When I discovered I was pregnant, I was thirty one and a publishing executive and I was at least seven years into being banished from my mother’s life, a cycle that started when I was a toddler. When I didn’t meet my mother’s expectations she stopped talking to me, even when we lived in the same home. As children (I was one of three) we weren’t allowed to eat dinner if my mother was “ghosting” us. Ignoring us if we had done something wrong was an art form my mother perfected, and her years on the stage contributed to how well she was able to pretend we didn’t exist while sharing the same small family bathroom. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in some kind of deep grief for my mother’s missing love.
When she was engaged in her role as mother – when she wasn’t ignoring you, she was funny, warm and loving. She was inventive when we didn’t have money and made every holiday magical. If we were being punished and ignored around Christmas, as the holiday crept closer, we were magically forgiven.
When she had her breast removed from cancer I was six years old, she was in the hospital for weeks. I remember waving to her from the hospital parking lot, her tiny frame like a small doll in the hospital window; and lying in bed with her when she returned home from the hospital. I was so afraid she would die; I asked her if she did die would she give me a sign so I knew she was all right. She had a glass figurine of the Virgin Mary on her nightstand. She said the Virgin Mary would be turned around the other way if she died and I would know she was still with me.
But my mother didn’t die. At thirty-two I found out I was carrying a girl because the new technician giving me an ultrasound didn’t read the file that we didn’t want to know the sex of the child. I was so certain I was carrying a son, that when the nurse told me my daughter had a beautiful profile, I felt a chill run through me.
That’s when I knew how deeply I had been wounded by the repeated cycle of my mother loving me and taking her love away. She had been gone for the last eight years from my life again, and I was ready to prepare myself by going into therapy to make sure I never hurt my daughter, that I would love her unconditionally and did not repeat my family pattern.
As I raised my daughter into her toddler years, I never talked badly about my mother to her, only sharing the good stories, singing Que Sera Sera to put her to sleep, the song my mother used sang to me off-key, often changing the words, and reading some of the same books my mother read repeatedly to me. But when my daughter threw a tantrum, or slammed her door, I never considered withholding my love from her, and she never went to bed hungry. It was so easy to love her unconditionally. Therapy helped me understand my mother was likely bipolar and not responsible for her erratic behaviors and I learned how to forgive her for something that must have been as painful for her as it was for us – from 3,000 miles away in silence.
And then my brother’s wife died suddenly, leaving him with a newborn baby and a five year-old-daughter. He was married to my best friend and her death was a kind of grief I had never experienced, because a whole family that should have been in celebration with a new baby was blown apart by the untimely death. My arms that ached to hold my best friend now held her newborn baby. When my brother remarried, my daughter was five and he invited our parents to his wedding to try to mend the cold war between us all. By then there were too many missing years and a mountain of family grief to sort through.
At the wedding, my parents were in the same pew as my daughter and me, with four people in between us. I watched my father walk up the aisle of the church, looking old and tired. The wedding march began and my mother leaned forward to look at my red headed daughter in her white and pink dress and my daughter leaned forward to look at her.
My mother mouthed to Kele, “I’m your grandmother”.
And Kele mouthed back, “I know”.
Then my mother patted the seat next to her smiling, and Kele asked me, “Can I go mom?”
Beginning that moment, with my mother’s arm lovingly draped around her shoulder and my daughter leaning into my mother, Kele was able to have a connection with her that none of us children or other grandchildren were able to have. Somehow, my mother and my daughter spoke the same heart language. And I got my mother back. She was still the same, but I had changed, and my tolerance was a continent wide.
Nine years later my father became severely ill, and while I was caring for him with my brothers, I noticed my mother getting lost driving home and that she had forgotten all our birthdays that year. Both my parents had hidden my mother’s dementia, and when my father died, my mother spiraled further into the world of lost mind, now that her anchor was gone. We could no longer care for her without a facility. It was my teenaged daughter that picked out her pictures and clothing and took my mother shopping to decorate her room. She visited my mother with me for hours in her care facility, taking silly photos of my mom and making her laugh.
And I grieved my mother all over again when I lost her to dementia.
When my mother still remembered me, I’d travel across country to spend time with her. Once she was sleeping when I arrived, and I gently laid my body on top of her. She opened her eyes and smiled. I rolled off her and we lay there talking, side by side, her breath smelling like tuna fish and mayonnaise and summers lost. And she’d ask me how I was doing and I would tell her about Kele – how she was fifteen and challenging, but we were getting through it okay, and then a minute later she’d ask me again how everything was, and if I had any children.
My mother was a journalist and an author and I often found post it notes around her bedroom in her care facility with fragments of thoughts for a story she might some day write. For a long time, I collected her half thoughts, because I was a writer too and she taught me to always looks for clues. I let the small post it notes go when I realized I was looking for clues to find my way back to her – to the nurturing parts of her that were so rare, but I held in my heart so vividly.
When my mother dies it will not be the same as my friends who have lost their mothers and are crushed by the loss. So many of them have written about their mothers and cried in my living room during writing workshops and in a strange way I envy their grief. I am practiced at losing my mother. I’ve been losing her my whole life. Still, when it happens, I might purchase a glass figurine of the Virgin Mary to place by my bedside, just so she can tell me she is finally all right.
Laura Lentz is a writer, developmental editor and writing teacher, specializing in deeply themed curriculum guiding writers to create content by accessing personal stories. Her students become part of an intimate writing community that continues to connect and share work together daily.