Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death, according to the Hebrew calendar. My daughters often say she is present and observing us, as my toddler granddaughter, Gabriella, stares at Great-Grandma’s photo on the wall. Sometimes it does feel that way when I find myself viewing life through what I think would have been some of her perspectives. This I find interesting and perhaps a bit bizarre. She and I thought about life so differently for the most part. She was born in 1911 and married during the Great Depression, in 1929. I am one of the very first wave of Baby Boomers, was the youngest of three children, very much a “60′s kid”, and embraced Feminism as a young adult. My mother built her life around home, family, the values of her parents and her religion. I suppose one could say that I also built my life around family, founding and running an adoption agency fo 29 plus years and raising four kids, by birth and adoption.
I think though, that my raison d’etre for the majority of my existence has been to challenge the status quo and the commonplace, and to expand my personal world to include people, places and things my mother could not and usually did not choose to comprehend. I say my raison d’etre because my mother often uttered that I was born contrary and derived my satisfaction and energy from thinking and doing the opposite of what was expected of me. As a professional and as an experienced mom myself, I know how dangerous such labels and self-fulfilling prophecies can be to children. I know how the lables can become entangled deeply into our self images like prickly burrs that we cannot cut out of our hair. Sometimes we carry these labels to our graves. In my case I believe the label of contrariness helped me develop into who I am and to form my identity in a good way. I learned early on that I had to discover ways to stand up for my beliefs and for myself that stopped alienating others and that earned their respect even when they did not agree with me, or with my actions. I think I had the courage and ability to do that because of my mother, who may have had failings (as all of us do) but who loved me without conditions as mothers are “supposed to”, but may not be able to when their own baggage and needs get in the way of healthy mothering. I imagine this wasn’t always easy for her to do when I remember the mothering she received from my grandmother, who was a good person and sweet at times, but who could be tough as nails too. Her expression of endearment to her grandchildren (and probably to her children before that) was, “Aw, go on, I’ll knock your block off” which really meant, “I love you but watch your step too. I don’t tolerate a lot of disobedience or rebellion”.
I don’t think my awareness of watching life through my mother’s lens periodically has to do with simply aging and changing my own views dramatically from those I held when younger. I know I have modified some opinions and have gotten more convinced of others and more entrenched in them. I have mellowed in some respects too. I have perfected fledging beliefs and ideas I began with, but which have more meaning for me now (I hope I have aged well, like a fine wine or a superlative cheese) but I think people who know me would still say I like to challenge assumptions and to be challenged. This continues to get me into trouble, but not as much as it did in childhood, adolescence or young adulthood because I am perceived as having a certain amount of wisdom at this stage of the game. Whether or not I actually do is up for debate.
I know that I have a much better understanding of my mother as a woman than I could possibly have had years ago. I am able to revisit our family history and to appreciate and acknowledge the strengths she had that are so clear now, but that I often misunderstood. I see now how she held the entire extended family together with her consistency and her dependability. She was frugal with monetary resources and was criticized for it by various relatives. She did this out of necessity but if someone had a need, she did not refuse them. As many mothers will, she often set aside her own desires to minister to others and made sacrifices that I did not understand or even respect in my youth. I thought she lacked creativity and individuality. She held in her feelings most of her life, until the final years, when she gradually began to express them in a way that both surprised and pleased me. I took after my father and wore my feelings on my sleeve. My mother seemed to believe that doing this interfered with making practical decisions and carrying them out, though she clearly admired our ability to express ourselves.
Praise did not come easily to my mother’s lips. That is definitely one thing I have consciously worked on in my relationships with others. When I find myself falling into the trap of mostly seeing the negative, I do some self-coaching to exit that mode and to shift into a more productive state of awareness and appreciation, It took me far too many years to get that my mother was truly proud of me, because I so infrequently heard it from her. Something clicked into gear near the end of her life and she began to verbalize things that astounded me. We truly healed our mother-daughter relationship in a way I never expected. It was not until after her death that I went through her files and belongings and found a virtual archive of awards, newspaper articles, notices about me and my earlier accomplishments, most of which I had completely forgotten. There were also articles, cards and letters from and about my brother and sister, now also deceased and momentos of all of her grandchildren, some of whom, sadly, had not spoken to her in years. Perhaps this squirreling away of family memorabilia is not so unusual, but it was quite meaningful for me to find it because of my mother’s very practical and taciturn nature when it came to acknowlegement of our accomplishments and encouragement of our choices and goals.
As happens with grief, the sharp edges of missing my mother have softened and I can allow the memories to stroke and comfort me when I need them. They no longer cut and sting but soothe and amuse, though there are still tears at times. As I watch my grandchildren, I hear observations my mother might make (or did make about others) and my lips even form some of her words of wisdom before I fully realize what I am saying. I hear her voice and I am filled with her presence in a way that can’t easily be explained.
I do regret that I did not have a greater ability to view her as the unique person she was when I was young. It is so much easier now to look back over the vistas of our past and to point out scenes and milestones, than it was to take the time then to look at and fully appreciate them when they were directly in front of us. I had little knowledge of what private inner yearnings and hopes my mother had. When I left home and she was finally faced with an empty nest, it never occurred to me at the time that this might have been a difficult life stage for her. I was, as are most young people, completely wrapped up in my own dreams and the adventures ahead of me. When my mother lost her brother and her parents, I felt sad but I had no comprehension of the impact of those losses on her. When we lost other close family members including my brother, nephew and my first husband, it did not dawn on me then that my mother could possibly have used some help and a shoulder to cry on. Again, I knew she was sad and grief-stricken but she focused on her role as a support to me and to my sister and we did not have the wisdom to reciprocate that support. She, in turn, did not know how to communicate her true needs to us because that was something with which she had no practice. She knew how to throw up a smokescreen to get attention but perhaps did not recognize her inner self or think she had the right to ask for what she required.
Finally, when my mother became a widow and faced major changes, such as downsizing her home, moving to another state to be near me and my family, adjusting to infirmity and the gradual loss of her independence, I look back now and see that I did not have the sensitivity or knowledge I do now, to have helped her in as many ways as I could have. Of course, I did my best at the time but there was so much I lacked awareness of, in spite of my habit of voracious reading and research and my experience with social services.
I regret that when my mother was living, I did not have the advantages that my life experience and more mature viewpoints have finally bestowed on me. I believe that my mother-in-law, who has dementia, is receiving some of the benefits of the things I have learned in the years since my mother’s death. I do hope that I have done a reasonably decent job, though, of letting my kids see that I am a real person with a rich inner life and a busy, rich outer one. I know that they, too, will see me and life differently in the future. They are all adults now. I never wanted them to become overly parentified and I worked very hard to allow them to complete their own develpmental tasks at various stages of growth. I never wanted them to have to carry my burdens but I also did not keep my feelings so closely guarded that they never had a clue about who or what I was. Some days it feels to me that they are still oblivious to the clues, but I hope not.
The final outcome of anyone’ existence may not be fully revealed until the end of life. We hope we will leave a significant mark on the world and certainly on our children, but how we are judged is quite subjective and complicated.