I’ve been thinking about my mother a lot lately, especially in the last six months—since I became a grandmother. My mother died in January of 2011, before either of my daughters had married, before one of them delivered her a great grandson and me a grand.
If only she could have heard her grandchildren speak of her at her memorial service, pointing out her quirks—her odd collection of and insistence on bathing caps; her fried chicken, rice and broccoli comfort dinners; her crisp linen blouses, high-waisted cotton skirts, and giant hand bags full of tissues and bobby pins and combs and compacts and Milk of Magnesia tablets and sunscreen; her need for an open window, even if the thermometer registered 6 degrees; her unshakable belief in the restorative power of walking.
She creamed her grandchildren at Ping Pong, the table set up by the ironing board and laundry area in her dank basement. My girls relished the fresh smell of the sheets she hung on the line and ironed before putting on their beds. One of my daughters spoke of their grandmother buying them quality shoes and classic wool coats and education and plane tickets. And of her withering “You’re wearing that?” look.
Still, they felt her fierce devotion.
So did I.
So do I, still.
I often give a prompt based on a poem by Julia Kastorf:
“What I Learned from My Mother.”
. . . I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household. . . .
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
My mother was private, frightened of public display, convinced the sick and bereaved would rather be left undisturbed. No need to remind people of their tragedies.
But she showed up for her daughters and grandchildren. I think of her trips to Rhode Island 32 years ago this fall, when my infant son Malcolm was so sick. Like me now, my mother worked full-time and she too was basically self-employed. But somehow she managed to come several times on the train from Princeton, New Jersey, to help me during my son’s short life of 42 days.
She drove him and me to the major emergency room 40 miles away in a severe rainstorm, despite her phobia about being on the road in bad weather. She greeted the visiting nurse who came each day, offered the woman tea, and hid her own terror at my son’s vulnerability, though the visiting nurse could not hide hers.
She shopped and cooked and bought us a rollaway bed for our anniversary on October 11, so I could sleep comfortably in Malcolm’s room with him. “Not the most romantic anniversary gift,” she noted, but what we needed.
She guided me to the hotel lobby when I was too disoriented and distressed and sleep-deprived to know where I was, the night before Malcolm’s first surgery.
She visited her grandson in the hospital NICU, donning the green surgical scrubs over her stylish wool suit, and covering her sensible shoes in scrub slippers. I’m sure the experience gutted her to the core, but she was there.
The only time my mother could not show up was when I called on that last afternoon. My parents had holed up and paced all day at home, four states away. They had been with us for the first successful surgery—but this one was sudden. Mother planned to come and help right away afterwards.
But there was no afterwards.
My father answered the phone, breaking down as I shared the news that Malcolm had died in surgery. I was in shock, dry-eyed, telling him about the beautiful sunset and that Malcolm was out there in it somewhere.
“Your mother can’t come to the phone,” he told me. I could hear her soft keening in the background. I don’t fault her. We all have our moments when we simply can’t. She had endured so much, watching the horrific hospital ordeal that had shattered her youngest daughter and her grandson’s lives. It was her turn to lose it and to be alone.
Almost twenty years later, when I gave a reading from Losing Malcolm in my parents’ hometown, they came and sat in the front row. Both were pale, drawn. I could almost see their thought bubbles: Would their daughter be able to keep her composure and read? Would people show up? Was it appropriate to share one’s story in this public way?
When I finished reading and asked if there were questions, my mother, usually shy in a literary crowd, was the first to raise a hand. She talked about the grief of grandparents and how there was no place to express it. People had no idea how grandparents suffered, she said. There should be groups for them. Her bravery and her need surprised and pierced me.
In today’s mail I received a card from a woman who had been in one of my writing workshops last week. She had lost twins in 1967. “It changed me forever and my outlook on life.” she wrote, “what I was taking for granted and what was important.”
She told me to thank all 13 of the bereaved moms in our Farther Along group.
In closing she wrote: “I was in Siler City yesterday to help my daughter with her twins!”
Twins. At last.
I wish my mother could show up with me at my daughter’s house in the next town over, open the windows immediately the way I do, and insist that all infants need to wear hats. I wish she could push our chubby blonde baby boy in a swing, his perfect little mouth an “O” of delight, the fading sun a halo behind him. I wish she could walk back with us from the park to my daughter’s house, fry her chicken, and put freshly aired sheets on every bed.
This is what I learned from my mother.
How about you?