“Women – particularly Southern women – can’t really come into their voices until they lose their mothers,” a writer friend said to me recently over lunch.

This particular friend, who also was around 40 when she lost her mother and with whom I often discuss mothers and mothering, is the same friend who said, “you want them when they’re little, but they need you when they’re big,” encouraging me to find high quality childcare and pour myself into my career while my offspring were young. As I’ve written, this was, looking back, the single most important bit of counsel I would receive at the gates of motherhood. I did not listen to it. Instead I listened to my mother, who said things like “oh, isn’t it too bad you have to work.”  My mother, to whom the term day care was as distasteful as malt liquor.

My mother’s voice was strong, its mark indelible. As the shepherd of girls, Mama set the standard she expected us to follow: good posture, fine manners, independence softened by socially-appropriate deference. I often disappointed my mother in these regards. I was tall, sturdily-framed and blunt in expression, olive-hued like my father. I looked nothing like my fair, petite mother.  I was clumsy, not delicate; I failed at being politely deferential to morons and misogynists, skipped right over passive and straight into aggression. I wished I were more like my mother; I feared becoming my mother.

For many years, though, my own voice was indistinguishable from my mother’s. We sounded alike on the telephone, I was often told. We enjoyed many of the same things, cooking and NPR and Scriabin and sewing. All of these things were, in addition to being common interests, also occasional sources of territory-marking, as was our similar career pursuit of writing and public relations. While my mother was kind and funny and loving, she was also deeply competitive, a quality she would never have acknowledged in herself. At times, she saw me as her competitor. I did not love her less because of this quality, but in my adulthood it was often hard for me to like her.

These particular reflections, the ones in which neither of us quite measures up, are off-script for the holiday season. This is sugar-cookie-memory time for a daughter who’s lost her mother, time to dust off the family recipes and traditions, hang the ornaments of family lore, wallow in nostalgia.

Even more out of bounds, just short of pure sacrilege, is this thought, the one I have had every holiday season for the past 10 years: my mother’s greatest gift to me was dying when and as she did.

This is, perhaps, a horrifying disclosure. Some family history may be in order.

When I was six and my sister still a baby, my father’s mother had a stroke that left her incapacitated. For a while she was at home, bedridden but home; and we would dutifully pack up and go to their house for visits and would have my grandfather over to our house for dinner and evening walks. Eventually my grandmother deteriorated to the point of requiring full-time care in a nursing home, so our family schedule adjusted to accommodate both visits to my grandparents’ house, where my grandfather remained, and visits to my grandmother in the nursing home. For my mother it was a series of events that took over her young family’s life, that overshadowed everything.

My mother’s greatest disagreement with the situation was that my grandmother, in my mother’s observation, never let my father become his own man. My father wanted to remain in the Navy after the war and earn his pilot’s license; but my grandmother said it was beneath his class and overruled him, ushered him instead to the University of Virginia and then into a career as a homebuilder. My father was unhappy in his work but found fulfillment in being outdoors during weekends at Hardy. My mother, in response, was all set to pack us up and move to Colorado, to help him pursue a new career in forestry; but my grandmother insisted on having her only son close by. And then she had a stroke and became the center of our family activity for several years.

In October 2004 I was living with my children, who were three and one, in my mother’s spare bedroom. We had sold our house, thinking the new one would be ready in time; but it wasn’t. My mother was weak from chemo and radiation, and she was glad to have our company for a few months while Bernard spent all of his time, including nights, trying to finish the renovation so we could move in. We were amiss, a mess, in every way, trying to figure it out one day at a time.

One night mid-month while we were lying on her bed watching television, which we did in the evenings after the children went to sleep, my mother broke the news that her oncologist recommended she stop chemo and start hospice care. She said all of this very matter-of-factly. There was paperwork I would need to help fill out, including the forms from the MERI, an organization I had mentioned to my mother weeks earlier in the context of my work, never stopping to think of it as the place that might receive her body.

In addition to my signature on the various pages, my mother extracted from me a promise. If her condition declined to the point of needing full-time care in a nursing home, I was to put her there and let her be, to move on with my own life. “You must not do what I did,” she said, very firmly. “You must not.”

My mother’s condition was frail but stable through that Thanksgiving and Christmas, when my sister and her family came to visit. We cooked; we ate; we laughed. My sister and I met with the hospice nurse, who informed us that our mother’s body was still strong and likely would hold on for several months, despite the fact that her mind seemed to be slipping. We would need to be prepared for a long ride, to start looking at options for care.

A few days after Christmas my mother put on her usual party clothes and walked to a neighbor’s house for the usual holiday cocktail party. My sister and her family flew home, none of us having any idea what might come next. On New Year’s Eve my mother was listless, a side effect, the home-health nurse said, of an increased morphine dose. I called Margaret anyway, told her she needed to come right back, and to hurry.

Shortly past nine o’clock on January 1, 2005, less than an hour after my sister’s return flight landed in Memphis, our mother died, peacefully, in her own bed, a daughter on each side. She died a mere 72 hours after going out to toast with her neighbors and coming home to filch for dark chocolate in the Christmas candy stash. She died when she decided it was time to go; I will believe this until my own last breath.

That there is a vacuum-like hole when a loved one passes should go without saying. There is a gap, a pause, a reshuffling. If our lives had been at different stages, if we’d been much younger when it happened, it is possible that my sister and I could have been lost in grief – possible, though not likely. For me, the experience was more like Derek Thompson described in “The Secret Life of Grief – the science of resilience.” Maybe it’s because we had each other, Margaret and I, to laugh as well as cry. But the more I think about it, the more I see something else, too.

In addition to the treasured cornbread stuffing recipe, the piano, the roll-top desk and all those books, my mother left behind a typed family history that she prepared just for us. As writing was one of my mother’s great talents, this family story is beautifully written, rich in detail of both fact and memory. I re-read it from time to time, and I can hear my mother’s voice as clear as day. Her words, her phrasing, her point of view.

In this story there is a theme I doubt I could have seen when my mother was still alive. My mother devoted herself to raising children who could survive – thrive, even – without her. Together we were a chord of notes each firm enough to carry solo because she spent all of our lives preparing us to become our own people, to build our own families, to find our own voices. Not because she didn’t love us, but because she so deeply did.

Friends often ask me if I miss my mother more at Christmastime, if the holidays are bittersweet not having her here. Of course I miss my mother, even the things about her I didn’t particularly like. I miss the smell of her kitchen, her voice on my answering machine. I miss reading “To Jennifer, from Santa,” on a present every year, long after I knew the truth about the man in the red suit.

But what I love most about my mother is still here, now light and weightless, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas; always. I hear her echo in my words, her harmony to my melody. I didn’t lose my mother; I became the woman she wanted me to be, with or without her.

The iridescent shimmer of 12.

At 12

Opals were meant to be worn only by those for whom opal was their birthstone, that’s what my mother said. But I loved opals, loved their mystery, their hologram-like coloring. So I used my babysitting money to buy an opal ring from Lowell Hays Jewelers. It was a dainty ring, the setting bright, yellow gold, with two small stones nestled together, yin-yang style. It was feminine, delicate, sophisticated; and it softened my overly large hands, I thought, made them look prettier, properly adorned for Thanksgiving.

It was chilly, but not cold, and overcast, the kind of weather that required a coat but not mittens or hats or boots. I was wearing a blue cotton quilted jacket and black cotton China shoes, purchased, too, with babysitting money because my mother did not find the shoes attractive, didn’t think them appropriate footwear to accompany anything other than pajamas.

Pam wore black cotton China shoes, and Pam was an artist in art school and also the source of my income because she and her husband, the two of them dead-ringers for Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, went out almost every weekend and always needed a babysitter. And I was almost always available to babysit for them, except when someone else called me first. And I used the money to buy clothes that looked like Pam’s clothes because her clothes were artsy and grown-up-looking, and I was tired of being a child.

The ring was the crowning touch for my outfit; but now my ring was lost, gone missing, mysteriously, somewhere in Daddy’s blue Oldsmobile, which was parked in the driveway, warming up for the road trip to Como because it was Trudy’s turn to host Thanksgiving. And we were late, as usual, trying to leave by 11 but not doing so until almost 12. Something was always lost, something else never quite ready; and we were always running late, which was always a source of embarrassment, as if there weren’t enough of those already.

My mother was taking her chocolate roll, one of her two signature desserts, so she sat in the back seat with my sister to keep the baking sheet from sliding around, the carton of whipping cream secure in its ice. I sat up front with my father, who always drove, even when we were going to see my mother’s family, which we would do later, around Christmas. Holidays meant going somewhere else, never staying home for the day.

Since it was chilly, we had the heat turned on; but I had the window cracked, too, just enough for fresh air because the heat in the car made me carsick, even sitting in the front seat. There isn’t much to see between Memphis and Como, even from the front seat, even now. Acres of farmland, cotton mostly, back then. Some fields were still smoldering from their post-harvest burn, the acrid smell the price to pay for a thin stream of breeze. Occasionally the thick sky was interrupted by a V of birds while the miles ticked by, my father lost in private thought, my mother entertaining my little sister with a game of I Spy.

When we got to Como, my sister would have playmates, cousins her very own age. There were older cousins, too, full-fledged teenagers, too old to be interested in me. With my mother’s family I had Ethyl, who was just 10 days my elder and who was also interested in art. But with my father’s people I was stuck in the middle, caught in between booger jokes on one side, bras and braces on the other, no natural place to fit in. There would be football and bourbon at one end of the house, a steamy kitchen and Winstons at the other, teenagers in their rooms in between, and children playing outside where they wouldn’t break anything. I wandered around outside, too, for a bit, looking at the greys and browns of November. Then we ate; then we drove home. We had grilled cheese sandwiches and soup for dinner, snuggled in the den to watch The Wizard of Oz.

This would be the last year for the blue Olds, replaced by a cherry-red LTD station wagon that would usher in a new era for our family. I would never find my opal ring, but from my mother, one year later, would come a new ring, two small sapphires set yin-yang style in soft rose gold to complement hands that had grown into themselves, that were learning to tackle Rachmaninoff, to stretch ten full keys on the piano. I still have that ring, now, though I left the piano behind years ago.

By Thanksgiving that next year, and after, my older cousins would depart for college, leaving open space for me at the big table. There I would find conversation about Georgia O’Keefe and New York and Vogue magazine, all for my benefit, though I would not realize it.

Through the march of holidays to come I would learn to make both my mother’s chocolate roll and her crème brûlée, to make Trudy’s stuffing (both with and without oysters), and Julia’s turkey and even Peggy’s rolls, though that recipe would come last and only after proving myself trustworthy.

I would learn that all families are both alike and different, the dynamics complicated in every case. I would come to admit that The Wizard of Oz terrifies me, and to be thankful for its replacement by Harry Potter marathons which we watch, snuggled in the den, with my son, born in the month of sapphires, and my daughter, born in the month of opals.

I would learn, through my own children, that life holds exactly one year of this strange 12-year-old wilderness I remember, of floating in limbo, jettisoned from childhood toward an invisible receiving net that appears like magic, woven by the generations ahead.

The gift of melancholy.

light in August

Here’s something important: getting up.

Get. Up. That’s how I say it to myself, sometimes. Actually, that’s almost always how I say it to myself, sometimes aloud, especially during the school year. Get. Up. Jennifer. Do it now. I say this to myself when it is still dark outside and the alarm has gone off, when I have to leave the cloud of warm covers and the snoring man, have to plant my feet on the ground and see what the day will offer, after coffee and a shower and some breakfast.

I’ll come back to this, but later.

Back in August, I had a birthday.  And as I wrote to the friends who were kind enough to send good wishes, the actual day of my birthday was neither spectacular nor terrible.

This is how days are, for the most part, somewhere between spectacular and terrible. Having had the privilege of both extremes, I know to appreciate that most days will fall somewhere in the middle.

That’s the thought I had in my mind, the glorious, chaotic beauty of the middle, as I was celebrating reaching the half-century mark, sitting elbow-to-elbow with my sister and a small group of dear friends, our noses tickling from champagne, enjoying creamy cucumber soup (see, I didn’t give up cooking entirely).

I started writing about these things – turning 50, dinner parties, glorious chaos – not too long after my actual birthday but before my favorite dog died, and before we had some big changes in my work, and around the time my dinner book project fell apart, and right at the tippy-top beginning of a wave of mild depression, all of which sent me, and my writing, on a temporary but noticeable detour. Today is the day we should talk about that.

When I was in my 20s, like most people in their 20s, I was absolutely certain of almost everything and had questions only here and there. I am a very different person now from who I was then. Or, perhaps, I am now a different version of the same person, now with many questions and only spotty moments of absolute certainty.

One thing I was clever enough to question in my 20s was a recurring, intermittent, unpredictable pattern of feeling blue, of having days when it was all I could do to get out of bed. I was certain it was situational, the product of foolish choices, standard growing pains of being 20-something.

At the time I was working for a telecommunications company, full of engineers and analytical types. Since I worked in marketing  I was often asked to help with employee communications projects like the internal newsletter. It was in that capacity, newsletter writer, that I helped announce our roll-out of the Employee Assistance Program, which was actually a brand new thing back then, even though it is now something many people take for granted.

Initially, as I recall, the EAP pamphlets focused on issues like drugs and alcohol, anger management and domestic trouble – serious problems at home that could be causing serious problems at work, that was the idea. Then came the brochure featuring these questions:

  • Do you sometimes feel tired or sad for no reason?
  • Do you suddenly lack interest in things you typically enjoy?
  • Do you have unexplained changes in patterns of sleep or eating?

I’d like to tell you that I picked up the phone right away, that minute; but it was at least a week or two and probably a month or more later. I did call, though, because even though I was almost certain that my intermittent funks were situational, I did question whether talking to someone I didn’t know, someone with appropriate skill and training, could help me solve the puzzle, help me get out of the situations causing all the trouble.

There will be no play-by-play here, no recounting of unnecessary detail. We’ll stick to the essentials: my phone consult led to a session with a real, live counselor, followed by a frank discussion with my real, live, medical doctor about depression and treatment strategies and warning signs. In the end, we were all in agreement. I suffered from occasional bouts of mild depression that came on like a cold, sometimes triggered by life events and sometimes not. Eventually, also like a cold, the fog that seeped in unbidden would clear on its own. Considering a variety of different factors, we agreed that the episodes were not severe enough to warrant medication, that the medical risks of drugs, for me, outweighed the potential benefits. They still do. For emphasis: this was – is – true for me. It is not true for everyone.

The agreed treatment approach, again specific to me, was (is) to self-monitor, to learn to recognize signs and symptoms and then take appropriate steps.  So now, when I feel drift into feeling achy and tired and out of sorts, when normal things like responding to emails or making plans for lunch seem, unexpectedly, overwhelming, I understand what is happening. And I follow the protocol, the same one I’ve followed for years. I have a list of what to do and what to watch for. If the protocol is working, then I proceed as usual; if not, then it’s time to reevaluate. So far, the protocol still works.  Again, this is true for me; it is not true for everyone. Depression is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it a contest.

You are wondering, perhaps, what to do, what to do, what to do. If you are wondering this wonder because sometimes you feel exactly the same way I’ve described feeling, but you’ve never actually talked to anyone about it, then I hope you might now feel brave enough to reach out and have a conversation with a real, live, trained professional. Really, do this; it matters. You matter.

If you are wondering what to do because you want to do something to help me, to fix things, to make me better or happier, then you must stop, now. Really, please stop. Try instead to understand that depression, for me, is simply a bout of concentrated sadness, one during which I pare away, retreat, ponder. But I am not unhappy when I am depressed, because sad is not the opposite of happy.

In fact, all my life I have loved melancholy. I have always preferred The Little Match Girl over Cinderella, always King Lear over As You Like It, always Sophie’s Choice over Tootsie. This has always, always been true. Sure, I’ll kick back and guffaw through Spaceballs and The Hangover and This is 40; you bet I will. And I will truly, wholeheartedly, enjoy every minute. Given a choice, though, what I will want to watch by myself, sitting in my room, will always be serious instead of silly.

If you know me in real life but have never known this particular truth, it is only because I have sometimes worked hard to keep it secret. As I mentioned, I am now a different version of my younger self. Then, I saw my melancholy thread as a flaw to be concealed, if not erased. No one wanted a somber girl at the party, even a somber extrovert. Especially a somber extrovert.

Somber it is, nonetheless. There is in me an innate undercurrent of wistfulness, a warp in either my lens or filter. Occasionally this undercurrent swells into a sea that was long ago named mild depression, something I have avoided owning publicly, have avoided learning how to enjoy.

With turning 50 comes certain permissions, however, even if in truth they were there all along: permission to be flawed, to be vulnerable, to be human. To be sad and happy at the same time. To be real. At 50 there is no point being otherwise.

As Laren Stover suggested recently in “The Case for Melancholy,” I have reached a point of accepting, even embracing, the truth that some days I will feel like throwing a festive dinner party and other days I will feel like lying in bed to watch Gallipoli. I have given up fighting the way this feels; I no longer look at it as a defect, strange and malformed. Even when it settles in for a few days, like a cold. This is my normal. It is my glorious chaos. It is who I am.

Every morning I leave the warm covers and the snoring man to plant my feet on the ground and face a day that will likely be somewhere in between spectacular and terrible. Get up, Jennifer. Let’s see what happens today.