Think of her Today: Memories of my Mother
It was early in the morning when the text came. My boyfriend Mike and I had planned a fun fall weekend afternoon, centered on a visit to a pumpkin patch, apple cider sipping, and returning home to carve up the chosen gourds into appropriately ghoulish visages. Minutes before my alarm was set to ring, a vibration from my nightstand rousted me from lazy Saturday slumber. Squinting at the rectangle of light, I read:
It’s your Mom’s birthday today.
Please think of her today.
7:15 AM, Oct. 19
October 19. I hadn’t known that.
My mother died in January of 1997, when I was not quite eight years old. She had always had a tendency of running late—or so my Dad’s parents have told me—and she often sped to make up the difference—according to the usual narrative, anyway. Whatever the circumstances that day, the road was slick, and when Mom passed over a certain patch of ice, at a speed no one was around to gauge, she “played spin the bottle,” as Dad has since referred to it. With a minivan approaching in the opposing lane, it was just her luck that the “bottle” was perpendicular to the other vehicle at the point of impact, and Mom’s tiny white Chevy Corsica—neither well-made nor safe, as Grandma has since chided—was crushed “like a tin can.” So states the simile I grew up with. The editorializing doesn’t even quite stop at the point when the coroner enters the picture. Time of death: Too early. Cause: Lack of punctuality, cheap vehicle. More directly: Internal bleeding. Did she feel pain? Did she ask for her children at the hospital? Was she even conscious? Did she know she was going to die? Here, the commentary stops.
Today, I have very few clear memories of my mother. Mostly, I know that she sketched. I remember watching her draw figures, mostly women, impossibly lithe and graceful and wearing impossibly beautiful period costumes and ambiguous, parted lipped expressions. There were antebellum Southern belles, medieval ladies in conical headdresses, fringe-bedecked 1920s flappers, and high-heeled modern career women. I could watch her draw for what seemed like hours and often attempted crude imitations of my own. Once, in a hospital waiting room, she showed me how to fashion men and women from a series of interconnected ovals. This, I thought, must be her secret—But still, my own drawings never approached the glamour of the women in my mother’s sketchbooks, all a little mysterious and all dripping in sex appeal.
When I was young and tried to conjure images of my mother, they never looked quite like her photographs. They were more like her sketches: slender, high-heeled, and lipsticked, existing in a state of effortless feminine invincibility that allowed her to juggle career, kids, and personal fabulousness. The mother of my recollection was all-knowing, a talented artist, and a beautiful woman that I envisioned myself someday becoming. With her suit and briefcase, she conquered courtrooms in her career as an attorney and came home to tell the best bedtime stories afterwards. Pictures and relatives would later tell me she was overweight and disorganized, that she kept a messy house and watched too many soap operas. Even my own memory can confirm that after she and my father separated, she did not instantly bounce back onto her feet and continue to live a perfect life, devoid of struggle. Instead, she took my brother and me to live with her sister, and we shared a bedroom for about a year before finally getting a place of our own.
Since her death, connecting with the person that my mother really was has been a struggle. Immediately after the accident, I used to sleep with the afghan her mother made her, rolled up vertically and tucked in next to me on the other side of my bed. It smelled like her, and I would pretend that it was like the months after the separation, with Mom and me sharing a bed each night. I would have conversations with her—or the person I imagined her to be—silently by myself each night. When Grandma finally washed the afghan, unaware that she was also washing away that all-important scent, I was privately furious, not just with her but with the passage of time and the inevitability that this would be just one in a series of similar small personal tragedies. My mother’s loss was not simply one catastrophic event, but a constant process which continues through the distortion and fading of my own imperfect memory. It’s a process that I fight, however imperfectly, to this day. And so when I had thought and mourned and spent most of our time at the pumpkin patch sharing my recollections with Mike, I texted Dad back:
3:10 PM, Oct 19