I had a mother for 55 years. She was 34 when she adopted me. Her path to motherhood was not the biologic imperative that many of her generation followed; rather, hers was based more on the sociological need to participate in the functional capacity of raising a child. Because she went the route of adoption, she essentially had to apply for the job, be vetted, and then approved before beginning her half century-plus tenure.
She often told the story of how ill-prepared she was to be a mother. For the first several weeks of our relationship, she would confess, she was afraid to bathe me. I apparently was none the worse for wear, and she eventually overcame some of her self-doubt.
My earliest memories of being mothered by her include sensory flashes of being held in her lap and read to, the sound of her high heels as she walked down the hallway, the smell of the Chanel No. 5 she daubed on when going to a special event. I also remember feeling safe and loved.
For most of my early development my mother was a stay-at-home mother. She occasionally had to work to pick up extra income, but mostly she put her efforts into seeing that I was exposed to good music, creative play times, reading, and cared for and tended to in my whims 24/7.
I sensed rather than actually knew that she felt that she wasn’t as good a mother as her mother. There was a self-doubt that crept into her mothering. Even though she read Dr. Spock and attended parenting classes, her efforts often fell short in her own estimation. I suspect she thought other mothers in the neighborhood were more up to the task. Her inner critic was well-developed.
For the first 14 years of my life, my mother played multiple roles of wife, daughter, and mom. These roles shifted dramatically when her mother died, and she became the primary caregiver for her father. Looking back now, I cannot imagine the stress she was under.
To add fuel to the fire, her marriage, which had never been all that good, completely disintegrated within the following three years after her mother died. And I entered puberty.
Talk of divorce and tension in our house brought out a certain defiance in my mother. She went back to school, found a way to earn her own living, and would have most likely divorced my father and moved us in with her father if my father hadn’t died the summer I turned 14. But that isn’t what happened.
Instead, my mother found her social conscience during the turbulent 60s. She marched for justice, against the war in Vietnam, and for women’s rights. She modeled the values of social justice and patriotism. She supported us, took care of her father, and in a moment of impulse (after a couple of vodka gimlets), went out and bought herself a red, Triumph Spitfire convertible. While terribly impractical, this was her declaration of independence and a great model to me of adaptability.
We developed an incredibly close relationship after my father died. I remember acting out as a teenager and doing everything I could to dissuade her from dating. She tried her very best to prepare her gentlemen friends for my sullen attitude and rudeness. I tried my best to sabotage these relationships with men I deemed unsuitable for her, as well as poor step-father material for me. I was terrified that something would happen and she would die and I would be left alone to care for my wheelchair-bound grandfather.
By the time I graduated from high school, my mother and I had come to a detente. As I prepared to go away to college, we found ways to reassure one another that everything would be OK. I remember my excitement at getting on a plane at O’Hare to fly back East to school. That parting was filled with a sense of adventure, excitement, anticipation on my part, and stoic sadness on my mother’s. I don’t know how she actually let me go. I only know that both of us were doing our utmost to not show the tears and just put on a happy face.
I moved back home after college. While I thought of myself as an adult, I fell into the pattern of being a daughter again and my mother reverted to mothering me. Luckily, we found ways to share space while respecting each other’s autonomy. I began to appreciate just how much my mother had sacrificed for me and I came to understand what my role would be as she aged.
Within three years of returning home, I left the nest for good and moved to the other side of the country. My contact with my mother consisted of weekly phone calls and occasional letters. She settled into life in a small town in Wisconsin, worked for the local Red Cross, and connected with friends and family. I settled into life in San Francisco, got a career, and eventually moved in with my husband.
As adults, my mother and I had to re-negotiate our relationship several times. I had to come to terms with how deeply enmeshed I was with her, and she had to come to terms with my choice of a husband and my living so far away. We had periods of conflict and periods of admiration and respect. She never pushed for grandchildren, although I suspect she would have delighted in being a grandmother.
Her health declined as she aged, as did her memory. We went through the challenge of taking away her driving privileges, of supporting her financially and keeping her in the family home as long as possible. My mother had an extraordinary gift of attracting people who delighted in supporting and caring for her. One of these wonderful people had been keeping a close eye on her daily. He finally called me and said, “It’s time for your mother to move into assisted living.”
We were able to accomplish this quickly, but at a high price for my mother. She had to give up the family home, her beloved cats, and her independence. She went into a profound depression for two years. Yet, she adapted to this last challenge in her life, making friends at the assisted living center and making the best of her circumstances.
She eventually needed to be moved into a skilled nursing level of care. After this move, our relationship was one of my calling and speaking to her briefly, then speaking with her nurses about medications and quality of life. She became the person we talked about instead of talked to. Our face-to-face visits were less frequent, and our leave takings more intense, having to admit that each might be the last.
I was able to be with her at the end. I am not sure what her level of awareness was, but I was clear that my role was to be both witness to her life and sentinel in her death.
She has been gone for 11 years now. She remains present with me in memory and through pictures, letters, and keepsakes that are alive with her spirit. I have come to terms with who she was, who I wanted her to be, and who she was capable of being. This is the legacy that nurtures me now.