A Letter To My Mother On What Would’ve Been Her 84th Birthday

All that floats from my breath when I think of you, blowing kisses into the wind, are thank yous.

Dear Mom:

If you were still here to sit with me and listen to a litany of everything I should have understood about us long, long ago, I would tell you so many things. I would do it looking straight into your fading eyes while holding your blue-veined hands with their pale parchment-thin skin, the ones I touched for the very last time two springs past, when I sat on your bed shortly after you died and noticed that someone had placed them one on top of the other across your chest, like the Madonna in repose.

You looked so luminescent and peaceful. You were 82.

Your hands were still warm, I remember. Your eyelids were closed, and I felt, like young Mattie Ross observed of her just-deceased father in True Grit, that your spirit had flown. It was too late to say what I had thought about in the middle of the night, just before I got the call that you had gone, the oh-my-god-please-don’t-leave-me silent pleadings of a doleful woman with tear-stained cheeks who was your second daughter all grown up, but also a frightened little child again in the face of your mortality.

Good thing some of those bits had already tumbled from my lips during moments stolen at the care home, between the bites of pudding and sips of chocolate milk my father coaxed from you in the weeks leading up to those final wrenching sweet goodbyes, words stilted by the very fact that they were said into your ear when I knew you were still conscious but for all my fervent wishing did not know if you really heard my whispers or, if you did, whether you understood. The goddamn plaques and tangles did that.

But if you somehow miraculously could reappear now and settle yourself into that big flowered wing-back chair—the one you always liked to sit in when you read to your grandkids, my kids, way back when—I would plunk myself down on the floor, crisscross applesauce. If I knew for certain one hundred percent that you were clear about everything I was saying and you absolutely were as eager to hear it as I was to say it, here is what I would share with you about forgiveness and presence and legacy and love.

Let’s get the hardest one of all out of the way first, Mom. I forgive you for anything and everything you ever did or said that you think you needed to be forgiven for. Truly. Like that time you said I was a terrible daughter for being the first one to leave the church, even though all I really did was cross over from the Lutherans to the Presbyterians in a denominational game of Red Rover. That wasn’t nearly the worst of it, of course—I gave you plenty of reasons to froth at the mouth—but whether I thought those things were big deals or nothing at all, if you wondered whether it mattered or could still come between us, the answer is no, never. I forgive you. We’re good.

Then I would ask, please, please forgive me, too. For all the times I lashed out at you, or forgot to pay attention, or behaved like a petulant, self-centered entitled ass. For not knowing when you needed me to call and neglecting to ask you how you were doing when I did. For thinking less of you than you deserved. For rolling my eyes behind your back more times than I can count.

For complaining that we had to come back from our vacation in Hawaii because your mother had died, and for not going to your father’s funeral. For the sin of not realizing back then that the first thing I needed to do was show up.

If I had been awake then to what I recognize now, I would have been so much more grateful to you for what you endured. Being an attentive involved mother is hands-down the hardest, most maddening, challenging, thankless, confusing, tedious, relentless job in the world. It’s also the best and most incredibly beautiful loving rewarding thing I’ve ever done. You did it, too, with grace and perseverance. Thank you, Mom, for not walking out when the thankless-relentless part rose up and crashed down on you like a tremendous sinister ocean swell, threatening to sweep you under and drown you.

Instead, you went to the kitchen and made tomato soup and grilled cheese.

When I was an odious adolescent and my only concern each day that had anything to do with you was whether my favorite jeans were clean, folded, and in the correct dresser drawer, you side-stepped my mercurial moods as deftly as a prima ballerina, trusting I would someday snap out of it and see you as a full-fledged human person made of flesh and bone and nerves, with a heart that broke over and over, just for me.

I see you now, Mom.

What I saw then was a tumbling kaleidoscope of images, some in muted soft pastels, blurry like sea glass, others vibrant and sharp as a knife’s edge. They were always changing, daring me to put my hands on them and caress them carefully, carefully, to tend to them like young shoots rising improbably through rocky soil from bulbs planted a season past.

Now they’re a reel-to-reel home movie, individual frames that catch and stick in my mind, staccato and unforgettable. In this one, you’re standing at dad’s change of command ceremony, sleek and long-legged in your high-heels. It’s hot, and I’m itchy in my crinoline slip-lined dress. The tiny bumps on your yellow and white dotted-Swiss shift capture my imagination, and I consider the gigantic Jackie O-style sunglasses perched on your nose, thinking you look just like her. Better than her. I’m staring at you, wanting to grow up to be as beautiful as you. You’re smiling at your husband, Navy wife proud.

In another image, your head’s tucked under the bathroom sink faucet and you’re rinsing Clairol Loving Care Medium Ash Brown dye out of your hair. You’re wrapping it up in a towel with a single snap of your wrist and walking around the house in a terrycloth turban until it’s dry enough to comb out and tease into your preferred style, a short bob with soft waves on the sides and back. You’re Gina Lollobrigida without all the makeup.

Click. A recipe card for Flank Steak In Mushroom Sauce, handwritten in your unique part-printed, part-cursive scrawl. Click. The shade of coral-pink lipstick you wore on special occasions, and how you always blotted it with a Kleenex so a mirror image of your mouth appeared on the tissue before you tossed it into the waste can. Click. You’re dancing the Charleston in our living room to “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” in chenille slippers and Bermuda shorts, arms swinging, fingers shimmying like a 1920s flapper.

These indelible images shape me and slay me, put me on notice that this is life—then, now—and these are the stories that must be told and re-told and told again to generations moving forward so that a century from now when your great-great-great-granddaughter walks by your grave and looks at the stone, you won’t be dead to her but alive, because she’s heard the stories, and they will make all the difference. Like the one where you meant to call yourself a “couch potato” for failing to engage in regular exercise but it came out “couch pillow” instead and we laughed until our sides hurt because it was just so hilariously funny. How you once sunbathed on top of your nursing school dormitory building and practically got second-degree burns so you vowed never to do that again, and many years later when I wanted to use baby oil to slick my skin in hopes of getting the darkest tan in the history of teenage tans, you forbade me because it could cause cancer, after all, and you didn’t want me to feel the pain you felt after spending all afternoon on that rooftop in Chicago in 1953.

You only wanted to protect me, Mom. That’s what mothers do—they gather their young ones to their bosoms and hold them close, baring their teeth at whatever ominous thing threatens and fighting those beasts to the death if they must.

It’s raining a cold rain for a late-April morning, Mom, and I mourn your death anew. I sit with a cold cup of coffee and grasp my memories like kite strings holding balloons aloft, and pull them toward my core, each of them a miracle. Missing you is hard, but loving you is easy, ironically simpler than ever since you’ve been gone. All that floats from my breath when I think of you, blowing kisses into the wind, are thank yous.

Thank you for loving my father and for persevering in that promise and privilege for almost 60 years. I wish I could have been half the woman you were as a wife.

Thank you for sleeping next to me during that torturous year when I was 15 and I had chronic insomnia and I thought I was going crazy and actually might have, were it not for you stroking my forehead and telling me it was going to get better, and then it slowly finally actually did.

Thank you for the bliss I saw on your face when you played with your grandchildren, for taking all three of my kids on walks around your neighborhood and teaching them the words to “Bertha, Where Are You Going?” For showing such interest in their unique precious lives.

Thank you for not being perfect, for teaching me that mistakes and redemption, like sorrow and beauty, are shadow sides of the very same thing, ripples in a river that flows on and on. If I ever need scripture, that will be it.

Thank you for the gift of your mirth and the timbre of your voice, whose full-throated lilt buoys me still.

Thank you for giving me life and for never giving up on my life, for embracing me no matter what I did or didn’t do, who I was or who I became. You were a good mom, Mom. Happy Birthday. I miss you and I love you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Nancy Townsley’s work has most recently been published in NAILED Magazine, The Riveter Magazine, runnersworld.com, and Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. She lives in St. Helens, Oregon, and is planning to run her tenth marathon in Portland this October.

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