What's Left Behind
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
It's a year to the day that my mom died. On her deathbed she asked my brothers and me to forgo a memorial service/funeral. Mom was okay with funerals, but she hated the "after party" as she called them. I imagine it would have been hard for her to think of a party happening to which she was, ostensibly, invited but to which she was unable to RSVP. "Making one's manners" was a cardinal rule to my mom; not answering an invitation within 24 hours of its receipt was anathema to her sensibilities.
Plus, she died in the thick of Covid so, a service would have been impossible anyway. But, because there was no formalized goodbye ritual, her death feels unfinished.
As the self-appointed family genealogist, I am surrounded by her stuff, all those things she kept in boxes over the decades. My mother's 85 years represented in a series of manila envelopes and Ziplock bags. All held together with paper clips that have turned rusty and elastic bands that have long since become brittle and old, clinging to items that had held some meaning for her.
There are the letters from besotted past loves, one of whom she was engaged to before my dad. Report cards from elementary school through high school indicating an aptitude for grammar and English literature, no surprise. There was a year there, grade nine, that she missed a ton of school. Some crisis cryptically alluded to by her teachers. I'll never know what. Travel diaries, a ton of photographs, honest to goodness paper calendars that she referred to as her day timer.
I pore over these items with the intensity and wonder of a child trying to crack open a cookie jar. Inside lie clues to who my mother was. Because she was an enigma, an unknown, I am reduced to sussing out what she held important and dear through what she left behind.
My mother was notoriously tight-lipped when it came to talking about herself. She had all the time in the world for the stories, trials and tribulations of others, though, which is why she was so beloved by so many. She had an uncanny way of making you feel like you were the most fascinating, the most cared about, the most special person on earth when in her presence. But, ask her how she was doing, or even who she was, and you'd get crickets, a sly deflection that would bring the conversation back to you. It bothers me that so many who loved her never really knew her. Including me.
To say that I am rooted in the past would suggest that I am in a strength position which I most certainly am not. So, I would say that I am anchored to the past. Like the Ancient Mariner's albatross (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), the past has coiled itself around my present-day consciousness, weighing me down with confusion, questions, and loss. A constant, even painful, reminder that my mother and my place in her life is utterly unknowable.
I don't doubt that she loved us, my two brothers and me, but I also know that we got in the way of the life that she had envisioned for herself. She was way too clever for the mundane life of a suburban housewife and VON volunteer.
If I were generous, and I like to think that I am, I could explain that she was from a different time, that women in her generation had very narrowly-defined roles as wife and mother and possibly a job on the side "to help make ends meet." Many women of that generation felt trapped by the drudgery of home life.
But the thing is, she wasn't raised with that mentality. Her parents encouraged and supported her University education. My mother was meant for a career in the arts, the writing arts. But she let all that ambition and passion go when she married and became a mother. I don't think she ever forgave us for the loss we represented.
It's hard not to take that personally. As the child of parents who seemingly could take me or leave me, self-esteem is not high on the list of strengths. It's natural to assume that there is something inherently unlikable, even unlovable, about you when your mother seemed always to be wishing you away, when anger and resentment were her go-to emotions, simmering always in the background and making itself known through an absence of compassion, patience and delight.
I'd spent a million years in therapy alone and some with my mother trying to bridge the gaping maw of our relationship dynamic. All I really learned was that the damage was done and forgiveness was going to be bitch. So, we muddled through life as adults alternately shunning and loving one another as best we could. In the end, literally, there was no resolution. Mom died with nary a word of conciliation, or apology, or even of awareness that she'd impacted my life in a meaningful way.
The last thing she said to me was, "You haven't had it easy, have you?" And then she went back to her crossword puzzle, one of her greatest loves, before I'd even exited her hospital room, bawling like a baby, for the very last time.
It's likely now that I will never understand my mother or even know who she was, but I can forgive myself for wishing and hoping that she was the mother I needed her to be. That's not going to happen now. The work that remains is reminding myself that she was a messy, complicated human being just like the rest of us and that there may be no greater explanation than that.