Aug 18, 2015

Margaret Robison, Unfiltered

Of course I was supposed to despise my mother-in-law. Everyone expects that. MIL hatred is mostly society-sanctioned, and MILs rank high on the scale of those we love to hate. Cosby high.

I was barely six years old when I met my first MIL on The Flintstones
“I like my mother-in-law, I like my mother-in-law,” Fred chanted while psyching himself up for her visit. She isn’t likeable at all, I thought with my kindergarten brain. 

Later, I squirted milk from my nose laughing at MIL jokes:
Q:  What do you have when your MIL is covered in concrete up to her shoulders?
A:  Not enough concrete!

Then too, I had Running With Scissors and Look Me In The Eye to consider – bestselling memoirs written by both my brother-in-law and my husband. One was sensationalist and one was just blunt, but both are indelibly imprinted on society’s perception of Margaret Robison, perhaps unfairly, depending on your perspective.

Appreciating Margaret was simpler for me.  Without childhood hurts coloring my view, I didn’t have to climb the hill of forgiveness first, like I did with my own mother (and she with me).  Margaret was a seriously talented artist and poet, parented by a generation that valued those skills in only the tightest of contexts; parameters she would not be able to meet.

Margaret was raised in Georgia, a kind of pseudo southern belle (which she abhorred - except for genteel manners and the drawl, which she adored). Like the rest of her peers, she was expected to find a husband in college and defer to him. It was a tall order, even before she knew she was gay.

 Wives in the 60s forsook other dreams to become domestic servants and mothers, whether they were suited to it or not. Plainly, servitude was not Margaret’s forte. Was she a good mother? Who gets to judge that? I wouldn't have wanted to walk in her shoes. Back then manic depression was not a celebrity-endorsed mental illness. It was shameful, and you got locked up.  And despite her bipolar disorder, Margaret had plenty of parental regrets, like the rest of us who’ve raised kids. 

Saint? Hardly. Like others of Margaret’s generation, when the floodgates of personal freedom opened in the 70s all of the ‘don’t do’s’ became possible.  Now, you could get divorced. You could be an artist, a poet, a lesbian. Now, you didn’t have to defer, you could create your own context, and be true to yourself. Selfishness was a common overcorrection, paving the way for the Me Generation to come. 

What I admired about Margaret was her talent and her sheer determination to overcome: the death of two siblings;  marriage to an abusive alcoholic (he sobered up and successfully remarried ); her mental illness, hospitalizations, and misplaced trust in a crazy therapist (who later lost his license); having a stroke and being wheelchair bound for decades; public humiliation over not one, but two famous books by her children; a sad estrangement from her younger son.

Margaret contributed her own pain demonstrating forgiveness. She did forgive, completely, and she did it without redemption or by being forgiven herself. That's more than a hill to climb. 

It might be hard to reconcile the woman I’ve described with the dramatic portrayal of mother as monster in print. But at the end, with nothing to gain she told me: “I'm so grateful for you,” running the back of her fingers along my cheek and looking deeply into my eyes. 

Margaret taught me that being with someone who’s dying is the most important job I might ever do; that sitting quietly, or whispering: “Everything will be all right,” is a feat to be cherished, to be proud of, to be grateful for.

Leaving this world is harder than coming in. Helping someone go is a lifetime of compassion learned.

Thank you Margaret. I loved you.  


  1. What grace. This is lovely Maripat.

    1. Thanks for reading. Grace...I'm pretty lucky!

  2. I am in awe of your ability to express those things that others stumble over clumsily. And that is nothing compared to the love and compassion you bring to this world.

  3. What a blessing you were to her in life and her passing. You were able to see her for who she was. Not what she wasn't. The most intriguing part of this family's story is how many perspectives can come from the same situation. As a mother of a child with Aspergers, I am fascinated by James Elder Robinson and I feel my own 17 year old's life will closely mimic his. I just hope he can find a wife as supportive as you are.

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