November 15, 2021

1970s Television was Complicit in Erasing my Mother.


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My parents’ volatile divorce when I was a child resulted in the erasure of my mother.

In the aftermath of her exile, my screen time became filled with wonderful dads who saved the day, who got custody, and who helped their children see that they’d be “quite okay without their mothers, thank you very much.”

The movies and television shows that were chosen for me included, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” In this darling series, a widowed father takes care of his young child, a son about my age at the time of my parents’ divorce. They are best friends these two, surviving just fine without the child’s dead mother—clean and simple. As Eddie’s father was courting, so was mine, and soon my sister and I were calling my father’s second wife, “Mommy.”

In the sitcom “Family Affair,” little orphans Buffy and Jody come to depend on Uncle Bill like a father, their only available parent figure. With my pigtails and freckled nose, I bore a striking resemblance to Buffy and adopted the nickname.

With our new mother, we were eagerly taken to see “The Sound of Music”—our first time in a movie theater. As anyone who has seen the movie knows, the von Trapp children gain a wonderful new mother (played by Julie Andrews), to replace their dead one. Once again, the first mother is not spoken of, not once, lest we taint the joyfulness of the father’s new life with their now happy children.

Hey, what a coincidence—we don’t speak of my first mother either!

My sister and I were not allowed to watch “Cinderella.” Even though we saw various other Disney movies, the forbidden “Cinderella” includes a stepmother, and a wicked one at that. The word “stepmother is treated like a bad word, not spoken in our home—not ever, not even through a television set.

Eventually, we were introduced to “The Brady Bunch,” which was popular amongst all the girls our age, and lucky for us, an acceptable option since the two stepparents, Mike and Carol, simply became “Mom” and “Dad” to their stepchildren. There is no mention of the six children’s biological mom and dad, just one big happy blended family without a past.

Lastly, in another handpicked movie, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the father, played by Dustin Hoffman, takes care of his child after the mother abandoned them both. When she returns to claim her son, there is a fierce custody battle, but in the end, the prize goes to the dear old dad. It is the mother herself in fact, who declares the dad the better person for the job.

This seemed to be a daring act for my father, showing us a movie where the ex-wife and ex-mother actually make an appearance. I assume he took a calculated risk, intending for me to see that I too am best off with my dad, rather than it triggering my grief for my own mother.

I shed tears at the end of that movie. I felt trapped, held hostage to a lie. Someday, my child self thought, someday the truth will set me free.

I went through teenhood and young adulthood with all the distractions of a young person’s life, keeping my mother as a fading memory, a wispy outline of red hair and pale skin. And then when I was pregnant with my own daughter, all the questions, memories, pain, and unquenchable thirst to know all of it, everything there is to know, bubbled up from deep within me and surfaced.

I found her and we met, two women, almost strangers, each holding our share of the bond—both halves torn and frayed. We talked and listened, both of us protecting our own hearts, even as we allowed the tears to fall.

My grief began to make its way through my heart, breaking up like an iceberg once frozen—the thaw is both painful and welcomed. There is so much more to ask, to say, to heal, but now I get to write the script, full of truths revealed and grief set free.

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