Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Birthday Wishes, Part 2

After I hit "publish" on yesterday's post, as so often happens, the little writer in my brain kept tapping away at her imaginary keyboard. I ended where I did in part because it was closing in on midnight and in part because I had spent the better part of the afternoon and evening trying to tease something else out of what I was putting down, with no success. And I ended there, too, because that last line--petulant and whiny and ungrateful though it sounds--does capture a sliver of what I feel when I think of my mother.

But it is just a sliver and, today, I'd like to share some other parts of the whole.

Years ago, I wrote in my journal that one of the things that happens when your mother dies at 42 is that you realize there are no guarantees in life. That's true. And life is full of reminders.

In 2006, Mr. High School was 37 when he was killed in an on-the-job accident. This past December, our friend and fellow Fine Line Salon member, Lynda Grace, lost her 36-year-old son to colon cancer.  In the past few years, I have stood at the casket of the 17-year-old daughter of family friends and also received word of the death of a cousin who was in his twenties. A few weeks ago, one of Daughter-Only's friends lost her niece, who was just a little past her first birthday, to a rare genetic anomaly. Almost twenty-three years ago, one of my best friends from high school lost her eight-month-old daughter to SIDS.

My mother did not have "enough" time, but she had more time than so many people did and do.

Two weeks ago, a coworker's mother passed away. She was 99--she would've been 100 in August. Right up until a few days before her death, she was lucid and engaged for the most part. Truly a blessing. This coworker said she felt silly--and even greedy--for feeling so devastated and surprised by her mother's sudden decline and death. It is not silly, but maybe it is greedy--and maybe we are all greedy about our time with our loved ones. Maybe it is never enough.

Yesterday's post was about how gone my mother is--and she is that: irrevocably, completely gone. But there are so many ways in which she is also not gone at all. Today, I'd like to share a different sort of piece about my mother. I wrote this many years ago, and have posted it on the blog once before.

Finding My Mother

I'm looking for my mother. She's not there in the doctor's grim expression. Not in the diagnosis, which raises as many questions as it answers--a recurrence of breast cancer that spread throughout her body undetected. She is not in the tangle of tubes and wires, the electronic blips and beeps, the sterile technology that keeps her alive but only sometimes eases her pain.

She was a woman raised in the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania who distrusted technology, medical and otherwise. Twenty years as a military wife hadn't cured her of her country girl's reflexive distrust of outsiders, of the world. Politicians, it was a given, were all crooked. She was sure the girls behind the deli counter at the supermarket were trained to put extra slices of ham or cheese on the sensitive electronic scales and then to inquire with false sweetness, "It's a few points over a pound, is that all right?" My mother made them put the slices back.

I'm looking for my mother. She is not there in the shimmery silver satin on which her head now rests, not in the cool, smooth surface of the casket.

She was a woman of many contradictions. She was an outspoken feminist who could argue down the loudest mouth chauvinist at any party, who dressed her daughters in "Anything boys can do, girls can do better" T-shirts, who not only believed women were equal to men, but suspected we were in many ways superior. Yet, she washed and ironed my father's shirts even when she worked as many hours outside the home as he did. She was an optimist--telling us to be ourselves and we would go far. She was a pragmatist--telling us not to get our hopes up, in an effort to protect us from the disappointments she was sure we would face. She battled acute shyness, but when the spirit (and the right tune) moved her, she could outdance any extrovert.

I'm looking for my mother. She is not there in the unyielding granite stone that marks her grave. Not in the straight lines of the block letters that spell out her name. She is not there in the finality of the numbers marking her forty-two years.

She stares out at me from a snapshot taken just after I was born. Alone in a field under an overcast sky, she is wind-blown, gangly and wide-eyed. She looks scrawny and exposed, fragile as a newly hatched bird, but from her eyes shines a fierce determination to survive, to thrive. From this captured moment, she would go on to raise four children and to share, against all odds, in the making of a lasting marriage. She was a mother at sixteen, a child who stumbled unprepared into womanhood. That child survived within her. We saw her in the wonder with which my mother greeted her new-to-the-world grandchildren. We saw her in my mother's vulnerability, in her sensitivity to harsh words. Somewhere beneath all the worldly cynicism and the backwoods practicality hid the abandoned child waiting to come out to play, to climb trees, to be barefoot.

I'm looking for my mother. She is in my own impatience with pretense and empty social niceties. She is in my tendency toward untidiness, in my belief that chaos is more interesting than order. She is in the expression I catch on my sister's face, or my brother's, or my own as I pass by the mirror. She is in the shape of my big toe, which looks so much like hers, I am sometimes surprised to find it on my own foot. She is in my tomboyishness, which I have finally accepted is chronic, permanent, and not just a relic from childhood I might someday outgrow. She is in the mixture of paranoia and confidence with which I greet each day. She is in the silly songs I sing to my children and in the soaring hopes I have for them.

I'm looking for my mother. She's never far.


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. Your post "I'm looking for my mother" was beautiful. I felt her spirt through your words. I related to her shyness which, like me, didn't get in the way when the music started to play.
    I am glad to hear that even though her life ended too soon, she shared parts of herself with her children giving each of you a sense of who she was.

    1. Thanks, Lynda. I have very clear memories of her and my father on the dance floor at a work Christmas party when I was fourteen or so. Doing the twist. I love that memory now, but to be honest, if I could've crawled under a table at that moment without drawing more attention to myself, I surely would have. ;)

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you, Judy. That means a lot.

  4. This is so moving! Makes me want to walk down to my Mom's house and visit over coffee. And maybe sing a silly song or two, becuase when I couldn't remember a single song to sing to my newborn (suffered a mild case of baby brain) my Mom came to my rescue and reminded me of all the words to my childhood songs.

    1. My mom knew some goofy songs, for sure. ;)

  5. As always, your words from long ago, resound with wisdom and compassion. What a gift you have provided in perpetuity.

  6. This was beautiful- not just the sentiments expressed, but the way you expressed touching. As you know, I'm in the process of finding myself through the children...another fascinating journey.

  7. What an engaging and poetic piece of writing! The tenderness leaps off the page. and, yes, she is irrevocably gone but she is clearly not gone.

  8. What a beautiful tribute to a clearly beautiful woman.

  9. Lovely. I wish I had the words to talk about my mother. Now you've got me thinking I should try and find them...

  10. Loved this. So challenging to write about lost loved ones, but you did it beautifully.

  11. I was doing fine until I got to the part about finding your mother in your big toe and I wept. Beautiful.