“You are the only person who knows
what your Mother’s heart sounds like from the inside.”
I remember the whiff of Chanel No. 5 and the swish of her stockings as she left to go out with my dad. I remember the apricot silk comforter at the foot of their bed, where cats napped and I rested my face on its cool, satiny surface. Red lipstick. Aqua Net Hairspray. Pearls. That was my mother.
I have no memories of her brushing my hair or reading to me or helping me with my homework, much less playing with me. I never told her about my crushes. We never discussed boys and fashion when I was a teenager. My mother was always busy, doing good works, playing tennis at the club, burning our TV dinners in the oven. In those days, stay-at-home moms didn’t actually stay at home.
You can’t miss what you never had. When I awoke from nightmares as a child, I lay panting in my bed, my heart thumping out of my chest, paralyzed with fear. It never occurred to me to call out for my mother. That simply wasn’t an option. Stiff upper lip. Stoicism. Suck it up. That was the ticket.
She was always going somewhere, my mother, this vibrant woman, the predecessor to Gmamma, the sedentary but spunky little old lady she later became. In fact, once when she was sick, which almost never happened, we children gathered outside my parents’ bedroom door, lost and at loose ends. It was like our totem pole had fallen over, and our little tribe ceased to function.
There were things she loved to do with us. I remember her meeting the school bus wearing a Santa hat so we could assemble our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it together, Christmas carols blaring in the background. Unpacking favorite ornaments, flinging tinsel with wild abandon – our cats, we always had cats – would later regurgitate long strands of the silver stuff. Gmamma, still Momma then, would spray Pine-Sol in the air to smell like a real tree. Since I’ve grown up and had my own home, I’ve always insisted on a real tree. It seems like such an exotic thing, a living tree in the living room.
She was randomly domestic, my mother, with flashes of culinary cleverness. She could peel an apple with a paring knife leaving an unbroken spiral of apple skin. This never ceased to amaze me. She made crabapple jelly from the little fruit trees in our yard. Her deviled eggs were to die for. And she once made a pumpkin carriage cake for my Cinderella birthday party.
My mother was an avid reader, always had a stack of library books at the ready, reading in the pick-up line as she chauffeured us to and from school and ferried us to our myriad of after-school activities – art lessons and horseback riding for me, Girl Scouts for my sister (I never made it past Brownies), piano for everyone, because that’s just what you did, right? And tennis lessons for my brother. We were never at a loss for extracurricular activities. Later we segued into activities of our own choosing, track, cross-country and swimming for me.
It was a different era, the one we grew up in. We rode bikes WITHOUT HELMETS, for goodness sake. We disappeared barefoot into the neighborhood till dark, and even after, running across the wet grass, catching lightening bugs in glass jars. Yes, we ran WITH GLASS JARS in our hands. Maybe even scissors.
Back in those days, there were no electronic devices, and there was very little supervision. Yes, there were frozen fish sticks and chicken potpies (pronounced “chicken pock pies”) and a series of inattentive teenage babysitters, but mostly we ran wild.
Parents were simply less attentive then.
So I think, when my mother grew old and frail, I tried to take care of her the way I wished she had taken care of me. I brushed her hair and painted her toenails. The little old lady she became was more accepting of my affection than the distant beautiful blonde who was my mother. Gmamma let me hug her and hold her hand, at least for a little while. And during these past two years, since her stroke set off the chain of events that landed my parents in Shannondale, with matching walkers, I was closer to my mother than I ever was growing up.
Now that she is really and truly gone, I pine for my mother, the ghost of my childhood and the shadow of herself that she became, the one who let me love her.