Posted by: mindyourknitting | May 15, 2009

Mommy Dearest

*This started out so long and crazy that I thought I was going to have to put it out of its misery.  What follows is slightly better.  I think.

Last Sunday was my first ever Mother’s Day.  I got a lovely bouquet of spring flowers, a card with audio that held a recording of my baby’s giggles, and pancakes from the husband and kid – three of my favourite things from my two favourite people.  We hosted our families for a BBQ in the afternoon.  It was a good Mother’s Day.

Before everyone arrived I got to spend some time with my mom.  While the baby took a nice long morning nap and my dad and husband painted stuff on the outside of our house, my mom and I watched Grey Gardens followed by the original 1975 Grey Gardens documentary.  An interesting choice for Mother’s Day, as it turned out. 

If you haven’t seen the documentary, stop reading this right now and run out and get it.  It’s unbelievable.  The movie, which is kind of based on the documentary, is great television, but the documentary is the real deal.  If accounts can be believed, this is a story of epic proportions: family dysfunction writ large, the stealing of inheritances, spousal abandonment, political intrigue, refutation of societal norms, it’s all there.  Oh, and the Kennedys.  The women at the centre of Grey Gardens, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), were aunt and cousin to Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and lived a life of privilege that descended into shocking poverty and squalor.  Little Edie grew up as a gilded flower in a posh home that barely acknowledged the Depression.  She spent her early years trying to become an actress and a dancer in New York City and escape her mother’s stifling orbit, and had some success as a model until she was pulled back home.  She claims that she turned down many suitors, choosing an independent life over marriage, but there’s also some question about whether her mother had a hand in her never settling down with anyone.  That she subsequently spent two decades with her mother in a decrepit East Hampton mansion where they lived as virtual shut-ins tells you exactly how far away from mama’s influence she got.  Once her father left her mother, and the Bouvier money began to run out, the two women lived alone at Grey Gardens and slipped into well, maybe not madness exactly, but madness’ next door neighbour.  Undeniably their mother-daughter relationship was a totally dysfunctional, loving trainwreck that gives the buzzword “codependent” a whole new meaning.

Okay, so it was a weird choice for Mother’s Day viewing.  The one thing that my mom and I couldn’t get past was how Big Edie sang her two (mostly absent) sons’ praises, and heaped scorn on Little Edie, her memories of debutante days past, and her dreams of becoming an actress and a dancer.  Throughout the documentary my mom and I kept saying “but where are the two brothers?  Why are they letting this happen?”  Maybe they did try to help and were refused, but these boys, no, men, threw Edie under the figurative bus by abandoning her with her mother.  And Little Edie got  little praise from her mother for staying.  Why do mothers do this to the children who treat them the best (not the squalor part, the lack of appreciation part)?  It seems like children are often treated unequally by their parents in a way that makes absolutely no sense given the roles of each child in their parents’ lives.  The worst behaviour is usually rewarded, or at least blissfully ignored, and those who treat their parents well (if you’ve seen the movie obviously I’m using the term “well” loosely…think context, people, context!) are ridiculed and given precious little thanks.  And parents never admit to doing it.  I can’t speak of this first hand as I’m an only child, and therefore by default the golden child, but it boggles the mind that parents can have such blinders on when it comes to their own kids.  But I know I never have to worry about it because Abigail is a shiny, perfect little pumpkin and always will be.

It is easy to focus on the squalor of the Beales’ lives and their tragic circumstances, but these women were also defiant, strong, and independent.  They obviously chose, at least in part, to live the way they did.  They considered themselves artists and shunned the high society into which they were born.  Little Edie is hard not to like (her mother comes across as more of a pain in the ass) as she sings and dances across the screen and preens and tries to look her best in her cobbled-together outfits as she cares for her mother and feeds the herd of cats, the odd raccoon, and who knows what else that lived in the house with them.   They appeared to live in just a few rooms of the mansion, ate mostly ice cream, corn on the cob cooked on a hot plate next to Big Edie’s bed, and what they called liver pate (cat food) on crackers, and survived without heat and running water at times.  Jackie O. paid to clean up Grey Gardens in 1971 and things improved a bit, but they still lived on the margins of society as misfits.  After Big Edie’s death Little Edie sold Grey Gardens (something her mother always refused to do) and she did perform on the stage – she had a life after her mother, but her life would have probably been so very different if not for her mother.   Little Edie could have left at any time, but fear and obligation kept her stuck.  I never want my daughter to experience that type of obligation and guilt in any tiny degree.  If she is a misfit, she will still be my misfit.  But she should be able to do whatever she wants to with her life and go wherever it takes her, and know that I will always support her and try not to criticize her choices just because they aren’t my choices.  And if she ever has a sibling I will try so hard not just to love them the same, but to treat them the same.

I will also share a picture of her in a funny hat. 

We all march together...

We all march together...

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