The other day I was wondering about my great-grandmother and the land she came to Illinois to Homestead with her husband and eight kids. I have a photograph of the family in my office, all seated in their finest clothes around a buffalo hide rug. Mid 1800s. She looks like she could kick your ass if you were good enough for an ass kicking. If not, she’d just turn her boney Yankee shoulder to you and you would understand for the first time what it is to be on the receiving end of disdain.
I wanted to know about my mothers. Especially this one. I wanted to know what she was like outside this photo. If she had a soft side. I was wondering about the farm she’d left in Manchester, Vermont. If she ever looked back. And I was wondering about the china tea set that somehow made it to my china cabinet in Montana a hundred and fifty plus years later, along with a caned birds-eye maple chair… and if she’d like me to use them more often, or take care of them differently, or better yet, I wanted to know the story about them. How she chose what she chose to make her covered wagon crossing from Vermont to Illinois. I was wondering how I can serve her memory. Mostly, I was wondering if I have her in me. If I can look at my life like chapters instead of a tower of blocks that add up to some sort of art in the end.
So I called my mother.
My father is dead. This was his side of the family. But my mother is the sort of person to marry it all -- not just the man. I’ve traipsed through cemeteries all over New England and Illinois with my mother in search of my ancestors’ resting places on both sides of the family. She calls us “cemetery people.” I never knew what that meant. Now, at forty-five, I think I do. It means that we hold our deceased in story and artifacts and we don’t let them go. We firmly believe that we need them. We believe that they are in our lives holding us from a mystic zone that might be called Heaven. (We are also Heaven people.) My mother actually prays for our deceased ones. And asks them to protect us. Like we go God both ways.
“They left in a covered wagon for central Illinois because the land was rich and they didn’t rotate their crops in Vermont so the soil wasn’t any good,” she rattles off like a memorized soliloquy from the phone between bridge and altar guild. “I have some of their letters if you want me to Xerox them and send them to you.”
And suddenly I am in a panic. She is turning eighty this October. She’s vibrant and frankly looks better than I do after a rough Montana winter… but like she says, “Nobody cares about you quite like your mother.” She’s always telling me how sad it is for her, an only child, to accomplish or experience or suffer something, and not be able to call her parents anymore. “They thought I could do no wrong.”
Suddenly, I am imagining that day for myself and I dread it. It will be a claustrophobic feeling: I need my mother. She’s not here. There is quite possibly no one who has the answer to my question left on earth. There is quite possibly no one who cares about my little story or my little panic or my little woe. Who do I call? A friend? It would sound too needy or too braggadocio. A child? Children shouldn’t bear your emotional burdens. After your parents pass… who is strong for you?
I called her the other day to find out about my great-grandmother, and ended up learning all about my mother. I asked her questions instead of just monologuing about my life and my victories and problems.
She talked about the view from her bedroom window in Chicago’s Whitehall hotel. “The Water Tower. I believed it was my fairy princess castle.” There is a newspaper clipping I’ve seen of her as a white-gowned debutante with Buckingham fountain behind her and the Chicago skyline. “Virginia Aldrich has the City of Chicago in the palm of her hand.” I always loved that my mother was such a beauty. I haven’t told her that. There is so much I haven’t told her.
So, in honor of my mothers, and Mother’s Day, I’d like to tell her now.
Mom, I love the way you like to dance with abandon.
I love that you are a flirt.
I love that you have a big laugh.
I love that you love to skip.
I am sorry I stopped skipping with you when I was a teenager.
I love that you love Gran Marnier soufflé.
I love that you give things up for Lent and stick to it.
I love that you never missed one of my school plays, and even drove the station wagon from Illinois to Connecticut to see me in Guys and Dolls and The Fantastiks. That would not have happened without you. Dad wouldn’t have made that effort.
I love that you always make the effort.
I love that you know what time my flights leave and track them until they land.
I love that you read every single thing I write and I love knowing that you will read this.
I love that you told me to go to Italy for my junior year in college instead of Vienna.
I loved that you cried about it, knowing what cloth I am cut from.
I love that you go to church.
That you value community service and volunteer endlessly.
I love that you have your own business and are good at what you do.
I love that you gave me a solid foundation and did not make crazy in my life.
I love that you don’t watch a lot of TV.
I love that you aren’t wasteful.
I love that every single time I call you, and ask what you are doing, you give an exhilarated sigh and say what you are doing. Which is always a lot.
I love that you don’t “sit around and eat bon bons all day” and never would.
I love that you made us read aloud a Bible passage every night at dinner.
I love that you made us say Grace.
I love that you made us wear shoes at the table and learn where all the utensils are supposed to go and to say, “are you finished” instead of “are you done” and taught us to Remove from the right and Serve to the left.
I love that you made us take piano lessons.
I love that you were never late. Never. I am usually five minutes late.
I love that you sang to me and read me stories when I was little.
I love that you had me take horse-back riding lessons but told me that it would be too pressured a life if I got into competing in the horse world. You were right. I was not cut out for that kind of pressure.
I love that you framed my childhood art.
I love that you love pink roses and snapdragons and yellow pansies. I love that you made little arrangements of them and put them on my bedside table.
I love that for someone who sure does know a lot of influential people, you aren’t a snob.
I love that you wear the same sweaters in 2012 that you wore in 1950.
I love that you love yourself.
I love that you love me.
Happy Mother’s Day.
author of the New York Times best-selling memoir:
THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS
Photo Credit: nanoprobe67.
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