I have no photographs of my mother and me together. There may be some from when I was a child, but I do not have them in my possession. It makes me sad that I can only visit our time together on this earth in my memories.
The relationship between mother and daughter is a tough one. Women, in general, tend to be comparative beings. We measure our worth and our esteem based on what we see in other women. Our mothers are our first love and our first rival. As the mother of three daughters, I have experienced this relationship on both sides and since my own mother’s death I have spent a lot of time thinking about the various complexities of how mothers and daughters relate.
As the oldest daughter, I know that I took my mother for granted. She was a woman born and raised in a different generation. Her experience was of marriage and family and friends. She had made some life choices that she was not happy with, but she did not feel empowered to modify them. This was difficult for me to understand. During my own adolescent years the world was beginning to teach girls that they could do anything. If my mother was not happy with her circumstance, I could not see why she would not just try and change it. As a perpetual “fixer” this frustrated me, and on that level my mother and I did not communicate well.
Despite this conflict, there were areas in which I envied my mother. She was a friend to many while I have struggled with the ability to maintain female friendships my entire life. She lived in the town where she grew up and those people who were part of her core group had been with her for most of it. They had strong, long standing relationships based on shared experiences and memories. They talked and gossiped often over hot coffee at the kitchen table. They sent each other cards and gave each other small gifts of books and trinkets. I remember sitting at the table with them when I was a teenager and feeling like a part of the group. When I became an adult many of them provided me with advice about children and parenting, always available to lend an ear to my problems. I was friends vicariously with many of her friends for a time and it made me feel good to know that they were interested in my life and my own family.
My mother had a wonderful sense of humor. She was witty and funny and her self-depreciating style was amusing to all who met her. She would do and say the most absurd things. We have photographs of her with a hundred toothpicks in her hair, or wearing a dirty cowboy hat from my father’s garage, always smiling and laughing. One time when she and I visited my sister in her college dorm for a night we actually started to write a book of silly things that she said. Funny statements and sayings like “Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” As I sit here now, I can’t remember most of them, but my sister has them written down – we talk of having them printed. Sometimes I will open my mouth and her words and voice will come out, especially when I am talking to my granddaughter. It always startles me when this happens, as if she were actually here with us.
I was a difficult teenager and I am sure that it was not at all easy to parent me. My mother seemed to take it in stride, though, and she let me make many decisions that I know were not easy for her to watch. She was often the “middle man” between her children and our father, who was always the head of the household and had the final word on any issue. This was taxing to her and made her job as our Mom even more demanding. She did the best that she could with the circumstances and I do believe that her biggest hope was that we would all be happy and content with our lives.
As I became a mother myself, I began to realize how challenging her job had been. I have to say that I was not quite so diplomatic at times, and I chose to be much more involved in my daughter’s lives and decisions. Sometimes my mother and I disagreed on the choices that I made as a parent, but for the most part I relied on her experience and wisdom during many times of uncertainty and struggle with my children. I feel that often times her guidance was my saving grace during those years, even if I chose not to take her advice.
My children were very fortunate to have had her in their lives. She is a very large part of their childhood memories. Our family gatherings were always centered around her presence and we have struggled to continue on without her, as many families do when they lose their matriarch. Holidays and Sunday suppers are just not the same without her laughter and her smile. She took great joy in her grandchildren and always made them feel special.
The last few years of her life were difficult for the both of us. We did not agree on a few issues, and that caused us to be at odds. We still maintained close contact, and talked to each other regularly, but we didn’t see each other as much as we should have – mostly due to my stubbornness and inability to understand her situation. As a result, her friends, who I once considered my own had distanced me, and while I understand their reasoning – they were merely being protective of her – it hurts me to have lost them as well.
I knew that her health was deteriorating, but I did not focus on it. I felt that by acknowledging her weakness I was giving her permission to give up. My mother was a constant to me, and I refused to admit that she would not always be there. Sometimes I feel that I failed to listen to the things she was trying to tell me. I didn’t hear her voice because I was too busy justifying my own.
At that time I believed that the struggle we were having would pass and we would regain the closeness that we once shared. I have a picture in my mind of the two of us a few years from now. My children are grown and we are watching them and our (great) grandchildren playing on the lawn after a Sunday Supper. I cherish this picture, even if it is not a real photograph.