Sunday, May 9, 2010


Ben carted off the kids Sunday morning so I could have a few hours alone on Mother's Day. I was making the bed, enjoying the quiet and the unseasonal rain and, as I do in the rare moments I can, I turned on NPR. Morning Edition was doing a piece on mothers. NPR personalities (Karl Castle, the car guys, Susan Stamberg, etc.) talked about their mothers, what they remembered, what they loved, what they were grateful for. And of course it made me cry.

My mom gave me everything she could, particularly when I was small and she had a lot to give. As I grew, she had to return to work and her time and energy were more limited. I think she also dived deeper into her ever-present depression. But the mother that will always live in my heart was so generous, so kind, so beautiful. She'd sing me songs when I'd awake from my naps. Groggily, I'd lay in her lap as she quietly sang, in lullaby tones, "America, the Beautiful" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy". Her repertoire was small and I know now that her voice was not stellar but at the time it was the most exquisite sound I'd ever heard. When I in fifth grade and she was turning fifty, I quizzed my friends on how old they imagined her to be. They guessed thirty, thirty-five, ages I'm sure close to their mothers. With pride, I declared that she was fifty. I was sure, in that moment, that she was the most gorgeous, youthful creature to have walked the earth. I look back on pictures now from that time and yes, she was certainly a beautiful woman, but by fifty she was in menopause, she had a paunch, she was aging. Not in the eyes of her young daughter.

She had lost her mother at the age of two and spent some time in a depression-era orphanage only to return to her beloved father and a new abusive step-mother. By rights, she should not have been a good mother. And while she may have struggled with my sister, her first child, my brother echoes my memories of her warmth. She claimed to love my company, she seemed to find incredible joy in mothering me, her late and final baby. She would hold my hand as we walked and whisper in my ear, "You're my friend, Elizabeth."

For the last thirty years, my mom has been on a slow downward slide. Her depression crept closer and closer to center stage, finally stealing the light completely when my father died sixteen years ago. From there, the mist of depression gave way to the fog of Alzheimers, two diseases that seem, at least in this case, to go hand in hand.

When Ronald Reagan died of Alzheimers, his daughter wrote an essay in Newsweek about his decline. She called it "The Long Goodbye". It's an apt description of that disease. Every time I see my mom, there's a little less of her there. She'll peek through the fog once in a while, with a laugh or a moment of eye-contact and I'll catch a glimpse of the woman I once knew but for the most part, she is absent.

I think our parents, be they dead or alive, cogent or demented, kind or cruel, always dwell within us. We remember, whether consciously or unconsciously, that first, and maybe deepest, bond of our lives in a way that's elemental. They are a part of us, both in chemistry and in spirit. And so my mom, the mother I remember from my beginning, my beautiful, kind, forty-something mother, the woman with a shy smile, a floral maxi skirt and a plate of lemon squares always on offer, she will always be with me. And I will always love her with a passion, that first, gripping attachment.

And the thing about Mother's Day now is it's dual nature. Yes, it's a day to remember my mom but it's also a day for my kids to honor me. And as I spool that out into the future, I wonder what they'll remember of these action-packed years, what part of me they'll take with them as they grow.

It's been an extraordinarily hard year for me as a mother. Mihiretu came home almost a year ago. This year has shaken me in my image of myself as a mom, which, these days, is my central identity. And I've worked harder than I ever have before in this role. We, as a family, have broken all kinds of new ground. It's kicked my ass, without a doubt, but I also feel like I know more, I'm better educated in what it is to nurture under difficult circumstances.

When I was listening to those familiar voices on NPR, I wept for my mom and all that she did for me. I also wept for the idea of my children, these little people that have broken my heart open with love and, simultaneously, pushed me to the edge of reason, the thought of these people growing up and having something nice to say about the experience of being raised by me. Time will tell, I guess. Something to work for.

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