They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That goes through my mind whenever I look at pictures of my mother. Specifically, pictures of her in the tween and teen years. There’s one of her lying in the sun looking at a magazine. I’m terrible with age but am gauging her to be in her (very) early teens. I want it to tell me who that young girl was … what were her likes, dislikes, interests … dreams.
Growing up I thought of mom as typical stoic German in the way she expressed her feelings. That’s not to say we didn’t know when she was mad, happy or stressed because, after all, she was raising four kids and a husband. She could, and would, let us know if we crossed a line, broke a house rule, had a good report card or, well, you know, regular life stuff. Those were feelings predicated on a reaction to something or someone. Off limits were feelings that shaped her sense of self – her dreams and aspirations, how she felt about her life, what broke her heart, made her afraid or sad, did she ever feel lonely or betrayed?
Our relationship hit a relative stride from my teens on into adulthood. I would describe it as somewhat close but at arms length. We enjoyed spending time together and talk flowed easily – we just made sure to tread the surface and leave whatever lurked beneath alone. There was so much we didn’t know or understand about each other yet we were able to forge our own unique mother/daughter relationship. And whenever storms arose we all closed ranks around mom and weathered it together.
An unusually harsh storm came out of nowhere in March of 1995. Mom was told her breast cancer had returned and metastasized. Aggressive treatments proved unsuccessful and the prognosis was a gut punch … six months. After the doctor had given the news mom’s eyes were like laser beams on my face and I knew why. She was looking for something in my expression to answer the question she refused to ask me. That day was a turning point and our relationship was about to hit a new stride.
Mom knew to expect me every morning after breakfast. Opening the front door I’d find her sitting on the sofa waiting – her anxious look would fold into a smile while invariably asking what took me so long. I’d pour myself a cup of coffee and we’d chat about typical-skimming-the-surface-of-life stuff. However, there were times she’d look at me with the same expression as that day in the hospital. I’d hold my breath and wait … come on, mom, you know you want to ask me … but, sadly, she wouldn’t or couldn’t. We didn’t know it then but I was about to push her into the deep end of our relationship.
To this day I don’t know what came over me. It was a split second decision during a pause in the conversation – I told her I knew what she couldn’t ask and then gave her my answer. Needless to say there was another pause but this time she stared at me as if I’d grown a horn … or two. The silence became deafening – filling the room like a high pitched scream. But I wasn’t going to make it easy for either of us. Not now. Time was running out and we needed to make some sort of peace with the past.
It took me a second to grasp mom had started talking. At first it was in choppy sentences as she carefully chose her words. I slid off the sofa to the floor and skootched over to where she sat. Leaning against her legs I patted her knee before draping my arm across it and we fell into comfortable conversation. That’s not to say we completely dropped all safety mechanisms we’d put in place to protect our feelings. Our emotional deep dives were contained – specific situations and controlled in scope. But for us it was enough. With one hand we could hold onto self-preservation while using the other to wade into our past.
Mom mostly talked about her feelings raising four kids into adults she was proud of. But I also learned a little about her unrequited hopes, dreams, and regrets. For the first time in my life I looked past the person I’d only ever seen as my mother and, instead, saw the woman. Throughout those last few months she would look at me – her dark brown eyes reflecting a sadness – a vulnerability that would suck the air out of me – and as if to remind me she’d simply ask, “you will?” Ah, yes, the question. By the end of summer it would pop up abbreviated and out of the blue.
Each year my thoughts turn to that day in moms hospital room and the few seconds our eyes lock. It was clear she was curious what was going through my mind. But I also knew, more than anything, she wanted to ask if I’d miss her. Sad, huh? As I said, there were so many things we didn’t know or understand about each other.
She was only 55 yrs old when she died on the 16th of September – a couple days before my wedding anniversary – so I tend to cycle through an interesting array of memories this time of year. Happy and sad feelings wrestle for a play on my emotions but the good ones always win out.
I think pictures of mom as a young girl will always touch me in a melancholy way as I pause over them to ponder her unspoken life. But I linger on those of her as the woman I called mom with a smile ……
And I miss her.