hometown, it had nothing listed except the Wesley Foundation and another organization which was an adjunct to the Wesley Foundation.
My father never quite said this, but he always seemed to imply that my mother had been lucky to have him. He made it seem as though she would have been nothing without him. It sounds exactly like what I would expect from someone suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.
Looking at it from where I am today, I’d say he was very lucky to have attracted her attention. She seems to have been popular and respected enough that she would have had her choice of men.
For my sake (and for the sake of my sisters), I’m glad they married, of course, because we would never have existed otherwise. But it seems obvious — especially with what we know now — that my mother would have been far better off without him.
I wish I could have known the woman who I see depicted in the pages of her college yearbooks. By the time I knew her well, he had already beaten her down and driven her to an emotional collapse. He poisoned what I thought of her and I was never able to try to get to know her on my own until I was in my mid 20s.
By that time, life had defeated Mother. She had spent years on drugs for bi-polar disorder. Despite years of seeing psychiatrists, I don’t think she ever got the help she really needed. She was a shell of what she had been by the time I knew her.
When I was young, I learned to believe that I was lucky to have my father and that I had been unlucky to have her as my mother. All these years later, I see the narrative pretty much in reverse. She was unlucky to have married him. She had grown up in an abusive home with violent parents and I suspect that made something about him seem normal to her.
As for me, I look at her as a college student — and see how accomplished and popular she was — and I see that I was lucky to have had her as my mother.
The older I get, the more I realize that the best parts of myself seem to have come from her.