A series of this and that found in some long-forgotten file folders in my basement. Specifically, this is a piece I wrote a while ago about my mom and hers; part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here, and part 5 is here.
I don’t know how to forgive my mom’s mom for dying young. I don’t know how to forgive her for refusing to have the surgery that might have saved her life, or at least prolonged it; for missing a hundred big and little milestones and firsts, a thousand joys and disappointments; for leaving my mom without that fierce, gentle love that feels unconditional. I don’t know how to thank her, either, for loving my mom when she came as a surprise in her thirty-eighth year; for knowing the value of a good, hard belly-laugh; for being embarrassingly affectionate with her husband and children; for the intensity and passion in her seemingly too-short life.
Though my mom is now two years past her forty-eighth birthday – significant because forty-eight was the last birthday her mother celebrated – I keep that number in my head and feel sometimes like her life is very precarious, more precarious than before she turned forty-eight. Not long ago, less than a year, one of my cousins had a mastectomy. It troubles me that Mom prayed that she would live to see both me and my sister graduate from high school. Now that she’s exceeded her “bargained” life-expectancy by almost five years, I think, “Good grief, woman! As long as you were asking, why didn’t you ask for more time? Why didn’t you ask to see your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren?” I guess that Mom’s never been one to be too greedy, even with the years of her life.
I call my mom from Chicago, and we go through her usual checklist: I assure her that, yes, I had a nice flight; yes, Trish was there to meet me at the gate; no, I didn’t meet anyone on the plane but, yes, I was wearing lipstick.
“Okay, Mom, I’m going to let you go now,” I say after a few more minutes of trivia about what I packed for warmth, how Trish is, and what we plan to do when I’m here.
“Oh, you never want to talk to your mother,” she teases, knowing that I am getting impatient.
“Mom, I love you. I’m going now.”
“I love you, too, dear.”
I place the phone back in its cradle and smile, knowing that she will be the one to meet me at the gate when I fly home.
A series of this and that found in some long-forgotten file folders in my basement. Specifically, this is a piece I wrote a while ago about my mom and hers; part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, and part 4 is here.
At the airport, I go into the terminal to check my luggage. Mom doesn’t want to park in the garage this morning; it’s too much hassle. But she wants to say good-bye, so she drops me off at the door and waits in the car with my carry-on. As usual, I’ve packed too much for the weekend I’ll spend in Chicago, and I think briefly of the book I’ve just finished reading about people with schizophrenia and worry that I, too, have tendencies for overinclusion.
I have some time to kill before boarding, but Mom has to drive all the way across town to pick up Jackie, a sixth-grade teacher in her building, before she turns around yet again to face morning rush-hour traffic – as bad as traffic ever is in Omaha. It occurs to me that I’ll nearly be on the ground again by the time she gets to school at 7:45. Now, though, I’m feeling that familiar impatience that sometimes comes when I’m with my mom and that goes the minute she leaves. I know fully well that as soon as she drives away, I’ll desperately want her back to pass the long hour before my flight leaves, but now I just want to be alone for a while. I poke my head back in the car hoping for a quick good-bye, but I can tell Mom is still feeling weepy, so I crawl back into the front seat beside her and ask, “Mom, are you okay?”
She nods, but I’m unconvinced. “I better go, I guess,” she says, starting the car.
I lean over to give her a kiss and whisper, “Thanks, Mom, for talking. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Call me tonight, so we know you got there okay.” Then, as I reach for the handle, she adds, “I guess that’s the biggest thing about not having a mother. After Mom died, I never had that unconditional love again.”
I think I know what she means. I feel strangely guilty that as her oldest daughter I haven’t been able to undo the damage of that loss – that I haven’t been able to love her backward through time or whatever it would take to replace that strong, pure mother love. But I don’t know what to say, so I lean over to give her another hug and tell her I love her one more time before I get out of the car and watch her drive away. It won’t even occur to me until later that I did not ask her to take me to the airport. I assumed that she would.
Concluded in part 6.
A series of this and that found in some long-forgotten file folders in my basement. Specifically, this is a piece I wrote a while ago about my mom and hers; part 1 is here, part 2 is here, and part 3 is here.
A disproportionate number of the mental pictures I have of my grandmother involve her driving a car that she could not have had – a gold 1968 Cutlass Supreme. (I’m told she actually drove a white and green Hudson.) In her Cutlass, my grandmother drives all over the countryside to pick up “the ladies” – women I imagine to be in their late seventies, though she is in her forties – for Wednesday morning coffee, or as my grandpa said, for her “hen parties.” She also backs her Cutlass down the lane with the lights off, since it is not the neighbor’s business where she is going all the time. When there is yardwork to be done, she single-handedly hefts the lawnmower into the trunk and drives to that nosy neighbor’s house to help out.
I am aware that, along with having faulty, sometimes absurd, details, my imaginations of my grandmother can also be erroneous in their selectivity. I don’t like it, for example, that she rode an Amtrak train all the way out to California to be treated by a quack who made her lay for days at a time in a coffinlike box packed in mud, so I try not to think about that. I do, however, like it that while she was in California, she visited her brother Oscar and his new wife, Millie, who took her to Disney World (which she could have done without because she thought it too materialistic and fake). I don’t like that she was reputed to be a poor housekeeper, so every time I think of that, I remind myself that she was probably so busy with relationships that the housework merely fell by the way. I like it that she drew a landscape with blue and green chalk on the wall of the tack room in the barn that lasted for me and my cousins to see (it may be there still, if the barn is). When I imagine my grandmother, it is important to me to explain away her faults, her failings, her fragility, even to myself.
The most recurrent image I have of my grandmother is one where she is standing in a field about thirty feet away (from me?) from the road. It is July. She is wearing a light blue dress with small flowers of many colors. The dress buttons all the way down the front and comes to the middle of her calves. I know that she is barefoot, though she is standing up to her knees in soft, brown weeds. She is turned away so that I can’t see her face, but I know she is smiling. She holds one hand on her slender hip and one hand on her red straw hat, which, though its brim is too large, offers no shade. Sometimes one arm is outstretched, but the other is always holding the hat. Her gold car sits on the side of the road, and in it is the five-year-old who will grow up and become my mom, but the car is behind me and out of my line of vision, so I don’t know what the little girl is doing. Maybe she is on her scraped knees, leaning out the open window, crayons spilled on the passenger side, coloring book on the middle seat.
What inspires this image of my grandmother in the middle of a field is my mom’s story of a time that her mom’s hat blew away when she had pulled over to the side of the road to “go to the bathroom.” In Mom’s version, my grandmother never finds the hat. When I imagine my grandmother standing in that field, I consider myself to be retelling the same story. In my version, though, she never, ever has to urinate, though I do not have another explanation for why she would be standing alone in a field twenty miles from home on such a bright and windy day. Even in my own mind, I can’t, or won’t, make my grandmother subject to her bodily functions any more than I can imagine the thick, pussy scab that my mom remembers seeing once when a nurse was giving her mother a bath, shocking and horrible evidence of her disease. In my version of my grandmother stopping on a dusty country road on a hot and gusty summer’s day, there is no breast cancer in her future. And she finds her hat.
But, of course, my version is not the actual and whole truth.
Continued in part 5.
A series of this and that found in some long-forgotten file folders in my basement. Specifically, this is a piece I wrote a while ago about my mom and hers; part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.
I don’t know how to fix an accurate picture of my grandmother in my imagination. When I try, the only picture that comes to mind mimics a still, black-and-white photograph that I have seen where she is standing, arms straight at her side, on the front porch of that house that no longer exists. She is smiling, but it is a smile to be photographed, not the natural, easy smile of affection or amusement. I search my grandmother’s photographed features for traces of my mom or of me or my sister in her face, hoping to find any family resemblance from which I may be able to extract a fuller life. In her jawline and around her eyes, I see my cousin Lynnette, which I think may be useful. When I probed my mom for more details, she rewarded me with a description of hands perpetually stained, darkened in every crevice. As a child, my mom thought they just looked that way because of hard work, but now she realizes her mother’s hands were stained by the berries she used to make pies. I recognize, too, that even working with a more complete physical description, I still have an impoverished idea of who my grandmother was. I have vague descriptors such as “she was kind” and “she was thoughtful,” but I don’t know of a single thing that would make her laugh. I don’t know whether she liked to read, never mind what books she might have liked, or what kind of music she played on the piano when she played to make her tears stop. The only direct quote I’ve ever heard attributed to her is “It’s peeing outside,” and that survived only because it shocked my mom to hear her mother say something that seemed so out of character.
For as long as I have known that her mom died when she was ten years old, I have somehow believed that event has been the key to elucidating my mother’s emotional landscape, that it could in some way explain everything there is to know about her. I have not been able to see how anything other than her mother’s death—or at least a combination of things that included it—could have contributed to my mom being who she is. I have spent years consciously and unconsciously trying to find the root of every one of my mom’s idiosyncrasies in the stories she has told about her mom and about losing her.
Every single time we get in the car together, without fail, Mom asks me to hand her the lipstick in her purse, and I am reminded that her mother used to put lipstick on in the car too – one of the few things Mom remembers about time spent with her. I wonder if my grandmother hid purchases from my grandpa the way Mom hides the movies she buys in the basement for a couple of months before she watches them (so that when my dad asks if it’s a new movie, she can answer honestly, “No, I’ve had it for a while”). Did her mom sing to her “Here I come to save the day! That means that Mommy is on the way!” or “Good morning to you!” the way she did to me and my sister? I wonder what it is that constrains me to want to tie my mom’s psychology so closely to her mother’s, to want to prove that these quirks of hers are inherited. I wonder what it is that makes me hope that some reminiscence of my grandmother who died fourteen years before I was born persists in me.
I have created for myself a handful of images of my grandmother – imaginations of her that have been constructed from the few stories my mom can remember and the stories that have been told by others. My representations are like dreams in their substitution of details, especially details that do not make any sense, and nonlinear meanderings, their disregard for actual truth in their dramatization of poetic truth about my grandmother. These renderings, like my mother’s childhood home, are silent. They are in color, though dully, and even though in “real life” they would rely on action and physical activity to move the stories they represent forward, the only motion in any of them is the unseen wind that in my imagination makes its dramatic presence known even indoors.
A favorite image that I have of my mom’s mom is from the stories I’ve heard about her wallpapering her bedroom. For this mental reproduction of my grandmother, the particulars are provided from my own experience of what I can only explain as a matrilineal compulsion toward impulsive home improvement passed from my grandmother through my mom to me. I’ve been told that my grandmother once wallpapered a room in the house the very day that her relatives were expected to arrive from California. In my reworking of the details of this last-minute improvement, the wallpaper is thick yellow-and-cream stripes – the stripes I painted on my living room walls last year the morning of the day I was throwing my first “grown-up” dinner party for fifteen people. The logic behind these kinds of preparations has also been somehow passed down through my maternal line. My mom always says that company won’t notice what you do; they’ll only notice what you don’t do. She has also instilled in me a belief that if we clean out the refrigerator or paint the closet in the extra bedroom, especially if we do it the day that company is arriving, it will not only allow us to get done that which we’ve been putting off but it will have the added benefit of forcing us to get all the regular cleaning done as well because cleaning for company is something that we have to do anyway. And I think that makes perfect sense.
Continued in part 4
A series of this and that found in some long-forgotten file folders in my basement. Specifically, this is a piece I wrote a while ago about my mom and hers; part 1 is here.
“She made us wear these long underwear, not like long johns, but like underwear with legs in them – not long legs, but longer than underwear. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, Mom, they were like boxer briefs.”
“No, not like that. They were more poofy. And they were made out of this scratchy, thick material, and they were pink.” I laugh and think that will make a good detail in the scene I will reconstruct from her memory. I start to relax as she talks about the playground and the boys, her fear of anyone seeing her old-fashioned, baggy underwear. We drive on, and she tells the story – another that I have heard but forgotten the details – of beating a rug next to her aunt’s clean laundry, of Aunt Marie chasing her with the broom and my uncle Don finding it all very entertaining.
I realize I’m no longer listening to what she is actually saying but to the rhythm of her voice. She has stopped talking about her aunt Marie and is now describing her childhood home – not the one I visited as a child to see my grandparents, but the house where her mom lived, the one they tore down when my grandpa remarried and they built the new house. “Uh-huh,” I say every couple of sentences, wanting her to continue with just this cadence and just this volume. While I’m not picturing the actual layout of the house she is describing, the effect is that I begin to build a house for her to live in as a ten-year-old. The picture I create, though, like my own memories, lacks any sort of peripheral vision or sense that there are rooms beyond the one I am looking at now as if it were on a television screen. Her house and everything in it, unlike the houses I reconstruct when I imagine my own childhood, is black and white. I try to augment my picture by creating sounds, but where my childhood is filled with the even beat of the washing machine, the train whistle so common I forget to hear it, a lawnmower too early on a Saturday morning, the game on the radio, my mom’s laughter, my dad’s deep, gentle voice, my mom’s childhood is silent.
I drift back in and realize that Mom is gesturing with her hands, wanting me to understand which side of the couch the phone table was on and which way it faced from the window. That was the phone they used to call her sister Virginia the morning Mom died, she says. She could hear them, she explains, because she and Lola, her other sister, were sleeping in the middle bedroom, although she doesn’t remember why they were in there or where her dad slept in those days. “Mom was in a hospital bed in the living room across from the phone, remember? And that morning . . .
“Maybe you should drive,” she whispers.
“No, you’re fine,” I murmur, knowing that if we stop, I’ll never hear what comes next. It’s painful now, more painful than I’ve realized, but I can’t make myself let her stop. I’ve heard the story before—nearly every time we drove to visit Grandpa and Grandma, I heard the story – but never like this, never with an idea, even an inaccurate one, of where the phone was and where two little girls, too little girls, were lying in bed hearing through thin walls that it was time for their mother to die.
Her words are controlled, but I know from their broken rhythm that she is still crying. “She said, the last thing she ever said, she said she loved us, that morning, I remember, that morning.”
“That’s okay, Mom. It’s enough.” After a few moments, I add, “I love you, Sweetie Mommy,” my silly term of affection left over from when I was a little girl. She reaches over to squeeze my hand, and I squeeze back, pleased by the softness and strength in her grip, knowing that I have inherited her hands.
More sure of herself, she explains, “I tried to comfort my dad, but that was just a childish thing. Of course, there was no comfort.” She tells me that she remembers just how his arm felt that morning and how tired her own arm got trying to understand how it could be that he, with such strong farmer’s arms, could need her little hand just above his elbow to help him grieve.
The last ten minutes we drive in silence.
Continued in part 3
I have a two-drawer filing cabinet in the basement that until last night held probably close to three hundred file folders—a remnant of an organization kick circa 1999. The files were sometimes sentimental, with wedding programs and notes and photographs; sometimes scholarly, with notes from graduate seminars, or practical, with notes for creative ways to lead a Bible study; and sometimes whimsical, a folder for poems about and pictures of giraffes or doorknobs or the color yellow. Many of the folders were empty, apparently just waiting for a time I might find something interesting about the topic. And about 98 percent of the folders and their contents are now in our recycling bin. I saved a few things, though. Maybe everything I saved will make it to the blog in some way, or maybe this essay will be the only one. For a seminar in creative nonfiction writing, I wrote about my mom and about her mom, who died of breast cancer when my mom was ten years old. I wrote this almost exactly thirteen years ago, and since the piece is partly a reflection on motherhood, I have an urge to rewrite and somehow incorporate more current thoughts now that I am also a mother myself. But that would be a lot of work, and I haven’t done that yet. What we have here are the thoughts of my twenty-five-year-old self. I’ll share it in installments, so here is part 1:
I am riding in the dark with my mother. She is driving me to the airport for a six thirty a.m. flight, and I am not yet awake enough to realize what I am inviting when I ask for more input on the paper I am writing about her in my creative nonfiction writing class. I do not know how unprepared I am for her answer.
“Mom, I need to get like twenty pages of this thing written while I’m in Chicago, so tell me quick what you want me to say.” As if she could not only capture, but also articulate what it was like to lose her mother as a child. As if, in the forty-five minute drive to the airport, she would be able to summarize how she felt about becoming a woman, learning about femininity and sexuality without her mother to model or teach them and what it has been to be a mother, my mother, for half of her life so far. As if I were actually ready to begin to imagine my mother’s life.
“Tell me again what you want to know.” And, of course, that’s the problem. How do I verbalize what I want to know? All I have is a fact: my maternal grandmother, Hilma Wilhelmena Jacobson Johnson, died in 1959; and a vague question: What does that mean? To begin with, the fact of my grandmother’s death scares me. Mothers aren’t supposed to die so young, and they are certainly not supposed to die leaving a husband and five children behind. I wonder if part of my grandmother’s legacy will be a lump in my mother’s breast. Or in mine. The question, too, is one I’m scared to ask: What has it meant for my mom to grow up without her mother? I am scared because I don’t know how to deal with what the answer might be and what it might mean for me. What if growing up motherless has left my mom with insecurities about her own motherhood? What if her childhood fostered in her strengths that I’ve been unwilling or unable to see? What if imagining my mom’s life marks or changes me in a way that I am unprepared for?
I’m not thinking that clearly or that far ahead, though, and so I say, “Well, you know, like about how you felt about your aunt Marie staying with you and what you remember about your mom before she died, how it changed your relationship with your sisters and your dad after she died, how you thought your dad was not as affectionate. All that stuff.” I rattle off the list as if we were just brainstorming about something as neutral as what to have for dinner. I am getting impatient, too, because we are already past Hormel, and she is speeding as usual. We probably only have about a half an hour left, and I need material and lots of it. I figure whatever she says this morning will give me an idea of where to start if I can just get her to distill her memories into a “best and worst of” montage in the next thirty minutes.
“Um, okay,” she begins tentatively, “What have I told you about Aunt Marie?”
“Mom, it doesn’t matter. You just need to tell me how you felt about her living there, and, anyway, if I’ve already heard the story, you can tell me again.”
“Did I tell you about the underwear she made us wear?” I vaguely remember something about long underwear, but I tell her she should remind me.
Continued in part 2
I’m an aunt! My sweet, squishable, wrinkly, adorable nephew Colton was born Wednesday night, just before midnight. A zillion more pictures coming soon.
We went in for a regular midwife appointment today. Baby’s heart rate was elevated, so they hooked me up to the monitor for awhile to make sure she wasn’t stressed. All is well, it seems. And now I have my very own set of velcro straps (one pink and one blue)—just add it to the list of weird things to carry around in my purse toward the end of pregnancy.
Jason took a picture of me all hooked up to the monitor that I actually didn’t hate. Simon, though, said, “Mommy, you look kind of different in that picture, don’t you?” When I asked him what he meant, he said, “Your face looks kind of weird.” So, sorry, Internet, you won’t be seeing that one today.
DPP pics from past years: 2006 2008 2009 2010