This is what I know about my mother.
I know that she was born to Romanian immigrants in Depression-Era Detroit. I know that her family lived for a time from the garden her father grew behind their house. I know that her beautiful and mythical mother, Valeria, from whom I got my middle name, died of pneumonia when my mother was two. I know that my grandfather, by all accounts a warm and loving man, sent his three children to live in an orphanage while he pulled himself together. I know that my mother’s brothers were housed in one part of the orphanage, the boys’ section, and that she, a toddler, was on her own with the girls, bereft and confused. I know that my grandfather remarried, a woman called Stella, whose very name sent shivers down my mother’s spine for the rest of her life. I know that Stella was abusive, particularly to my mother. I know that all this difficulty, all this loss and loneliness and pain, was impossible for her to set down. She carried it with her through the rest of her days.
I know that my parents met on a beach in Miami. My mother was on vacation. My father was in the Air Force. She was twenty-three, he was twenty-one. I imagine them in their bathing suits though I don’t know it to be fact. They were married six weeks later. The power of bathing suits.
I know that they lived in post-war Germany for two periods, one right after their marriage and the other when my brother and sister were small. I know that for both of them, raised without much means, living in Europe seemed impossibly, deliciously sophisticated.
I know that my mother worked as a secretary to support the family as my father went through college and medical school. I know they moved a lot as my father went from the Air Force to undergrad to medical school to residency. Fabled names for me as I didn’t yet exist – Dover, Chumsford, Boulder, Philadelphia.
I know that after decades of being on the move, they finally came to rest in Marin County. I know that, much to my father’s surprise, but apparently not to my mother’s, I was born, a late baby, at least for those days. My mother was thirty-nine, a woman who was raised without a mother but with twelve years of parenting under her belt – a pro.
I know that she stayed home with me for the first eight years of my life. I remember that time as cushioned in fog – we lived on Mount Tam – her warm hand in mine, answering every question I could pose to the best of her ability. Did she love me better or Casey across the street? Did she believe in God? How did the robin make those eggs in that nest? I know that hers was the most beautiful face I could imagine.
By the time I was born, the family had hit some calm waters, financially, geographically. My siblings were half-grown. She had some time, some ease. She seemed forever interested in my small life, my meandering thoughts. She called me her little friend. She told me I was so smart and so kind. She made it so.
She returned to work when I was eight, running my father’s medical office. I grew up and away. Together we weathered my father’s early death, and ten years or so later, the onset of her dementia.
I know all that, what came before my birth and after my childhood, but what I really know of my mother I know from when I was little. I know that she was perhaps the kindest person I’ve ever met. I know that she was funny, that she had a beautiful delighted laugh, that shy as she was, not everyone heard. I know that she loved her family - her children, her husband - more than life itself.
I know that she, a motherless child, taught me how to be a mother by nurturing me so well, so thoroughly. I know that I speak her words every day to my kids. Treat others the way you want to be treated. What do you think? Tell me about your day. Nice outfit! That book is so good, isn’t it? You are so smart. I love you more than I can say.
This is what I know about my mother. I know that she weathered such heartbreak so young, such difficulty throughout her life, really, raising children on the fly, struggling to make ends meet, losing her husband before his time, watching her world close in with Alzheimers. She had all that inflicted upon her and yet she remained open, so sweet, so willing to unfold her heart, to engage.
This, in the end, is what I know about my mother. I’ll always hear her encouraging voice in my head. I’ll miss her for the rest of my days. I love her more than I can say.