Ten years ago today September 17, 2005, my mother passed away after a year-long battle with cancer. She was 71 and I was 38. Although it may sound cliche, I really do think about her every day. This personal essay is one way I can keep her memory alive.
When I was in about 6th grade, the age of my middle daughter is now, I went through a period of insomnia. Not every night, but quiet frequently, I would lie awake in my small daybed and just listen to the night sounds. In the summer, I would count as far as I could until the air conditioning kicked on. Periodically, I could hear the ching ching of YoYo’s collar as she shifted positions or shook her itchy Golden Retriever ears. In the fall, when we opened our windows to let in the Miami breezes—coolish and lacking humidity—I could hear all the outside noises—neighborhood cats fighting or opossums walking under my window, which sound just like a man’s gait. So, I would oscillate between terror and boredom, and just lie there and wish myself to sleep. When I could not take it anymore, I would tip toe into my parents’ room, avoiding the creaky spot next to their closet, and whisper in my mother’s ear. “Mom, I can’t sleep.” Her answer was the same every time, “Go back and say the Rosary.” When I said I already did that, she would say, “Well, do it again.” Never, not once in my memory, did my mom scoot over and let me lie with her. In our house that was just never done. Unlike the nightly bed hopping that happens in my grown up house.
Nope. My mother was too practical for such frivolity. It never bothered me because I was never knew anything different. Having my own children who keep invading my bed, I can’t help but feel she missed out on some sweet bonding time at the risk of setting rigid boundaries. Most mornings, however, I think she was a genius and I wish she were here to slap some sense into me.
My mom was good at that. It was in her genes. My mama was a no-nonsense girl from Frankfort, Kentucky who survived ten house floods from a swollen Kentucky River before she was even 18. She was a child born in the 30s from a broken home, and was raised the last of six hooligans single-handedly by her mother, Gram, in a one-bedroom house on Logan Street. Back in the 30’s it was unusual to have divorced parents, but it never seemed to affect my mom.
As the baby, my mama got the nickname Tootie, and it stuck until her dying day. Only state and federal government and the saintly nuns at Good Shepherd Catholic School called her by her birth name, Mary Margaret. As the baby of six in a one-bedroom house, she learned to sleep anywhere and pull her weight, without complaint or argument. Chores, homework, and mass on Sunday were the three mandatory elements in her life. My mama learned her Baltimore Catholic catechism, manners, and how to harmonize to the “Ave Maria” from the nuns at Good Shepherd Catholic School. But, she learned her culinary skills from her own fine Southern mama. Mama could fry chicken better that the Colonel himself and make a Caesar salad that even Brutus would eat.
I will say that the one thing my mother could not cook well was fondue. I think my father gave her a fondue set for Christmas, and the story goes that after carefully preparing all the items for cooking—chicken and shrimp—she lit a gas canister to heat the oil, but for some reason the oil never heated properly. She checked on it ever 15 minutes to see if the pot was ready. This went on for two hours. Because my dad had a meeting to go to at 7:00, he fried himself a hotdog and my brother made a PB and J sandwich. My father was unmerciful in his teasing about that night. He would say, “How about a little fondue tonight?” We would all laugh and join in, “Yeah, Mom. Sounds good. Why don’t you whip up a little fondue?” I don’t know how she put up with us. But, what I think is interesting is that when she deviated from the good old staples, she was not all that successful. So, Mom stuck with the no-nonsense meals.
That included lunch. I think I ate bologna and cheese sandwiches on soggy white bread for nine years, kindergarten through eighth grade. Nothing says no-nonsense like bologna. No worries about fat content, no worries about nitrates or red dye number 5. The cheese was the shiny orangy yellow square wrapped in cellophane. The texture resembled plastic, not cream. In fact, I was an adult before I realized that the natural color of cheese is white. On rare and wonderful school days, I would get a cold meatloaf sandwich covered in ketchup, and I would rejoice. Such a treat!
But, mom had a practical take on food because it was scarce when she was growing up. A little bit had to stretch to feed 7 to 9 people. Once when I made oatmeal for my mom, I watched her add more hot water. “I didn’t grow up with thick oatmeal. We had to make it stretch, and so it was more like oat soup.” She knew hunger, she knew poverty, and she knew pain. But, that generation did. They were born in the depression, raised during World War II, served in the Korean War, and learned to survive with robustness my generation and my children’s generation will never touch. And, somehow they still had their sense of humor in tact. Comparatively my kids are so wasteful. I find half full glasses of milk left behind most nights after dinner, softtened string cheese in the couch cushions, and even a melted container of ice cream someone forgot the put away.
I love to look at the old black and white photos of my mother. She had Hollywood beauty—black curly hair, round nose, large green eyes, and legs that wouldn’t quit. In her fancy clothes, she looked like a movie star with bullet boobs, and perfect white teeth. All with little dentistry. And according to her, she dated a lot back then. One of my favorite stories Mom told me was when she went on a date to a fancy restaurant in Louisville. She was dressed “to the nines”, and feeling all sophisticated, my mama ordered a mixed drink. But, it was one of those dark fancy establishments, and when she sipped her whisky sour, she sat up with the stir sticking out of her nose. “I really knew how to impress ‘em,” she said.
Well, she really did impress my father when he walked into the state government’s personnel office where my mom was a secretary and handed over his paperwork. She was smitten too, by his height or humor or both. She said, “Oh, when a cute one came into the office, I would look up their information. I knew he was single and Catholic. We both loved basketball, and he made me laugh.” I think it only took a few dates before my father proposed.
Mom married the handsome stranger from Florida. After all, she was 21, practically an old maid she always said. “Most of the girls I went to school with were married with children. I was behind.” My parents did not wait until they had a lot of money, they did not move in together to see how their relationship went, nor did they have a long engagement just to be sure. Mom always said, “Life was simpler then. We loved each other and just got married.” She in a swiss dot, ankle length white dress and my Dad looking like Colonel Sander’s younger cousin—white suit with the thin black tie. Today, people would say this was an impetuous move, too risky, not thoughtful enough, but my parents were married 50 years.
It would make sense that children would follow, but it took ten long years before she became a mother. God delivered her children by the Catholic adoption stork. “You were made in my heart, not under it,” she would say. I came to my parents on St. Patrick’s Day 1967, all pink and pudgy with a tiny green bow in my three-month-old hair. The few pictures that exist of this day—before the grand age of scrapbooking and digital keepsakes—my mother is beaming in her Jackie O style aqua dress and string of pearls. I study this photo and wonder if she had plans for me like I did for my children. Did she want an artist or a pianist; a scientist or a nun? I never asked her, and will never know.
My mother passed away ten years ago today. My father, a man I had seen cry once in my entire life, was utterly devastated. He prayed for a miracle until the very end, and seemed to be in denial when Hospice came to help her die. But, the cancer had taken most everything from her. She was an emaciated shell of her former self, and she was losing lucidity in the last 48 hours of her life. What she talked about were stories from her childhood in Kentucky—about the Coleman boys and the pretty Kentucky girls from her high school class. Long-term memory was the last whisper of her humanity. The morning my mother passed away, unbeknownst to each of us, my brothers and I each had held Mom’s hand and told her to let go. “It’s time, Mom. You can go in peace. Be with Gram. We are going to be fine.” Those were the last words I said to her, but there was no reaction. I like to think she heard me.
When we realized that Mom was gone, my brothers and I all sat around the table, and one by one we said, “This sucks!” And, it did. We had no better way of expressing how we felt—just tears and this sucks.
One of the most moving things my dad ever said after Mama died was, “I hope I gave her a good life. I hope she had a good life.” Those words made me choke, choke on the incredulousness of his insanity. When she wasn’t arguing with me her only daughter, my mama was a happy, funny lady. And, she was smitten with my father. They had fun together. On road trips they would sing songs in harmony, and tell jokes in public just to embarrass us kids. Although too self-centered to notice when I was growing up, as an adult I was keenly aware of the little signs of love. Like, every day around 5:30 Mama would put on lipstick and fix her hair; even after 40 years of marriage she wanted to look attractive for her husband. And, my father would come in and rub Mom’s back with his giant, soft hands. When they became empty nesters, my parents traveled a great deal to Alaska, Norway, British Columbia. Really, my mother did not have a lot of girlfriends. She simply preferred my father’s company.
Growing up, I was a pretty headstrong teenager who could argue better than a Harvard Law School grad. I remember fighting all the time, and my parents weren’t shy about telling everyone they met how I was a difficult teenager. It’s true. You can ask the chairperson of my doctoral committee. It was the second thing my father said after he met this man. I admit I was contentious. No revisionist history here. It often felt like war–with me tugging for independence, and Mom tugging to hold me back. At least once a week, when I rode my bike into the garage after school, I would swear under my breath, “God, I just wish she would get a job like normal parents.” But, she was there every day after school for as long as I could remember. Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t sitting in the kitchen with cookies and milk waiting on pins and needles to hear about my day. No, she was no hoverer. As a moody teen, I just wanted some time alone. One day we were fighting so loud–over what I can’t remember–but I do recall my dad and brothers scattered like roaches when a light was turned on. They wanted no part of this battle. My mom and I squared off like a Western dual, each at our own ends of the hallway. Scream, scream, scream. Cry, cry, cry. Ending with a crescendo of “I can’t wait to go to college,” and the coda, “I can’t wait for you to go to college.”
We were very different: I was very social and she was a homebody; she played the crosswords and I read books; I loved going to school, and she thought a doctorate was crazy when I could have been making babies. I felt Mama never got me. But, truth be told, I don’t think I was the one who got her, not until I had my own children. It was then, we had something in common, and I quickly learned that all my education was worthless when it came to raising babies.
Mom was in the room during my labor and delivery with Annie, which was even more special since she never gave birth herself. Everyone has her own birthing story, but my labor with Annie was extremely painful. My labor was induced with Pitocin, and the doctor was not going to give me an epidural until I was dilated at least three centimeters. I had contractions every two minutes for about 5 hours straight. When it was all over and I was transferred to a regular room, my Mom came in kissed me and beamed with palpable joy. Then she said, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” It took me a minute to realize she was talking about my labor. “What are you TALKING about? That was the most pain I have ever experienced.” “Well, “ she said, “You weren’t swearing.” It was impossible to explain to her that swearing took too much energy—energy I had to save for the next contraction.
Mom did not have many years as a grandmother, but she made the most of it. Her love and humor carried me through two crazy births. Like prepubescent girls we giggled over the color of baby poop and the ridiculousness of pumping breast milk.
I never thought of my mother as old. She was somehow ageless even when her shoulders stooped a bit, and her hair turned whiter, but when she held Annie and Katie wrapped like burritos with their little hospital caps on, she suddenly looked like a grandmother. Her hands seemed more fragile, and her face more softened and wise. She was a vision of peacefulness. Yet, she had a twinkle and sparkle about her, a side I had never seen before. I can still remember her playing hide-and-seek on her hands and knees with Annie who was learning how to walk, and bathing Katie, who was only 11 months younger, in the kitchen sink. Brilliantly, Mom hung a baby swing on the outside patio, and sat for hours pulling a string she attached to the seat. I guess that ease and unfettered joy is what happens when your only job is to love these children in front of you and not have to do all the work of raising them.
Mama never met my youngest, Will, but before she died, Mom knew I was having a boy. Ironically, Will was with Mom when she died and when I delivered Mom’s eulogy swollen with only three months to go before his due date. There is no doubt my dimpled boy would have melted her heart.
My father was heartsick after my mom died. He was sullen and angry and unapologetic. I had taken some time off of teaching to help him adjust, and the first thing he wanted me to do was clear out all of Mom’s things from the bedroom. I didn’t question him because I liked where my head sat, but I thought this was too soon, and who wants that task?
I started with the bathroom because I thought face creams and lotions would not make my heart swell in pain. Really, who is going to cry over some Oil of Olay? Apparently, I did. Touching her eyebrow tweezers and cleaning off her magnifying mirror touched cords in my body I did not know I had. Dad told me to keep anything I wanted, but the only thing I took was a pin cushion in the shape of a Buddha with rainbow rays sticking out in all direction. Poor Buddha’s head was not attached so well; I have no idea how old he was, but as far back as I can remember, that Buddha sat on a shelf in her bathroom just watching over my mama. Now he needed a new home.
In her bedroom, I cleared out her clothes and bottles of perfume, but kept the jewelry and all her Catholic trinkets: Immaculate Heart of Mary medals and pictures, crosses and crucifixes. In Mom’s top drawer I found a small card with a baby painted on the front. It had that look of a 1950s painting, kind of Gerber Baby but with hair. I was floored when I opened it up and read it was an invitation to her baby shower for my older brother Matt. My mom never told me about her shower, even after attending mine. I had just assumed she never had one. But, she did and it was so special to her that she kept the invitation in her top drawer for 40 years. That saddened me because I never asked her about this. It seemed like a secret she did not want to share with me, like it was just too personal to share. Was this because her children were all adopted and she could not get pregnant on her own? I sat on the floor for a long while crying over the things I could never ask her.
Her closet was the hardest of all. Everything in it smelled like her. Her suits had remnants of Norell, her favorite perfume, and that combined with just her humanness made it a difficult to cross the threshold. Very little surprised me in her closet just a bunch of clothes, shoes and purses—each with a stirring memory attached: the peach suit she wore on her 50th anniversary, the shoes she wore to my graduation, the dress she wore for Annie’s baptism. When I climbed up to clear off the top shelf, I found a treasure trove of historical trinkets. I found a hatbox filled with old gloves and lacy mantillas that mama wore to church before Vatican II changed the rules about mass. I wondered why she kept them. I have them now and my kids may wonder the same thing one day. But, I know that this history needed to be preserved.
I also found her wedding dress in a beat up, dusty brown box. I took it down and marveled at the 50-year-old garment. It was tiny. My mother was always much smaller than I was. Since it was never preserved, the dress had those yellow climatic stains all over them. I boxed it up and took it with me anyway, thinking one day I would restore it. It still sits at the top of my closet.
In the ten years since her death, I have only dreamed of my mother once. She was in her mom, Gram’s kitchen sipping black coffee and working the crosswords, and I tip-toed in, surprised that I could see her because my dad was there in Heaven’s wings and he was not allowed to be with her. In my dream, she was annoyed with me, “Why do you need to know why all the time?” I shut my mouth, just grateful to be spending a few moments with her, grateful to see that her continued life after life was so normal and she was so content. I sensed other relatives nearby, but could not see them, and asked Mom about them. Yes, they were all there too. My time with her in Gram’s heavenly kitchen was short. I knew I had to go, but I hugged my mom one last time and told her I loved her. She said she would see me again one day.
My parents raised me to be pretty independent. I was babysitting at twelve and buying my own razors and doing my own laundry at 13. And, I was always on the go trying to better myself or change the world. Acting in some school play, running the church youth group, singing in multiple choirs. Once I graduated and moved out, I was off to get a my bachelor’s degree, backpack through Europe one summer, get my master’s in a year, time away to write a book, and then off again to work on a doctorate. That independence served me well, for I was able to achieve some pretty amazing things at a young age.
What I mourn the most is that just when I really needed my mom, just when we could really talk and share commonalities, she was gone. Gone. And, with her went all her wisdom and anecdotes about life and marriage and child-rearing I feel that I desperately needed and still do on a regular basis. I think about Mom all the time, and I know she would find that irony amusing, since I was that kid always on the go. Yet, it makes me feel that my loss is somehow doubled. I am sad that it is now—as a middle-aged, mother of three lost in the whirlwind of homework, Little League and Girl Scouts—that I can truly appreciate my no-nonsense Mama. At the same time, I know I carry inside me her spirit, her words, and her love. I am blessed to have that.