This is a Valentine to my mother, who died forty years ago.
She was fifty years old, in relatively good health, a suburban wife and mother of three, trained as a nurse by the U.S. Navy in the latter stages of World War II. She met her only husband at Johns Hopkins Hospital during his surgical internship, and after his residency in Memphis, they returned to his native Chicago and stayed there.
While she was by all accounts an excellent nurse, I have always believed that that nursing was her ticket out of Appleton, Wisconsin, not her avocation. When she died, her youngest child and only son had just started high school, and I used to fantasize about the paths she might next have taken, the life she might have explored and fashioned for herself. The women’s movement was in its infancy when we lost her, and when Ms. magazine’s inaugural issue was published shortly thereafter, I placed copies in my father’s office waiting room, both as homage to what she might have been and promise for what my sister and I might still become.
My mother made no particular claim to the domestic arts, was at best an indifferent housekeeper, and cheered along with her children at the invention of boil-in-bag vegetables that were impossible to burn. At the same time, she was a gifted seamstress who produced lined childhood coats with matching leggings, endless skirts and jumpers with perfectly aligned plaids and, finally, sleek formal gowns.
She taught me to knit and produced a finished red mohair sweater over the weekend of the JFK assassination and funeral. I’ve never been able to part with the complicated ski sweater she made me when I was a teenager, even though it’s too heavy for Southern California. I’m pretty sure she would have loved my SoCal beach town, too, and the year-round gardening we enjoy here. She grew some magnificent roses.
She was a born leader who assumed the presidency of any organization she joined, approximately fifteen minutes after she arrived at her first meeting. She painted props and acted in community theater, headed PTAs at every level, and stayed active in Girl Scouting years after her daughters both jumped ship. She also served as a Cub Scout den mother and never met a craft she couldn’t conquer or improve upon. She recorded dozens of books on reel-to-reel tapes for Illinois Tape Recording for the Blind, a task that looked pretty easy until I tried it myself.
She was turning over her final presidency, of her church circle, on the December afternoon when she was suddenly stricken with a fierce headache, went into a bedroom to lie down, and then lost consciousness. A cerebral aneurysm had exploded in her brain. I was living at home, having just finished a master’s degree, and there was enough time for my sister to drive back from her pre-vet program. We saw her in the hospital, but she never woke up and within 24 hours she was gone.
No, not gone, though this is a subject steeped in endless euphemism.
Ten days earlier, on my twenty-third birthday, she’d brought me a cupcake with a burning candle.
I remember telling the hundreds of people who came to the wake and funeral that we were lucky to have had her as long as we did. What I didn’t understand then was that the sense of loss would be eternal, that the missed opportunities could never be made up, that all the things I’d taken for granted were over in an instant. I hadn’t even kept any of the countless letters she sent me when I was away at college, because she was just my mom and she’d always be around.
There hasn’t been a day in all the intervening years when I haven’t thought of her. I’ve never before written about my mother, though the mother-daughter relationship is central to much of what I do write, even when I don’t plan it that way.
I try not to measure the past forty years in terms of loss, though it isn’t always easy.
My mother never had the opportunity to dance at my wedding, hold my child, or read the books I would write. She would have loved all those experiences, I know, and my inability to share them with her has been a secret sorrow, an unfathomable void. I cherish the memories I do retain, with absolute certainty that she would have embraced the paths I’ve taken with love, joy and fervor.
She has been gone now for two-thirds of my life. However, my crystal goblet of memories remains one-third full, with a rich, incandescent glow. I am blessed to have that much, and lucky to have had her for as long as I did.
I didn’t know a lot when I was twenty-three, but that part I did get right.