That fine line between optimism and denial.

Before he died, the story goes, my father told my mother he need not leave her much. She would find herself someone else to care for her soon enough. And so she did. My mother remarried within little more than a year after my father’s death.

My mother’s second husband also failed to leave her much when he died some sixteen years later, even so the staff at the retirement village where she has lived these past ten years see my mother as one of their favourites and they look after her well.

When I asked my mother how she thought she might get on with her new carer, a woman arranged through community health and part of my mother’s ‘care package’, she said she’d be fine.

‘I like people,’ my mother said. ‘I don’t have trouble with anyone.’
‘But not Auntie Nettie,’ I said. I did not give my mother time to protest. ‘Why don’t you like Auntie Nettie?’ I asked. ‘What went wrong?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘We had an argument once, about the war.’

My mother then told me the story of how one day she and Nettie fell into a discussion about the hardships of World War Two, this from the vantage point of their new lives in Australia during the 1960s.

‘It was very hard in Indonesia under the Japanese,’ my aunt told my mother.
‘It was harder in Holland,’ my mother said. ‘We were freezing and hungry. In Indonesia at least you could stay warm. There is nothing worse than being cold and hungry,’ my mother said. My aunt disagreed.

This is one of those arguments that does not bear consideration – two women fighting over who had it worse, when clearly both had it bad.

It reminds me of Tessa de Loos’ book, Twin Sisters, the story of two women born in Cologne, Germany, before the Second World War but separated as toddlers after their had mother died.

One stayed in Germany and was raised by relatives – a cruel harsh family in a land impoverished by war and hardship; the other grew up in Holland in the care of a loving Dutch family, also related as I recall.

Both women suffered, especially during the war. The book consists of a series of flashbacks to the separated twins’ experiences of growing up into young adulthood.

Each woman tells the other her story after they meet by chance in a spa retreat in Switzerland. In the beginning of the book they are by now in their seventies. The twin raised in Holland seems to me to have had the least traumatic experience, though again such comparisons are not helpful or necessarily accurate.

Resilience is not measured out in equal doses.

As dreadful as my mother’s war experience was, is it fair to compare it to that of my aunt whose father had owned a rubber plantation in Indonesia before the Japanese invasion? My aunt was interned in a prisoner war camp. I heard once that she saw her brother killed by the Japanese. He was hacked to death.

While I was growing up my aunt worked as a nurse, an efficient and well organised woman. She had six children and kept her house in good order. She married my mother’s younger brother, a generous man who tended to his family well.

My mother, on the other hand, had nine children and could not keep up with the demands of housework, nor did she have the support of a generous and loving husband.

Both women competed in some strange unspoken way, but I felt the pull of my mother’s hatred towards my aunt throughout my childhood. An otherwise seemingly loving and generous woman, my mother’s enmity towards her sister-in-law stood out like an exposed blade ready to cut at any minute.

Her mother had always said she was a ‘very happy baby’, my mother told me later after we had made yet another visit to her GP. She was looking yet again at her family photo from the late 1920s, the one she has propped on a low table beside the window. She gazes at the image and all the memories it evokes. The past has become more attractive with distance it seems.

My mother has always had a tendency to look on the bright side, even when certain events demanded a more realistic perspective.

I wonder, is this how my mother attracts people to her, her optimism ,and is this also why she fell foul of my aunt, who tends towards a more realistic outlook and pessimism. My aunt has Alzheimer’s now, and is beyond my mother’s reach.

I am amazed at my mother’s determination to stay cheerful. The doctors have been playing a balancing game with her mediation, between her heart’s need for assistance and her kidneys’ needs for flushing.

Today her heart is winning but her kidneys are falling behind.

‘It’s like this,’ the GP told my mother when she asked him to explain what all the fuss was about.
‘As you get older your kidneys, like your heart, get tired and need to work harder. The blood tests tell us that your kidneys are working too hard.’ He leaned in closer to my mother’s good ear.

‘It’s like you’re travelling towards a cliff,’ he said. ‘While you’re travelling on solid ground you feel fine. You say, “My kidneys, there’s nothing wrong with my kidneys. What’s all the fuss about?”

Your kidney’s might seem fine, though you’ve noticed feeling dry. You’re still heading towards the cliff and we don’t know exactly where the cliff is. So we need to reduce your medication to give your kidneys a fighting chance.’

This explanation seemed to satisfy my mother . I figured she had heard the doctor. Earlier she had agreed to wear her hearing aid for this most recent visit. More often than not these days my mother does not bother. Perhaps not hearing bad news aids her optimism.

When we returned to my mother’s room, at her request I tried to explain the doctor’s concerns once more and again the explanation seemed to satisfy her, but beyond her difficulties with hearing, my mother is also becoming forgetful of the short term.

‘I’ll be back on Thursday,’ I said as I took up my handbag to leave.
‘When you can,’ she said, ‘when you can. Don’t stress too much.’ She smiled, her eyes pools of liquid blue, red rimmed around the edges.

‘I’m happy,’ my mother said. ‘I’m always happy. It’s the way I am. And I can’t understand how it is that other people are not.’

For all her forgetfulness, I suspect my mother’s parting comment was yet another dig at my unhappy aunt.

38 thoughts on “That fine line between optimism and denial.”

  1. My Mother never spoke to her brother for forty years after an argument about my parents wedding. Just a few years ago, they reconciled and we celebrated their wedding anniversary together with all of their children and grandchildren. Sadly, a year later, he died.
    It's a terrible shame that they only got back together with so little time at the end. But I know my Mum is glad that she got the chance to have a brother again, even if only for a little while.

  2. It's often the silliest arguments that hang on the longest.
    I understand your mother's happy nature, I have it too. My recent stress is an aberration which will pass as I work things out.

  3. I don’t trust happy people. I’m not saying that no one has a right to a little happiness but people who wear their happiness like a badge bother me. It’s unnatural to be so effusive. I get the whole ‘accentuate the positive’ malarkey but because I tend to wear my feelings on my sleeve I’m wary of optimists when I meet them and wonder what they’re repressing. Putting on a brave face is another thing completely. I’m far more tolerant of that because they’re honest liars if you’ll forgive the oxymoron – your mother knows she’s going to die, you know she’s going to die and yet you both play this game of acting as if no one is going to die. Since I’m incapable of imagining it (which is a bad start, I know) I treat perpetual happiness as suspect and when I do encounter bubbly people my hackles tend to rise.

    Your aunt and mother squabbling about who had it worse reminded me of the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (which most people think of as a Monty Python sketch but it predates them). My father was not a fan of Python but I played him an audio recording of their version once and he chuckled all the way through it. He wasn’t a Yorkshireman – my parents were both from Lancashire – but any northerner (or Scot) would be able to relate to the mentality. I guess it’s a universal trait though. When you have nothing you glean kudos where you can I suppose.

  4. Aguja visiting … and thank you for visiting me!

    What a wonderful post, so full of pathos and empathy, so frustrating to realise that is a 'might have been' aspect to your story. I can see exactly how it came about with people of such differing perspectives. I understand your mother's outlook more as I can't undrstand pessimism.
    She is very fortunate to have you for a daughter. I can feel your love for her pouring out as you write (between the lines).

  5. Just feel happpy Elizabeth that your Mother is approaching ill health in such a cheerful way. Whatever is between your mother and your aunt will probably go with them to the grave.

  6. I do enjoy these posts. There is so much to relate too. I have an optimistic mom, now in her nineties. Rarely, when we talk, will she bring up any of the hardships she’s now experiencing. It’s only the past, remembered history, where hardships are revealed. And in the telling of the past, after so much time, the worst pains seems to have been forgotten, trumped by better times she wants to talk about more.

  7. I, too, immediately thought of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch when I read the conversation between your aunt and your mother. Misery DOESN'T always love company (incidentally, my knowledge of the sketch comes from "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl". Fascinating to see that older version with Marty Feldman in Jim Murdoch's link. Ironic that future Python member John Cleese is in the original but not the Hollywood Bowl version. There his part is played by Eric Idle.)

    I have nothing against happiness or optimism or positive thinking. I wish I was happier or more optimistic or more positively thunk. But there's something rather odd about how some people absolutely INSIST that others know that about them. You see that on Facebook quite a bit. People will write things like "I ooze with happiness!" or "I am passionately in love with life!" Far be it from me to be against self-expression, but noone's happy ALL the time. While sadness is something nobody wants to experience, it's nevertheless a legitimate emotion. If it wasn't, why would we have evolved with the ability to experience sadness? If you don't believe in evolution, why did God give us such an emotion? If you believe it came from Adam and Eve eating an apple, then I guess happiness is a denial of the Original Sin. I better quit right now. This way lies madness.

    I suspect there's a bit of self-persuasion involved with all this happy talk. Of course, that's what Norman Vincent Peale and all the other self-help writers have been arguing all along.

  8. I think your mother is a very special and brave woman. I think people indeed like her because she makes live also more enjoyable for other people. She spreads her happiness around. I think in case of her sister in law there is something deeper going on on. It is the kind of dynamics which only go on in families. It seems that we are much more emotional and unreasonable towards family members.
    I have got a book of Tessa the Loo somewhere. Read it for school. Don't know the twin sisters.

  9. It's a fascinating glimpse into a relationship between two close people. Judging by my family, it's rare to find completely sunny relationships. I am so glad that you introduced me to your blog.

  10. Dear Elisabeth, unrelenting 'happiness' is not always a charming encounter. My father aged 88 is in a condition which would have me looking for a sharp instrument, yet is chirpy so that his neighbours all adore him, and I can hardly bear an hour in the same room. He is not, however content, which is another thing altogether, and a greater achievement I think, because I am content.
    I wish also, he would wear the damn hearing aid as conversation is impossible if a remark needs repeating thrice. He had 'a good war' unlike your aunt and mother, whose deprivations were hideous whatever the temperature.
    My readings of your blog from its inception, makes me think that your mother might have stopped being so happy, just a few times when you were a child, to do you some good.

    X X Ann O'D

  11. We are what we are is an oft-stated view that has a lot of sense behind it. It so often is the case that we are unable to see how it can be that another person is not "made the same way". Sometimes it shows itself as not understanding why they don't "pull themselves together". Whatever, yours is an inspiring story with so many remarkable insights that it is difficult to do it justice. It seems to me that you come from two remarkable parents.

  12. That sentence popped into my head, Elizabeth, as sentences do. And it seemed to make sense at the time. It still does I suppose though even I object to the notion that someone else is in charge of 'doling out' these things.

    I think life's more complex than that. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  13. My mother's sunny nature can sometimes seem a little strained, River, which is why I sometimes wonder whether all is as it seems. She works hard to keep her spirits up. I too tend to be more optimistic and I also work hard to stay on the bright side, but I can also acknowledge when things are grim, at least I hope I can.

    Thanks, River.

  14. I'm wary of people who are too happy too, Jim but I also recognise that wonderful competitive tendency as relayed in the four Yorkshiremen.

    I've not seen this skit before but I remember many years ago sitting with a bunch of psychiatrists at a garden party of sorts. The host lived in a magnificent house where the party was held and he began a similar chant about how bad things once were for him. And other equally well off folk joined in, each one upping the other for their early hardships, which of course only added to the sense of how far they had come.

    Here in Australia they sometimes talk of whingers, those who complain of similar lot, and they tend to hark from the 'mother country'.

    Thanks, Jim.

  15. Those who complain ad nauseum can become very wearing, Janice, but too much false happiness can have a fairly devastating effect too. Not that my mother is that bad.
    Thanks, Janice.

  16. I'm glad you found my post loving, Aguja. I fear too many of my mixed feelings shine through. It's hard to bring all these things together at such a time, when your once sort of strong mother is as fragile as a new born.

    Thanks, Aguja.

  17. I suspect you're right, Pat. Whatever lies between my mother and aunt will follow them, as you say, to the grave.

    And I am happy that my mother wears her ill health so well. It would be far harder were she deeply unhappy, or at least constantly letting us know as much.

    Thanks, Pat.

  18. My mother sounds very much like yours, Anthony, intent on only remembering the good times, though tonight while we were talking she remembered yet again the death of her first baby daughter at five months during the war, and I could see the feelings are still very alive in her however optimistic she tries to be. Thanks, Anthony.

  19. 'A brittle facade over depression and despair' is a good way of describing it, Ms Moon. I think my mother works had to keep such sad feelings at bay but from time to time they rise to the surface and she quickly chases them away. Thanks, Ms Moon.

  20. I am suspicious of the pressure that some people exert on others to be happy.

    I think of the Python's The Life of Brian – always look on the bright side of life…

    The problem with affirmations in this regard is that they do not take into consideration the unconscious and often times when people are exhorted to be positive and to always love themselves and they fail, as they will inevitably do at some stage, they wind up feeling even worse.

    Thanks, Kirk.

  21. I agree, Marja, we tend to reserve our greatest hostility towards family members and Tessa de Loos is a terrific writer. I recommend this book and others.

    Thanks, Marja.

  22. I'm pleased you've visited my blog, Olga. I couldn't agree with you more, families are not necessarily the place for the so-called sunny relationships, they are often seedbeds of discontent.

    Thanks, Olga.

  23. My mother's hearing and memory loss seems to be selective, perhaps a bit like your father, Marshall Stacks.

    The number of people who sing my mother's praises can be wearing, when we know that there is so much more to a person than just what's on the surface. My husband often talks facetiously about what a wonderful woman she is.

    I feel much better disposed to her these days.

    I agree with you about contentment. It seems a far preferable state to that of strained happiness.

    Thanks Marshall Stacks-Helena.

  24. My parents are/were remarkable, whatever their flaws and virtues. For that I'm grateful and to you too Dave. thanks.

    I'll bet your parents were remarkable too. Where ever else could such poetry come from.

  25. This reminds me of my husband's mother. She always seemed to harbor resentment towards her siblings, and she didn't speak to her sister for months because of some silly slight. She knew her sister was about to die and still would not speak to her. People can be so stubborn.

  26. I know a great deal about sibling rivalry from first hand experience, Lolamouse, but I hope that I never harbor resentments to the grave.


  27. Interesting, and puzzling too. Perhaps your aunt's more realistic approach got under your mother's skin by threatening her natural sense of happiness. You don't hate someone who means nothing to you

  28. I agree with you, Jenny. You don't hate someone who means nothing to you. I'm sure there was something in my aunt's personalty/behavior/experience that crawled under my mother's skin and stayed there, scratching away. But what that is, I'm not too sure. You may be right: a threat to my mother's positivism.

    It's good to see you here, Jenny. I' d enjoy hearing more from you, especially given I can't visit your blog.


  29. It's good to learn that she is at peace with herself and her place in time. She sure deals well with what ails her. That she has differences with a relative just makes her more like all of us.

  30. My mother's peace with herself is odd, Kleinstemotte. I'm glad for it and yet sometimes it amazes me. My mother seems strangely oblivious to other people's struggles, but be that as it may, at least she's happy, even if she cannot understand these days that others may not be.

    In years gone by, my mother seemed more compassionate towards other people's struggles.

    Thanks, Kleinstemotte.

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