Lately as I’ve been watching the US Women’s Gymnastics Championships, there have been P & G commercials featuring various female Olympians and at the end of each commercial is the statement that it takes a strong woman to create another. Each daughter’s life has been profoundly impacted by her mother. That’s got me thinking about my mother and her life and her impact on me and my life.
My mother was a child of the depression. Her own mother died when my mom was not yet 10. A few years later, her authoritarian, remote and angry father chose to marry someone mainly to provide his children with a ‘mother’. To say that my mother’s step-mother was extremely unsuited to marriage and mothering is to sugar coat it. My mother was told, at 16, that she was expected to leave home and get a job and fend for herself. She never got to finish high school and she always felt that lack keenly. So my mother did not come from a loving home and she did not have a strong female presence in her life – a presence who could guide her to realize the fullness of her own potential.
At 23, mom married a man who was 10 years her senior. He, too, was very remote. He rarely gave his wife or his daughters compliments. His hugs always felt, to me, very uncomfortable as if he was afraid of us. Most of the time, he wanted a home life which was uncomplicated and ordered and predictable. It was when that was threatened that he became very cold and angry and harsh and judgmental.
So it was left to my mother to fill in the gaps for my sisters and me. Hers was the job of giving hugs and praise; hers was the job of tending to our physical hurts; hers was the job of defending us from the bullies we came across; hers was the job of letting each of us know that we were amazing because we were here. I have believed that she tried so hard to help each of us feel good about ourselves mainly because she knew intimately what it was like to not have that support and acceptance from her own father and step-mother. I don’t know if she loved herself or was comfortable in her own skin although I hope that she was.
I have such memories of her being there to support me through the things that I did: smiling at me when she came to parents’ day when I was in senior kindergarten, minimizing the teacher’s concerns about my mild dyslexia, finding ways to help me learn to deal with that and also to deal with my stammer, taking me to Kiwanis Festival competitions and congratulating me on playing well whether I won the class or not, playing the piano for my sisters and me when we came home each day for the hot lunch she always had ready for us, surreptitiously watching us through the living room blinds to make sure that we always crossed the street safely, running interference for me with John Buckley’s mother when I came home muddy and bloodied after he had used me for football tackle again, smiling when we came home and always happy to see us, taking the time to listen to our concerns and share our successes and wipe our tears and even mete out rarely administered spankings when she felt they were necessary. And I remember most her running interference between my sisters and me and my father as she strived to let us know that we were loved and loveable.
And I have sad memories of her sitting at the kitchen table and playing solitaire for hours on end and smoking. That always struck me as so heartbreaking. She was so isolated. And as I grew into womanhood, I know that I judged her and her life. I wondered why she put up with the dregs of attention from my father, why she didn’t just tell him to go sit on it. I know that I thought less of her because she chose to accept. And I know that I chose to become a woman who would not kowtow to the dictates and expectations of the patriarchy of my culture because of how I judged her as a woman. In watching her and critiquing her life and choices I know that I consciously and unconsciously chose ‘not that’. I didn’t get it that she was being true to her own values and that she could not have done other than she did for her reasons and not mine.
As I was growing up and until I was in university, I don’t remember mom ever choosing to go out on her own and take the time for herself to enjoy the things she liked. Maybe it was that she felt that she had to wait until my sisters and I were launched out on our own and following our own paths before she could do that. And I do remember how I felt when mom finally decided to put her wants before my father’s wishes. I was at my fraternity house one night when he called me and asked if I knew where my mother was. I did and chose not to tell him. I hoped that he would finally get it that if he didn’t change how he treated her, she might leave him. He sure sounded afraid to me. And my only thought was, ‘Good on you, mom! Yahoo! It’s your time!’
It wasn’t until after my father died that my mother transformed outwardly into this amazing and strong woman. I know now that she had always been strong internally. She had the strength to go out on her own and make her own way when she was only a teenager. She had the strength to put up with my father’s ‘Ed-isms’ and this included giving him back as good or better puns than he gave forth with. She had the strength to care for my sisters and me and work to mitigate Ed’s negativity. My mom was always loving and caring, free with praise and also with concerns. She was always mothering and not smothering. She was such a strong woman.
And it wasn’t until after my dad died that she stepped up and out. She sold the family home, bought her own home and decorated it in colours she liked, sold my dad’s gigantic Chrysler New Yorker and bought a car in the colour she wanted – red, joined a bowling league and accepted the position of its treasurer, travelled to Europe for the first time. She even accepted having me live with her for a year when I was on medical leave after Ed died. She was just stepping into and creating her own life and still she supported me in my time of emotional crisis without making me feel that I was being a burden to her. That year with her gave me the strength to go back to work and start creating my life on my own again.
My mom knew me better than I ever believed possible. She knew that I needed time and space frequently in order to reboot. She knew that I was very shy and self-conscious. She knew that I was very hard on myself about how I did everything. She knew that I had to do things for myself and that, for me, having something just given to me wasn’t good for me. She knew that I needed to feel that what I received came from my own work to achieve it. She knew that I loved learning and that it was the one thing that was true for me no matter what I attempted – learning the piano, school, becoming an educator. I remember once telling her that there would come a time when I wouldn’t be preparing for or taking a course on something which interested me. I’ve always gotten such a kick out her response which was, “Yes, and you’ll be dead.” How well she knew me.
And when mom was dying, I know that it was because of her strength that I was able to hug her and sit with her and tell her that I was going to miss her and that she shouldn’t worry about me. I was going to be alright. It was because of her that I was able to say what I knew she needed to hear. It was because of her strength in guiding me to become the woman I am that I was able to let her go.
My mom wasn’t the perfect mother or the perfect, paragon of womanhood. She had her dark places and her lumps and bumps. And she was my mother. And I don’t remember telling her enough that I loved and still love her. I don’t remember telling her how much I appreciated the gift she was to me. When she died, I remember one of the things said in her eulogy was that she was my best friend. I didn’t know that was going to be said and I was stunned by it. And I know that it was true. I don’t think I ever told her that.
There’s a Garth Brooks song, ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’, which has always moved me – especially these lyrics:
‘Cause I’ve lost loved ones in my life Who never knew how much I loved them Now I live with the regret That my true feelings for them never were revealed
And the lyrics that follow are a profound reminder to me that, all too often in our lives, we don’t get a second chance to tell those who are important to us just how much they mean to us. So, I’m going to strive to say what I need to say and to express how I feel in every breath. That way, when my time on earth is through, I will leave with nothing unsaid. I never said it enough and mom, I love you and I like you and I appreciate the woman you were.
As the lyrics of the song say:
So tell that someone that you love Just what you’re thinking of If tomorrow never comes.