Since my book was published, friends have asked me if I’ve always been so happy. If I’ve always laughed. The short answer is no. The long answer takes about 10 years.
From 1996 through the early part of 2006, I had nothing to smile about. My dad suffered a stroke that ended his career and much of his independence, and my mother hid breast cancer from us while she focused on him. She died within weeks of diagnosis, and my dad’s Alzheimer’s disease progressed to the point that he was in and out of hospitals and assisted care facilities…even a mental institution for severe dementia. Caring for them took its toll on me, and I took their deaths — particularly my mother’s passing — extremely hard. For 10 years, I worried non-stop about what was going to happen to them, and to some extent, what would happen to me because I was so dependent upon my aging parents.
I recently decided to clean house beginning with my closets to throw out things that I no longer wanted (or could wear, quite honestly). Then, I moved on to bookshelves, which were stuffed with bound pages containing messages and lessons that once meant something to me. It was then and there that I realized how badly I hurt in those 10 years. Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The Orphaned Adult. Finding Peace. How to Handle Adversity. The Daughter Trap. And one title that I couldn’t get rid of: Motherless Mothers.
Hope Edelman’s book, Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become became a supplement to my bible for a long time. When Edelman became a parent, she found herself revisiting her own loss in ways she had never anticipated. As the mother of two young girls (like me), Edelman set out to learn how the loss of a mother to death or abandonment affects the ways women raise their own children. She reveals the anxieties and desires mothers like her (and like me) experience as they raise their children without the help of a living maternal guide.
In an early episode of “Mad Men”, Betty Draper tries to talk to her husband, Don, about her mother’s death and the fears associated with it. Don, showing little interest in his wife’s grief told her very simply, “Please stop. Mourning is an extended form of self-pity.” Whatever you say, Dick Whitman.
Even though my mom died in 2000, I still think of her every single day. I wrote letters to her for a year, deciding on the first anniversary of her death that I, too, needed to stop. I filled a hat box with sealed envelopes labeled only by date, and they’re buried in a much larger bin in our basement. Writing served a purpose back then — a type of therapy that helped me feel like she was still around.
And then… last Sunday, I saw her.
Mike and I were outside trying to decide what to do with our grass-less backyard. After trading a few ideas, we decided to go to Lowe’s to price landscaping materials. It was a nice day for resting in the hammock …a nice day for playing in the tree house…a nice day for reading in the shade. But I was going to put a stop to all of that.
“Ava, get your shoes. We need to go pick up a few things.”
My daughter turned to me with one hand on her hip and a look of stern disapproval on her face. Her left and right feet were positioned in a majorette “T”, and her jaw was set. Her eyes narrowed at me under furrowed brows.
My God. My mother.
I remember that look. Whenever I would say or ask something out of reason, that was the exact look my mother would give me. The only difference is that she usually had a cigarette secured in the opposite hand; a stream of smoke lifting up to the sky. She would stare at me for a moment to think about how to respond. Yet she never had to. I always knew that look meant whatever I wanted wasn’t going to happen.
We went to Lowe’s anyway, and the drive to Southridge was a quiet one. I kept looking back at Ava to see if I could catch another glimpse of “Little Betty Lou” with her pouty face and crossed arms of protest. Then I emerged from that smoky haze realizing that Ava may be a version of my mother — a throwback — but she’s really an eight-year-old girl with blonde hair, blue eyes and legs longer than anyone on my side of the family. She’s not my mother. She’s her own girl.
Today, May 7th, is my 39th birthday. My mother gave birth to me at this age. I was her only child — a “gift” she said, which was an alternate word for “surprise” as my dad called it. In our society, advanced maternal age is no big deal, but in 1973, it was a news headline because she was on the verge of entering her fourth decade. However, my mother — always cool, always collected and always calculated — saw her age and my birth in an entirely different way. “Life begins at 40,” she wrote in my baby book. “This is just the beginning.”
And that’s something to smile about.