I grew up knowing with absolute certainty one thing about my mother: she knew how to recognize useful people.
For better or worse, she had a keen sense of who she could charm and how to charm them in order to get the most out of that relationship. My mother had a knack for befriending “up”. She had very few, if any, intimate friends who knew her inside and out, but she had a stellar list of short term acquaintances.
The country music radio host. The dean of a music college. International musicians. The parents of pop stars. She collected interesting people and like a chameleon she blended in with them flawlessly. The more glamorous, the more accomplished, the better. This was a talent she possessed.
But, if you weren’t useful, you weren’t given the same adoration and treatment as others. She had friends for decades who she never called to tell that she was dying. People whose children she watched grow just as they had watched her children grow and they were rarely added to the guest lists of the many parties she held at her home.
Her small town “friends” of twenty years weren’t useful. They were unable to further her career and they weren’t successful enough to be name dropped (something she did shamelessly). And so they stayed friends in the most vanilla, superficial sense of the word, but when I asked her once if she had a best friend, she didn’t pause a moment to respond, “No. I don’t need one.” And when conducting a personality quiz I asked, “Would you rather have 5 close friends, or 20 acquaintances?”, she replied, “Acquaintances. IF they’re interesting.”
Friendship wasn’t useful to my mother. Connections were. Maybe this is why her oldest friends spent decades unaware that her first husband was physically and emotionally abusive. She never told them. And yet she wrote songs about it and performed them in public for agents and other musicians. Maybe this is why no one knew the abusive in’s and out’s of her second marriage. I could photocopy the diary my mother left at my house before she died, detailing in her own words what it was really like living with her second husband and it would shock everyone, except my brother and I who lived with him as well.
Because she didn’t have any friends. She had beautiful, interesting, useful acquaintances. And I’m not even sure they realize she saw them this way.
She saw her own family, including her children, this way as well.
When I was 17 I was cast as Betty Blake in my high school’s production of The Will Rogers Follies. My mom helped me nail that role. I’m grateful for it, truly. But on opening night when my BIG solo brought the audience to their feet for a standing ovation, mid show, I saw her in the crowd informing those around her that she was my mother.
After the show when the cast was supposed to stand for pictures, she muscled her way into the cast photos, wrapped her arm around my waist, and coldly pulled me in, a dazzling smile etched across her face. She invaded the cast photos. She was the only parent who did.
Even in my moment, it could not be just mine. Because in my moment, I was useful. As people came up to greet me and praise my performance, she dominated every conversation, informing them she’d trained me and she too was a musician. So unaccustomed to her touch, I felt squeamish and uncomfortable. I eventually pulled away, explaining I needed to change. I sat alone in the bathroom I’d commandeered as a dressing room and cried.
I stopped singing in public shortly after that. My mother destroyed my desire to perform. Knowing she would follow me through life, soaking up my accolades, haunted me. I wanted something to be mine. And I wanted her to love me as I was. I didn’t want to be useful to her. I wanted to be loved and valued. And even up until her death, I don’t think she ever really did value me outside of what I could do for her.
I grappled with this truth for decades. And when she was diagnosed with cancer I was heartbroken, but also afraid. I knew she would need me. I knew, once again, I would be useful to her. And I didn’t know if I could go through it all again: being used by her.
But, I did it anyways. Thousands of dollars to pay their bills. Moving her into our home when they were on the precipice of being evicted. Paying for medicine, paying for cell phones and cell phone service, paying for weed when the pain was too much. Staying up with her all night as she battled withdrawals, reading the Bible to her, singing hymns over her, laying hands on her and praying for the pain to ease.
In her final year of life I let her use me up. The financial strain of supporting her and her husband drained our savings and destroyed our finances for over a year after her death. The emotional toll of caring for her and her husband was almost unbearable and caused considerable strain to my marriage and my own mental health. But, we did it for her. We let her use us. Because she was dying. Because she was my mother. Because I loved her.
And when she passed away, I released her. And I vowed that I would never, NEVER use a human being the way my mother used so many.
In the blogging community I see so many users. Sometimes I’m disappointed by it, other times I’m not. In this “industry” people will use each other up because it is a strategy that works. If you’re charming enough to get in with people who are more successful than you, your odds of getting that success yourself are vastly improved.
So, people do it. They don’t have real friends, but they have successful and interesting acquaintances. And they tell themselves that this is enough. Even though it really isn’t.
I will not be useful to you. But, I will be your friend. And you will not be useful to me. But, again, I will be your friend. If you ever look at me and you see me only for what you think I can do for you and your exposure and your career, I’d kindly ask you to move along. Unfollow me. Forget my name.
Because I will not be useful to you or to anyone else. And I will not use you or determine your value as a person based solely on how I think you can help me succeed. At the end of my life I don’t want to die as my mother did. In a room, with just her husband. No children. No friends. Just herself…and her own usefulness all used up.
I want so much more from life. And I hope to God you do too.