Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mother's Day Sans Mother

The gifts or cards I may have given my mother when I was a child are lost to me. I’m sure a succession of kind-voiced pre-school and early elementary teachers assisted me in the construction of any number of tokens. Construction paper cards most probably. Perhaps something in the shape of a heart? Wobbly print messages and uneven attempts at cursive signatures. Some probably are in one or another box kicking around my father’s house in Tennessee, or the storage unit just a bit of a drive away from town. But as far as my ability to actually recall any of my childhood gestures is concerned, those pockets of childhood are ones I cannot access.

I remember realizing it was Mother’s Day once during high school, but I’m not sure if I did anything about it. My freshmen year of college I wrote my mother a poem for the holiday, which reflected on the life she had - and woman she was - before I existed. Before I was even a sparkle in her eye, as they say.  Another year I sent her flowers in a vase, which I think she appreciated in theory…but perhaps not in actuality? It may have been that she didn’t like the vase. I don’t think I did anything especially meaningful or thoughtful on my mother’s last Mother’s Day. May would have been about month or so after she was diagnosed with, and immediately started treatment for, Acute Myeloid Leukemia. I’m sure we spoke on the phone, and I probably said something lame about my lack of actually doing anything about it. I think about that occasionally, how often I didn’t do the sweet and thoughtful things loving daughters should do to celebrate their mothers. For the most part I think my mother knew I appreciated her, but I could have made more of an effort.  And here we are, a bit shy of four years after her death, on the eve yet another Mother’s Day. Last year I was perturbed by the number of emails or advertisements I would come across that exhorted the gratitude and love my mother would feel for me if I would only buy her a heart-shaped pendant designed by Jane Seymour, or chocolates, or flowers, or a Snuggie. It struck me that the internet - with all its social media and targeted ads - should be evolved enough at this point to know intrinsically that their products or services were no longer relevant to me. And that, in fact, the constant stream of mother-related marketing only made me hate their products, which I would not have ever purchased for her even if she was still alive.

I think a lot about my mother’s absence in my life. I try to imagine what she would think about certain choices or events in my life. What words she might share with me were I to share one of my disastrous men stories with her. Her advice or perspective on my recent unhappiness, and choice to leave Philadelphia for a sheep farm clear across the country. The possible activities in which she would have been involved, had she lived. I see what some of her friends are up to, and I imagine she would have participated in many of the same things. She had cut all this fabric for a quilting project before she got sick. My father gave the materials to her friend, Jill, who made a series of pot holders and the like and sent them to me. They are beautiful, and they  make me think of my mother’s capacity for making good friends and staying creative. They also make me wonder what my mother would have done differently and what her vision was in comparison to Jill’s excellent execution. 

The poem I wrote for my mother started with lines describing a photograph I once found tucked among her things. It was my mother, naked in the woods. Young. Well, late-20s early 30s. When I first stumbled across the photo and asked my mother about it, the one thing I knew clearly was that it was a photo not taken by my father. That my mother had multiple lovers or relationships was its own revelation. Over the years, as I got older, she told me a bit more about her private life and romances. And I feel that this was a privilege and demonstration of her trust in me. When she died I wrote a eulogyfor her, which I read at her memorial service in Sewanee. Some months later, I received a message from the man who took the photo.  Somehow he had stumbled across either my blog and eulogy, or an obituary elsewhere, and got in touch to express his condolences and to suggest that he send some photos he had of mom to me. I responded and expressed interest in the photos as well as gratitude for his thoughts. We didn’t start any kind of lasting correspondence, but he did respond once more, sharing a few more memories and his own perspective on the time they knew each other. An excerpt from that email includes:

“Your eulogy was so very apt - it really rung true to my experience.  She was quiet and sweet but, yes, plenty of serious insights and extremely droll commentary on life around her.  She was a little bit of a muse to me at the time.  We rambled around southern Ohio a lot, photographing and trying to understand life and art.  I took her to meet my best friend in Philadelphia and we visited my family (in Detroit) among other trips during that year.  Mary was the kind of friend you never had a second thought about introducing to everyone you knew.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of people sharing little thoughts, memories or impressions of my mother with me. From time to time someone has shared such a recollection and I shake my head a bit internally, because their version of my mother only partially synchs up with my own, which I generally believe to be relatively accurate. But at others, there is new insight or a confirmation of my own idea of her, and this is comforting. When someone is no longer in your life, whether due to death or simple emotional parting, it can be easy to create some stand-in sense of them in your mind. The sort of thing where you think to yourself ‘oh yes, X would think Y about this’ or ‘there is no way that X would ever do such a thing!’ But the fact is that you can never know their true reactions or potential thoughts once they’re outside of your world. What new things might my mother have done in the years since her death? What expressions of gratitude or love could I have created to show her I cared on Mother’s Day? To make this a properly Hallmark-like post, I would start writing about the perfect tribute I could make to her at this point. It would be just amazing in its attention to her spirit and interests, and touching and unique. It would be the heartwarming/tear jerking kind of thing that folks like to read. But honestly, I don’t have the idea. I don’t have that perfect gift. I don’t have that tidy and emotionally satisfying conclusion to give you or myself. On the whole I don’t think my mother really has the ability to still know what’s going on with me in death. I like the idea of her being able to keep up, but I don’t feel that is actually the case. And perhaps that prevents me from being able to consider thinking of her in the present tense or to really engage in that line of inquiry. Or to really entertain the narrative that feels most natural to this post – discussion of past failures as a daughter, a few new thoughts or memories about my mother, summed up with a proverbial bow of an idea for the absolutely spot-on gift I could have given her to let her know I valued all she brought to my life in the role of ‘mother.’

So if I’m not going to end this post with that tidy bow, then how do I end it? On the whole I do not feel like Mother’s Day is the holiday to mourn or regret. I’d tell all those with living and breathing mothers that while you should certainly make some effort on this day, it’s really all the other ones that count just as much. I was generally very open and honest with my mother, especially after I went to college. And she returned my honesty with her own more often than not. And that is something that not all children and parents can do. Perhaps on this Mother’s Day my suggestion would be to try to find new channels of communication with your mother. I am so glad that we were able to have the kind of honest dialogue that allowed me to know who she was outside of the strict confines of ‘parent.’ Though I understand that not all folks want or could potentially have this kind of relationship or conversation, I do encourage pretty much everyone to try to break out some of the habits and boundaries that have arisen between themselves and their mothers.  Not that I’m some sort of guru. I guess I just so valued getting a more all encompassing sense of who my mother was, and not only in relation to me, that I feel that those who keep their parents in such strict little boxes are missing out. And that when their parent eventually dies, they will only then realize how much more they could have known.

Perhaps instead of a heart shaped necklace or box of chocolates, you could take this Mother’s Day as an opportunity to ask your mother to tell you stories that aren’t about you.  That’s certainly something I did from time to time, but which I wish I had done even more. And if you, like me, have lost your mother, perhaps this can be a day where you try to dredge up memories you haven’t been able to surface in the past. Some little snippet of a moment. Some whole cloth example of your mother’s kindness, toughness, care or passion. And perhaps that day can just be the first of many. Because believe me, the thing I wish more than anything else is that I had more opportunities to ask my mother about herself and her experiences. And, selfishly, about my own origins and phantom memories that without her corroboration could just as easily be dreams as fact.

1 comment:

Robley H said...

Caroline, I don't know if this is for posting (I leave that up to you), but it is for reading by you. My mother died 50 and a half years ago and I still think about her, in some way, every day. Mostly, now, I wonder if she would like me. I don't know (she only knew me for the first 16 years of my life after all), and for some reason it matters a lot. I know she would love me, and I know she loved me more than any other person I have ever known or loved. And that matters too. Your post so rings true for me, not in the specifics (I knew your mother only briefly), but in the matter of mothers and their mattering. Thank you for writing it.