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.