Pieces of Ma

  by Lucinda Dohanian-Welch, '00


The Family Diagram

We’re driving in the car to somewhere. Somewhere that families go. I’m around seven, which makes brother Bryan around twelve and sister Stephanie around seventeen. It’s the family diagram: father and mother are in their places in the front, Dad behind the wheel, like all dads in the seventies; and Ma on the passenger side, like all moms in the seventies. Brother and sisters are in their places in back: Stephanie behind Dad, Bryan behind Ma, and me on the hump. The hump is the little area between Bryan and Stephanie in the backseat. It really can’t be referred to as an actual seat. Just dead space between the other two. It’s not contoured like the seats my brother and sister are settled into on either side of me. It’s hard and catches the bumps and vibrations of the axle underneath. There I perch, balancing my bony rearend on the hump, occasionally rocking into my brother and sister as the car takes a curve or comes to an abrupt stop. We don’t have seat belts in the seventies. This decade knows nothing of children being turned into projectiles as a car screeches, swerves, and then makes impact. That’s me riding shotgun on the hump. Never knowing when the car will stop and my body will keep going. Crashing through glass. Hurtling through space without a net.

The Little Box With Wheels

It’s dark and no one is saying anything. It’s easy for all of us to be alone and quiet together in the car. The hum and the motion lulls us all into our own personal space and private thoughts. I’m looking ahead through the windshield. I can only see a few feet past the headlights. I live in those few feet, moment to moment, taking what ever will come next.

Then Ma starts to laugh, or maybe there is no start, laughter is just suddenly there, filling the car. It’s a really hard laugh. The kind that empties your lungs and makes you bend under the force of it. The kind that makes the laugher make a wheezing sound that makes other people who hear it laugh, too. She dabs at her tearing eyes. "What?" "What is it?" we all ask but she can’t compose herself. She has a big, wonderful smile across her face that flashes teeth so pearly and straight, some speculate that she wears dentures. When she calms down enough to talk between heaves, she tells us that it’s the car that’s making her laugh. The idea of people sitting obediently in a little box as it wheels around from one location to the next strikes her as perfectly ludicrous. She knows it’s silly, but she can’t help it, and she laughs more. We smile and laugh, too, not because we think the car is funny, but because we get a kick out of the fact that Ma thinks it’s funny. That’s Ma. She laughs as much or more than anyone I know. I get my love of laughter from Ma.

Pieces of Ma

I’m attempting the impossible–to write about Ma. It’s so hard to explain Ma. That’s why I seldom write about her and what it was like to live with her. I don't want her to come across as an ogre, but at the same time, it would be dishonest to omit how disruptive her mental illness was to the family. I also don't want her to come across as one-dimensional. They say for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. For as cruel as Ma could be, she could be just as compassionate. For as irrational as she could be, she could be just as clear headed. For as melancholy as she could be, she could be just as light hearted. That was the roller coaster that was Ma. She was completely unpredictable. Her moods swung faster than the bat of a big-league ball player. Crack! And over the wall they’d fly, out of the park and into the sky. We never quite knew what had damaged her. Some unnamed abuse that we could only guess at. She never intentionally gave us any clues. Ma was never a whole picture that could be seen all at once. She only gave secrets away in little pieces. We tried to put them together, but they never quite fit. She died on February 23, 1996, taking the rest of her secrets with her.

"Hey, Ma!"

Ma was very poised and polished. She always reminded me of Jackie Onassis in her looks and the way that she carried herself. Yet she was completely down-to-earth, unaffected. While getting her undergrad degree she used to entertain at public functions by reciting–stories, poetry, hymns. She was so good at it that the Dean of Women asked her to turn some jobs down so the other girls could have a chance. I think of Ann Shirley in The House of Green Gables and how it was a huge deal for her to win a reciting contest. It’s fitting that Ma would excel at something so perfectly Victorian. She was quite Victorian herself, always in crisp but unfashionably functional dresses and skirts. That’s why it’s funny that I called her "Ma." I’d barked it out like a seasoned blue-collar worker, as comfortable with it as the Bowery Boys or Humphrey Bogart. I was from a middle class family headed by a dad who came from a privileged and highly educated Boston background. But her I always called "Ma."

Armed and Dangerous

We knew that Ma’s parents were particularly cruel and manipulative. We’d experienced it firsthand during our infrequent visits to see them. Her two younger brothers each had several failed marriages between them and had each attempted suicide at least once. Ma’s parents were divorced and lived on separate coasts. They divorced when Ma was away at college and then didn’t tell her until a year later. Ma never completely trusted or depended on anyone. No one. She was convinced some day she would be abandoned. So she drove us away.

Growing up with Ma for a mother was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. We never knew when she would go off, ignite in a rage, burn with tears, spew white-hot verbal abuse like a flame-thrower. My sister escaped to college at seventeen and never came back. My brother absorbed most of it and had to work it out over the years. I developed an impenetrable hide of dragon scales that shot the smoke and flames right back at her.

Ice Cream and Pajamas

Ma always takes care of me when I’m not feeling well. She makes me soup and brings me ice cream while I watch t.v. in my pajamas. When my fever is high she gives me alcohol rubdowns to cool and comfort me. I always get a little down-in-the-dumps when I’m sick. She’s happy to hold me in her lap until I feel better, happier, safer, even though she might get sick herself and have to go to work regardless.

A Shoulder to Cry On

I’m sixteen years old and just recently broke up with a boy I was dating because he was too intense and a pot smoker. I asked him not to smoke pot while he was with me, but apparently this is too tall an order for him to follow. His name is Kevin. His father was an air-traffic controller who killed himself a few years earlier. Kevin plays the drums and is an "older man" of twenty. When I tell him I think we should see other people, but still see each other and then see what happens, he leaves me flat. In our last conversation together as a couple he tells me that he has always been an "optimist" and doesn’t see our relationship working out. He says it more than once, that he’s an "optimist but." I don’t correct him. A week later I miss him. I regret my decision to give up on the relationship so soon. I cry at sad songs on the radio. I look for him in the bleachers at the ice rink. I want him back. I tell Ma all about it. She had met Kevin more than once and likes him. Even though he has a face full of mischief and a sweater full of holes, she likes him. She listens thoughtfully as I fight back the tears. That’s Ma. You can tell her anything.


Ma was very well educated and always worked. It was amazing how well she functioned outside the home. Hanging on just long enough to keep it together before she fell apart with us. She was a professional long before other moms were working. In her forties she returned to school to be certified as a teacher. She lived over an hour away in the dorm. We’d visit her during the week and she came home some weekends. After she was certified, she taught remedial reading to local high school kids who were considered hopeless cases. With the exception of herself, she didn’t believe anyone was a hopeless case. The high school was so impressed with her work, she was tenured in her very first year there. When she told them she had to leave because we were moving out of state, they offered her more money to persuade her to commute. She decided not to.

As an adult I was a volunteer at Dorcas Place, a center for teaching literacy to adults. They assigned me particularly hard cases, people that were very slow to learn. It didn’t occur to me until much later that I probably got the drive to teach others to read from Ma.

Depression Baby

Ma grew up desperately poor in the South. During the Depression her "daddy" would have to hunt for rabbits in the woods to put food on the table. Many times all her "mama" had to eat were the scrapings from the pans after she fed her three children. As a child, Ma was up to fifteen pounds underweight at any given time for lack of sufficient food. As an adult, she selfishly hoarded things. She got fat. Nothing was good enough. On to the next thing to have and to keep and to clutter. She was bitterly afraid that it would all be taken away. Stolen in the night.

The Grind

Ma has jewelry (inherited from mama) hidden all over the house in case someone breaks in. I’m eleven years old and I’m thirsty. I reach into the cupboard for a juice glass. I hear something ping on the counter. I look around briefly and see nothing. I pour my juice and forget about it. That night after supper Ma turns on the garbage disposal during the usual clean up. Something sounds funny. She turns the garbage disposal off and fishes around in the muck only to pull up a mutilated diamond ring. The diamond was pulverized and washed down the drain. Her mama had given her that diamond. It was a family heirloom. Ma had hidden it in the glass cupboard to keep it "safe." Sick with the shock of realization and guilt, I tell her about the pinging sound I had heard earlier. She cries bitterly but doesn’t blame me. She says she’s thankful she lost a ring and not one of her children. We never talk about it after that.

The Family Plot

It’s the early seventies and at Dad’s urging Ma has gone into therapy to work out some of the demons that have her by the throat. On her good days, hours, minutes, we see the real Ma underneath. The sweet Ma, the fun Ma, the reasonable Ma. But she’s not allowed to stay out for long and we miss her more and more as her visits get shorter and shorter. She flies into rages and is sick with regret. She makes up excuses to justify her erratic, destructive behavior.

We go to a therapy session to meet with her doctor as a family. It’s not going well. Even though we’re very young children we’re already cracking under the strain of the eggshell dance that is our lives. We don’t want to be there. Just be normal, Ma, just be normal. Bryan’s resisting and doesn’t want to talk to the doctor. He doesn’t trust him. I’m too young to fully get the situation. Just living under a vague feeling of general dread. Dad tries to keep the peace and make it work. Ma gets upset and her eyes start to tear. The doctor asks her what’s wrong. She says she can’t tell him. He asks if she can’t tell him with her family in the room or if she just can’t tell anyone. She says she can’t tell anyone. I’m astonished at the thought of something being so bad that you can’t tell anyone. It scares me. I think to myself, "What on earth could be so bad that you can’t tell anyone?"

Disappearing Act

I’m eighteen now and Ma’s behavior has degenerated from erratic to lunatic. She can no longer leave the house on her own. She can’t hold down a job. She can’t find her way to the library and back, a mile’s drive in a straight line, without getting lost for at least an hour. She doesn’t go to church any more. The minister goes without his wife. She forgets groceries at the grocery store, locks herself out of the house, and sideswipes cars when she drives. Dad has to think of a way to get her to stop driving. He takes her to specialists to see what’s wrong. He suspects a nervous breakdown and tries everything the doctors suggest. She resists treatment. The doctors and Dad are "plotting against her." Nothing helps.

When Dad leaves the house I’m alone with her. I hate for him to leave, but it’s hard to explain why. Without any witnesses, she circles her prey and goes in for the kill. This has been going on since I was a child, but now it’s much worse. We have bitter, damaging arguments. She wants to hurt me, to wear me down. It feels good to her. It’s a release like screaming or punching. She resents my independence and my ability to fight back. I can argue with the best of them. It’s impossible to psych me out or twist my words. I’ve learned from the master. She resents that I love my Dad but want to avoid her. I’m relaxed with Dad but rigid and guarded with her. She attacks my character as a person and claims that the special relationship I have with Dad has incestuous undertones. She hisses this at me, her forked tongue jutting out from between twisted lips. I’m sucker punched. I can’t begin to imagine where she gets this. She smells my shock and hurt. That’s the one that penetrates. She’s found the chink in my scales and twists the knife in to the hilt. Does she mean it or is the cat just toying with her mouse? I feel betrayed by her empty and vicious accusations. I genuinely hate her. Our relationship never mends. I plot my escape.

Protective Custody

When Ma was 13 years old she was removed from the home where she was born and raised in Miami, Florida, and sent to live with her "Gramma Draughty" in Georgia. Gramma Draughty is her mother’s mother. Ma’s two younger brothers, Pat and Bob, weren’t removed from the home. They got to stay. But Ma had to go. She lived with Gramma Draughty for two years, clear in another state. Later, after Ma had died, we as a family talked about why she was sent away and the boys weren’t. Dad said that he had counseled many people who had been sexually abused, and that Ma exhibited a lot of the same symptoms and behaviors. But he never knew for sure. Not even him. "What on earth could be so bad that you can’t tell anyone?"

A Chip Off the Old Block

It’s 1985 and I’m twenty years old. I have a little apartment on Federal Hill in Providence. The bitter arguments and confrontations don’t stop when I leave home. Now, I’m starting them. My temper is out of control. I barely function at work. I can’t sleep at night. I hate to be alone. I fly into rages and am sick with regret. I make up excuses to justify my destructive behavior. I lash out at my boyfriend, Dan. I don’t trust him. I don’t depend on him. So I try to drive him away. He stays with me because on my good days, hours, minutes, he sees the real me underneath. The sweet me, the fun me, the reasonable me.

The Long Good-Bye

It’s 1982 and Dad has a stroke and can’t take care of Ma any more. She leaves to live with mama in California and Dad doesn’t have the strength to stop her. I’m with her at the airport. I watch her board the plane to make sure she’s really going. It’s like being sprung from prison. It’s like having a tumor cut out.

Two years pass and Dad tries to keep track of Ma as she skips around the country from one relative to another. I don’t care where she is. I just don’t want her to come back. But now Dad learns that she’s in a rest home in Kansas or something. Ma’s brother Pat calls, yelling at Dad, "How long has my sister been crazy?" Pat doesn’t get it. Dad "talks him off the ledge."

They start talking Alzheimer’s. At this time the disease is still new and hard to diagnose. Dad gets permission from his cardiologist to fly. He shouldn’t go, but he has to. He flies to Kansas and brings her home. She’s admitted to a hospital for extensive tests. It’s just before Thanksgiving and Dad says that it’s important for us to go see her. I don’t want to go. I divorced myself emotionally from her years ago. The last couple of years without her around have even come to resemble something peaceful; and being out from under the shadow of her abuse is growing sunnier by the minute. I have accepted the fact that I just don’t want to see her again. I’ve paid my dues, growing up with her, and I’m done. I’m quite content to keep things the way they are–with 2000 miles between us. On occasion, friends mention that I never talk about her. "What’s there to talk about?" I think. Besides, who wants to listen to some sob story about my childhood? Anyway, the fact that I can’t stand my mother isn’t exactly something I’m proud of.

Despite my indifference I pile into the car with Dad and Bryan and drive to the health-care facility in Boston. For some reason I’m wearing a skirt, a rare occurrence for me, maybe because it feels like such a solemn occasion. As we approach the front entrance, I silently chastise myself for not caring more, for not feeling anything.

"If I don’t care, I don’t care," I think to myself. "I can’t make myself care." The raw wind stings my knees as we walk to the front door. The skirt turns out to be a bad idea. My legs are freezing. Let’s just get this over with so I can go home get back into my jeans.

I expect more ceremony. I think they’ll shuffle us into some sitting room where we’ll get our coats off and get settled in. Then after a lot of soft talking amongst ourselves and sympathetic glances from the staff, my mother will be brought in, presented to us in some way. Instead, there is a large entryway with stark, fluorescent lighting beating down from overhead. The receptionist’s desk is right there in front. Dad says who we are and within seconds we’re ushered around the corner to a common area full of "residents." My eyes travel from one poor soul to the next. Old people with empty stares. Young people with broken bodies. Right in the middle of them is a frail, slender, gray-haired woman, a little hunched over. I don’t recognize her at first. I had never seen Ma with gray hair. She had been dying it dark blonde for years. I had never seen Ma so vulnerable, she was quite tall and had always been physically robust. A lady in a white uniform tells her in a loud voice that her family is here to see her. She hasn’t seen us in a couple of years. It takes her a moment or two to recognize us. Not because it has been a while, but because the disease is already erasing her memory. Slowly her expression brightens and she smiles at us. We all just kind of stand there staring at her. We have a large audience and it’s awkward.

"Hi, Ma." My voice sounds funny. My throat is tight and my knees feel weak. The impact of what I’m seeing lifts me like an ocean wave and knocks me over like a Mack truck. This is Ma. My Ma. My mother. The woman I grew to hate so much. The woman who had played the villain in my life, made me miserable, made me angry, made me not care, made me vow never to have children, made me never want to see her again–was just a person. A person whose scars have never healed. A person who never got to realize her dreams. A person who tried desperately to hang onto the tiny moments of joy in her life. A person who was simply trying to get through the day, let alone having to be the perfect wife and mother. A person who did the best she could. A person whose life just went from bad to worse. I have my whole life ahead of me. Hers is ending, even before her body will actually die. She is disappearing, fading from an "is" to a "was" before her pulse will fail her.

I Wish

I wish I had been a better daughter to Ma. I wish I had understood her then, the way I do now. Maybe I could’ve helped her. I wish Ma could have known my husband Dan. The boyfriend who wouldn’t give up on me, who helped me heal, who taught me trust, who gave me joy. Ma would’ve loved Dan. I wish Ma knew I was graduating from Brown University this Memorial Day. She would’ve been so proud of me. I wish Ma knew how big a role she played in my healing. I wish she knew how happy I am. How settled I am. How safe I am. I wish she knew how much Dad misses her. I wish she knew how much I’m like her. My penchant for laughter, my compassion toward others, my love for learning, my obsession with writing. All gifts from Ma.

The Final Peace

The glaring lights at the health-care facility make me reel. Ma seldom looks us in the eye or even looks up. People with Alzheimer’s seldom look up. They bend their heads inward as their humanity gets sucked into the vacuum of their illness. I politely excuse myself and pretend to look for a bathroom. I just make it out of the room when the tears in my eyes well up. I can’t see where I’m going. I blindly stumble down a quiet hallway. I try to look as inconspicuous as possible. I begin to sob uncontrollably. I trip over a pile of surplus wheelchairs and walkers that have been piled in a corner. My skirt gets caught on the wheels. A leg rest assaults my bare shins. A nurse gently puts her hand on my shoulder. She doesn’t say anything. I’m guided to a nearby room. It’s Ma’s room. I sit on Ma’s bed. It has a rose-colored bedspread and a brown teddy bear on it. The nurse gives me apple juice and tissues.

Between sips of paper-flavored juice I regain my composure and return to the room with my family. At this point all Ma can manage is simple, repetitive conversation. In a matter of months she won’t know who we are. She’ll never look up again. I sit across from her in silence, lost in my thoughts. My eyes stealthily study her drawn, vacant face.

I’m struck with a sudden wave of recognition. I know you, Ma. I know you. For the first time in my life, I understand your pain. And I love you for it.