Still Missing Mom
Looking so "at home" in the kitchen
Thinking about Mom on Special Occasions
Years after my mother's death, I still think of her frequently and miss her. Now in my seventies, I will undoubtedly feel that void for the remainder of my life. Fortunately, most adults adjust to the death of a parent and, after a period of time (which differs according to the individual) that initial intense grief fades to remembrances only tinged with sadness.We are able to contemplate happy memories of our loved one as we go forward with our lives.
Even so, special occasions often give rise to more intense thoughts of those who are no longer with us. Mother's Day, as it's known in the United States, is one such event. A national holiday designated to honor mothers, the day is somewhat bittersweet without Mom physically here to hug and pamper.
One of my adult granddaughters, an insightful young woman who lost her own mother too soon, reminded me of something very wise. Even when we can't be with our mom on her exclusive day of honor, we are not motherless. A special woman mothered us, and her influence shaped us in many ways that still define us as unique humans. Our tribute to her on Mother's Day is the gratitude and love we feel for all she gave to us.
Another special holiday that makes me think of Mom is Christmas, because she loved that season with the unbridled joy of a child. She decorated the house by trimming two trees: one that stood on the floor and another that was tabletop size. Mom delighted in setting up the replica of an old-fashioned ceramic village with miniature buildings and charming props to which she added for years. Her love of sweets came to the fore during Christmas preparations, and the house smelled of spices for days as she baked numerous cakes and pies for family gatherings. These sensory memories of Mom at Christmastime are my own holiday gifts.
Birthdays--both my own and hers--are reminders of my mother that contain bits of the pleasant mingled with the poignant. On my own birthday, I am thankful that she gave birth to me and during my childhood often went without things for herself as a divorced single mom in order to provide for me and my siblings. One of the best things she gave me was a sense of self-worth, and this was because she believed in me and often told me so.
Every year since she left us, on the anniversary of her birth, I wonder what she would think of world events during the previous twelve months. Many things, particularly war, terrorism, strife, divisiveness, and hatred within our own country would, I believe, sadden her. She lived through the two big world wars, at a time when it was believed they were the wars that would end all war. She lived to discover that was untrue.
Mom would be happy over the good things that happened during the year between one February 22 and the next, the joyful occurrences within our family and among her friends--new marriages, babies born, anniversaries celebrated, job promotions, many causes of happiness in the lives of those she loved. She had the generosity of spirit that allowed her to be genuinely happy for other people's good fortune.
I think about the world she was born into and all the changes she witnessed throughout her long lifetime. I am thankful for the years she was with us, even though she's no longer here to eat birthday cake (which she loved--especially when topped with buttercream frosting). I think about her on the anniversary of her birth, my heart says, "Happy Birthday, Mom," and I smile.
My mother grew up in southwest Mississippi, near the Louisiana border. During her lifetime, she also lived in Connecticut; Louisiana; Tennessee; California; and New Mexico. She gloried in moving around the U.S.—the only person I ever knew who insisted she even enjoyed the packing and unpacking, but especially the thrill of making friends in a new place. People were drawn to Mom, and she made friends everywhere she lived or visited. They stayed in touch by letters when she moved again. (For her 75th birthday party, enough of her friends scattered around the country sent letters, photos, and cards to fill two large scrapbooks.)
Mom liked to put pen to paper and write chatty letters to those she loved. I’m glad I saved a few of her letters to me and wish I’d kept them all. But how could I know that someday her words written on paper long ago would be so precious? Ah...it's sad I didn't foresee their true value when I had the opportunity.
She never knew her birth mother, who died when she was only 17 days old. She was named “Eva"--also her mother’s name, but I never knew this until I saw her birth certificate late in her life. My adoptive grandparents called Mom “Evie” rather than Eva. Remembering my strong-willed grandmother, I suspect the minor name change was a proprietary move on her part…staking her claim to the baby girl. Ironically, the name was rarely used, because my granddad gave her a nickname (“Jake”) that stuck. When I was a small girl, I never thought it strange that my mother answered to a name most people associate with a burly longshoreman. Women in the Deep South often have odd nicknames. (My grandmother Bernice was always called “Snutz.”)
Mother was fortunate that she had the opportunity to meet and bond with both her birth father and older siblings and, later, their families. She had plenty of love to go around. I can remember days from my childhood when we visited the home of her brother, my Uncle Russell, and his wife, Aunt Lillie. While I played with my cousins, Mom and her family members sometimes sat on the front porch making music and singing together, both southern gospel and bluegrass. She played piano, but could also play guitar and the accordion, and she had a pure soprano voice back then. The musical talent and love of music she inherited from her birth family still branches out into our family tree. I like to think I got some of it.
Mom as a young woman with "Mama" and "Daddy"
Mom as a young woman
Mom and Me, Circa 1944
A natural wife and mother
Mom was smart and musically talented, with a fine voice and the ability to play piano beautifully without reading music--"by ear." She only had to listen to a song a few times to play it well. Her talent, attractiveness, and friendly personality made her popular with classmates. As salutatorian of her small high school graduation class with above-average math skills, Mom should have attended college. My grandparents, who owned both a farm and a general store, could have afforded to send her to college, but higher education wasn’t prized in rural Mississippi in the early 1940s.
Instead, Mom’s ambition was to be a wife and mother, and that is what she became. I have three younger siblings—a brother and two sisters—but was temporarily an “only child” who didn’t have to share my mother until I was nine years old. When I was small, she played games with me. As I grew, she encouraged my love of books and music. She was like a combination of mother and big sister to me.
When I was about ten years old, Mom did begin working as a bookkeeper and was quite good at it because math and the accounting process came so easy to her. After she and my father divorced, she was able to support us with her skills.
Mutual love between Mom and Puppy Girl
During my 20s, 30s and 40s, Mom and I only saw each other once or twice a year because we were separated by geography, but we stayed in touch through letters and phone calls. In my early 50s, I moved back to Mississippi. Mom, by then widowed, followed me back to our hometown. From then until her death in 2008, we made up for lost time. She spent the last three years of her life living with me, and our roles were reversed. As her memory and strength failed, it was as though I became the mother; she, the child. She took delight in simple things, and I delighted in watching her enjoy them.
The cruelty of Alzheimer's couldn't steal her spirit
Dementia robs its victims of short-term memory first, but in the early-to-moderate stages, Mom could easily recall her childhood and youth. I listened carefully when she talked about those days, relishing her anecdotes, knowing the memory thief would soon steal them.
The day she sat at my piano, placed her hands on the keys, and then looked puzzled nearly broke my heart. Instead of beginning to play from the large repertoire of her youth, she left her hands still for a few moments before she lifted and placed them in her lap.
She said, “I can’t.”
I had to leave the room to hide my tears, but the failure didn’t seem to unduly bother her. She simply accepted it, as she calmly accepted the situation when she lost the ability to dress or feed herself and, later, to walk. It amazes me that she never complained, nearly always had a smile on her face, and seemed thankful for anything that was done for her. I try to remind myself of her exemplary courage when I want to grumble about my aches and pains.
Although she lost so many of her abilities near the end, sparks of her cheerful personality lingered. She never stopped recognizing me or the people she saw often, and talked lucidly with me the day before her death. For that, I am so grateful. I’m aware it was the exception, rather than the rule, of late-stage Alzheimer's Disease.
We love you, Mom.
When Mom died, I wanted to write something that would express how her family felt about her. The words came to me as I thought about her, and I had them printed in the program for her funeral service:
No one is guaranteed a specific number of days on this planet. Some people desire longevity, though others wish only to live while their lives have quality. There are, however, different degrees of quality.
Mom lived 31,412 days on the Earth, from the time she was born on February 22, 1924, until she breathed her last on October 15, 2008. Although the last few years of her life were altered by Alzheimer’s Disease, which gradually stole much of her memory, she never lost…
her wonderful zest for life…
her beautiful smile…
her sense of humor and ability to make a joke…
her caring, nurturing personality…
her ability to endure without complaining…
the deep, everlasting love of her children, who called her “Mom” or “Mama”, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—even the little ones, the great-greats—who knew and loved her as “Granny Jake.”
Such a large number of days—31,412—yet the time seems too short. We would have liked to keep her longer, for she enriched our lives beyond measure. Still, our memories of Mom will endure. Now she’s playing piano for the Heavenly choir as she played so many years in church, and she's singing in her clear, joyful soprano. Can’t you hear her? We can, in our hearts.
Mom holding a great-great-grandbaby
I’m not a poet, but as a Mother's Day without her approached, I felt the need to put into words my lingering sense of loss. Writing these verses evoked some tears, but also soothed my heart. (Each re-reading makes my tears flow, but the sadness is mixed with loving remembrance.)
Still Missing Mom
It will not seem like Mother's Day
without you here to give a kiss
and hug you gently, while I
watch your lovely smile that
always made your entire face light up with joy
And so I look at photographs—that smile—
It shines in every one,
your blue eyes twinkling merrily,
a ready sense of humor so evident
even in an image flat and silent.
And yet…I cannot hug a photograph.
I feel that lack so strongly,
even though the soft feel of your cheek
against my own still lingers
in my sense memory of touch.
I cannot hear your voice, although I sometimes
swear its faint echo sounds within my dreams,
your laughter rippling as you tell me all about
something that made you laugh
and left you happy.
I hear you playing hymns on the piano, singing,
your lovely soprano still in fine fettle
Why didn’t I record you making music while I could?
Your joyful songs now play in recollection
I hope I never lose those melodies, your confident chords.
I cannot tell you face to face on Mother’s Day,
how much I loved you, dearest Mom,
how much I love you still
and always will.
I sorely miss you...even now.
And yet I tell you every day,
in every fleeting thought of you
and each remembrance of
some pleasant time we shared.
Such memories are my saved-up treasures,
and I cherish every one.
These verses are still true, and I miss her especially at Mother's Day, Christmas, and on both her birthday and my own. I hope our dear mother knew how much she was loved by her children, grandchildren, and numerous friends. She was the heart of our family.
Mom's handiwork--an embroidered pillowcase
Looking at her stitchery is another reminder of her many talents.
Mom embroidered the borders of a set of white pillowcases for my birthday thirty-five years ago. I used them carefully throughout the years, but--as she grew older--they became very special as examples of her handiwork. She loved to embroider and crochet, and the patterns she chose were usually floral. I now showcase one of these lovely pillowcases by placing it over a pillow and leaving it atop the shams on my bed. Every time I see Mom's embroidery, I think about how she made it just to celebrate my birthday.
One thing's for certain: as long as Mom was alive, I could count on at least one person remembering my birthday! As another one approaches, I'll enjoy this special gift from my mother all over again.
© 2013 Jaye Denman