The last time I saw my mother was the day I finished my junior year of high school. It’s been more than 40 years since I basked in the warmth of her smile, or heard her musical laugh. And even longer since we argued, but I still remember the last time she annoyed me.
She had neglected to compliment me on my newly acquired driving skills. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” I asked before tossing the car keys towards her. They hit her thin shoulder and fell to the garage floor. She looked at me, startled, her blue eyes filled with hurt.
She was dying and that made me mad. For the rest of that spring, I put my new driver’s license to good use, shuttling back and forth between home and the hospital every day after school.
She’s missed a lot. She wasn’t there for my high school and college graduations… or my wedding. She never met my husband or her two grandsons. And yet, after all this time, our relationship lives on.
Since her death, my mother has been with me many times — especially when I do things that she couldn’t. The first time I traveled to Europe with a friend, she was there too. She had always wanted to go, but because of my travel-phobic father, she never had the chance. On that first trip, I lit candles in churches all over England for my Jewish mother.
She made it clear that I was going to college. Trapped in a difficult marriage, a college degree, more than anything else, symbolized freedom to her. She badly wanted the ability to support herself, and she didn’t want me to be stuck, dependent — like her.
Each time that I checked a new accomplishment off her list — earning that diploma, landing my first “real” job, and renting my own apartment — I could almost hear her cheering in the distance.
Because she made sure that I got the extras, like music lessons and summer camps, my sons got them too, even when the cost seemed onerous. She’d be thrilled to know that one grandson recently performed at the Kennedy Center, and that the other is living and working abroad. She may be gone, but her influence still has legs.
Shortly before my 16th birthday, on a sunny, brisk spring day, she took me to a nearby shopping center to pick out a bracelet. We left the store with a one-inch sterling silver cuff that came in a maroon flannel bag. In my mind’s eye I see us talking and laughing companionably as we stroll from store to store.
I think of us together every time I wear that bracelet. The memory of that ordinary day—so long ago that it now seems extraordinary—reminds me to treasure every small moment I can snatch with my husband and sons.
She and I didn’t have a lot of tough conversations. I was rarely in trouble, but because she was my safe place, my comfort zone, I knew it was important to provide that space for my own children. I think, I hope, they know that they can tell me anything.
Often, I imagine her in the kitchen, cooking a meal with my younger son, who shares more than a passing resemblance to her father in both looks and spirit. Or joking with my older son, who always has a good story to tell, and whose big, blue eyes match hers. When I do those things, she’s there too.
If she were still alive, my mother would be 92 this month. Even though she has been absent for most of my life, memories of what she said and did guided me through early adulthood, marriage, and motherhood. I am now seven years older than she was when she died. As I move through middle age and progress toward old age, she can no longer show me the way.
And yet, as long as I am alive, and still straining to remember her voice, and hear her laugh, the relationship goes on.
© Judith A. Ross
Judith A. Ross is a freelance writer who has written about topics ranging from “spreadsheet safety,” to how to communicate with adult children. Her byline has appeared in Harvard Business Review and other publications at Harvard Business Publishing. Currently, she is a contributing writer at Talking Writing where her “Talking Art” column appears regularly. She also writes for Moms Clean Air Force, Women’s Voices for Change, and blogs at Shifting Gears.
Part 3 in a series on mother-daughter relationships.
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