Cover Story: 'M' Is for It's Finally Alright

A son's reconciliatory lament

May 7, 2003 at 2:06 pm

I don't remember crying at my mother's funeral on June 30, 2000. It took a bottle of gin that evening, sitting alone at my dining room table, to help make the tears flow.

That night I picked up my old mandolin and started playing, thinking maybe she could hear me. I looked at the marks still on my legs from one of her beatings and wanted to pretend they didn't exist. I wanted to forget about being so afraid of her, and I wanted to think and to hope that she had loved me.

She loved music. In her teen years, my grandfather bought her a Gibson guitar she taught herself to play. She had a good singing voice and dreamed of going to Nashville and being a Country star.

In her early 20s, she met and married my father — a man 22 years older. They bought a small farm outside East Enterprise, Ind. In May 1954, my mother had my twin brother and me. Three years later, another son was born.

My father couldn't make enough money on the farm, so he took a job at a distillery in Lawrenceburg. He knew nothing about raising kids, so it was up to my mother to raise us.

My twin brother and I inherited her love for music and we had good voices. I remember us getting up early in the morning, sitting in an old rocking chair and singing songs to her while she fixed breakfast for my father. It was one of the few times she smiled. After my father left, her day would be full of farm work, laundry and tending our garden.

She worked sunup to sundown.

Perhaps her frustrations led to some of the beatings. They happened almost daily.

One of my earliest memories is being potty trained and having an accident in my pants. I hid behind a door in the house, trying not to cry — hoping she wouldn't see or hear me — because I knew I'd get a severe beating.

The beatings could also be emotional ones. She liked to instill fear in us. Once when I was about 5, I was helping her fix chocolate pudding with marshmallows on top. Without thinking, I put one of the marshmallows in my mouth.

Infuriated, she screamed, "God did not want you to eat that marshmallow!" I would soon be dead, she yelled.

While I sat in the old rocking chair in our living room, crying, waiting for God to strike me dead, she finished preparing the dessert — slamming the dishes and pans in the kitchen.

Her fury made confusing turns to doting. At Mom's insistence, my 6-year-old twin brother and I started taking music lessons. My brother played my mother's old Gibson guitar and I got a cheap mandolin.

Singing and playing came easily for us, and my mother was thrilled when we performed in local churches and won talent contests. She put together a scrapbook of newspaper clippings.

We felt good about finally doing something that pleased her.

In the years ahead, we became known as those "cute little boys who can sing." Mom's scrapbook grew. We were invited to appear on The Paul Dixon Show, a locally produced TV program. We made the rounds to other area television shows and, after a few years, our younger brother joined us on bass guitar.

Our playing pleased my mother. Most other things about her sons, however, did not.

The emotional abuse and beatings never stopped.

In third grade, I struggled with math and reading, receiving Ds. I handed my mother my report card and a yardstick. She read the bad results and told me to pull down my pants. She beat my upper and lower legs until they were red and bleeding.

Music eventually caused some form of punishment. Our performances now had to be "professional" — no missed notes, cracking voices or saying the wrong thing onstage. If we messed up, she'd let us know through a beating or verbal abuse.

I would often get physically sick before going on stage because the pressure was so intense.

Our popularity grew. We met Loretta Lynn at a nightclub near Cincinnati. She invited The Gross Brothers to tour with her in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Our mother's dream of stardom was our reality — a reality we really didn't want.

During my senior year in high school, we had a hit record called "If You Were Losing Her to Me." We signed with NRS Records in Nashville, and our first single took off on the charts. We did bigger shows and, while there was still pressure from my mother to be perfect, I knew time was now on my side.

She couldn't hit me anymore. I told her this when I was 17. She tried, and I physically stopped her.

To her, I developed a "bad attitude" and was "ungrateful" for all she'd done for me. I didn't care.

I would soon be entering college in Cincinnati, and I talked my twin brother into moving away with me to live a life we wanted.

In December 1973, my mother suffered a mild heart attack. It must have been a wakeup call for her, because she was never the same afterwards.

In the time ahead, we all saw an amazing difference in her. She was nicer, more caring and showed a real interest in her sons' lives. At first, I didn't trust this. But as time went by, I realized she probably was a different person.

Our relationship improved. Her transformation continued for the next 26 years, many of them tragic. While one twin son endured a divorce, she lost the other to AIDS. Immediately following my brother's death, my father succumbed to Alzheimer's disease.

During the last two years of her life, her bad knees made it difficult for her to get around. But she was determined to build a life. After my father died, she finally decided to have her knees replaced.

The surgery went fine but, while recuperating, a blood clot developed in her lungs. She died at age 69.

Following her funeral, my younger brother and I cleaned the small apartment where she lived after my father's death. We found old pictures of us, papers from school — even those bad report cards of mine — and other things we thought she'd thrown away years ago. But we didn't find that Gross Brothers scrapbook — Mom must have thrown it away after we stopped playing music.

She's been gone nearly three years now, but I still grieve and feel sad for not being able to ask her questions a son should ask his mother. Mainly, if she loved me.

I know she loved my daughter and son. It was fun to watch her play with them. She was a wonderful grandmother. When we'd be leaving from a visit, my mother hugged and kissed my children goodbye and told them she loved them.

Those words cut through me like a knife. She never once said them to me.

Through therapy, I've dealt with my mixed emotions. I've sorted through fear and reconciled myself to the fact that I could never meet her expectations.

During this process, I finally realized late in life that I loved her. I began telling her so from time to time.

"I love you, Mom" created an awkward silence between us while she was alive. She never answered back, couldn't bring herself to say the words.

I was disappointed, Mom. But I think it's finally alright.