On Mother's Day, without my Mom

Mother’s Day. This isn’t my first as a mom, but it is the first when my oldest daughter can actually say, “Mommy.” She can also say “Oh My God Kingee, do you need a haircut!” and she can tell her dad that she’s not “digging” the song he’s singing. It is what I say and not necessarily what I do, these days, as Caroline makes our language her own. She grabs words and phrases like candy—with parental perseverance, she’ll accept table manners just as voraciously—and most of the time, I love it. I love hearing myself interpreted in a musical little lilting voice. She rolls the “r” (something I could never do) in “Caroline,” Italian flair. “Baracuda” (Dave taught her that one) rings from her mouth like it’s a kind of perfume, not a toothy fish.

There are car rides, however. There are missteps and moments when I forget that her eyes are on me, and when I say eyes, I mean globally big and blue, and when I imagine all that those eyes see, I envision raptors atop mountains scouting prey. This girl is watching … and listening. Will some future Caroline wistfully reminisce: “My mother used to say, ‘Get off the road, you Jackass!’”?

What will Caroline and Lexi remember about me? Will I envelop them in catch-phrases; will I sit them down for lectures? Will stuff just come out and stick? Should I be developing some teaching strategy, as the little sponges soak me in? 

What am I doing?

My own mother was not a motto-mom. She may have doubted her ability as sage, but I like to think that she knew her audience. I probably wasn’t going to listen. Though I do remember, when I was in junior high and convinced that everyone was better, brighter, and prettier than I, Mom did assure me that Susie Slatkin put her pants on just like everybody else. My mother also had this tip for relieving tension: shape out the alphabet with your head when you’re showering. I attempted the ABC’s of stress relief just the other day, wrenching my neck in the process. Water cooled and decreased in pressure down my back as I stood rigidly, waiting for the pain to pass. Of all that my mom and I had shared through the years, why on earth had I remembered that little nugget?

Had she ever walked me through exactly how she raised four kids, lost weight after pregnancy, managed to be the smartest woman I’d ever met? I wish I’d listened.

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When my mom was sick with cancer, I had this aching desire to ask her for final advice, wisdom that would stay with me forever, guiding me towards a not-yet-materialized loving husband, aptly-nurtured future kids, and a good life. I had this brief but powerful feeling that maybe she would say something to me that I’d be able to keep, to mark down on delicate paper with a thin-tipped caligraphy pen—those go-to words that would get me through. I knew then that I was being silly because that had never been her way. She had been showing me her way for 34 years. By then, I had sense and I had love. I had strength enough, even, to say good bye to her.

I know that Caroline and Lexi will hear what I do so much louder than what I say. They will see what I do with color and clarity, and they will remember, not all, but pieces of me, just as I remember my mother—the pink of her pedicure; our shared penchant for the scent of a flowering gardenia; the sound of her stifled laughter when my brothers’ misbehaved.

I imagine I’ll not impose words to live by—I hope my daughters just spend their time living. And I hope that what I give is so soaked and saturated into them, that when I’m gone, they won’t be able to separate themselves from the memories of me. I hope they remember the feel of their mother’s hug, the sound of her singing voice, and the wave of her fingers as she stands on her porch watching them leave after a visit. Just as I remember my mom, I hope my girls will remember me: not all that we say (because how could that be possible?), but the familiar way we sit across from each other at the kitchen table, dipping spoons into our coffees, content in the talking.

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