While cleaning out a closet recently, I found an old album with photos of my mother as a young girl. She wore a crisp white dress and had a ribbon in her hair. She looked so pretty and happy and loved. It made me feel sad, because I knew what lay ahead for her.
My mother, whose name was Grace, lost her mother a few years after the photo was taken, when she was only 16 years old. Her mother had scratched her arm on a rose thorn; blood poisoning set in and she was dead by morning. It was a deep loss to my mother, who was an only child.
My mother grew up to marry and have two sons. When I was very young, she contracted polio and had to fight her way out of an iron lung to walk again. When my younger brother was 2, her father was gravely ill with cancer. My mother nursed him lovingly at home until his death, while taking care of her two young children.
So by the time she had reached her early 30s, she had no parents or siblings. Then her husband left her and never returned. She was forced to support and raise her two young sons alone. She fought for them, even putting them in foster care for two years while she worked to earn enough money to buy a home, remarried and reunited her family. She succeeded, but it brought out bitterness in her that had not been there before.
My mother was a college-educated home economist and dietitian. She used those skills to run her household and raise her sons. She taught me many valuable life lessons, both big and small. I learned how to properly set a table, iron a shirt, make a bed with sheets tucked in so tight you could bounce a quarter on them, and write a thank you note. Yet this woman, who taught me so many useful things, could be exasperating.
When I think of my mother, these words come to mind: tenacious, resilient, strong, complicated, disappointed, even hard. For many years, she had no one to rely on but herself. I think that needing to be self-reliant for so long made her stronger, but also hardened her.
My mother created a stable home life for my brother and me, and we had good, fun times. But she was not always an easy person to live with. I think this can be attributed to the losses and defeats she suffered. Though I knew she would do anything for my brother and me, and had done so, she could be critical and judgmental. I think I spent a good portion of my early life feeling guilty for disappointing my mother or feeling angry with her because I felt guilty.
As her sons grew up, moved away and led their own lives, she was difficult to relate to. One time when I had not called home or written for a spell, I called her and the conversation began like this:
“It’s your son.”
“I have no son.”
Now where do you go with a conversation that begins like that?
When there was tension, I was less likely to stay in touch, and we engaged in a long dance of avoidance, recrimination, guilt and anger. Yet I knew my mother loved me and was ferociously proud of me.
I learned something valuable from my mother, something I hadn’t realized until I sat down to write about her. She was a survivor. She had experienced loss and defeat, and kept on going. In my own life, I have experienced some measure of loss and disappointment, and I have learned to keep on going. I believe I learned that lesson from my mother.