This is Anne Sexton.
She smoked Salem menthol's.
And wrote a lot of poetry.
Searching for Mercy Street is a common theme in the poetry of Anne Sexton. It is a metaphor for the author's search for peace, for security and home.
Her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, wrote this book trying to find her mother. While looking she wrote beautiful prose that turned into this book. She found Mercy Street.
Anne Sexton, however, never did.
Long post, well worth the read. Let's begin shall wee?
I recently finished the book pictured above. In this book, three women are discussed. There is Anne Sexton the poet, Anne Sexton the mother and lastly, Linda Gray Sexton, the daughter.
As for the first woman, I was blown away. I was not familiar with her work, well, perhaps peripherally. I can say that she was one of the first women to ‘verbally undress’ in her poetry and be a success at it. Her daughter spoke of the untold hours Anne spent, crafting the poems, working harder than anyone else. Revising some poems hundred of times over. All the hard labor proved fruitful for a body of work that is magnificent. Drop dead brilliant.
Her poetry is confessional and vacant of taboos. Just like what I write here. My goal of this space is to document me and my truth. Hold back nothing and lay out my emotions because, as Linda Gray Sexton wrote, “What I seek is only the truth of how I felt, a truth far more revelatory about me than any exact history". p 39
Let that last line sink in.
Anne Sexton the mother, was mentally ill. Her daughter documents a number of times where her mother would sit at the kitchen table, going crazy. Twirling her hair until it knotted and snapped. Staring a thousand yard stare, muttering in a low voice and not answering to her name. This was in the fifties, back when the only treatment for the mentally ill involved ice baths, strapping a patient down and Thorazine. None of which helped her mother.
Another part of her mother, beyond the mental illness, was a disordered personality. Somewhere in Anne Sexton’s development, she stopped maturing. She operated on the level of a 13 year old in a woman’s body. This is common among people who are abused. By all accounts, Anne Sexton experienced physical and sexual abuse as a child. Unfortunately, she visited this abuse upon Linda Gray. Also, like a child, Anne Sexton depended on everyone around her to take care of her emotional and physical needs. She firmly put Linda Gray, her child, in the role of primary caretaker. It was a role that the daughter continued until her mother's suicide.
Lastly, there is Linda Gray Sexton. By all accounts, she is an accomplished author herself. Her prose is outstanding. She unfolds her mother’s life through the lens of herself as daughter, a mother and author. All after she turned forty. The mature age makes all the difference in this book. She has had time to take an unflinching look at all of it. She has had time to open up all manner of ugly and violated feelings. She has had time to process and write an unbiased account of the woman she calls Mom, the poet Anne Sexton.
And this is where I write about my Mom.
Specifically, I want to write about the thread between her mom and mine. The reason Anne Sexton could visit such harm on Linda Gray, is that she had little empathy for others. Including her daughter. This is the primary problem with my mom, lack of empathy for her daughter. She doesn’t see me or hear my feelings because she will always come first. She has never sought to learn my truth. Or, if she does see my feelings, she doesn't respond. It is a house I live in, but it is not my home.
This is not true for her grandkids. While my mom has an overarching disdain for the hands on or day to day care of the kids, she is always there for a hug and comforts them when they are sad. But, my kids are tiny and dependant. My mom cared for me when I was tiny. I do remember feeling loved and secure as a child.
Gaining indepence has soured a lot of our relationship. My mom has a low tolerance for anything that is different. If it is not her, it is not real. When I developed the age of about fourteen, I became a completely different person than her. Her hurt was very deep by this development. Crying a lot. Temper fits. Hissed out words.
“Why?," she wrote me once, “Why do you want to hurt me so much? Why do you insist on being who you are despite how you’re Dad and I feel?”
Of course you realize how surreal that statement is right? I mean, it is a teenager’s job to grow up and be who they are. To separate from their parents and try on different identities. I was just doing my job. Yet it hurt her so much, she lived in so much pain. Crying a lot. Temper fits. Pain she put me in charge of easing, to be her caretaker. Which I did until I moved out.
Moving back in has caused me to stare this dynamic right in the face. To acknowledge the truth under my mom and I. Truth that hasn’t changed. She still calls me out for being different. Rolls her eyes, slams dishes around. She still has angry fits. Cries a lot. Still tries to suck me in, to be her caretaker. This is not her loving me. While she still lives in pain, I no longer feel responsible.
Then came a few weeks ago when she said this, “I don’t think I'd given you enough credit when you were a kid. I mean, you were a good kid, got good grades, volunteered. And now you have this master’s degree and help people. And you are a very good mom. I just don’t think I have given you enough credit.”
I was a little sad when she said this. There was a time when this would have healed a thousand wounds. But, I had already stopped waiting for the day she would crack open her love and see me for who I am. My healing is already done. I found my Mercy Street a long time ago.
But then she said, “You are better mom than I was.”
This also made me sad because it was bait. Bait to tell her what a good mom she was. To assuage her guilt or pain or whathaveyou. Caretaking bait. I just smiled politely and went down stairs. Holding the first part of the statement in my hands.
The words liquefied and I poured them into an eyedropper. Gingerly, I pinched the black rubber top and fed the tiny blue bird that lives inside my rib cage. The little blue bird was very thankful and spent the rest of the day flapping around, chirping the sweetest song.
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