The years jumble in my mind, some years of soul-lifting joy, others of great sorrow, pain, or stress. They look like baseball cards with the year on top instead of the player’s name, a couple of images, a few stats, the cards all tumbled out of their box, out of order. Fifty-one years, 51 cards, all out of order. The stats have smudged and run, lines of text fallen off and out of place. I sort through carefully, delicately moving the text back onto the correct cards, sorting, taking in the images again.
Just like with any box of baseball cards, many of them seem ordinary, others distinguished. Cards from my adulthood, 1980, ’81, ’88, ’92, … Mom appears on some of these cards and then she is gone, 1997 the last.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom, the memories jumbled, the pain and sorrow, some joy. She died in 1997 but she spent many years disappearing, fading from view. I had so little of her, not just now, not just that she died “too soon” at age 65, but even while she was alive. I had so little of her.
When I was still a child I had some time with her. As the youngest of five children, I was the one left who was willing to go to the grocery with her, willing to shop for fabric for the costumes she made for community theatre. She taught me about the different weaves, satin, damask, homespun, taffeta, chiffon… Many of my happy memories are laced with these shopping trips.
She taught us core values of how to treat other people, teaching us real courtesy, not just manners. We learned industriousness from her example, and we all have a creative streak fed by her as well. She worked, and worked hard, child support meager, never enough to meet the needs. Creative and resourceful, she made do as well as she could, taking on homes that needed a lot of repair and doing it herself, the plumbing and carpentry and electrical work; refinishing cast off furniture; making our clothes herself; shopping at thrift shops and discount stores. Her determination always allowed us to live better than our income would have implied.
But she was not a great mother by any means, very hands-off in her parenting. There were few questions about school, homework, friends. As I grew older there were few checks on my whereabouts, no curfew, no constraints. We did not talk about my high school class schedule, my first jobs, my first serious boyfriend. We did not talk about dreams, goals, ambitions, college. I don’t know if she was simply so confident that I would figure it all out, or if it didn’t occur to her that she had something valuable to add.
Once I left for college (chosen on my own, applied for on my own, securing housing on my own) I would talk to her about once a week, if I called home. She never called me. If I needed money those first two years, she would send a check in a plain security envelope, usually with no note.
I met Jim when I was 19 and left school after another semester, marrying him the next fall. Jim and I planned our modest wedding; Jim and I paid for it. She was younger when we married than I am now.
The next 16 years of her life were increasingly difficult. The recession and high interest rates at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s led to economic problems, her job dependent on the housing industry. She was an alcoholic, perhaps had been all along, but the disease took more of her over time.
In 1988 we experienced a family tragedy, a crime that further rent her fragile fabric. It was a difficult year in many ways, one of those “distinguished” baseball cards with stats that told stark stories. My father’s lymphoma diagnosis, the tragedy, concerns about both daughters, the birth of my son. She came to stay with us for a week after my son was born. I never had that much time with her again.
When Son was an infant, occasionally I would take him on an outing to a local mall. Seeing the other young moms with their own mothers, made me sad knowing I would never have time with her in such a casual way. We would never get to know each other the way these women did, languidly strolling the long mall aisles, window shopping and chatting.
She loved family gatherings with my siblings, our spouses and children, my step-father. Occasionally even my father would join us and was welcome. The happiness spread across her face, lighting it with the smile you see on the photo above. But the gatherings happened only at Christmas. Bringing us together for other reasons, or for no reason, was not something considered.
Her health continued to deteriorate, depression feeding the alcoholism feeding the depression. Liver damage, heart damage, ultimately leading to her death in 1997. Over the 16 years since our wedding, she had aged at least 30.
I had so little of her. She shared so little of herself. Early her parenting style was hands-off, though she had so much to give. Later she had nothing left she could afford to give away.
I think of her a lot lately. My own parenting style also is rather hands-off. Weeks can go by without communicating significantly with my own children. Holding my emotions and thoughts close, I do not share. I am confident in their abilities; I doubt that I can add anything of value; I worry about intruding on their precious time in their own busy lives.
But I wonder, do they doubt how much I love them, the way I sometimes doubted my mother’s love? Do they know how awed I am, amazed at their competence, their generosity, their energy and wit? Do they know I sometimes weep realizing how fortunate I am to be part of their lives?
The generations of baseball cards stack up with important stats for years I was married, when Son was born, when the girls got married, when their children were born. There will be more stats, more images added, more jumbled memories that will need to be moved gently back to the right cards. If she were alive, this year’s card would show 80 years since her birth. But my mother will be not be on it. She will be on none of them. For her I dig through the pile and try to bring up the happy images and memories from old cards, sorting them back into place.
There are few with her on them. I had so little of her.
[I wrote this last year. She would have turned 80 last September.]