So much of what I love today began with her. I still take long, hot baths and occasionally put ketchup on popcorn because that’s what she did, and I want to be just like her.
There’s a cute pair of jeans in my closet that I refuse to give away because I paid $200 for them. The jeans are 20 pounds ago, but I paid $200 for them, and I never want to forget that you should never ever pay $200 for a pair of jeans.
I am also the proud owner of an eight-year-old can of beans. I’m never eating those beans, but I keep them, because my husband’s parents brought them over when we moved in to our apartment. It was a really lovely night, and I never want to forget it, so I hide that old can of beans in my kitchen.
I’m not a hoarder; my magazine and book collections are neatly arranged. There’s no stack of newspapers to collapse and off me in the night. What I am is sentimental. It’s chronic, actually. I have a very real problem with letting go.
I hold on to everything I can, and I have so much stuff: birthday cards, movie tickets, playbills, candy wrappers. Sometimes I hide receipts from myself in coat or pants pockets so that I find them later. Any slip of paper with a date on it gets casually tucked away for later viewing. These little prizes are my way of Hansel and Greteling myself back in time. The ticket stubs and receipts are mostly useless and only serve to remind me of bad movie and food choices, but I can’t stop myself.
All of this paper collecting sounds ridiculous, but I just want to remember everything. I enjoy tiny frivolous detail and looking back, but I also understand the impossibility of an endless memory—and I only have so many pockets.
Paper is easy; once you’ve decided you don’t need it, you throw it right into the trashcan. What a shame there isn’t a similar editing system for the heart. That’s where the real junk lives. All of the stories I’m keeping: the information that I cling to and continue to repeat to myself. How do I put those down? Where’s that dumpster?
My story, the narrative that I hold tightly at the center of who I am, the origin of all of my clinging and everything else that makes me a person, is about my mother. It already sounds like I’m blaming her, and I haven’t said very much. Like it or not, the whole world begins and ends with moms; they are the heart of who we are. Through them we learn the best and worst, and my mom was no different—except that she actually was the best.
Writing her name and saying it aloud is strangely therapeutic. I never say her name. It feels dangerous, as if calling it would bring her into the room. The act reminds me that she was an actual person with an actual life. Laura Morgan.
My memories of her are my most vivid. That’s because they’re rehearsed. The bits that I have are clearer and more immediate than what I had for breakfast this morning. I take them out and practice them regularly. I don’t have many, so I must repeat them like you might a favorite movie and then gently place them back on the shelf. I’ve always done this. I’m afraid to stop, so I practice and repeat.
The best are the moments of pure love, where she saw me without judgment. I was obsessed with “Wonder Woman,” so she crafted bulletproof bracelets and a crown out of a Twinkie box. She glued aluminum foil around the cardboard and painted red stars on them so that I could spin around our house pretending to be Linda Carter. If I was going to be Wonder Woman, I would have the appropriate accessories.
I begged for a pair of Smurfette gym shoes, just like the ones my best girlfriend Sunny Derden got for Christmas. They were pink saddle oxfords with a huge print of Smurfette’s face on the sides. Without question or concern, my Mom bought them for me. I still remember the salesman’s face as my mom sent him to find a pair in my size.
The year I wanted to be the Wicked Witch of the West for Halloween, she made me a long black dress and did my makeup. I could do and be whatever I wanted. Wear her favorite black heels? Yes. Sleep in her sheer nightgown? Of course.
My mom was a miracle. She taught me how to read, took me to my first musical, and encouraged me to be creative. So much of what I love today began with her. I still take long, hot baths and occasionally put ketchup on popcorn because that’s what she did, and I want to be just like her.
All I have of her are these and other fragments from my childhood, because I was 9 years old when she died. February 14, 1985 was so long ago, and I still fight to comprehend it. How can the one person who understands you so completely just die? How could I not have her around to see me through to adulthood? She had been sick for a few days, and then one Saturday morning during cartoons she had my father take her to the hospital.
“It’s OK. Everything is all right. I’ll be home soon.”
I never saw her again.
I wasn’t allowed to visit her in the hospital because I was too young and wouldn’t understand. I didn’t get to say goodbye because it would be too much for me. I actually remember my dad saying at the funeral: “No, he can’t see the body to say goodbye, it’ll be too much for him.”
So she vanished into thin air. Even her things vaporized. Within days her life was packed up like garbage while I was at school, and given away. High heels and nightgowns aren’t things a little boy gets to ask about, and so I accepted their disappearance along with everything else. My nine-month-old sister got to keep our mother’s purse, and I was given a picture.
I took that picture everywhere. It came with me to school, I held it while I slept; it was always at my side. It was the one thing I got to keep, and I was determined to never let it out of my sight.
Grief is shameful; nobody wants to watch you grieve, it’s supposed to be hidden away. Tears make people uncomfortable, so my dad took the picture and put it on a shelf that I couldn’t reach. I could have my mom, but quietly, controlled, from a distance. What I wanted was for my dad to help me carry a torch for my mother, to wear a path into the ground, to beat the drums and shake our fists at the sky. I didn’t get that. Instead, my father was remarried, and I had a whole new family, one year later.
“Aren’t you lucky? You must feel so lucky. Your mom died and just like that you got a new one.” As if my mom were a set of tires that could easily be replaced. Everyone else was moving on, so I did too. I didn’t ask questions, because I was afraid. There was no sign of my mom in our house. She was gone, and it was clear that I was supposed to move on along with everyone else. I’m a grown man, and I’m still scared to ask my father to talk about my mother, so I cling to what I have.
Forgiveness means giving up all hope that the past could have been any different. It means believing that everyone did the best they knew how to do. It means knowing that clinging to what wasn’t perfect robs me of the joy of the good parts. That loving my family is more important than how we chose to navigate my mother’s death. I know, and understand, all of this. But sometimes, even now, it’s hard to not hold on—to be brave, breathe, and to just let it all be.
There’s a memory that I’ve been returning to a lot lately. My mom often took me running with her. I would try to run along beside her, but I couldn’t keep up with her pace. She’d pass me, and I’d be left in the dust. I’d stand there watching her slowly move far ahead of me and into the distance. It was unknown to me then, how life would play out, that I would only have a moment at her side. Maybe that’s enough, and all I need to hold on to is her love for me. Maybe it’s time to let everything else go, and know how beautiful it is to be loved, and how lucky I am that I ever got to see her run.
Jeremy Owens is a writer, performer as well as the creator and host of You’re Being Ridiculous, a popular reading series in Chicago most recently featured at Steppenwolf Theatre Company.