My mother died when she was in her fifties.
That was too young for her: And too young for me.
I did not have the chance to prove that I could be a dutiful daughter.
Oh, I did all the right Hallmark-card things. I remembered her birthday and Mother’s Day and Christmas. I bought her presents, invited her to my home and visited hers occasionally.
I could make excuses for myself — I was the mother of two small children, had a full time job, a husband whose work required certain social commitments, she lived a distance away. But they are just excuses. I was just too busy to be a dutiful daughter because my priorities were wrong.
I know that now, when I am in my mid eighties, having lived more than thirty years longer than my mother. Too late to be smart. I owed her more. And not just in the sentimental sense of debt. I should have let her share in my life and accomplishments. I like to think that if she had lived longer, I would have.
When in high school, I began to win prizes and medals, I resented what looked to me like her wanting to share the credit. I had won those things, not her. Later, when I was getting ready to move to the United States with my husband, I had to get the long version of my birth certificate and I saw the discrepancy between her marriage date and my birth. I confronted her and did that with the narcissistic “I”. It was all about me. How could she have been so strict with me about premarital sex when she was guilty of it herself? I never thought to ask her what discovering she was pregnant meant to her, what it was like to make that painful and difficult decision, whether she ever regretted it.
She was in her final year of nursing, so, despite the laws of the time, surely an abortion would have been possible. Instead, she gave up her nursing career, married, and produced a baby girl – me. Every good thing that happened in her too short life after that was the result of her own ingenuity, hard work, and determination. All the bad, the violence, the constant worry about money, the disappointments, were the result of her decision to become a mother.
Whatever I have accomplished is a continuing gift from her. First life, then love, faith in me, education, loyalty. She was not a women who gave praise, but when my brother and I went to empty her house after she died, it was clear that she was proud of me. In every drawer, there was a medal, or a clipping, or a certificate. She had a right to expect more of me. I am sure that I was a disappointment to her. When I was on the stage, taking a bow, accepting a compliment, she should have been there, right beside me.
Worse, perhaps, in the year after my father died – also in his mid fifties – my mother changed. There was a carelessness about her, an apathy that was not like her. I did my thing – I took charge. “First, let’s see if there is anything medically wrong”, I told my brother. I involved our family doctor, and he arranged a battery of tests. The results were all fine. There was nothing physically wrong with her, according to the medical profession. So I gave her a lecture – that she was still a young woman, with life ahead of her, that she needed to get her act together. A few weeks later, she died.
I learned a hard lesson then, that when the behavior of someone you know well changes in a major way, there is something wrong. No matter what the professionals say. Now, a widow myself, still close to that first year after death, when I did not want to get out of bed, when grief paralyzed me, I am ashamed of my lecture to my mother. How little I knew, about life, about love, about loss. What a pompous ass I was.
In the introspective moments that are part of being an octogenarian, I realize now that I never knew my mother as a person. I missed the chance. Oh, I could tell you that she loved to dance, that she played the piano by ear, that she made great butter tarts and banana cake, that she had a sense of mischief, was a flirt, that she had tiny feet, that she was the weight of a feather, that she sat beside my father’s bedside, interpreting every twitch of that comatose man as a renewal of life for more than a year, that she cared for first her mother, and then her father, in our home, until their deaths, without a word of complaint. A model of the dutiful daughter.
But I do not know what she thought of her life, what dreams she had, what regrets, whom she might have loved, what she was like pre-marriage, whether she was happy, who she was, deep down in the heart of her private self.
I never asked.
Now, I would.
Too little, too late.