There’s no question that I was seized by strange and unrecognizable urges yesterday morning. The need to clean. Shall I concede that Father Knows Best would have tossed me out on my ear?
No 1960s mother or housewife by any standard, I am not in my glory with apron and dish towel in hand. Let’s just say domestic duties, other than cooking, are not my best event. In fact, I have a gargantuan task ahead to tackle and tidy our immediate environment. I did begin (again) in earnest, and should I persist, it will require a continuous effort for weeks. (And yes, possibly vodka.)
Oddly, the afternoon and evening led me on an unexpected path. A journey of discovery into the night, spanning more than half a century of family history. It was particularly fitting, on the eve of Mother’s Day.
Preserving the past
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a huge and complex set of tasks, the only workable approach is to break everything down into manageable units. I picked one spot, dug in, and tried not to be demoralized by the enormity of what lay ahead. Emotionally – not only physically. My cleaning involved memories to confront, many of them difficult.
I eliminated a few stacks near my closet, filled two trash bags, then settled in with documents sent to me following my mother’s passing a few years ago. I had glanced through when I received them, then set it all aside. The feelings were too fresh, laced with anger and grieving. But this time, I took a breath, emptied the contents of folders and envelopes onto my bed, resolved to go through it all, then store everything in an archival box.
Next, I would proceed through three drawers of papers and momentos from my children, freeing up some space for clothing, while preserving what is precious – eventually to be given to them. But I never got that far.
Postcards from the past
What I didn’t expect was the wave of memories and emotions to be stirred in those yellowed clippings, photographs, postcards, and letters. Not only did I find what I wrote to my mother at age 15 and 16, on my first trip to France and subsequently, the U.S.S.R., but I found a note from a great-aunt I adored, postcards written by me to my grandmother, as well as from my mother to her mother on a trip she took with my father early in their marriage.
There were other treasures – pictures of my mother that I don’t recall seeing; she was young and beautiful, her face as yet unmarked by bitterness and disappointment. There was letter after letter addressed in my hand, that I have no recollection of writing. I realize that despite a complex relationship (and years during which we did not speak), I had spent a lifetime writing to her. And she had kept it all.
Treasure is a mixed bag
In particular, I found numerous photos taken by my mother at my engagement and my wedding (painful), and every letter I’d sent for years, bi-weekly, with pictures of my babies as they grew into boys.
I will not say this process was cathartic; I went to bed raw, and woke with mixed emotions. Images and aromas from childhood. Some warming, and others, certainly not. But there was also wonder, and perspective. Love is imperfect, and we rarely know the most important stories in our parents’ lives – or those of our children. But we may stumble upon clues, and cherish the good, as we divine it.
Yesterday, among the surprises discovered: a yellowed clipping from a newspaper article I’d apparently written at the age of 11 (no recollection of that); extraordinary hand-made party invitations, created by my mother nearly 50 years ago; several of my baby teeth; worn postcards and their colorful foreign stamps; photographs of family, nearly a century old.
Gifts my mother gave me
There are terrible memories, and they are an undeniable part of who I am, and also, significant to my own capacities to parent in ways that are very different from what I experienced. Our conflicts went far beyond the typical mother and daughter dramas. But I know there was love. And a rich legacy from a woman who was formidable, brilliant, troubled, and something of a maverick. One of her gifts to me – indirectly – was the love of her mother, my grandmother, whose grace, artistry, and style served as a model for me from the time I was a child.
What I found among the carefully labeled documents and images figured among my mother’s own store of memories. The fact that she preserved these recorded bits of love and history is, in itself, very precious.
- A life long desire to learn
- Passion for the written and spoken word
- The example of mastery in foreign languages
- Unrelenting determination
- An appreciation of art in all its forms.
Coffee brewing, Mother’s Day morning
I have been sharing the one (new) little laptop in the household with my teenage son, since our technology traumas that wiped out our computers.
I admit to definite signs of laptop lover withdrawal: irritability, pacing, disorientation, inability to concentrate. Let’s not forget excessive hunger and coffee intake! And worst of all – trembling fingers, desirous of tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard. I’m used to round-the-clock computer access, so handing off my laptop to my son at four or five each afternoon is an adjustment. (Cue the teeny tiny violins! Call in the therapists to help me with my sorrowful separation symptoms!)
This morning, I spooned Italian Roast into the filter, eagerly grabbed the laptop, opened it, and found a media application with an image of my son and the words painted across his face as follows: PLAY ME.
I did just that, and was treated to a wickedly funny little video he made sometime during the night, wishing me a happy Mother’s Day when I woke, and more. It was very him – and of course, I wept. What better way to celebrate the start of a day, than to know you are loved by your child, even when he is no longer a child?
Happy Mother’s Day
I look forward to speaking with my older son later (he’s finishing finals, at college). And meantime, I wish all of you a glorious day as parents, children, or both. Whether it involves recollections – however imperfect – or celebrations with family, I hope you honor each other and the good in your personal history.
For me, yesterday’s activities reconnected me to more than my mother, but to a rich and fascinating family tree. And to my powerful love for my sons, who remain the greatest gift of my life. Mothering them has been a privilege beyond measure. May you all be as fortunate as I find myself today.
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