Emmy, you only met my mother once. You were three months old when we flew across the country to San Jose last December, so that you could meet your maternal grandmother for the first (and last) time. I was really nervous as a first-time mother, travelling with a baby so young, but I knew this was an important trip, and just how much my mom wanted to hold you and rock you.
My mother passed away last February, after a nearly nineteen-year battle with breast cancer. As the anniversary of her death approaches, I have been thinking about her more and more.
We have nicknames for the other grandmothers in your life – “Baba” for Dada’s mother, and “Savtah” for my stepmother. I keep struggling with what I should call my mother when I talk to you about her in the years to come. “Grandma Sandy” sounds weird. I never called my mother by her first name, so referencing her by her first name now seems inappropriate. I feel sad that we never had a chance to create a term of endearment specific to her before she passed.
My mother was incredibly creative and talented, and encouraged my creativity from the time I was very young. With an expert hand, she taught me how to sew, how to crochet, how to bead, and how to cook. For one of my sister’s pre-teen birthday parties, she helped all of the party attendees make cloth puppets. After my sister and I watched Grease and became obsessed with the fashions of the 1950’s, my mother helped us make ourselves poodle skirts. She would often make us decorate-your-own-pancakes, and would ask us to help her bake bread, cook spaghetti, or help make omelettes for Sunday brunch. My mother also encouraged me to climb trees, participate in school plays, and spend a summer learning archery. And she loved dancing to music, just like you, Em. My mom loved strong female singers, like Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt. She would be a regular at folk festivals, and could always be seen up front, by the stage, dancing fervently to the music.
But I want to tell you about who my mother was as honestly as possible. My relationship with her was never easy because, truthfully, she wasn’t an easy person to have a relationship with. My mom had had a difficult, tumultuous relationship with her own parents, and that had deep-reaching repercussions in how she dealt with other family members. Because she had never received unconditional love as a child, she was never able to provide it to others. As a result, my mother’s love was opinionated, judgmental, and certainly came with conditions.
She was also periodically manic, and because she never sought treatment, the frequency of her manic periods seemed to increase as she aged. There would be months where she would wake up at three a.m. and leave the house to go on a shopping binge that our family couldn’t afford. She would sometimes wake me up at 4 o’clock in the morning so that I could do laundry or take care of some other chore that could obviously have waited until a normal waking hour. During these times, she was a walking powder-keg, just waiting for a random spark to set her off so she could explode and channel all the energy bubbling inside of her at something. During these times it was nearly impossible to love her, because she was so angry, and had little love to give. I constantly felt like I was walking on eggshells, trying just to make it through the manic period, waiting for the time when a sense of relative normalcy would return to the house, and the threat of her anger would somewhat dissipate.
When my mother got diagnosed with cancer at the age of 44, life changed for the family. After six months of intensive chemotherapy that threw us all for a loop, my mom announced she would be leaving my father, and no longer wanted to make motherhood a priority. Nasty divorce proceedings ensued, and I distanced myself from the whole situation. I was devastated, and so angry at my mother. I couldn’t understand how, after getting a prognosis which predicted a 5 year-survival likelihood, she wanted to spend LESS time with her children, rather than more.
Subsequently, my mother and I had many years of sporadic communication, both because I wanted to limit my relationship with her after being so hurt, and because she wanted to limit her own interaction with her children. She did call me when she received news that the cancer had metasticized to her brain, and she was going to get laser treatment to try to eradicate the tumors. She was scared there was a chance she was not going to survive the surgery, and wanted the chance to speak with me beforehand. Even though we hadn’t had a strong connection for a number of years by that point, the news was heartbreaking, and I had quite a meltdown. I ached with the thought of losing my mother forever. It hurt me to know we might not have the chance to make reparations to our relationship. My mother survived the surgery, and I increased my efforts to reach out to her, but she never reciprocated the efforts, so I gave up.
It was only when I moved back to the east coast that our relationship got better. I don’t know if my mother’s declining health, combined with my physical distance from her, made her realize she wanted to make reconnecting with me more of a priority again. Or if, because my mother’s body and mind had been so exhausted by the many treatments she had gone through over the years, she had mellowed enough to sustain a more consistent line of communication without feeling the need to attack me or flee our relationship. But I knew that despite the whirlwind and pain of our past, I needed to allow myself to reconnect with her. I’m really glad I did. For the two to three years prior to her passing away, I spoke with my mother with greater regularity, and she was willing and wanting to be a mother again. It was the relationship I had always hoped for and sought out – one where we cared about and listened to one another with sincere interest and a feeling that at least seemed to near unconditional love.
Emmy, I am sorry you will probably not remember my mother, and that you only met her once, when you were a baby. I hope I can share enough of my memories of her with you that you will get to know who she was, and maybe together we can come up with a term of endearment that seems appropriate.
I miss you, mommy.