Finding My Mother Through My Daughter: Motherlessness On Mother’s Day

I’m more my mother’s daughter than I’ve let myself believe since her death—I just needed for my daughter to show me.

It’s close to 10pm, and I’m ignoring the article I need to finish writing and the dinner dishes Jenga-stacked next to the sink to stand at the kitchen counter and hot glue pieces of ribbon down the length of a sock. The big reveal, when finished: a stick horse for tomorrow’s Preschool Derby. This is meant to be a project parents and children complete together, but down the hall, my daughter has been asleep now for nearly an hour.

Earlier in the day I offered my 3-year-old a vivid bouquet of permanent markers and the polka-dotted knee sock she’d picked out at the craft store. “This is going to make the body,” I explained. “Can you color it until it’s so beautiful?” I’d banked on the thrill of this illicit activity—markers from an office drawer that’s typically off limits, used on clothing—capturing her interest, but she lasts all of three minutes before handing the sock back to me and asking for a piece of paper.

As a compromise, I promote her to art director and check in periodically for a consult: What color should we make the eyes? Which ribbon should we use for the mane? but even these answers have to be coaxed. By dinner, I’ve given up. Saving the hot gluing for after she’s in bed seems like an obvious choice.

My husband—arguably the better crafter—caught a lucky break in the form of a club-league volleyball game, leaving me to carry our group solo while basically reliving my least favorite part of college. All weekend we’d taken turns voicing good-natured(ish) complaints about our mutual loathing of what was very clearly homework for parents, the preschool version of forced fun at the office. “Can’t we just buy one?” I’d asked, but in the end guilt trumped my annoyance. What will the teachers think? What if she shows up and she’s the only one who didn’t make a horse? I’m a firm supporter of the unapologetic no, but I’ll also be the first to own that I’m still pretty green when it comes to employing it.

What keeps me at the table long after the horse is good enough for passing—embellishing the reins with stick-on flowers and clearing away broken webs of dried glue—is the memory of sitting with my own mother hours past bedtime as we crafted school projects. The narrow window after dinner was when I most excelled at somehow triggering lightning-struck recall about a multi-part assignment due the following day, after which I’d rush to pull a crumpled handout the color of an Easter egg from the bottom of my backpack. I’d bounce over to my mother to deliver it, anxiety crowding the features of my face.

This is exactly how my single mother found herself one night, after putting my 4- and 2-year-old sisters to bed, building a papier-mâché replica of King Tut’s gold burial mask for her third grader. I stayed awake long enough to apply a few layers of paint and woke the next morning to find a shimmering masterpiece in acrylics and shellac drying on the counter. I admired the careful details over a bowl of cereal, in awe of her artistry.

She died before I finished elementary school, and I set to work proving as quickly as possible that I didn’t care. My fashionable mother with matte lipstick and those dark, teased waves. My mother with a Louis Vuitton tote she carried everywhere as if a signature. My mother with heavy silver bracelets I used to slip from her jewelry box to press cool into my skin like the sutratma. My mother gone. Whatever.

I shunned the loud, dimly-lit stores at the mall where most of my classmates shopped and collected a dresser full of black T-shirts stamped with band logos or obnoxious one-liners like, I’m awake and dressed, what more do you want? I was nothing like her, refusing makeup until halfway through my junior year, and only because by then there was an older boyfriend around to teach me how the body can become a type of currency.

Separate identity from defense mechanism: Would I have worked so hard to create myself in the antithesis of her image if she’d been there all along? I don’t know. Can you miss a thing you never needed in the first place?

It’s difficult, even now, to chart a course that might connect me back to her: a woman who, I’m told, was mostly ambivalent about politics and social justice save for a fondness of G. Gordon Liddy; who loved shopping and gossip and liquor—easily the bright, frenetic center of any get-together. But she was also a mother. And now, so am I.

My mother gave hours of her days creating things for my sisters and me—sewing bejeweled jean dresses for our Barbies or designing families of finger puppets out of felt or staining scaled furniture for a dollhouse she built from the ground up, the floors carpeted and tiled with hardware-store samples and the walls carefully papered, then adorned with pictures cut from a magazine and framed in balsa. She adorned our teddy bears with pearl earrings and beaded us intricate jewelry to wear—always looking to leave something more beautiful than she had found it.

My haphazard crafting attempts don’t really look like that—I’m too impatient, too easily distracted. But while sitting at the kitchen table, tying bows of satin ribbon around the neck of a handmade stick horse, I picture the look on my daughter’s face when she wakes up and sees it in the morning, and there’s a brief moment when I feel sure I know exactly who my mother was.

I’m more her daughter than I’ve let myself believe over the last 20 years—I just needed for my daughter to show me.

Kirsten Clodfelter is the author of the chapbook Casualties and a freelance writer, editor, and digital marketing specialist living in the Midwest. A contributing editor for As It Ought to Be, her work can be found at xoJane, The Good Men Project,, and in the Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, storySouth, and Brevity, among others. She blogs at Find her on Twitter @MommaOfMimo.

Photo courtesy of the author

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