I wrote this piece a while ago and it has since been in the hands of editors at The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly, Elle, More and O Magazine. I’m fortunate in that I received positive feedback from everyone at those publications even though no one wanted to publish it. And as Monday is my birthday – and life is once again challenging me to figure out how to move forward bravely with joy and good cheer in what feels like a very uncertain moment – I thought I would publish it here as an ode to my mom and the lessons I learned while she was on this planet and since she’s been gone. The illustration is by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz. A copy of this lithograph hung in our home. It’s a beautiful reminder of my parents and sisters and of the best times we shared living and laughing and loving.
My mother was dying of ovarian cancer yet what really killed her was that I was working at Banana Republic at the time.
She was a smart cookie, a phrase she used to describe women who could make good choices at a moments notice. At 74, she had lived life as a liberal, feminist, war protesting, bomb-banning intellectual who liked her coffee black and her L&M cigarettes mild and tasty. And she just couldn’t understand how her 34-year-old daughter, who seemed to have the same fire, had forsaken her highfalutin seven-sisters college degree and thrown away all her promise of a successful, world-changing career to fold sweaters and pin pant cuffs for a living. Where had she gone so terribly wrong?
Everyday I’d ring her from an ancient stockroom wall-phone tucked in between racks of shoes and a cluttered plastic break table usually overburdened by stacks of inventory sheets, handheld scanners and, when I was very lucky, an open box of chocolate chip cookies.
“Where are you calling from?” she’d ask. I admired her optimism. “I’m working Mom,” I’d say, waiting for what always came next – a long silence followed by an intake of breath through her teeth. The air made a kind of raspy whistle as it passed over her dentures. I came to think of it as the suck of shame.
I was used to this sound – had heard it many times before: the night of my prom when I refused her insistence to go stag after not having been asked by any of the boys in my class. The afternoon when I told her about my plans to marry my boyfriend with whom I had been living for five years. “Why do you want to go and do a thing like that,” she asked without really wanted to know the answer. Betrayed and divorced in middle age, she never remarried as the union had lost its appeal to her.
Yet, this time was different. I longed to hear her response, any response, as it was better than none at all. But now my mother didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to discuss how the future frightened me or how I felt unprepared to live without her. She didn’t want to know that I had started dreaming about my father again whose death 14 years earlier had marked my undergraduate experience with the stain of unbearable loss.
Instead, she preferred to be left alone in her darkened bedroom with the shades drawn to block out the Florida sun so that she could smoke, and play computer solitaire and watch endless hours of bittersweet romantic movies on the Turner Classic Network. I took to calling her Judy, Judy, Judy in my best Cary Grant voice, which seemed to tickle only me.
Right around Thanksgiving, a young woman came into the store to buy clothes for her first job out of Georgetown law school. Her mother stood by casting tacit approval as she shopped for smart suits and stylish shoes.
“Could you get this for me in a. . .med-i-um,” she asked as though I didn’t understand the question.
‘I could go to law school if I wanted to,’ I muttered under my breath as I bitterly searched the back room racks for her ‘med-i-um.’ I graduated from Wellesley College. I took classes at MIT. I had been a public radio producer damn it. I interviewed Horton Foote.
My cheeks burned as I delivered her blouse.
The exchange bothered me long after the encounter passed. Something within me awoke that day.
I wanted to believe that I had chosen to spend the better part of the last year busting my behind with no hope of advancement in a retail graveyard so that I would have the freedom to fly to Boca Raton every three weeks to help my terminally ill mother during her cancer treatments. My mom was on her way out and I was willing to do anything just to be near her at a time when she wanted no one around, especially her professionally challenged daughter. Yet the truth was that I became paralyzed by the inescapable feeling that I was barreling down the side of a mountain on a bicycle with no breaks with nothing to do but hang on. And by the time I realized what was happening my desire and ability to plan for a meaningful life had evaporated somewhere high above the Mid-Atlantic coastline during my monthly commute. I could no longer see my future and she couldn’t help me.
Many mornings while assisting in the daily ritual of organizing and restocking shelves before the store’s opening, I found myself thinking about Miss Med-i-um’s mom; a tall woman with soft gray eyes and a blast of white hair mixed in with her Hamptons beige. She said very little and yet seemed greatly satisfied by simply being with her daughter.
I began to wonder what it might be like if she belonged to me. How things might be different if she was helping me to shop for the life I should be living.
I wrote down all the things I imagined Miss Med-i-um’s mom might say to me; a film loving, orphan-in-training, who had once been a promising journalist.
“Don’t allow this moment to define you.” “You can have any kind of life that you want.” “Don’t be afraid to try.”
It didn’t take long before I started to believe her. And after a while I began to remember what it was like to be somebody’s girl.
“Ma, I’m going to apply to grad school,” I said one day during our daily conversation. The words fell out of my mouth, unplanned. ‘Damn,’ I thought to myself. I knew what was coming next. But to my surprise there was no intake of breath, no raspy whistle.
“If you go,” she whispered, “I will help you. You can do anything cookie.”
I fell silent as an unspoken, tangible shift of energy passed between us in that moment signaling the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
A twisting, sad, ache welled up in my gut as I hung up the phone. I walked from that dark, cluttered, airless room out to the parking lot and stood for a long time in the morning sun.
I thought about how grace is defined by our embrace of the enormity of things and by our understanding that our place within them is ephemeral and constantly changing.
And I realized that maybe my reticent, withdrawn mother hadn’t really left me. Maybe she was still deeply interested in my life beyond her illness and death it was just that she couldn’t express it the way in which I wanted her to. And maybe, her desire remained the same – that she wanted for me a life defined by what I wanted for myself. And that her last gift was to teach me how to mother my own heart, my own dreams so that I would never be alone.
Yet in truth, I’ll never really know.
Sixteen years have passed since her death. Since that time I earned my masters and worked on documentaries, interviewed filmmakers and writers, disabled athletes and civil rights figures. And when I think what my mother might say about it all, now it’s my voice I hear in my head as much as I wish I could remember hers.