“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.