Guest Essay #2January 19, 2024
by Suzanne Crain Miller
My mother was feared, fearless and fearful. Never at the same time. As a fifth-grade teacher she ruled her classroom with an equal amount of tender care and fierce sternness. She loved her students, and she knew no other way, due to her upbringing (or lack of it) to show love than to create fear. She wanted her students to be worried about if she was happy with them and she wanted them to bend to her needs. She needed them to prove she was a good teacher. A good person.
The schools she taught in were versions of Dangerous Minds–Michele Pfeifer would have avoided. Many teachers wouldn’t have taught in them. This was only one of the many ways she was fearless. In the same way she and my father went to prisons to minister to the marginalized, my mother went to these rough schools to try to help her students not go to prison or get into some of the same addictions and lifestyles that had trapped their parents, to make it out.
She had made it out. A child of a schizophrenic and a soldier who’d married hastily and then divorced when she was just a baby, her father only ever seeing her one time, my mother lived in a level of poverty that many of those around her didn’t.
One of the repercussions of her mom’s mental illness was that they moved way too often to make any friends. This left them isolated and free from prying questions from her mom’s employers or her teachers.
My Grandmother’s mental illness went untreated most of her life. She took out her stressors on my mom beating her with frequency. The last beating she took was the day before her wedding to my Dad. This was the beginning of the end of their relationship as adults. My mom only went on to see her mom for a few more years after that. I saw her only once as a child.
With the help of a benevolent stepfather who was only in the picture a few years in my mom’s teens, she went away to a boarding school her last year of high school and then worked her way through college at the same school. She often talked about her waitressing days and all the people she met. I can’t imagine what it was like for her to put down roots and be in the same place for so long. Her descriptions of those years were much like that of an anthropologist visiting a foreign land, of an observer, but not part of.
Due to all the above, my whole life I can remember always knowing my mother was not only feared and fearless; she was fearful. She was terrified that she was like her mother. Deep down , this was her greatest fear- that she knew she was. There was no denying it. The proof was in our cowering, our cringing.
She didn’t physically abuse us as much as her mom had abused her. Her usual mode was emotional terrorism. Her weapons were co dependency , neediness juxtaposed with coldness and often rage. We were responsible for her. We needed to make it all better.
My mom has been dead for several years now. In her absence, I think about the entirety of who she was and some of who she wasn’t. Mainly, I think about how she passed on the best parts of herself to me in spite of her fears. She gave me a bit of her tenacity, faith and love for others.
It is said that one generation can only do a little better than the one before it.
If this is true , I’m hoping I can leave behind being feared and fearful. I’m hoping I can reach back, into my memories of my time with her in this life and only grip the fearlessness letting the rest fall away… only the fearlessness.
Suzanne Crain Miller is an artist and writer living in N.C. She can be connected with on Instagram (Wednesdays) via tattooeddaughter. And subscribe to her blog via https://tattooeddaughter.wordpress.com