(This is a reprint of an article I wrote years ago. I thought it was appropriate, since we are approaching Mother’s Day 2017. Lilacs and peonies were my mother’s two favorite flowers. )
My journey to understand my mother took me a long while.
How odd it is that we actually reach one of our destinations before our journey has really begun. How close to God we are when we emerge. We are moist, open, sparkling creations, ready to swallow the world and cry for more. We want to get going. We swim and fight our way to the light. We are tired of being confined and we are accustomed to a different sort of light. From that moment on, we run and reach, we squirm, strive and study to return to that light, but we usually don’t understand what we are doing.
Our first leg of the journey starts with our mothers, whether or not they remain our mothers. Some of us keep our first mother. Some are projected onto a different path and follow the plan inscribed for their journey, which begins with another separation. These small beings are thrust again into a vast and confusing universe, until they cleave unto a new mother, which relationship is also inscribed before we come to be (My opinion, anyway).
Our journeys with our mothers as traveling companions often include detours on roads paved with harsh words, rebellion, anger, or even estrangement. Yet, most of our mothers are there with us, trekking silently and cautiously behind us, watching and wanting to catch us when we fall. Other mothers are not so silent, emerging from our backpacks like potent and ominous vapors of our past, when we least expect or want the memories to impede or slow our adventures. It does not matter if the memories they release are warm and comforting ones of being snuggled, nursed, protected, or ones that are more stormy representatives of our struggles to become who we want to be.
I remember Mama. I called her Mom-Pom, when I was about seven, after reading a book about a girl with cerebral palsy whose pet name this was for her own mother. My Mom-Pom was tiny, with dark, cascading hair that was usually pinned up. The circle she drew around herself was small and mainly had room for family and a few friends. Though she read all the time, her hands and mind preferred to grasp that which was familiar and routine, and from which she took comfort. She had no need to ask many questions. The questions usually came from me. She had her rules and she was a formidable opponent, if challenged. She loved by doing and by being. Verbal expression and sentiment were left to my father and to the rest of us inclined that way.
To her, there was a right way and a wrong way and not many nuances or moral dilemmas. You did what Mama and Papa wanted, what was good for the family and what you were supposed to. If you had yearnings or cravings, you did not listen and did not indulge yourself, at least not very often. When she did, rarely, it was because my father initiated something. He prodded her with a present, an insistent trip to the store to buy a new dress, a necklace, earrings, or the idea to take a trip somewhere. She had to be urged and coaxed to take pleasure in things, but with enough coaxing, she would slowly thaw. Her smiles were provoked by one of my father’s many gifts, his silliness, his jokes, or by a child’s antics, whether the child was offspring, grandchild or great-grandchild. She was the guard and protector of her serious domain. She was the resister. My father was the initiator and the pursuer, with the eternal child in him. She was the eternal adult, perhaps even as a little girl.
She was always there, even when I endeavored feverishly to push her aside. When I was seven and woke, finding myself in an oxygen tent, with doctors, nurses and grave faces everywhere, there was my mother, the first face I saw. She was serious and unsmiling, but her dark eyes spoke and I knew I would live. My father’s blue eyes were tear-filled, but he immediately launched into his comedic repertoire, in hopes of entertaining me. Though I loved him enormously, it was my mother’s eyes I needed to read to become unafraid. Later, as I grew, I would sometimes forget that until we neared the end of her life.
When I was attacked by unexpected kidney stones at 18, while in Vermont and went into shock from a reaction to morphine, my mother took her first airplane flight on a small and scary plane, and rushed to my side. I was secretly relieved and happy to see her, but in my rebellious phase, needed to pretend I was annoyed and that she had intruded on my “adulthood”. When I had a bad case of mononucleosis and couldn’t keep food down for many weeks, she was there, holding my head when I vomited and tempting me with small bits of food when I could tolerate them.
Years later, when I was ready to give birth to my eldest son, I insisted I was independent, had it all under control and did not need an “old-fashioned” person to impede or sully my personal birth experience. I told her not to come to California until after the birth. The day before I went into labor I experienced a yearning for my mother and panic. When I tried to call her to ask her to come, I learned she had been taken to the hospital for emergency surgery on a strangulated hernia.
After all of our losses…after losing my brother, my nephew, my Dad as well as her brothers and sister, she was somehow softer, more subdued, but never lost her feistiness to the end of her life. The people in the nursing home commented on it with regularity. When my first husband became ill, she was there for us (along with my father) whenever we needed them. It was painful for them to see us go through such terrible times and particularly for her, having lost a son and soon after, a grandson (and going through the latter without my father at her side). After my first husband’s death and the loss of our home in the fire that killed him, my mother insisted on staying with us in the rental house for a month. I characteristically resisted her help, which was always pragmatic and rarely emotional, but she did not let my obstinacy deter her. She helped me so much through those early, awful days.
For the kids, she was their ever present, opinionated, but loving Grandma, though Crispin, my elder girl said, after my mother’s death, “I always thought Grandma was invincible”. It is interesting that one so small and frail could project that to the world.
She loved children, but it was difficult for her to demonstrate that overtly. One might detect a sly, happy smile, if one watched. Even a few days before her death, she was not terribly responsive, but when her small great-granddaughter came close , she smiled and wanted to take her hand. She also asked my youngest, then twelve, to move closer to bid her goodbye. This was the very same Grandma who had once begged us not to adopt children of color, who prayed that I would marry only someone of my own faith, who nervously looked to see if her neighbors were watching when we arrived at my parents’ house in Brooklyn with our multi-colored entourage. Yet, she came to love our family and to view them the same way as any other family members. In the eleven plus years she lived here in Connecticut, my children and I became a strong part of the fabric of her life.
She hated losing her independence and autonomy. Most of us do. She fought it to the end. She became weaker and more connected to the past, though her memories were blurred and sometimes distorted. She gave me the greatest gift; she could possibly have given me. I got to care for her and to see her every day. I was able to express my feelings and finally, much to my shock and delight, she began to open up with her own feelings. By the end, she would frequently say, “I love you”. Although often moving in a different realm or reality than ours, she would suddenly snap to attention and would remind me to be careful driving, or to straighten up the mess I had made on her bed table. She would dispense unexpected morsels of wisdom, which I will now forever wrap up in precious figurative cloth in my memory and my heart.
Mama, I still cannot believe you are gone from here. . My own journey has taken me back to the place and time that has enabled me to feel and express my love with ease. Now I must resume the rest of my journey back to the light.