I have outlived my mother. Our February birthdays were two days apart. She died twenty minutes before another year would have begun. Every February, as our birthdays – along with her deathday – approached, my anxiety intensified. My fear was even greater last year. Nearing the age she was when everything stopped, I felt mortality creeping up on me. While its footsteps have receded, now I am well and truly an old woman. And I am trying to figure out what that means, how being an elder can be restorative as well as a reminder that my earthly time is shorter than ever.
My mother’s name was Florence. Calling her only ‘my mother’ is to reduce her to the status of existing only in relation to me. In truth, I still view her that way, longing for our mother-daughter bond to have been happier than it was. Florence was not nurturing. Her way of dealing with the inquisitive, intense child who was her eldest of two (me) was to shut me down. ‘Don’t ask me that.’ ‘Do you want to be like your father and visit the mental hospital?’ ‘Why aren’t you doing your homework more quickly?’ etc. She had neither the temperament nor the opportunity to be maternal. Her energies went to more basic things like making sure her earnings as a bookkeeper were enough to augment my father’s miserly labourer’s wages. I still see the paper on which she kept small business accounts, little checked spaces where additions and subtractions were toted up.
In my mind’s eye, until relatively recently, my mother and our small house was ever present. It was a touchstone, the person and place against which I measured what I was doing and how I was living my life. Particularly my emotional life. I longed to be different from Florence, to be a loving person with an even-tempered, calm manner. I vowed never to yell, never to let my anxiety push me into raising my voice. I strove to be pretty, to be more physically attractive than Florence allowed herself to be. I traveled forth to see the world, making certain I did not inhabit a place so small as the house I grew up in on 160th Terrace. It was a house which Florence never left.
Needless to say, I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded. I look at my face in the mirror and see Florence’s outlines. I hear her tones when I’m upset with my partner and screaming in frustration. I retrace the trappings of our south Florida lower middle class house, remembering the time I cut myself on the jalousie window, and bled until Mrs. Bolt, our Hungarian neighbour, put sulfur powder in the wound. I recall the humid days when I had to water the grass, the Reader's Digest Book of the Month selections on the shelf, the frazzled meals of frozen peas and overcooked meat, my sister and I chastised when we made fun of the victuals. Most of all, I recall my mother’s weary anger as she tried to keep things from going under.
After two generations, all of us are forgotten. This truth torments me, one of those realities that cannot be transformed into a softer promise. I wonder who will remember me. And I recognize that when I am dead, Florence will be truly gone from this earth. I ask myself how I can honour her memory, a memory I don’t really cherish. I only fear that if I erase her, so will I vanish. I was not a loving daughter, and I did not ease my mother’s way. I longed only to get away – from her, from the unhappy house, from my impaired father. And get away I did. My life is rich. I have made of myself a worldly, educated, involved person. I have made a difference in the lives of a number of people. Though I have no biological children, I have mothered and I have sistered. I have a kind, loving, tolerant partner and share the joy of grandparenting his daughter’s children. And still, the shadow of my life as a daughter haunts me. So it is, so it must be. I live with the curse and the blessing of a mind full of memories.
Mother I never knew you...
Forgive me, my mother, for not being able to love you. As I must forgive you for being unable to soothe my childhood fears. After the death of my father, your husband, you had nine fulfilling years as a teacher’s assistant. This photo is you being honoured at the primary school two days before you died. I was there, though I did not recognize the woman being lauded and loved. Who was this person for whom many felt such fondness? Ah, it was Florence, not just my mother but a person all her own. Thank you – Florence, mother, individual – for giving me a shot at life.