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December 26, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Hating My Mother

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She spent the next six years in and out of rehab. "When I was in rehab, I'd run the place. I was a perfect student," she says. Every time she left, she hoped it would be different. But she didn't have a plan. There wasn't anything for her at home but loneliness and emptiness. So she opened the bottle again. And again.

I have no memories of my mother before she was an alcoholic, so I ask her what our relationship was like when I was a kid. This is the story she tells: Every evening, before bed — even though she wasn't comfortable doing what she calls the "coochy-coo thing" — she would ask me for a good-night kiss. And every evening, I would stand at a safe distance, turn my head, and offer her a bit of cheek. It was like I was daring her to jump over a huge wall and wrap me up in a great big bear hug. She never did it, and I never asked her to; she thought I didn't love her, and I thought she didn't love me. It was, she says, unmet needs and expectations, never given a voice, just like with her and her mother and the damned ice cream.

But instead of burying my needs like she had, I simply turned my back on her and melted into my dad's warm embrace. I needed hugs and affection, and he gave them to me — and an affectionate nickname ("Peanie," short for peanut) to boot.

I had given up on my mother well before she had given up on herself — our relationship had been broken long before I could blame it on booze. I remember looking over at her during my wedding five-and-a-half years ago as she sat laughing with my best friends, delighting them with her fabulously offbeat sense of humor. There she was in her beautiful mint green gown, chain-smoking Merits and clutching a sweaty glass of chardonnay. It didn't matter to me that she had managed to dance with a smile on her face even though my father had brought his new girlfriend — the one with whom he had hooked up before he left my mother for good — along with (though he had promised not to) her young kids. It didn't occur to me how unbelievably gracious she was being despite my having essentially cut her out of the whole wedding-planning process. No, what I saw in that stemware was yet another casually reneged promise to stay sober. And my heart broke.

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