My Mom left me this week.
She left a void, but it is difficult to pinpoint the definition of that void. Our relationship was not always smooth. It was not one that could be described in terms of "my Mom is my best friend". I did not think there was a lot for me to even admire. Most of her life choices were those that I would never make for myself - or so I thought. Most of her interests did not interest me. Even though I was her first and only-born child, she always seemed to favor my brother, as they had formed a special bond when she and my Dad were married. In the final decade of her life, she seemed to grow more critical, more demanding, and harder to please with each passing year. When we finally convinced her to move into assisted living, she seemed to elevate to an art form the practice of taking out her frustrations on her children. It was only after she started falling and whacking her head that she expressed gratitude and stopped blaming us for ruining what was left of her life.
So, here I am trying to formulate a vision of a woman that goes beyond her final years and beyond her life with me. This quest has taken me on a journey back to a time prior to life with my Dad and his kids and me. She was born in 1927, the fourth of seven living children. Her childhood largely took place during the Great Depression, and she despised her father because he was a "traveling salesman" who, in her words, left for months or years at a time and came back just long enough to get my grandmother pregnant again. According to her, when he was home, he had no use for any of his children - although he did teach her how to drive (and she had a lead foot to the day she died). All of her sisters married to get away from all of this, and it turned out that their choices of husbands did not, in every case, turn out to be "choice". Her oldest sister married three times. The next in line married on the rebound, and my Aunt Gloria was divorced by Uncle Jack after 38 years of marriage after which he proceeded to parade around town with his girlfriend in matching outfits.
My mother was not interested in any of this. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class in 1944 with no interest in marriage and did NOT become an (a) Teacher, (b) Nurse or (c) a Nun. She wanted the corporate world - or whatever was available to women in that world back then. With the exception of the first five years of my life, she worked in an office from the time she graduated from high school to her retirement in 1991. These life choices were not greeted with enthusiasm by her family, but from what I could tell, she didn't give a damn. My cousins loved her because she was the "fun Aunt". Now I also realize that for my female cousins, she symbolized something special. She was a real role model for them.
There was nothing conventional about my mother's marriage, when it finally happened in 1962. She married a divorced Protestant with four children. More behavior of which the family most definitely did not approve. The two youngest kids were living in a good foster home where they would remain until adulthood, and the two oldest children were already teenagers. I imagine that my Mom rationalized that the situation was manageable for a woman who didn't want kids and thought that she was too old to have her own kids. I also suppose that this might be the only example in her life where my otherwise smart and logical mother did something incomprehensibly stupid by choosing the "Rhythm Method" of birth control. Further proof in my mind of the cultist qualities of Catholicism that would drive an intelligent woman to such stupidity! Of course, I am sitting here typing this, so you can see how effective it was.
Most of my female cousins (and some of the boys) went on to marry Protestants - some divorced, some not, some with children from the previous marriage, and all wonderful people. Now that I reflect on this, I'd like to think that my Mom was their role model. My Aunts and my Grandmother came to know my Dad and by the time I was old enough to remember, their animosity seemed to have faded away. I recall my Dad and my Uncle Jack (of the previously-mentioned matching outfits) getting ripped at my cousin's wedding reception. This was one of only three times that I ever saw my Dad drunk, and I have to say, he was pretty funny! But I digress. He had whatever it took to lure my Mom from her independent life into a marriage that lasted 30 years, and it is my firm belief that in the final days of her life, my Mom was not struggling to stay with us. Rather, she was struggling to leave this world and move on to be reunited with my Dad and with all of her cockeyed sisters who had left her behind, one by one, starting when I was only in grade school. And my grandmother. And maybe even my grandfather, who I never knew.
See this picture of my mother's family, taken after my uncle celebrated his first Mass as a Priest. My Mom is standing directly to his right. How many time I've looked at this picture and never noticed that my Mom looked so pretty and happy. My cousin Debbie, who is my Mom's godchild, told me just yesterday - "Look at your Mom in this picture. See - she was the pretty one and the nice one and she was the sister of the future by getting a job and moving out on her own." My Mom ...