On opening Pandora’s box

Those of you who told your mother all your secrets–and reveled in stories of her youthful escapades before you came along–will not understand what I’m about to write.mom as nurse

I didn’t really know my mother.

I was born to her and lived with her for many years but I was not privy to her essence. By the time I came along, I think it was long buried under disappointment, sadness and a sense of propriety.

I was born to her in her early forties, the last of six daughters. She was, by her own admission, more interested in her career by then than in birthing more children.

Of course she loved me. She loved all of us.

But I was always stymied by her lack of disclosure. I knew only about the “safe” stuff. Her parents losing their house during the Depression. Living on her grandparents’ farm. Editor of the school newspaper. Navy nurse during WWII.

I could piece together a patchwork quilt of her life but it was quite threadbare.

In some ways, I love that she was my mother—rock solid—and we didn’t do each other’s hair and makeup, gossip or talk about my crushes.  I’m a firm believer kids need parents who are parents—friends abound but you only get two adults to keep you honest.

Mom on fence1As I grew older, however, my mother’s reticence bothered me more. I got a lot of judgment from her and not much sharing. Eventually, through the help of some very wise therapists and my own hard work, I was able to accept our relationship—and my mom—for who she was.

Last summer, my sister dropped off a box of memorabilia. I did not have the heart to look at it until now, a year later. When you lose both of your parents, watch your sister battle cancer, get divorced and are a single mom, all in the space of two years—there’s something about sifting through memories that is distasteful, at least temporarily. You feel like that’s all you’ve done for a couple of years and the present moment is exactly where you want to be—no looking forward or back.

When I emerged from that cocoon, the box awaited me.

Some bits made sense. In her high school yearbook, next to her senior picture: “Either she will find a way or make one.” Duh. Yes. That was Mom. “Impulsive, diligent, breathlessly busy, never on time.” OK, diligent and busy—sure. But impulsive? Never on time? Two things she reamed me for countless times? Hmph.

Mom on fenceThe pics of her as a Wave (Navy nurse during WWII) in Seattle and New Orleans amazed me. Plenty of handsome sailors. Some in port and healthy, others on crutches in the ward. Her, smiling. Climbing fences. Scampering up ladders into dorm windows. Cryptic scribbled captions about the fun she had on a certain night or some sailor’s wolfish tendencies.

Surely you jest. This was not the mother I knew.

Nor was the woman who, despite not having much coinage to rub together, dressed ever so smartly. The long, flowing, wavy hair, the smiling with abandonment, the joy.

Why did I never get to meet this woman? Even the older, wiser version of her.

I think because my mother shut her down. I don’t know what happened but by middle age, my mother was so buttoned up I thought she would crack at times.

I loved her, of course, but I think regretfully of the wisdom she might have imparted, had she been willing to share.

Opening the box was not so much a comfort as a taunt. “Here I am in all my glory but now you’ll never know me.”

Mom on fence2And yet, as in the tale of Pandora, at the bottom of the box, something good emerged: two letters from my father to my mother. When he wrote them I’m not sure. I think the first on a men’s retreat. The second refers to a favorite song of my mother’s, that’s all I know. But both are beautiful.  I am sure my parents would not mind me sharing, after all of these years.

The first note read:

My Dearest Darling,

It is almost midnight Saturday and I am weary from long hours of the past few days but had to write this note. Just as if you were here now, I had to say—I love you. I love you because you are my wife, because you are the Mother of our children, and because you are you. I’m not sure that I have seen Christ but I’ve come to know more about him

(lights out)

Sunday (early AM)

more than I ever have before. I know too, that what I have seen of him has been in you and the children.

All my love, Dick.m&d engagement (2)

And the second:

De Colores

De Colores the diamond will sparkle when brought to the light.

As you have sparkled these past few days—the kids have mentioned it to me.

We love you. Dick.

Let my mother have her secrets. I know, I guess, the most important thing. They loved each other. Not perfectly. Not even close. But enough to stay together more than 60 years.

To come from such a love, and be reminded of that at my age, that’s the blessing in Pandora’s box.

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24 Comments Add yours

  1. So Nice!! I love all your posts and stories, they make so much sense into my little world! Keep up with the good work! =) Peace!

  2. Reading the comments, I wonder if this is a generational thing…or that we see our mothers as just that, rather than as the young people they once were. My mother, in her mid-80s now, says she doesn’t feel any different to how she did in her 20s – except physically. But I doubt that’s really true. She’s changed a lot, I think, from possibly marrying the wrong man (my father!) and still sticking with him to the end (he died more than a decade ago now). That carefree young woman has gone for good. But I also wonder about our own children, and how they’ll see us; my daughters don’t seem very interested in what I did or who I was before I was their mother!! Perhaps that will change too, as THEY get older. But a lovely, thought-provoking piece.

  3. I do know the feeling of not being able to look at memories while in grief.
    I am so glad for you that you now have and have got to know your mother that little bit more.
    One of the blessings of my own divorce is that I have come to know my 87 year old mother. In the depths of sorrow I reached out and made a deep connection with the one person who had been there all along.

    1. candidkay says:

      I’m so glad something good came out of the pain. 87! My mother lived to her mid-80s. So much wisdom in that decade–but it’s not for ninnies:).

  4. A wonderful post Kay, a reminder that we all have our own lives, whatever role we fall into at a particular time, but it’s such a shame you never got to know those aspects of your mother. I had a similar relationship with mine, in that she was always judgemental and proper and I we rarely shared confidences, yet I’m sure she also had a lighter side when she was younger.

  5. Kids need parents who parent.

    That is exactly right. Not enough ‘parent’ because they’re too busy being a ‘friend’ instead.

    Beautifully written.

  6. Thank you for sharing such a post!
    firstly my condolences for losing your parents. My prayers for a speedy recovery for your sister

  7. cindy says:

    I, too, found love letters my dad had written my mother. It was like another person had written these letters. I never knew that side of him. But is was very reassuring and comforting to read how much he loved my mother. It’s unfortunate that men don’t write letters like that any more!

    1. candidkay says:

      I know. I thought the same thing. My dad was a true man, no sissy in him, but managed to combine that with an absolute love for my mother. Don’t see much of that anymore . . .

  8. Chris Edgar says:

    I always appreciate your sincerity. It has been valuable for me to “humanize” my perception of my parents — I used to see them as infallible, as I imagine children often do (and they may have had a hand in encouraging that perception), and now that I’ve come to understand that they have flaws, it is much easier to relate to them in a way that feels less effortful and more engaging.

  9. This is so beautiful, what an incredible story. Thank you for sharing!

  10. I have often wondered if I became a journo (as did you) because my own family tells me nothing about their own lives — yet strangers I have interviewed have revealed quite extraordinarily intimate moments to me, some of them deeply painful, with little prompting. I always took this as my fault. My mother prefers to remain mostly hermetically sealed. She is still alive, at 80 but I despair of ever learning much more. It is very frustrating as I am her only child few people ever knew her very intimately. So this sort of behavior may not be unique even though it’s difficult to live with.

    1. candidkay says:

      I so agree and have wondered the same thing. I’m a good journalist because people feel safe sharing with me–and I treat what they tell me with respect. I’ve had special ops military open up to me about their past and then sound surprised they’d shared anything personal. But my mother bested them:). I got tidbits as I got older but never anything close to a real story. Good to know I’m not alone but I’m sorry you still have to deal with it also.

      1. I once did a religion writing fellowship for a week at Poynter — I was also struck to find that several (at least 4) of the other women journo’s there also had bipolar mothers (as I do.) I have little doubt that empathy and careful listening/observational skills were learned in childhood and then useful vocationally.

  11. Jan Wilberg says:

    A wonderful, wonderful essay. The photos are beautiful but not even necessary because your writing is so rich. I’ve had the same frustration about my mother and had resolved to go visit her best friend in a nursing home in the small town where they grew up to find out what she was like as a young woman but the friend died and I lost out. Maybe we (mothers) are meant to have our ‘prior’ lives; maybe those times are just for us to know. I don’t know.

  12. lmarieallen says:

    First of all, what a babe! Second, I think many of us can relate to being a little beat down and shut up by life after a certain age. Dreams dissipating, battles lost, disappointments endured, love’s bloom withered. But I believe that people can talk to us in their own way after their gone, and this may be your mother’s gift to you. It sounds like she’s proud of the spirited woman you are:) This so reminds me of “The Bridges of Madison County”.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you. What a nice way to think of it. As an offering even though she is gone.

      1. lmarieallen says:

        I have to reply about Dr. boob on your page. My blog is being censored now:) He is very good looking. Tall, lean, about 60, with silvery hair, pretty blue eyes, and..great smile. Unfortunately, he’s very married, and I get the feeling she comes from money and rules the roost. Someday, Kay, someday…:)

  13. markbialczak says:

    You were fortunate to be gifted with a box of new discoveries, half-explanations and full circles, Kay, to open at a time in your life when you are ready for, and, perhaps, in need of a little motherly hug from the past.

    Congratulations for sorting out your feelings and sharing your discoveries in this public and honest forum.

    I hope you enjoy and appreciate finding some of you in the young mom you never knew.

    1. candidkay says:

      Thank you, Mark. You brought me to tears. I think we were more alike than she ever let on:).

      1. markbialczak says:

        Your wonderful story certainly backs up that belief, Kay. Congratulations, again. Superbly written, my friend.

  14. What an interesting post, Kay. Well written. there is so much would-have, should-have, and what-ifs in a human life. You have handled your questions and disappointments with grace.

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