It Took Me 49 Years to Truly Understand My Mom

Not so long ago, I passed the age my mother was when she died. This was unsettling on several fronts, the most obvious of which was staring my own mortality more squarely in the face. She was just 49, which, from where I sit on the north side of 50, feels pretty damn young to die. I’ve got decades to keep figuring out life, don’t I? Don’t I?

So, thoughts of my impending doom are one effect of reaching my mother’s final age but that’s a big duh. The more interesting facet is the insight I now have into who my mother was at 49 and what she cared about.

I was 18 when she died and we were very close, but what did I know then about the ups and downs of a long marriage, or the fortitude it takes to run a happy household and have a job? Or what it’s like to watch your children grow into really interesting people? On any given day, she was probably thinking about what to serve for dinner and when to get her roots done and how to lose five pounds and which book to read next and whether her kids were happy — the very things I mull over daily.

She was likely marveling at the evolution of her relationship with her children, as I do. Now that my sons are (mostly) grown, my primary role is no longer caretaker but rather some combination of sounding board, cheerleader, occasional voice of reason and very occasional shoulder upon which to cry. I miss the critter stage sometimes (the cute parts, not the lug-them-to-the-east-side-for squash-lessons, up-at-dawn-with-an-earache parts). But the present stage, in which my offspring and I relate as grown-up to grown-up, is pretty spectacular. As I consider that, I am keenly aware of one of the deepest parts of my sadness over losing my mom so young: She didn’t get to see me become my full self (still a work in progress, no doubt) and I never got to see her through my adult eyes.

When I was a girl, I couldn’t view my mother as the multi-dimensional person she was, a woman who could cook anything, type 100 words a minute, kill the crossword puzzle and dissect any novel. She was sure enough of herself to decorate an entire floor of our house in the brightest of yellows, from shag carpeting to loveseats to pots and pans. She was unbelievably brave and quietly brilliant, but I didn’t really see any of that. In the self-centric world of a child, she was just my mom.

Now that I’m older, her idiosyncrasies are little treasures. Like me, she could be a goofball. She once served dinner with a string bean sticking out of each nostril. We broke up each time we looked at her; she looked back at us and deadpanned, “What?”

My mother could pick a leaf off the floor of our local nursery, shove it in her pocket and from that leaf, grow a tree in our yard. She sang light opera as she vacuumed. The backs of her hands were soft in an almost otherworldly way. These are some of the things that to me, made her, her. (My brother probably has a whole other list.)

After all this time, it’s these tiny slices that make my mother real, as does my own journey through adulthood. Because while my mother and I didn’t actually share the last three decades, now I know what it means to work at a marriage, to be a working mom, and to watch my children struggle and blossom. She’s been gone more than 35 years and her beautiful face is fuzzy in my mind, but sharing this knowledge makes me feel closer to her. What a gift that is.

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