In memory of my mother, who died three years ago today.
I am in The Club. Against all reason, I just never imagined myself a member. If you are not in it yet, you will be: The Club of Motherless Daughters.
A few weeks after Mom died, a casual acquaintance, upon learning of my membership, made deep eye contact and said, “I am so sorry you lost your mother. I lost mine last year.” She grabbed my hand and held it with heavy sadness. There’s no secret handshake, but there are secrets. Secrets that only motherless daughters know.
That we walk through department stores and every item of clothing seems to be in her favorite color (turquoise) and that china and bedspreads, sweatshirts and jewelry are embellished with an iconic image that your mother loved (butterflies). That suddenly your mother’s words seem very wise and you find yourself quoting her: “As my mother used to say . . .” (‘a job worth doing is a job worth doing well.’) That you want to call her and ask her if you bake the chicken casserole with the foil on. And you wish you had asked her the address of the house where you were born, and what it was like the day she brought you to your first home.
There are mysteries you were sure you’d solve before she died: How she could drink Slimfast every single day for lunch. How she could have so many friends, but never confided in them. What gave her the strength to remain sober for the last 23 years of her life. How she could be so brave and stoic when she knew she was dying.
And there was all that unfinished business between you: The times you hurt each other’s feelings. The secrets you kept from each other. The wall between you that you built together.
New members like me are still chewing on what might have been: What if she turned off the TV when you visited during her final illness? What if she had poured her heart out before she died.
But as time goes on, you accept that she rarely complimented you or said she loved you because you realize (and you are ashamed when you do) that it was right there in front of your face: in the hundreds of pearls she sewed on your prom dress; in the yellow roses she sent you on your anniversary; in the curtains she made for your office—different ones for each season; in the sweater sets she bought you every Christmas.
At the funeral, most people tell you how much she talked about you, how proud she was. They know all about your daughters and husband, your awards and your trips.
And you begin to accept that she was, after all, a person with baggage and limitations, pride and privacy, loving the way that she could, the way that she knew how. Just like you.
And then comes the regret, the wicked stepsister of grief. And you wish you had told her more often that you loved her. That you had praised her more for her courage, intellect, talents, and accomplishments.
That you knew about her friends, the hundreds of friends who sent cards and made casseroles and came to your funeral. That you hadn’t said, in that condescending way generations of daughters have, “Mother!” when she darned socks, or drove a mile out of her way to avoid making a left turn. That you hadn’t told your friends that she drove you crazy.
That you had cut her a little slack, just like you wish your own children would, after all. That you had just considered how much she wanted your approval, just like you crave a thumbs up from your own kids now and again.
And eventually, you hope, you will be kind to yourself and remember the ways you did give to your mother. How you gave her a surprise birthday party when she turned 70 (not so very much older than you are now) at Grand Finale. How you gave her a huge birthday party for her 80th and decorated the cake and the tables with huge butterflies. How you were always there for her through her rehab, heart attack, cancer, and cancer again That you had the courage in the final days to say what she meant to you. How you were finally able to sustain a two arm hug for a few seconds at the end, when her body felt as fragile as a bird’s.
The day after my mother died, in the half light and half sleep of a midnight trip to the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and saw, instead of my face, my mother’s, her white permed hair, rheumy eyes, red lipstick, black eyebrows. I was terrified, yet mesmerized, by the vision. Over the years I have returned to this experience and tried to make sense of it, and the simplest analysis is, I will become my mother. Maybe it meant that she would always be with me, or that I would never forget her. All of these conclusions are, in fact, true.
Today as I write about this eerie apparition, a different perspective occurs to me. Perhaps my mother was looking at me, and she saw my reflection. A daughter with her voice, her brown eyes, a “Buck chin” that is sagging. I hope she was pleased with what she saw, that she could see that I had learned so much from her: thriftiness, loyalty, industriousness, curiosity, devotion to family.
All members of The Club grieve for their mothers, not in the same way and not for the same reasons, but they all grieve.
Some grieve for what they lost, some grieve for what they wish they had, but all grieve for what might have been.
As a teacher I know that even children with abusive or neglectful or absent mothers love their mothers and crave their approval. There is something primal about your love for the person who knew you nine months longer than anyone else.
When you lose your mother, you lose your past, yes, but you lose something precious before time. Members of this club always have “I wish” on their lips.
Several dear friends have shared words about their unique grief journeys. I appreciate their generosity and insight.
My mom passed away on January 25, 2006 – ten years ago this month. Oh how I regret not asking her for her lemon meringue pie recipe! It was the best I’ve ever had, the meringue was always perfect and I’ll never forget it. But, mostly I regret that I didn’t thank her for being my mom. She was just so good at that. ~ Karen Nichols
I wish my mother hugged me and told me she loved me in words. I would like to know if she was happy being married to my dad. I’m surprised how much I miss our telephone calls. ~ Cathy Cook
What I remember was that the moment my mother died, the thought flashed through my mind, “I’m an orphan now.” My dad had died three years before. The best, fiercest, tightest hug I ever had with my mother was when I hugged her lifeless body as the warmth drained away from her. My sister asked whether I wanted to leave her wedding rings on or take them off. I said, “Take them off.” Mom’s rings were a part of her that we could preserve and keep with us. So she did. She then turned to me, extending the rings, and said, “Here, Mom wanted you to have these.” I burst into tears. What a wonderful gift. I’ve worn them ever since. I miss my mother’s hands and her voice the most. I will never hear her say my name again, and no one can say it like she did. No one loves me like she did. ~ Name withheld by request
When my mother died and the pastor of her church asked specific questions about her for the eulogy. she wanted to know what we appreciated most about our mother. All three of us (my brother and sister and I) said the same thing. The pastor could not believe our answer, simply because it seems so impossible. My mother never criticized us. Never. Neither did my dad. She was the ultimate cheerleader. I miss her so much, but I feel her cheering me on all the time. It gives me confidence daily! ~ Teri Foltz
I miss my mother’s daily (or2-3 times a day) phone calls. Every time I come up our stairs into the kitchen, my eyes automatically go to the phone to see if the light is blinking letting me know she called. Mom passed away three years ago next month. I miss having her to call “Mama.” I’ve started signing cards to my youngest daughter “Mama.” I miss the comfort of having her worry about me when I’m sick. I’m scared to be sick without her. ~ Jan Anderson
My Mom died after a long struggle with dementia. Throughout her illness, I found myself grieving her loss of memory, her bouts of anger, her lost recognition of my kids and my siblings, her inability to answer my questions. I expected to grieve even harder when she finally died. But I did not. Yes, I was sad; yes I missed her very much. But I think that my grief was minimized after her death because I had cried so hard and felt such sorrow before she passed. As I witnessed her decline, I felt I was losing my Mom in tiny little fragments. After her death, what more did I have to grieve? ~ Kathleen Ernst
I had not seen Mom for a few weeks. I had no idea she was dying. Then, the stabbing phone call from her caregiver, telling me she had died. The shock and sadness and finality of it turned to anger and deep hurt. I would have loved to cuddle with Mom one last time , to have relived the security I felt as a child when she would lie down on the bed with me at night—and go to sleep herself. ~ Linda Overholt
As I reflect on my mother and the life she lived, it is the brilliance of her inner light and love that I miss the most. She was filled with a love for family, a love of God coupled with a devotion to Mary, and an unconditional love for others. I can honestly say that I never heard her complain about anything…she always spoke with kind and encouraging words. I am at a loss at times to find the light in my life because I do not have the gentle strength of my mother by my side to support me. ~ Susan Lawrence
I have been without my mother for 34 years now. I was just 2 weeks shy of my 38th birthday, when the phone call came that changed my life forever.. I had just spoken to my mom two nights before as I wished her a Happy 48th wedding anniversary. I lived in Cincinnati, they in Cleveland. Friday morning as I was preparing for out-of-town guests, the phone rang. It was my dad. Mom was in an accident, did not survive. If it wasn’t for my three young children that needed a mother to raise them, I’m not sure how I would have been able to put one foot in front of another on a daily basis. It took years of therapy and oceans of tears to work through my grief. It was the loss of not “my mother-my-best-friend”, but rather my mother who I was just beginning to build a real relationship with. I had never been the daughter who shared my closest and most personal thoughts with her. Instead I held back and wished she would be the one to share her secrets with me. Once I became a mother, I understood better where she was coming from and slowly, but surely, was beginning to build the relationship I had wished we could have. Now, I was left with hopelessness and despair that it would never happen. If I could have only one conversation with her it would be about anxiety and depression. I have wondered for years how she felt being a “housewife” whose weekly routine was rigid. How could she not have been depressed living, from my perspective, a horridly boring life, performing her chores week after week, month after month, year after year with hardly, if any, deviation? Maybe if we could have this conversation I could understand why I fight these demons of anxiety and depression, in spite of the fact that my life has been the polar opposite of hers. Is it something in my genes that has cursed me? Did my grandmother fight those demons as well? Will my daughter experience these same challenges in her life? Maybe she would not have held the answers to my questions, but just having the opportunity to openly share my deepest concerns and secrets with her could have made all the difference in how my life has unfolded these past 34 years. ~ Linda Trebbi
My Mom shaped my life in so many ways. I will always treasure the memory of her dignity as she navigated life’s challenges. I hope the acorn fell right beside the tree. ~ Katy Ping
Our Mom died of Alzheimers and pneumonia on May 26, 2003. As the oldest of eight, I knew her the longest. I never cried as I did over her deathbed. Even though she was confused about most other things, she ALWAYS knew her children, and shamelessly would announce her children as the accomplishment of her life. Every day, really, I think I should call her or am reminded of her words Once we were married, she NEVER critcized or made remarks to us. That in itself was a gift we try to pass on. Mom was giving. She would give us some little thing she made or came across each time we visited. At Christmas, each of her progeny would receive a home made gift. And there are scores of us. Just last Saturday, my three sisters lunched together. As always, we remembered Mom. We interpreted her struggles and how she coped through her persistent trials. There is now a tenderness, an empathy for her we may not have had when she was with us. Her lessons hold firm within us. We know they were wrapped in love. ~ Joanne McQueen