I have always been my mother’s child, but not always her daughter. It was my choice. She was not there for several years during my childhood. I lived with my grandparents from the time I was three until I was eight. My mother left my little sister and me and traveled North in search of a job. Once she was settled, she would send for us. It took five years that seemed like forever. These were the years of childhood when the bonds are formed. She and I had only splintered, frayed strands. Visits, gifts, telephone calls. No kisses goodnight or bedtime stories, no hugs in the morning and walks to kindergarten with my mother during those years. A chasm of miles and states separated us. I accepted the distance, got past the disappointment, and determined within myself that she gave me life and things and not to expect anything more. Only after I grew older and had children of my own did I become my mother’s daughter and realize all that she had given me throughout my life and hers. As her daughter, I learned much from my mother. All along she was teaching; I just didn’t know I was learning. Everyone has a story. If you learn their story, you’ll understand them better by and by.
I have always been my mother’s child, but only one of her daughters. The pivot of a family with seven children, two sisters and a brother on both sides, my every childhood memory of my mother is mediated by my siblings. I remember holding my sister’s hand walking to kindergarten, waving good-bye to my mother who was cradling the baby, and later me dragging my brother along the same route; my mother dividing soup between my sister and me and the bickering that ensued as the result of a less than careful divide; my mother instructing me not to brush my teeth so hard while begging my sister to go brush her teeth. We were bound by a matrix of schedules, needs and relationships. My mother and I were always merely part in a larger drama in which neither of us took or desired center stage but were happy to play supporting roles. It was only after I had grown, and after my own children had grown, that my mother and I forged a relationship of our own, no longer filtered through my father, my siblings or my own children. It was only then that our relationship became uniquely ours.
I saw my mother’s story in her aging-woman’s eyes. Dark brown eyes, the deep pecan brown of a golden autumn afternoon in Alabama, the home she left behind. Her story had always been there. It was after my mother’s stroke, the one that did not kill her but left her partially paralyzed, that I came to really know her. The stroke was the first signal that she was starting to slip away from me. There were things that I needed to know before she left. My mother spent a lot of time in bed after the stroke. Even though I was a grown woman, with college-age children, each time I came to visit I crawled into her bed next to her. Gazing into her eyes, I asked her questions. “Tell me about when you were a teenager.” She smiled, “I liked going to the sock-hops at our high school on Saturday nights. I wore a black felt poodle-skirt with a rhinestone chain that led up from the poodle’s collar to my waist.” Her eyes sparkled. “Your grandmother said people could see me coming from a mile away because I wore so many crinoline slips under my skirt.” With pride, she said, “My blouse and bobby socks were bleached snow white and my saddle-shoes were flawless.” “What had you wanted to be when you grew up?” I asked. Her smiled faded. She closed her eyes. “A teacher. I loved English and always wanted to be a teacher.” That day she didn’t want to talk anymore, so we quietly laid next to each other. My mother never became a teacher. She contented herself with sitting at our kitchen table helping my sister and me with our homework.
I saw my mother’s story in her aging-woman’s eyes. Soft blue eyes, with the glow of Lake Michigan on a gentle Spring day, a lake from which she never lived more than ten miles. Her story had always been there, but invisible to my eyes, the eyes of a daughter. After my mother’s death, I found a diary she kept as a teenager. There were only about six months of entries, all from her senior year of high school. Her voice was one of a giddy, whimsical young girl. Whining about ironing and doing chores. Chasing boys, one of whom would become my father. Plans for life after high school, and lots and lots of babies. This was a woman I did not know. Here was a woman filled with hopes, dreams, and endless joy. My mother was always beautiful, even to the unbiased eye, this I knew. But in this diary, I learned she was also fun and adventurous. I think we would have been friends. But, we never were. She was my father’s wife, my siblings’ mother, Mrs. Walsh to my friends. She gave. We accepted. Our relationship, all relationships, are refracted through the constellations of relationships which bind them.
I have tried to imagine my mother as a baby. There are no baby pictures of her. She and my grandmother said I chewed it up when I was a toddler. They said I adored it, that I crawled to the picture every day, sat in front of it, kissed it, touched it, and finally one day chewed it up. My mother and grandmother found me sitting on the floor surrounded by the scattered wet pieces. My mother spanked my hands. I had been told to look, but not touch it. My grandmother cried. It was the only baby picture she had of her infant daughter. Sometimes when we cannot have all, we learn to love the pieces.
As children, my sister and I often pulled out a photograph of my mother as a young woman. We were awe struck by her beauty, not fully identifying the picture with the woman upstairs mopping the floor. In the professional photograph, taken as a result of pressure from her own mother who pushed her to pursue a modeling career, my mother gazes seductively into my eyes, resting her face luxuriously in her right palm. My mother always dismissed the photograph, as if it were of a different person living a different life. Sometimes the pieces of our lives never form a cohesive whole, but rather a disjointed journey of fits and starts, chance and determination.
My grandmother adored my little sister and me. We were the two things I believe that she thought my mother had gotten right in her life. She hated my mother’s choice of our father. I grew up hearing how he was a “damn fool” and how my mother was better off without him. She hated the choice of my step-father. She thought my mother deserved better and said so. She hated my mother’s factory job. Hated that we sometimes didn’t have enough. Hated that her daughter was not living the life she had dreamed for her. My mother quietly said nothing. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that our five-years separation was not my mother’s fault. After six months, with each visit it was my mother’s intent to take us with her. Each time she left empty-handed. My grandmother would not give us back. “You need more time. You’re not ready yet.” I now understand my mother’s teary good-byes, the all-consuming hugs, the slipping away after we had gone to bed. I think that we were my grandmother’s second chance to get it right. My mother lived with her grandparents after her parents divorced. When her grandmother died, she went to live with her mother and step-father. She said, “I knew my life would be hell after my grandmother died.” It was. It shows in her eyes. My grandmother loved my mother. Yet, there was something missing in that love, a something that gave it a razor-edge that sometimes wounded. My grandmother was raised by her grandparents. Her mother never came back for her. My mother did come back for me. She did get it right. On days when it rained unexpectedly, she stood outside my school waiting for me with an umbrella and rubber boots. On cold days, there was the smell of fresh baked cookies and hot chocolate or tea and cinnamon rolls waiting. There were always new winter boots for my feet and thick sweaters and coats to keep me warm. She got it right.
My grandmother called my sister and me Irish Twins, a slight to our paternal heritage and the choices of our mother. “Pregnant and barefoot” summed up my Polish Grandmother’s disdain for her oldest daughter’s choices. My mother’s life was not the life her own mother had wished for her. Diapers soaking in the toilet, laundry heaped on every landing, grimy, less than beautiful children crowded around her. Yet, my mother’s supportive role in our family was so foundational as to be invisible, certainly unappreciated. When I was young, my mother suffered a medical emergency which hospitalized her for days. My grandmother stayed to help care for us, assuring us that we were the cause of the emergency, what with the lugging of the laundry, the long days, sleepless nights, the newest baby. I look back at that moment. It was not until I was grown that I understood the precipice my life was at with that illness. My father was the breadwinner; my mother the source of life itself, the everyday reproduction of joy and hope. I now cannot imagine a scenario in which my mother did not survive. How could we have survived? Seven children between 15 and two years old, where could we turn? Of course, we had many aunts and uncles, all of whom had many children of their own – the median size of each family was seven children. Honest. We are Irish afterall.
I was not there when my mother died. After her stroke, my sister and I, like sentinels, kept watch over her for four years. We were there to bathe her, dress her, help her to the bathroom, clean and change her if we didn’t get to her quick enough, take her to and from dialysis or help her on then off the transport bus, bring her water, cook her meals—oatmeal was her favorite most days, stood by her bed praying while she recovered from a near fatal septic staph infection. I, we, were always there. It was a freak accident. While her caretaker helped her dress one morning, my mother accidently pulled out her dialysis catheter. They took her to the hospital. I waited by her bed before she went into surgery to replace the catheter. We laughed, chatted, made plans for the next day. I watched as they rolled her into surgery for a procedure she had undergone many times before. I said, “Bye Mommy.” She said, “I’ll see you in the morning.” The procedure went well, but she never woke up. A slight-of-hand coin trick. One moment she was there, the next moment she was gone.
We were all there when our mother died, after six months of rotating shifts, squabbling over how many drops of morphine to use, shepherding visitors in and out of her room. The cancer stole her voice before it took her smile. These were moments to simply be with her, to hold her hand, to feel her presence. We jostled for opportunities to stay overnight, to be her caregiver for the brief time remaining. Her passing was gentle, a whisper, the quiet exit from a crowded room. Her absence much louder than her exit, or even the life she left behind.
I am now my mother’s daughter. I always was. I just didn’t know it. We shared so many points of commonality, our sad brown eyes, our childhood experiences, our love for books and words, our places within our families. My grandmother was my great-grandmother’s first born, my mother was my grandmother’s first born, I am my mother’s first born, and my daughter is my first born. We are all daughters and sisters, the fruit of former slaves and Alabama share-croppers. We share the common burden of being so. We are a community of women that transcends generations. Seven years after my mother’s death, gleanings from her life and experiences continue to put my womanhood and motherhood into perspective. I understand the contours of motherhood as ocular, a complex sphere of seeing and learning and then passing on, seeing and learning then passing on, seeing and learning and then passing on.
I am still my Mother’s daughter. I feel her presence every day in my daughter’s gentle embrace and my son’s mild manner. Even seven years after her death, I gather things in my mind to share with her, to work out, to laugh over. Her words still comfort me. Her smile lives in me. As she died, it was important to me that we prayed. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace . . . Blessed art Thou amongst Women, and Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb. . . ” Not because these are the right words or the best words, but because these were my mother’s words, now my words. These were the words my mother used when she gave birth, when she mourned her own parents, when life exhausted her. The words spoken by the women, generations of women, who came before me, came together to create me, mold me, connect me, reach me. Words spoken in Irish or Polish, spoken as a blessing or in terror, in joy or in sorrow. Echoing through generations, reaching beyond me to my children and their children.
Janice Tuck Lively is a fiction writer and an Associate Professor of creative writing and literature at Elmhurst College. Her fiction and non-fiction celebrates and examines the joys, struggles, and resiliency of Black women’s lives, and has appeared in the journals: Jet Fuel Review, Perspectives on African American Literature, Journal of Black Studies, Valley Voices: A Literary Review, and Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora; and in the anthologies The Thing About Love Is…, and Hair Trigger:16. She is a 2016 Pushcart Award Nominee.
Mary Barbara Walsh is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Elmhurst College. She teaches courses on ancient, modern and post-modern political philosophy; early American political thought; feminist political philosophy; and political justice. Her research focuses on liberal and feminist political philosophy and has been published in numerous academic journals, including Hypatia; The Review of Politics; Polity; and The Journal of Women, Politics and Policy.