I stopped talking with my mom a few years ago. She might not have noticed at first. My brothers have all cut her off at times as well. But my mom is pragmatic. She knows she and my dad were terrible parents. She apologizes and by all accounts, she is a much more enjoyable person to be around when she is not raising kids.

In January I decided I’m too old to not talk to my mom. I am 52. She had me when she was 21. I decided to trust that she always means well when she talks to me. I know she tries hard even when she triggers me.

I agreed to meet her. She took the four-hour train from NYC to Boston to meet me. Waiting for her at the train station, I worried what if we didn’t have a fight and it still didn’t feel good to see her. Then what?

We had lunch. She listened and I listened. And I felt happy to see her.

Then we made plans for her to come back again. She took the train again. I forgot to meet her. I told her I forget so much in my life and it’s not just her. I forget almost everything. She told me she traveled the whole day and she is so disappointed I wasn’t there. It was one of the most real conversations we’ve ever had. And for the first time in my life, we had a conflict and I wasn’t scared of her.

Then coronavirus. Suddenly the internet was flooded with photos of inside life and my mom sent me pictures of NYC locked down.

March 18 –– This is a picture from my window. People social distancing in rooftop gardens.

I was surprised to see that instead of fearing her, I feared for her. I wanted her to be safe. I didn’t want her to be lonely. I dealt with these feelings by calling her, which felt awkward at first. I have never called her to make sure she’s okay.

She dealt with the fear of her kids dying by sending group emails to me and my brothers about social distancing. The group emails are not new. I always figured she sends them to all of us because she never knows who is or isn’t talking to her at any given time.

Then she started sending emails that were just for me:

March 24 –– Another complaint about Trump. He refers to (male) as Dr. Fauci and (female Dr. Brix) as Deborah.

By the end of March, I was calling more often with the latest news and we were quoting Governor Cuomo back to each other. We watched him and his brother, a CNN commentator, argue over who is their mom’s favorite.

March 27 –– A love song of sorts, to Cuomo. Help, I think I’m in love with Andrew Cuomo.

She emailed me each morning. I called her each evening.

She did jigsaw puzzles, but not after sundown because her eyes aren’t good enough. So she did crossword puzzles at night. She said she has a stack of about forty New York Times Sunday magazines where she hadn’t done the puzzle.

I worried for her. I knew she’d be done with those in two weeks.

March 28 –– The word quarantine has Italian roots: in an effort to protect coastal cities from the Black Death ravaging 14th-Century Europe, ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days (quaranta giorni) before landing, a practice that eventually became known as quarantine – derived from quarantino, the Italian word for a 40-day period. So now you know! love, mom

I walked through nearby college campuses talking with my mom. I told her how weird it is to see no students.

She told me she hadn’t been outside in five days.

I told her I really think you need to go outside for a short time each day. For your mental health.

March 30 –– I’m about to head out for 20 minutes of dodging anyone else on the streets of NYC and I stopped to put on sunscreen. How’s that for hope for the future!

I told Mom I was getting nervous that colleges will not open and admissions will change. I made my older son write a bunch of different college application essays in case he needs to turn on a dime during the application process.

She said she worried about what if she never travels again. But she heard a psychologist on a Zoomcast say we should change what if to at least. My mom started saying at least she lives in a city she loves.

April 5 –– A sign outside Lincoln Center: “There will be a short intermission. We will return soon.”

We had a Zoom seder. We had never been all together for a seder. We talked until a minute after midnight so we could sing happy birthday to my mom. I don’t think we’ve ever all sang happy birthday to her.

April 10 –– New Jersey’s unemployment system is stuck and needs COBOL programmers. At this point, I might be the only COBOL programmer still alive. So I sent an email and said if they let me work from home I’d be happy to do the programming for free.

We didn’t talk about how scary it was that Chris Cuomo was knocked out from COVID-19. But I sent Mom a video where he is well enough to fight with his brother about a photo. I have her watch the video while I’m on speaker so I can listen to her laugh.

April 26 –– Corona additional sad state of affairs. You know how Google anticipates the site you want based on the first letter or two that you input on the search bar? For at least 10 years the letter “n” has brought up the NYTimes. This morning my letter “n” brought up Netflix.

She told me she watched The Squid and the Whale. Three times.

I wasn’t surprised. She’s read The Little Drummer Girl twelve times.

She told me The Squid and the Whale is about terrible parenting. The parents are still alive, she said.

I didn’t really know what that meant. I’ve been writing about her terrible parenting my whole life.

She had so much empathy for the kids in the movie.

I got a lump in my throat.

April 27 –– This is a really good article, I think, about the extra burden women bear in dual-income relationships, particularly during the pandemic: A Newsletter about How Hard It Was To Write This Newsletter

I had a fight with my son about how disorganized he was with his essays. I was so annoyed that I forgot to call my mom. And I missed her. I missed talking to her.

May 1 –– Look what the New York Public Library did! Scroll down a bit to listen. I am a happy camper Missing Sounds of New York City.

A few days later I got an email from my son, who uses email only to deal with college applications. He sent me his answer to the question: Describe an experience that caused you to change your perspective and/or opinion. (200 words)

My son wrote: The stories about my mother’s childhood abuse horrify me. I thought it would be better for her to cut her parents out of her life. I didn’t think happiness could ever come from those relationships. But she’s always said that no one benefits from holding on to anger. During the COVID-19 outbreak, my mom and grandma talked on the phone every day. When I listened to them talk, I could tell from the tone of their voices that they were happy and there was no animosity. I was so surprised that they were able to enjoy talking after decades of tension. It made me realize that when we refuse to forgive, we close ourselves off to valuable relationships.

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53 replies
  1. Chelsea
    Chelsea says:

    Thank you for sharing your life with us, Penelope. Yours is the only mailing list email I ever read. Always worth my time. I was feeling down about my relationship with my own mother this morning and suddenly this popped into my inbox. Thanks again.

    Reply
  2. Rita
    Rita says:

    I loved this post for so many reasons. If you ever wonder if you are a good parent, reading your son’s paragraph can sum things up quite eloquently. Great job, what an empathic and strong soul. WTG

    Reply
  3. Anne
    Anne says:

    ❤️❤️thanks for sharing this!! We love you for your ability to clearly share the nuances of relationships… it’s a rare and beautiful gift! Keep on going- we will find a way through this-and if your son has a “gap year” due to this period- it will be okay!! He will get an extra year to grow up a little more…

    Reply
  4. Julia
    Julia says:

    This made me cry. I am so happy for you and your family. It may be your master writing skills, but it really feels like you’ve made it in this life game. <3

    Reply
  5. Kitty
    Kitty says:

    I have been reading your posts for years. This was both brilliant writing and beautifully touching. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Dana
    Dana says:

    As always your timing is perfect because at the moment I’m not talking to my mom (or my brother). I get sick and tired of the attitudes and fights. But life is too short and it really doesn’t do me any good.

    Reply
    • harris497
      harris497 says:

      Dana,
      Life is too short. The most difficult thing in close long-term relationships is remaining in the present. I you at least remember that, then you can see the “badness” coming and can call it out to whomever you are engaging with, and work to avoid it. It’s not easy though… not easy at all.

      Reply
  7. ab
    ab says:

    Thank you for sharing and encouraging us all…your son’s comments at the end were like wonderful icing on an already awesome cake!

    Reply
  8. Beth
    Beth says:

    I am so happy that you are connecting with your mom in a new & special way!! So beautiful. And your son…..ahhhh.

    I also read the column you referred to on gender inequality when it comes to taking on extra childcare responsibilities. While there were many truths, I found it deeply saddening that she kept referring to taking care of their children a “burden.” Yes, it is an “interrupting responsibility” for parents focused on their career, but if taking time to raise your own children feels like a BURDEN, perhaps an attitude adjustment is seriously needed.

    Reply
  9. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Very perceptive young man. He paid attention as most kids do – what we do is much more important than what we say to them.
    Reconciliation is good.
    I’m happy for you Penny.

    Peace,
    D

    Reply
  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Penelope, this is a beautiful Mother’s Day post that had its beginnings and was initiated by you back in January. Thankfully, you and your Mom were able to get together before the coronavirus hit. I’m happy for you and your Mom that communication has continued through email, phone, and Zoom. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, the two of you will be able to get together again and your son will be able to start college. Also, I loved your son’s answer at the end of the post. If that isn’t proof you’ve done a great job of parenting and homeschooling, then I don’t know what is.

    Reply
  11. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    The comments here are so nice. Thank you.

    I was going to title this post, “Happy Mother’s Day To My Mom,” but then I realized that it’s a Mother’s Day present for me, too. It’s difficult to be a mother without being in a loving relationship with one’s own mother. No one’s relationship with their mother is perfect, but I do think that love feeds on itself, and as my relationship with my mom is more open and comforting I find myself being able to be more open and comforting as a mother to my own kids.

    Penelope

    Reply
    • Vela
      Vela says:

      But what if your mother is mentally ill. She won’t let herself be diagnosed, but has clearly suffered with possible manic depression and rage episodes her whole life. I won’t get into the details but she hasn’t been in my life since I was 9 years old. There was an initial contact again at 19, but because of erratic and aggressive behavior no relationship was established. I am now 46. I had a daughter at 35, scared I wouldn’t know how to mother without having been mothered, but I worked hard and was intentional and it came easily. It hurts to have this primal wound (missing mother), but I can’t get her to “see” me. She only wants to talk about ancient history (my parents divorce). Talking to her over the years has caused more damage than it’s worth because she is so ageessive and hurtful in what she says because of mental illness.

      Reply
      • Not that Melissa
        Not that Melissa says:

        You can’t control your mother and you might never hear the words you long for. But your relationship with your mother might change in 6 years, especially if you do the kind of intense work Penelope has done. I think you have to give your self a voice as well as the space to heal.

        Reply
  12. María Raiti
    María Raiti says:

    Yesterday, after 46 days in lockdown I managed to get my dad over 1500km away on a video call. For the first minutes all I saw was his eardrum until he understood the dynamics. It was a joyful moment and kids joined. I was wondering why I did not make that call before. And I realized that I was avoiding to see him trying to forget how much I miss him.

    Reply
  13. Linda
    Linda says:

    Lovely post. I just wanted to let you know that Amazon sells crossword puzzle books. The best ones are the Los Angeles Times Sunday Crossword Omnibus and The Boston Globe Sunday Crossword Omnibus, both have multiple volumes.

    Reply
  14. Amelia Slone
    Amelia Slone says:

    I just lost my father and even though we didn’t get to say goodbye in person, because of covid, the silver lining was being able to speak with him everyday. Working from home freed up mental space for me to check in on a daily basis with him. Those phone calls are so very precious

    Reply
  15. Christine
    Christine says:

    Wow. Look at that. It touched me (teary eyes) what your son wrote. As a mom, I did the best I could given who I was when my kids were little and I did it with all love in my heart. My daughter has a different experience. Feeling your relationship now, how you care and then its impact on your son’s wisdom is so moving. I’m so impressed that he noticed, then chose to write about it and then he shared it with you. Imagine that was pretty validating about who you are as a person. I hope my daughter is able to receive me beyond the pain one day. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  16. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Reading about you talking to your mom reminds me of caring for my tiny plants in my garden – so delicate in the beginning that if you breathe wrong it’s all ruined.
    The whole time, you just hold your breath and water it – not too much and not too little. Give sunshine, not too early and not too much.
    And when it’s tiny you just have this little miracle. I feel like we’re seeing that in this post. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like the plant analogy. Because you do need to learn how to take care of plants. Once you are comfortable with a given plant it’s easier. But if you change locations you have to learn again, for that location. I think relationships might be that way. They change as life changes and we have to decide to learn again and again.

      Penelope

      Reply
  17. Vasant Sanzgiri
    Vasant Sanzgiri says:

    I had tears in my eyes when I read about the moments you had with your mother. My mother passed away 1 year ago, a loss I am not able to reconcile with. I had a great relationship with her and I admired her for how she brought 3 of us and also tlarated my fater

    Reply
    • Vasant Sanzgiri
      Vasant Sanzgiri says:

      Sorry it was posted by mistake .. here is the rest of it
      But I used to have fights with her because she did things which I thought were not good for her and she thought they were ok. I now realised how she may have felt with the way i talked to her. Life is too short to waste in actions and behaviours which dont thing forward, but regress. I really wish all to cherish relationships specially with mothers who took so much pain to bring us in to the world.
      I loved the insightful note from your son. It must make you feel proud that you have brought up a great human.

      Reply
  18. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Are you sure your mom isn’t on the spectrum as well?

    I’m autistic, and I believe my mom was too.

    My mom wasn’t a good mom, and with my low frustration tolerance/rages, meltdowns and panic attacks, neither was I.

    Reply
  19. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I think I enjoy the posts you write that are about you, like this one, more than the ones where you are trying to prove a point. I also think they succeed in proving a point much better.

    I can’t imagine having a rapprochement with my mother if she had treated me as yours has done you. There’s a lot in this story and it’s links that I can’t properly imagine. My mother was my best friend. She was not a mother like other mothers, not warm. I don’t think she ever spontaneously hugged me or told me she loved me. But she accepted me, treated me kindly, and gave me good advice.

    Reading your personal posts also makes me feel quite sure that I don’t have Asperger’s. I have wondered at times. I think my mother had Aspergers (I say had because she died a couple years ago of brain cancer, which continues to be harrowing for me). I think that what I have is like a secondary syndrome. You know how there are groups for children of alcoholics? Perhaps I belong in a group for Children of Aspies.

    Perhaps also for Parents of Aspies. The older my son gets, the more apparent his peculiarities become. I’m trying to arrange testing for him, at his insistence. Because he’s either an Aspie or just outstandingly bloody-mindedly stubborn. For example, the struggle to get him to put on a mask is ridiculous. And now he just refuses to go outside anymore. Which is very bad for him.

    Anyway, this is one of your best posts.

    I hope you will tell us soon how your concussion patient is coming along. I’m sure others are also worried about him.

    I think I’m going to watch the Squid and the Whale now.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is such a great example of why I find myself telling so many people they have Aspergers.

      If your mom has it and your kid has it, the odds of you having it are so high that you should just assume you do. Additionally, Aspergers is a sex-linked disorder, so if the son has it the dad has it.

      Aspergers is genetic, and people who have Aspergers marry someone with Aspergers because that’s what’s normal to us. In each couple there is one person with stronger social skills than the other. So the couple often tells themselves the story that one person has good social skills. But I have never come across an example of a couple where only one person has Aspergers. Why would a neurotypical person choose to marry someone with disordered social skills? A person would only pick a partner like that if the behavior has been normalized growing up.

      It’s very difficult to see Aspergers in ourselves. Much easier to see it in other people. Because that’s the disorder: not understanding when we are breaking social rules. People with Aspergers think they are choosing to break rules. But we only understand a small portion of what we are choosing. And if we understood all the rules we are breaking we wouldn’t have Aspergers.

      This is all to say, Bostonian, that you have Aspergers. And you’ll be great at helping your son if you understand it in yourself, because you have been dealing with the disorder your whole life and you’ve developed coping skills.

      I hope this is helpful. I’m on a mission. We know so much more about Aspergers than the media tells us. Because if the media reported everything we know people would cancel their subscriptions.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        PT, I find your evangelism refreshing. I don’t know that I agree with you, though. If I have Asperger’s, then my understanding of Asperger’s must be very faulty. In other words, your view of what Asperger’s is differs greatly from other descriptions I have read. You include a much, much larger group of people in this diagnosis than do most others who describe it, people who others would consider subclinical, i.e. merely quirky or unusual, without the full gamut or severity of traits that characterize ASD.

        I think your assertions that every man who has a son who has Asperger’s must have Asperger’s himself; and that in every marriage where one spouse has Asperger’s, the other must also have Asperger’s, can be refuted logically. It would mean that not only does my son have it, and I have it, and my wife has it, but all of our respective grandparents must also have had it, and theirs, and so on ad infinitum. Instead, professionals in the field see more of a shading-off of autistic traits in families of people with ASD.

        You can read an interesting article expressing this latter point of view at Spectrum Neews:

        https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/broad-spectrum-can-teach-us-autism/

        The writer refers to this as a “broad autism phenotype,” or “broad spectrum of traits.” She quotes Kevin Pelphrey, a specialist in the ontogeny of the social brain:

        “There is an element of preciseness that people with the broad autism phenotype can bring to the table, an ability to analyze and argue points that can be very important for a diverse society.”

        That’s where I see myself: in the broad autism phenotype, but not actually having ASD. I could be wrong, of course.

        Reply
        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Hm. Yes I think we can have different preconceived notions of ASD. Very possible. And thanks for the link.

          I also see the broad spectrum of traits. Increasingly I am reading scientific papers that identify traits that no one even talks about. For example, you can find someone with ASD by measuring perfect pitch. You can find ASD men by measuring finger length in women by measuring the width of someone’s gait. I get frustrated that mainstream media doesn’t cover this more. I think we will discover that there are swaths of society where everyone has Aspergers and swaths where the people have neven come across someone with Aspergers ever.

          Penelope

          Reply
          • Jocelyn Gordon
            Jocelyn Gordon says:

            Why on Earth would one Asperger person marry only another? Living with Asperger’s is like missing a right arm whether one is fully conscious of missing that limb or not. I fell in love with the right arm I was missing – a consummate, empathetic “feeler” who feels so much it threatens to destroy him. I am his shield of armor. I’ve learned to feel through him. Adjacent feeling is the closest I can get to true empathy without being burned alive by emotion. We complete each other. 27 years and counting.

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            Most women who are married to men with Aspergers don’t know they, themselves have Aspergers too. That’s because men with Aspergers are so much more extreme on the spectrum than women with Aspergers. So women with Aspergers often choose men with Aspergers because that’s what they are used to in their lives. It’s not a conscious choice. Men with Aspergers have a similar experience: the woman doesn’t seem like she has Aspergers to him because she is higher functioning than he is in many ways.

            Another way to look at it: neurotypical people sort out people with Aspergers as potential mates immediately. Neurotypical people have dealbreakers that keep people with Aspergers out of their dating pool. People with Aspergers end up with a dating pool that is full of people with Aspergers.

            Penelope

  20. Jenwitheben
    Jenwitheben says:

    Often when we cut off relationships, it’s because the love and disappointment we have is hiding behind anger. Refusing to forgive only hurts ourselves. It sounds like you have achieved next level personal growth to be able to make space for both yourself and your mom in your life in an emotionally safe way. The fact that your son was so affected by it is touching to us all. Our children are ALWAYS watching us and learning from us. When it’s good, it is a gift! I hope you are relishing in both his great writing and astute observations.

    Reply
  21. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    Cuomo is good at being there. Not shutting Nyc subways earlier spread this rapidly in NYC. The subways are Still overcrowded. Cuomo has said one life is worth millions of jobs! That anyone unemployed can magically become an essential worker. Love someone else! He’s a figurehead for action. Like trump he sucks.
    I love your sons essay. Glad your semi abuse didn’t scar him. Yes having umpteen nervous breakdowns doesn’t exactly contribute to kids mental health. And I think it’s abusive to write so much about Your kids without consent.
    I can’t comment on your mom hc I never read those entries and if you say she abused you (which you carried forward) then bad stuff likely went Down. But I’m nauseous that you didn’t pick her up and have this flippant attitude oh I do this to everyone. People donating to Penelopes scamming fund, money well spent! She takes your money doesn’t have an assistant (anyone would be thrilled to do this virtually) and plans how she’s going to react to her mom after being such a jerk herself. Bless the lord your son turned out with his head on straight. I question how valuable and not manipulative your relationship with him is

    Reply
  22. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    I’m so happy you’ve reconnected with your mother and have formed a new relationship with her. Life is too short to waste opportunities for love. It may be the one good thing that comes out of this horrible pandemic. And your son has amazing insight for a young man. Hugs to you both.

    Reply
  23. Nicho
    Nicho says:

    Thank you for sharing your life with us, Penelope.
    I loved this post for so many reasons.
    It’s difficult to be a mother without being in a loving relationship with one’s own mother.
    Imagine that was pretty validating about who you are as a person.
    Thanks for writing this.

    Reply
  24. meistergedanken
    meistergedanken says:

    “March 27 –– A love song of sorts, to Cuomo. Help, I think I’m in love with Andrew Cuomo.”

    This is hilarious, considering it was just on March 25th that Cuomo signed an executive order requiring nursing homes to take coronavirus patients, thereby ensuring the deaths of thousands of elderly people by deliberately shipping the disease right into the places full of the most vulnerable Americans.

    Reply
  25. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    A lot of the work I’ve been doing with clients lately is setting boundaries. The pandemic changed the rules for many.

    I just did a phone call where this person is owning abuse during childhood. The memories are coming back. So we spoke about boundaries.

    Many people fear irredeemable loss of relationships. But I tell them that boundaries morph as your healing takes shape. Do not be afraid to set hard boundaries right now. They may become more breathable later as it feels comfortable.

    Happiness is tricky. I remember years ago you said you’d rather live an interesting life than pursue a happy life. But in a roundabout way it came to you. Which makes me so happy.

    Reply
  26. me
    me says:

    Thanks for sharing your (new) relationship with your mother with us. Sometimes grace comes in unexpected packages during insanely difficult times like these.

    I loved your mother’s emails: more, please.

    Reply
  27. KS
    KS says:

    This is by far my favorite thing you have ever written. Thank you. My sisters haven’t been civil to each other in years and one sister took the other groceries when this all started. Feeling hopeful.

    Reply
  28. Ian
    Ian says:

    Recently I spoke to my mom for the first time in many years and discovered to my surprise that for all these years Which I’ve not been entirely explicit with myself about why I needed to stay away, the true reasons I was staying away Weren’t what I expected. She is who she is, but she won’t live forever and it’s hard to reconcile your mother’s mortality with her shortcoming as a mother or as a person. I once had a very astute partner who met my mom one time and told me I had no choice but to stay away, I didn’t make much of it then but I’m only starting to catch up to her insights years later. I’m glad you’ve reconnected and I’m glad you had the time left to do it and you both, with age maybe, have found some common ground. I don’t know how forgiveness can work when what you need to forgive isn’t an incident, not something in the past, but something ongoing. I’m betting your mom is still the same person, hasn’t changed in essence from your childhood, and if that’s the case how can you forgive?

    Reply
  29. Richard Berger
    Richard Berger says:

    I’m glad to hear about the rapprochement between you and your mother. It’s sad when grudges are held indefinitely. But how deluded are the people of New York who lionize the fatally incompetent Andrew Cuomo, who has killed so many through his arrogance stupidity.

    Reply
  30. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    This is all lovely, but as someone who has a distanced relationship with my mom I find that all things go smoothly when she needs me. There are few moments when someone needs someone else more than during coronavirus. Once that epic has passed the barbs start, the meanness resumes. I’ve done enough therapy that I can pass through it without melting down like I did in the past, but I’ve also done enough therapy to know that I’d rather spend my emotional energy elsewhere.

    Penelope, I hope this turns out well for you, but to the commenters here I do think it’s possible to hold distance with your mom and not be angry. I also think distance and forgiveness can be just as beautiful and just as strong. So if it doesn’t work out well please let it roll off your back.

    Reply
  31. Susan Oguche
    Susan Oguche says:

    I’ve been reading you for years… years! The only post that ever made me sob like a baby was the one detailing your childhood sexual abuse and the ways your mom failed to protect you. When I started reading this post, I fully intended to hate read half of it and then move on to something else… but here I am… sobbing again. Forgiveness is such a remarkable thing. It’s contagious and healing and evident to all who see it. I’m so glad your son got to see it. Bless you, for keeping an open heart.

    Reply

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