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Listening for my mother

Listening for my mother

by Wolf Pascoe on May 14, 2012

Sweet-Heart by Jude Wadler


everything terrible
in its deepest being
is something helpless
that wants help
from us.

— Rainer Maria Rilke


I began listening to my mother when she was dying. She had never listened to me. In the end, I decided I was the one who needed to listen.

Our relationship after my father died had been stormy. It had taken many years for me to stand up to her. But as an adult, I was still too busy resenting not being listened to by her to realize what needed to happen.

In her last years, her digestive system seemed to give out. She had an operation, and metastatic tumor cells were found in her abdomen. The errant cells appeared to be gynecological in origin, but no obvious source was found.

Wherever the primary tumor was, it was microscopic, sneaky. My mother began a long, slow decline. I went with her from doctor to doctor, searching for answers.

Once, a physician said, “You didn’t remarry after your husband died? But you were still a relatively young woman.”

I had been eight when my father died, my mother 45.

She pointed at me.

“That’s the reason I never remarried,” she said.




I don’t remember where I got the idea of just listening, but surely from someone very wise.

I would visit her in the condo my sister and I had bought her. She still liked to cook for me, even though she had no appetite.

I’d finish the meal, say “That was good,” and wait.

She’d begin by finding something to criticize. That had usually provoked an argument, but now I just listened and nodded. Eventually she’d change the subject. She’d talk about her life. She’d tell me things.

“I did something when I was a girl that I’ve never told anyone,” she said once.

Her father had sold ice on the street in New York. He spoke with a thick, Eastern European accent that embarrassed her.

Once she was with a group of her friends and saw him up ahead walking toward her.

“Let’s cross the street,” my mother said to her friends.

She led the group to the other side of the street, the side away from her father, and continued walking without acknowledging him.

“I have such shame about that,” she said, beginning to cry.




I don’t write about my mother often, but a year ago in a guest post on Daily Plate of Crazy, I mentioned how in the end I’d begun to listen to her. Kat Wilder responded to that post with this comment:

The most important thing I’ve ever done was sit down with my mom and ask her what she dreamed of, how being a wife and a mother changed her, whether she was happy in her marriage, etc. To know her not just as my mom, but as a woman, wife and mother, how she saw herself. I encourage everyone to do that; you’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover.

When we realize our parents were once little kids who wanted the same thing from their parents that we wanted from our parents — to be loved, to be nurtured, to be accepted — and perhaps didn’t get it, we see them through different eyes. More compassionate eyes.

My mother got more and more sick, and didn’t seem to be able to take nourishment. Her G.I. tract shut down.

After she died, I sat down with one of the elder surgeons I knew, and described her case.

“I’ve seen this once before,” he said. “There’s no explanation for it. It’s as if the belly has turned to stone.”




Whenever Nick comes to me to talk, I stop whatever I’m doing. I become serious and deliberate and slow.

“Yes, Nick?” I say.

Sometimes Nick stammers, and I want him to know he can take as much time to talk as he wants.

I’m not always so good at listening to Nick. This morning he exploded at me because the breakfast I had made him wasn’t right.

“Fix it now!” he said.

“I can’t fix anything when I’m spoken to like that,” I said. “I need some time to myself.”

I left him and went into my study.

I wish, at such moments, I could remember that Nick is another child who needs to be loved, nurtured, accepted. Perhaps I’d still do the same thing, but it would be better if I held that version of Nick in my head while I was doing it, rather than the spoiled brat version I was holding on to this morning.

What we choose to fight is so small, wrote Rilke.
What fights us is so great.



The Wounded Parent



Two daughters reflect on their mothers:

How I Learned to Love My Mother (Perils of Divorced Pauline)

It Takes Two Hands to Hold the Mirror Steady (Big Little Wolf)

Image Credit: Sweet Heart © by Jude Wadler. You can view more of Jude’s lovely art at HeyJudeArt, where it’s available for purchase. (Used by permission.)


What’s your take? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf May 14, 2012 at 7:38 am

This brought tears to my eyes, Wolf, in part because “listening to my mother” was both unavoidable and impossible. She filled every space, even when she was silent and that silence could be as destructive as the barrage of words. There was a strong desire to hear her stories, to listen and more so, to feel loved. But there are only so many times we can try until the trying finally sends us to a far corner to wait things out.

I will always regret that we weren’t able to hear each other through the din and the silence. I wish I had more of her stories. I’m grateful that years after her passing, I can hang on to the gifts that were given despite whatever turned her deaf not only to me, but to others.

Your turning from Nick and walking away – it is a kindness and also a lesson. As parents ourselves, perhaps we walk away to process our hurt and anger and by doing so, we don’t inflict on our children what was given to us so painfully.

A beautiful piece.


Wolf Pascoe May 14, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Somehow we missed having the Hallmark Card mother.


Pauline Gaines May 14, 2012 at 9:04 am

That says so much about you that you bought your mother a condo — after the way she treated you. It IS very hard to listen to a parent who hasn’t been able to nurture, or see us for who we are without wanting something particular in return. I listen much better now that my mother is gone. The noise is gone, and I mainly just hear the good stuff.


Wolf Pascoe May 14, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Readers, Pauline’s piece, How I Learned to Love my Mother, is linked above. Required.


Sirena May 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm

A very poignant piece, Wolf. Nick is lucky you can listen to him, even if it’s much later than he’d like. I love Rilke, he seems to be able to sum it all up in a few perfect words. This post is a great reminder to all of us to be better listeners.


Wolf Pascoe May 14, 2012 at 10:27 pm

That Rilke. And what a mother he had!


Debbie May 15, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Thank you for this piece, Wolf. I also did not have a Hallmark mother. I grew up never feeling *heard*…never being heard, in fact. It was hard. And it still is. My mum is still here but I struggle to have much of a relationship with her because it brings up soooo much pain. But the listening…I get. Thank you. I listen intently (or at least I try to) to everything my son says. I want him to know he matters, and that his thoughts and opinions are valued and important.

I will try to listen to my mother too. That is also important.
Thanks again.


Wolf Pascoe May 15, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Hi Debbie, thanks for stopping by. I wonder if it isn’t harder for daughters than sons to do such mother listening. So much need for validation and blessing from the same-sex parent. My father might have been as bad a listener as my mother, had he lived. That thought is almost too painful to bear.


Privilege of Parenting May 16, 2012 at 12:31 am

I’ve done a lot of listening to my parents, in fact they trained me to be a therapist by continually being that terribly helpless thing that wanted help from me. After enough listening, however, I did hear hear their love for me, yet only after parenting my own children could I deeply trust that this was true. Finally, I cannot help but see that struggling but intermittently brave and sometimes funny and increasingly encouraging mother, and that frail and only intermittently sentient father in the assisted living as something much more startling than wounded yet richly realized spirits needing my help, but rather as mirrored and luminous threads in a mysteriously woven fabric which is our world reflecting our Self back to us everywhere we turn, speaking our lonely heart back to us as we melt, like a Brooklyn ice age, into transcendent and coalescing love.


Wolf Pascoe May 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I remember visiting Brooklyn as a child, the Brooklyn my parents grew up in, and the crushed ices they sold on the street, how chocolate was my favorite flavor, july in my mouth, melting, merging in the summer afternoon, coalescing and transcendent.


Barbara May 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Beautiful post, Wolf. And you hit the nail – our parents are just people, too. It’s tough for us to realize it, tough to open our eyes and see them that way, but it’s so rewarding. Last summer I started interviewing my parents – the beginning of my personal history business – but I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t finished transcribing the interview, much less had a second one. That’s my priority this summer. I love your response to Nick, by the way. That could have been a scene from our house ten years ago!


Wolf Pascoe May 19, 2012 at 11:31 am

Don’t wait until you’ve transcribed the first interview to get the second. Get the second. It’s the tapes you’ll value in time.


Kyle Bradford May 21, 2012 at 1:16 pm

I thought about writing about my mother’s and my relationship for Mother’s Day. But I wasn’t ready. I want her to read it first, though when I do she’ll probably tell me not to post it because it isn’t true.

The title: “The disappointing love of a son”


Wolf Pascoe May 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Easier to talk to mothers when they’re still around. Easier to write about them when they’re not.


Pamela May 31, 2012 at 1:08 pm

This is beautiful. I am lucky to have two very nurturing parents but my grandmother was a horrible woman. Only now am I realizing the pain she endured that resulted in her behavior.

Richard Freeman once said that yoga is learning how to listen.

If it makes you feel better I have said pretty much the same thing to my son when he yells at me. I too try to be better but I also think that sometimes taking time for ourselves is better than resenting our kids.


Wolf Pascoe May 31, 2012 at 3:03 pm

“sometimes taking time for ourselves is better than resenting our kids.”


Dee dee September 22, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I absolutely love this post, even though I just stubbled upon on it not on purpose. However I know a lot of you might judge me for saying this but I decided to stop trying to get my mother to listen to me. I am only 19 and just yesterday she said some really hurtful things to me. She said I was heartless, evil and did not care about anyone else but myself she even compared me to my father whom I assume was not very nice given that they have been separated since I was 5. I am the only child


Wolf Pascoe September 22, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Dee dee,

Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment. I don’t think anybody is judging anyone here. Nobody should have to hear themselves talked to that way. Unfortunately, most of us have been through it.




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