No one in the world can take the place of your mother. ~ Harry Truman
As Mother’s Day approaches, I’ve been reflecting about being a mom, and the recent few years I have been a grandmother. Earlier this week I began writing about some of those observations, but the piece just wasn’t going in the right direction, in fact, it didn’t seem to have any direction at all. So, in a rare journalistic move, I scrapped it. Over decades of column writing, I don’t think I’ve ever done such a radical thing. When a deadline looms, and there are already more than 500 words on the page, don’t jettison the project. Instead regroup, refocus and keep going to make it work. But, I don’t have to do that anymore, so I’m starting over.
Originally I began by talking about my experiences as mother to three daughters, but suddenly all I could think of were the mistakes I’d made and what I would have done differently. Spending too much time in the past is probably one of my most unproductive habits. Being a problem solver (not to mention a problem causer) my mind has a tendency to wander back to significant events and analyze them in a repeated and fruitless attempt to change history. It’s impossible, of course, but apparently there is a glitch in my brain that has rendered it incapable of accepting there are no “do-overs.” In spite of the sadness and tragedy I wish I could undo, that would be quite dangerous as it would obliterate not only yesterday, but today, and all that is real and wonderful.
As I am now in my 60’s, today when I mention that my mother died when I was in my teens, at first glance it doesn’t seem to have had much sway over my life. But, it did and still does affect me and my family every single day. Sometimes I’m cognizant of it, sometimes not. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I fully comprehended the impact of not having her with me to protect, guide, and teach. My sisters’ lives have also been shaped by that singular event. I don’t feel I should speak to how they feel, however.
I have said the words “My mother died right before my 17th birthday” over and over, in different situations, to different people, as explanation, as history, and perhaps an effort to convince myself it’s actually true. While her death was a loss, equally notable is the powerful imprint she made in such a short time. I had no idea the sheer amount of information, teaching, and moral guidance she instilled as she seamlessly moved through each day, cleaning, cooking, sewing, making a comfortable, safe home, and taking care of four girls who ages spanned 13 years. I carry with me her creativity and dry humor, her principles, and an almost innate sense of right and wrong. But, I don’t think I’ve ever had her quiet strength. I may have inner strength, but there is usually a lot of noise and commotion on my way to it.
I will always remember a conversation we had after Mom had received the diagnosis. It was a beautiful spring day, Dad was outside plowing up her garden patch that she wouldn’t be able to plant. She was lying down and I sat in the little slipper chair beside the bed, no longer an angry, belligerent teen, but just a girl. A tear rolled down my face as I turned away from the window and watching Dad, to look at her and ask “Are you scared?”
Her answer was simple. “No.”
Sometimes little surprises connected with Mom’s absence still arise. My sister is downsizing and brought over some memorabilia so I could go through it. Although she was still very young, too, she was a compass and a lighthouse as I navigated those choppy years preceding adulthood, and we remain very close. Many of Mom’s things had been dispersed among us girls, but not in a particularly organized manner and I didn’t remember seeing these items before. As I was browsing through Mom’s baby book, which was very well kept by her mother, there was a page with a little pink envelope affixed to it. It contained a lock of Mom’s baby hair. I was stunned by the surge of pain and grief it aroused, and fought back tears. When I told my sister how coming across that tiny wisp hit so unexpectedly hard, she nodded in agreement and said, “I still grieve for her.”
She is right, I still grieve for her, too. Rather than abating with the passage of time, as I’ve become a mother, and now a grandmother myself, the scope of her loss has been revealed many times over. When I look back at the girl I was, the mother in me feels so sad for her. When Mom died I was busy being a teenager, and had in fact been a bit of a pain up to the time she became ill. I snapped out of it immediately, pushed back the teenage angst, and went to work helping Dad with the housekeeping and taking care of my little sister. I didn’t do it alone. My older sisters lived about an hour away, and despite creating their own careers, getting married, and starting families, they helped whenever they could. It never occurred to me to ask for help from anyone else, and as we had lived in our small community for a short time, only a few people stepped up. As a result, I became a “doer,” a trait that is still with me today.
However, I always look forward to Mother’s Day. Tim and the girls go out of their way to make it special. It is not a day for dwelling on the past, it’s now a day I share with our middle daughter, and we all delight in the antics of Teddy, the only member of our next generation to date. My reflections of this week past have gently reminded me how much I value motherhood, along with the comprehension of how intertwining, deep, powerful, and lasting is the imprint a mother has on her child.