On My Mother's Birthday
I am writing this on what would have been my mother’s 111th birthday. She died 34 years ago, but I always think of her on this day. I remember hand-drawn cards I gave her when I was a kid, and books I thought she’d like when I was older. It seems to me that February 7 was one of the first dates I memorized in that way that kids have of making their moms the center of the world. And, in lots of ways—not all of them easy—she was often at the center of mine.
It’s kind of embarrassing to admit it now, but I don’t know very much about her growing-up life. There were stories and shadows of events and occasions, but they were never clear enough for me to ascertain what all went into her being a person. She was 40 when I was born, and she and my dad had struggled—financially and emotionally. I knew that. My brothers were 10 and 14 when I came into the family. I have only tiny, brief memories of either of them as kids, but their teenage years were hard, each ending with a stint in the Navy when they were 18. I was a teenager myself before I have a clear picture of either of them.
When someone dies early in our lives—I was not yet 40 when she passed—we don’t get the chance to learn about them in the ways that we understand life when we’re older.
My dad was a schoolteacher, but he also did many other jobs along the way to manage their challenging finances. In some vague memory, my mother told me about a business they’d started before I was born and the bankruptcy that followed. My feeling was that they were always trying to correct whatever problems that had caused. Then there were more troubles with my brothers, involving alcohol and divorces and the inability to actualize. What I remember most was the pain all of that added to what my mom already carried. My job was to try and help her feel better. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I didn’t. It created a huge bond between us—often one that asked way too much of me. She acknowledged that from time to time, but it wasn’t until the last year of her life, when she went to therapy, that she seemed to understand how hard it was for me to lighten her sadness.
Mostly, I adored my mother. She was funny and warm and outgoing to anyone who met her, and she was one of the smartest people I ever knew. She could laugh at herself, make up conversations for the many dogs we had, and dream like no one I ever knew. By the time she and my dad were in their early 70s, and many of their struggles were behind them, they joined the Peace Corps and spent several years in Samoa. In keeping with her ability to connect with practically anyone, she became the mom away from home for all of the young volunteers who were homesick.
It’s funny with our family members—or at least those in my group—because what we mostly know about them is in relation to us. In my 70s now myself, I wonder how she felt about reaching this age, or any age. Also, now that I know so many women who are mothers of kids of all ages, I have a better sense of what she must have felt to have my brothers struggle so much. She lived a complicated life. I know that. And, although she looked to me for a support she couldn’t get from anyone else in my family, I eventually learned enough in therapy to realize that her happiness wasn’t up to me. One of the things I’m proudest of is that we told each other the truth, as hard as it often was to do it.
When I think of her, as I do regularly, these days I think of the ways she was happy. She loved flowers, and plants, and the ocean, and dogs and cats and even a pet chipmunk we once had. She loved The New York Times Crossword Puzzle, a good cup of coffee, and practically anyone she ever met. When someone dies early in our lives—I was not yet 40 when she passed—we don’t get the chance to learn about them in the ways that we understand life when we’re older. I’m not sure it would have changed anything, but it might have let me know her better. It’s always a reminder to me to tell my true story when I can, to the people close to me who are interested. It’s all we have, really—our own tales of how we got here, and what happened along the way.