A belated, but heartfelt, thanks to my Mom
Mothers–especially the mothers of daughters, it seems to me–have a way of being at least somewhat frequently, if not actually habitually, extremely irritating to their daughters for as long as they are alive.
Then, when they are gone, suddenly the protracted struggle of the daughter to become herself in the shadow of the most powerful woman she has ever known ceases. And from that point on, everything changes.
At least that is how I have come to interpret my prickly relationship with my mother, and I have observed what seems to me to be a similar dynamic at work in many other families.
My mother died when I was 37 years old–sadly (for her, for me, for them) before my own children were born. I loved her deeply and we had a close relationship: and after the fireworks of the teen years and my early 20s, we had gotten along pretty well. But there was always a tension in our relationship that persisted–primarily due to my inability to admire her as much as I loved her–until she was practically on her deathbed.
Then I rose to the occasion, and I have no regrets about the way I treated her in those last months, as cancer took her from us slowly, bit by terrible bit. I was there for her and with her as much as I could be; and I know she felt good about the many hours we spent together, sometimes talking, sometimes just holding hands. “I never knew what a nice person you are,” she said to me at the end of one such day, in one of those moments of incandescent clarity, and candor, that characterizes the observations of the dying.
You might think those words might have angered me, or cut me to the quick, but they did neither. I was just grateful that my mother, who had suffered for so many years on the receiving end of my least-best self, had at long last had the chance to see that I really was a kind person. And I know how lucky I am that I never have had to struggle with the kinds of regrets I would surely have had if she had been taken from me suddenly and without warning, with no chance to hear such comforting words.
But it really wasn’t until after she died and I had to learn how to live my life without her that I realized how critical her continuing existence had been to my own.
One of the first ways this came home to me is that once she was gone, I found that it was impossible for me to continue to write the weekly letters I had always written home. This was a point of some agony, since I knew how much my father loved reading them, and that surely now he needed them more than ever before.
But I couldn’t help what I couldn’t help. And once my mother was gone, I discovered to my surprise and dismay that among other things, she had (apparently) always been the audience I was writing for. It was her sensibility above all that had formed mine, and her sensibility to which I was eagerly returning, with my observations of the world that was still opening up to me.
So I did what I could to comfort my father and to be there for him. I called him often; I tried to write. But for a long time I was essentially mute, my letters a thin shadow of what they had been before, because I knew that the person who most appreciated what I saw when I looked at the world around me was no longer there to hear about it.
Another thing that happened is that almost from the moment of her death, I realized that it was as if suddenly I was seeing for the first time a photograph of her, rich in nuance, beautifully complex, with all the infinitely subtle shades of gray: and that all my life prior to that I had been judging her on the basis of my squinty-eyed view of a negative. Her shortcomings did not disappear, but they did recede into the background, taking their proper place in the larger scheme of things, and her true nature–her strength, intelligence, generosity, and wisdom–became clear to me in a way that they never had been before, when my attention was fixed on her myriad, though minor, imperfections.
Gradually I realized that a good deal of the tension in our relationship had been rooted in my fierce struggle not to be like her: gradually I realized how much I was like her in many ways, for both better and worse, and that on balance this was not such a bad thing.
Some of the characteristics I inherited from her I still struggle to become free of, and perhaps I will have to do so for the rest of my life. Others are the source of my greatest strengths.
My mother was not perfect, and she did not suddenly become perfect in my eyes when she was gone.
But at least I can see her now. At least I can see how hard she tried to do the best she could; and how good that was.
And if I had only one reason to believe in some kind of Heaven–to fulfill the wish that she could somehow see now how much I came to appreciate (and yes! admire her too) after she was gone–that would be reason enough for me.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature who divides her time between France and the United States. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C.; and she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.