Without My Mother
My mother and I used to discuss a social experiment she had read about as a student. A family of three, parents and a son, decided to insure themselves against the inevitable grief that would come from one of their deaths by living under the same roof, but completely independently of each other. I looked but could not find this (obviously quite old) case study, but the premise, according to my mum was, emotional and practical co-dependence was counterintuitive to the most glaring fact of life. It was best not to get used to, say, someone waking you with a cup of tea, because when they were dead, you’d have to make your own tea. And grief would render that quotidian little chore unspeakably unbearable.
Despite our love of debate, we knew where we stood on this philosophy. My mother never made her own tea.
In the week leading up to what would have been her 67th birthday, three years after we lost her quite suddenly, a weird serendipity has sent me several essays and posts written by adult women reflecting on their mums. In one, a woman who lost her mum at age 16, writes, 12 years later, of her loss. Its bittersweet tenderness has incredible resonance. In it, she mourns all the big moments her mother has missed and the moments she has missed her mother. She considers the future and knows the list will grow.
In another, a woman raising a baby on her own describes her new “marriage to mother”: Too self-conscious to go to Facebook “yet again”, her mum is the only person with whom she can share those “inane-to-others, magnificent-to-mothers” moments that fill her to the brim. These instances – not easy to explain even to some dads – are the ones that never make it to the blog posts (even the most self-indulgent ones) or the ‘have-it-all’ pieces: the private, visceral, hormonal, biological, fulfilling thrills of motherhood. Or the black holes of privation. Only your mother would understand.
I feel the lack of a mother more acutely as my children get older. The early-years parenting books’ one-size-fits-all bravado is a tinny echo when faced with questions about self-harming, precociousness, puberty, or the fact that at least one kid seems hell-bent on being incarcerated ASAP. So, I am glad we visited my mum practically every day when she was around. And I wish she was still here to reassure me with a, “Don’t worry, it’s a phase,” followed by some absolutely horrific story about one of my siblings.
That familiar comfort evaporated when she died, and immediately after, I wondered if I would ever feel it again. I remember only drifting in and out of cycles of numbness, disbelief, grief. Rendered motherless, I momentarily lost sight of my own children, who were reacting uniquely to their loss. The youngest, only two, said “See you later, Granma,” and over the next few days had a couple of long ‘telephone calls’ with her. The middle child, reliably dramatic, nearly fainted from grief and wrote in her diary long, miserable, yearning letters to her grandmother. And a week after the funeral, my eldest came to me with some news. “Mama, the school magazine has published my essay!” and then suddenly, “I forgot to tell Granma….”
Life is callous about its brevity. When my mother died, all my friends told me how they immediately realized they needed to call their mums more often. She may have a story they hadn’t yet heard, wisdom not yet shared. Did they know the names of her best friends in school? What was her favourite poem? Did they have all her recipes?
Life is also famous for its ability to go on. I call my dad, now, to grumble about the local politicians and the price of fish. I call my brother for recipes. My sister and my second daughter form a middle-child phalanx when I wail about how difficult middle children can be. A close friend and I text each other all the time to kvetch about work and family. Last month, my youngest suddenly had a last-minute panicky squawk at my husband about a fancy-dress costume. Hitherto my mother’s area of expertise, my husband stepped up and created one that would have made his late mother-in-law so proud! Our family has had one big, fat wedding and is planning a smaller, phat one. It has entailed buying wedding lace and bridesmaids’ shoes, deciding on bouquets and buffets, cutting fruit for wedding cake and re-grafting splintering branches of the extended family tree, all without my mother, her absolute sense of what was in good taste (peppered incongruously by bawdy asides), and her gift for creative solutions to the most infuriating problems.
I have, so far, resisted the naughty pleasure of some of my family elders and have refrained from randomly reminding my kids how they will miss me “when I’m gone.” (However, as I run low of ammunition in the Teen Wars, I feel less certain I won’t scrape the bottom of that barrel someday.) But just as having children provided me with a new perspective on my own mother, losing her made some things clear: that I’d still like to forge a similar relationship, an admitted co-dependency — fulfilling, wrenching, a luxury and a pain in the behind — with my own children.
For when life is frighteningly brazen in its unpredictability, what other choice is there, than to live brazenly? I insist my husband or one of my children make me tea.