For the Week of May 8, 2016: What We Learn From Our Mothers

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point…

(From: “What I Learned from My Mother, by Julia Kasdorf, in:  Sleeping Preacher,  1992)

There’s much that I learned from my mother, just as you may have, much of it more useful as I grew into adulthood, but not the lessons she might have intended for me.  I learned less about the domestic tasks Kasdorf describes and more about my mother’s struggle with the prescribed roles of wife, mother and homemaker.

My mother had two faces and a frying pot   

where she cooked up her daughters 

into girls 

before she fixed our dinner…

(From:From the House of Yemanjá” by Audre Lorde, in:  The Selected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997)

My mother was not like the mothers  my friends had.  She was different, even difficult.  She wasn’t the most versatile of cooks, nor did she  inherit her mother’s talent in the kitchen.  In truth, she took little pleasure in producing the daily meals for her family.  She preferred physical labor, daily scrubbing and housecleaning, yard work and gardening, and in turn, she believed those tasks were necessary to build good, solid character in her children.

We were assigned daily tasks and chores which had to be completed before school or play.  Every Saturday, we protested and complained as we were forced to scrub walls and floors while our friends waited impatiently for us outside.  Of my parents, Mother was the strict disciplinarian, and she prided herself on the role.  She was quick to remind us that any successes we had in school or life were due to the discipline she imposed.  My father, naturally playful and soft-hearted, had my heart; my mother had my obedience, but also my embarrassment and rebellion.

Many years later, as the mother of two strong-willed daughters, I began to understand some of my mother’s struggles more than I had in my earlier years.  I weathered the storms of adolescence as a single mother, experiencing their affection one day and rebelliousness the next, all while I attempted to parent, earn a living and build a career.  I developed greater empathy for much of my mother’s struggles—and much greater appreciation of what it meant to be a mother.

I see her doing something simple, paying bills,

or leafing through a magazine or book,

and wish that I could say, and she could hear,

 

that now I start to understand her love

for all of us, the fullness of it.

 

It burns there in the past, beyond my reach,

a modest lamp.

(“Mother’s Day,” by David Young, in:  Field of Light and Shadow, 2011)

A dozen years ago, my mother died peacefully in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.  Her descent into senility escalated as my father passed away from lung cancer.  The woman who was always in control of everything –or so we thought—wasn’t in control at all.  My father had quietly been covering the signs of her illness as best he could.  The irony was, of course, that as the disease progressed, my mother became docile, sweet and affectionate in ways we’d rarely experienced her.  Yet out of the darkness, a moment of clarity,  the mother we remembered would reappear–if only for a few seconds.  She loved her children as ferociously as she attacked life, yet she remained critical of us even as her mind deteriorated.  She was proud of what we each had accomplished, and yet she had always expected more of us.  She left a legacy of conflicted feelings among her children, wounds that were never healed, and old jealousies bred in the competition she fostered between us.  But I realize now that my mother did the best she could do.  It wasn’t ideal or even good mothering at times, but she wanted the best for us always.

I choose, on this Mother’s Day to remember that she did the best she could and that although her kind of love was difficult sometimes, it was love just the same.  I recall one of the last times I visited her, a month or so before she died.  She had, by then, lost the ability to walk, and she wasn’t aware of much, including me.  I resorted to pushing her in her wheelchair, going round and round the garden of the Alzheimer’s home.  As I grew weary, I positioned her chair by a brilliant red Bougainvillea  and took her hand.  At a loss, I began singing, “Let me call you sweetheart…,” something she had often sung to us as children.  As I sang, she slowly raised her head and looked at me for several seconds before speaking.

“Why, it’s Sha-ron!”  She spoke my name slowly, elongating the syllables.

“Yes Mom, it’s me.  Your eldest daughter,” I said, tears filling my eyes.  I squeezed her hand.

“I’m…happy,” she said slowly, smiling a little, as she closed her eyes.  Then her head fell to her chest.  Once again, she had disappeared into her darkness.  A few weeks later, my mother passed away.

It’s taken me time to sift through all that my mother was and meant to me.  The relationships we have with our mothers can be complicated as well as close.  Mine was both.  Yet she was my mother, and I am her daughter.  There are mornings I look in the mirror and see something of her in my face or expression, just as each of her three children likely do.   If I could, I would tell her now all that’s in my heart, maybe write her that long overdue letter I always meant to write, but like Wallace Stegner, writing to his mother long after her death, it’s too little, “much too late.”

 “All you can do is try,” you used to tell me when I was scared of undertaking something.  You got me to undertake many things I would have not dared undertake without your encouragement.  You also taught me how to take defeat when it came, and it was bound to now and then.  You taught me that if it hadn’t killed me it was probably good for me…

(From: “Letter, Much Too Late, in: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs:  Living and Writing in the West, 1992)

To all mothers everywhere, Happy Mother’s Day.

Writing Suggestions:

We learn from our mothers lessons of love and life, some of them not appreciated until we’re much older.  What lessons did your mother teach you?  How have those lessons or experiences influenced your life?  If you have since become a mother, do you find yourself acting in ways as you remember your mother did?  Write about the relationship you had with your mother.  Was it close?  Conflicted?  Distant?  Explore the things that made it so.  What do you want to say to your mother this Mother’s Day?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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