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.
As 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.
The 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.”
And 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
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.
And the second:
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.