Epitaph For Mean

This is the last post of a series which begins here.
Life was mean to Bernadine.

Bernadine on Lake Michigan

Bernadine’s mom did not understand children, nor, I think, like them.

Bernadines Mom

When she left for work each day, she locked little Bernadine into a room with the maid.

Happily, the maid had a skeleton key. Bernie and she would head for the shore of Lake Michigan and spend contented days there, returning before my grandmother.

At the age of nine, Bernadine was given the maid’s duties: She had to come home from school, dust every surface–including over doorframes–and then start dinner. When Grandma came home, she would run one white-gloved finger over a doorframe chosen at random.

Bernadine’s father hit my grandmother while she was pregnant with Bernie. My grandmother divorced him immediately and would never speak of him again. Bernie was frustrated ever afterward that she could learn no more about her father.

I liked Grandma’s second husband because he allowed me to pick out “boys” toys (a fun toy car and boat instead of stupid toy high heels), but Bernie said about him once “He was a real bastard.” She wouldn’t answer any questions about that comment.

I got the feeling something had happened with my grandfather that Bernie couldn’t talk about–or not talk about to her daughter. This may have been at least partly why, when Bernie turned fourteen years old, she secretly applied for, and studied hard for, a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in a different state. When she won it, she moved away from house with no regrets.

Up through college, Bernadine had good and close girlfriends. She married a man she was crazy about.

Bernadine Marriage Photo

They seemed to be very happy, wed six years before having children.

Her old friendships dropped away, somehow.

And she, an only child, wound up with four children under the age of eight and a husband who was gone sunup to sundown, or months overseas.

She moved from a single-culture neighborhood where everyone shared the same values (and raised each other’s children) to a multi-culture one where everyone got along–but HER family’s culture was seen as different.

Yet on her first day, all her new neighbors did come to welcome her:

“What kind of mother DOES that?! We’re going to call the POLICE!”

While busy unpacking, Bernie had put her toddler in the shaded front yard wearing a safety harness. It was looped to a clothesline run, like a dog’s.

That’s what moms did in her old neighborhood.


Bernie’s husband was an expert in the bully’s trick of chip-chip-chipping away at every sensitive issue repeatedly until it reaches the point that the victim snaps–for no reason, to anyone not in the know.

Bernie grew defensive and paranoid and full of temper at him and the world. She became an expert chipper in her own right.

Warren also interrupted Bernie constantly, and jumped to correct her in front of family and guests.

This is accepted (or not noticed) by listeners more when men do it to women than the reverse. Over the years, Bernie became frustrated by her lack of voice.

She sought an audience and temporary society among strangers, striking up conversations while out shopping. With Bernadine so reluctant to give up the floor she so rarely had, these brief exchanges evolved over time to monologues. Until her eyesight went, and Bernie gave up pleasure-trips, one could locate her in stores by looking in corners for her trapped, glazed-eyed prey.

Poor Bernadine had lupus, and an undiagnosed parathyroid problem that made her bad temper worse. I also believe that in the worst years of her yelling, menopause was a major contributor.

So, basically, the woman was working against a stacked deck.

Does that entirely excuse the abuse she inflicted? No.


This past week, Bernie was admitted to the E/R due to high potassium levels–an indicator of kidney failure–and died less than 12 hours later.

She was very good at Scrabble. When I was a child, I enjoyed playing with her.
She taught me the basic back-stitch in embroidery. We made a little teddy bear.
She told me once a new dress didn’t look bad on me like I thought it did. She said “I think it looks nice.”
She was an excellent cook. She made cookies for us.

You would not do that for children you only hated. Would you?

I have always been an orphan. If I cry at some point, it will be because my life and Bernadine’s life intersected in such a sad way. I do feel love for her–because the anger is gone about this: That she didn’t move past her hurt child to take adequate care of the children she was hurting. I hope she is healed at long last.

Now I Lay Me Embroidery SectionIf I Should Die Before I Wake

Epitaph For Mean

Life was mean to Bernadine,
So she began to pout;
And when she grew,
Although she knew,
She should not take it out,

By doing unto others,
What had been done to her,
She didn’t care;
It wasn’t fair;
(So few things in life were).

To her own children, Bernadine,
Herself became the child;
She falsely blamed;
She often shamed;
She yelled like someone wild.

Her own four tried to kill her;
(They thought they would be freed);
And yet at times,
Despite her crimes,
She’d give you what you’d need:

You’d be surprised by kindness,
She’d shock you with a smile,
(It shouldn’t be:
We all agree:
That these were rare was vile.)

No point; no point in poems;
For no more Bernadine;
She had we four,
To love… Adore–
Instead, she chose the mean.
Mommy Jekyll and Babe
Part 7 of a 7-part series that was posted daily. Following this, the focus will shift away from my mommy issues.

I think my mom’s yelling was caused by the ‘pause because it happened to me. Once I got a hormone patch, my yelling ended. My own was never constant, and it lasted only a couple of years, but the harm had already been done. If you find yourself post-40 and screaming: 1. check hormones; 2. take drugs.
Begin here:
Hateful Mommy Hyde–Part 1
Or read ’em backwards:
Joyful Mommy Jekyll–Part 6

Attention to Detail (The Butter Story)

I never get to just butter my toast, ever again.  And if he knew this, my ex-spouse would be very, very happy.  (I almost didn’t write this for that reason alone—but shouldn’t I be long past caring about his feelings?)

Buttered toast and a cup of hot tea.  Perfect for lounging on the couch with the perfect book.  Or with Saturday morning cartoons.  (Do they even still have those?  Netflix will do.)  I used to just love the ritual of spreading the butter on that crispy toast, looking forward to that first bite.

But that was before I was married.  By the time my marriage ended, this one-time feminist was reduced to craven panic at the fear of leaving breadcrumbs in the butter.  Breadcrumbs.  In the butter.

Oh, my aching Christ.

(Dear God, please just let me have that one—it really is called for, here.)

Each crumb, apparently, was highly significant of my failure as a wife, parent, and person, for I was roundly criticized by my spouse, and my sons as well—even before they were teens—if one tiny crumb was left behind.   How low can one person’s soul be crushed, that I would:  a) Feel guilty for the serious life violation leaving crumbs in butter, and b) Allow my own sons to belittle me for a triviality?

But of course, I did not allow this.  My spouse did.  He put forth concentrated effort to train them in this and all other criticisms of me.  One day, when my second son was only a toddler, he told me angrily that he had just overheard my spouse telling my firstborn of an entirely fabricated malicious act I had supposedly done.  My second son said “I was there with Daddy and you that time, and you didn’t say or do what he said.”  He added, “Now I know who the real liar is!”.   What a sad thing to hear your little boy say.

Gosh.  I may not have been a liar like my spouse, or evil like my spouse, but I certainly had my faults, and chief among them was stupidity.

It never occurred to me—not once—that this piece of human feces had been making up similar lies prior to this, or that he would continue to do so.  Or that the end result of this would be that the boys I loved so well who loved me back, and whom I parented so well and who thrived by it, would grow nonetheless to hate and resent me.  In later years they would report to me things I had done and said which had never occurred.  They would love their father and trust him in all things over me, even while agreeing that he is a liar and a cheat and out to win contests at any cost.


These now-adult boys are now solely his children—he has, effectively, erased the effects of my good start to their moral centers—and so they now admire him for these qualities, and consider my naivete and my goodness to be equivalent weaknesses of mine.  Although they don’t believe I’m really all that good—they don’t remember the good years; only the couple after the abuse had turned overt and physical and my resentment and depression boiled over into anger at the world around me.  These bad years proved to them the truth of the picture good ole’ Dad had always painted.

But, back to that forever-rancid butter.  It wasn’t until after I had filed for divorce and was living alone that I noticed:   My spouse-free butter was practically crumb-free.  Because I have Asperger’s (autism-lite:  think “smart, but dumb”), this is what happened:  “At last!”, she exclaimed with pride, “I’ve finally learned not to leave crumbs in the butter!”  But after a few moments of puzzlement (i.e. How did this effortless miracle occur?) I figured out that I had not magically evolved into a Master Butter Handler.  The key to the mystery was much simpler than that:  All those years, my spouse had been purposely seeding our butter with crumbs when no one else was looking, and blaming the mess on me.

Clever boy.

(Excerpt from my book “The Thief”)

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