Memory

My mother died thirty years ago today. She was thirty-seven years old. That’s how old I am now. If I remember correctly, it was a Friday. My father told us as he drove us home from school. The image of the intersection we waited to cross as he said the words is burned in my memory. Later he sent me to a friend’s house to play. When I told her what had happened she said she already knew, and I had the uneasy sensation that she had known even before I did.

I remember the wake: the crowded room, my mother’s gold-embroidered gown, her cold face. I saw my father sitting on the edge of a table swinging his legs beneath him, the way children do. “My father is like a little boy,” I thought. I wore a green dress to her funeral, a source of shame until adulthood, when a therapist kindly pointed out that a seven-year-old could not have been expected to have funeral-appropriate clothes in her wardrobe. “Yes,” I said, “but she had been sick for a long time–” “No,” he interrupted, shaking his head.

I was old enough to understand the finality of death but not to accept it. One day after it was all over, I don’t remember exactly when, I told my father, “I want Mommy back.” At school, the third-grade teacher badgered me for weeks for an absence note. Finally, her patience exhausted, she asked me why I never brought it. I told her we didn’t have paper. Incredulous, she announced it to the class. When everyone laughed, I screamed, “You’re all idiots!” and ran from the room, the beginning of my life as an outsider. Was it really that difficult for an adult woman to imagine chaos in the aftermath of a mother’s death? Perhaps a couple of sentences scribbled on a piece of paper torn from a steno pad would have sufficed for her, but to me, a letter written on anything other than proper stationery would have constituted a public admission that my life had changed irrevocably, and not for the better.

(I often wonder whether the darker aspects of my personality depend on my having grown up without a mother or on having learned so young that the world is such a nasty and brutish place.)

My greatest fear is that I will die young, like my mother, and leave Pata with the heavy, inescapable sorrow of a child who knows that after a nightmare or a scraped knee, or a bad day at school, there is no comforting mother’s embrace. I imagine my mother’s anguish as she confronted that reality and my heart breaks for her.

Mommy, the decades that pass without you will never cancel out the seven years we were together, whether my memory of them fades or not, nor can they ever make me doubt how much you loved me.

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33 responses to “Memory

  1. How sad…I am so sad for you and your mom who had to leave too soon. I am so angry at the cruelty of that teacher…wow…the depth of hate in a human's mind is sometimes overwhelming to me. What makes a person that mean?Many hugs to you then and now.Breeze

  2. KC, this breaks my heart, hearing your story and knowing that even many years later it hurts. It is wonderful though that you carry your Mom in your heart. It shows that the bond of love is exceedingly strong. Try not to worry about dying young even though I know this anniversary every year brings that fear. Just enjoy your little Pata and hug her close. That's the best medicine for anything.

  3. Cara amica, your words and memories brought tears to my eyes. There are no two stories alike, but I do understand when you talk about learning young that the world is nasty and brutish place. I feel like I work to balance that part of me in some way or another all the time. Every day you and Pata are so very fortunate to have beautiful memories together. You are very much in my thoughts! Un abbraccione forte, Laura

  4. wow. such a touching and eye-opening entry. thank you for sharing this very intimate part of your life. what a wonderful mother you must be xoxox

  5. Dear Karen,All I can say is I am so sorry. I think about my mom every day. It's become an obsession. I know the feeling you are talking about and I can't imagine having that feeling at 7 years old. It is the same feeling at any age. Pata is blessed to have a mom with such insight about life. All my love. Kerry

  6. Thank you, Breeze. I've always been perplexed by that teacher's response. The truly outrageous thing was that it was a Catholic school, so she should have been modeling Christian behavior for her students. She failed miserably that time.Thanks, Gail. You're so right holding Pata close. She has even noticed that I've been a little sad the last few days and has been more affectionate than usual.Thank you, Laura. I think that striking that balance is the hardest work people like us ever have to do. Un abbraccione anche a te, kindred soul.Thanks, Em, and you're welcome. I hope I'm a good mother…I know that my experience has made me mindful of how delicate life is and how every day counts. I try to let that awareness inform the way I parent.

  7. Dear Karen,I am so sorry. I can't begin to imagine what this must be like for you. Pata is indeed a blessed child. My heart is with you.Dana

  8. Kerry, I'm so sorry that you're in so much pain. I wish I something helpful to say, some advice to give, but all I can offer is my complete understanding. Your mother was a wonderful woman and you honor by being who you are. Hugs.

  9. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of who you are. I am so sorry for your loss. I know that no matter how much time passes and how much life moves forward, that feeling of loss is never very far from the surface. It sounds like you honor and remember your dear mother everyday of your life and in this sense, she is never far from you. I am certain she is so proud of you as she watches over your beautiful family. Be good to yourself.

  10. Thanks for sharing your memories with us. I can't imagine how hard it must be to think back to those painful times. like the others have said, try really really hard to not worry about doing the same to Pata…there are way too many things in this world to worry about that leave us to miss the great and wonderful things.many hugs and thoughts are with you.

  11. I am sure it took a lot of courage to write these words. I can only imagine what it feels like to lose a mother. I'll be honest, I am not ready to know. I am sure as a mother many thoughts and fears cross your mind, unfortunately more often than not these things are out of our hands but that makes the time we have with our loved ones so much more valuable. I don't know you personally but I get the feeling you are a good Mom. Kids can be very cruel (as well as teachers in this case!) and I think that the best thing a parent can do is to teach their kids compassion. I can't remember who said it but, "A noble man raises a noble son" (in this case woman) I think this saying rings true here. Your mother did a wonderful job with you. You are intelligent, creative, good mother and a good wife. The memory of your Mom lives on in you and I know that wherever she is, you have made her proud :-)

  12. Thank you for your kind words, Dana.Thank you, Jill. With time, we learn to distract ourselves, but you're right that the sense of loss is always there.Thanks, Eryn. It does get easier as the years pass, in fact I think this is the first time I've ever been able to reconstruct those days in my mind. Before, they were just part of an amorphous cloud of events that surrounded her death.Thank you, Piccola. It did take some courage, and I was conflicted about writing it because of how personal it is. But it's such a big part of my life and it made me feel better to write it.

  13. Karen,That was really beautiful and heartwrenching. I'm so, so sorry for your (30 years and counting) of loss. I grew up without my father (he was not dead and I don't have warm, fuzzy memories of him so to compare with your situation would be ludicrous – it's apples and oranges) and I too remember awkward/embarrassing/painful situations, like being sent to father-daughter Brownies events with other girls and their fathers and being asked where my dad was. Though the absence of my father probably affected more profoundly much later. Again, I can't compare my situation with yours but I do understand what it's like to grow up with the big glaring absence of one parent. I have no idea what I'll say to my son when he's old enough to ask why he has no grandfather in the U.S. like he has a nonno here. That day isn't too far away.My thoughts are with you today.Michelle

  14. What a sad sad story and a mean teacher too.I am sorry for your loss and the pain that diminishes with time but never really goes away.

  15. Wow, this is a tear jerker…What a brave little girl you were and I really cannot image what that must have been like for you to loose your mommy at such a young age. But your story has such strength in it. As do the other stories you tell. Your mom would be proud. All we can do is live each day to the fullest and and hope and pray that we will grow old with our children. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Thanks so much for your memories, thoughts, and feelings. It's so refreshing for me, really, to read about strong women, though you might not realize how much when the sorrows dampen life. Many people who have lost have a hard time expressing this, or others think it taboo, or other stagnant things. I hope you will ever find the courage, even through tears, to pass on your thoughts, love, and life. Your daughter will ever be greatful, even if she does not yet appreciate it. Live life to its full.There is a great author, Hope Edelman, who has written two thoughtful books: "Motherless Daughters" and later "Motherless Mothers". It's simply written, unpretentious, and thankfully gives many experiences of similar women (and men) who had questions, but did what they could to continue on. I recommend it.By the way, I love your post! :) ~S

  17. Thank you, Michelle, I hated the mother-daughter activities. You would think that schools and programs for children might be more sensitive to the fact that there are so many different kinds of families.Thanks J.Doe, I think she was the meanest I ever encountered. Well, except for the nun who wouldn't let anyone go to the bathroom.Thank you for your kind words, Lost in Sicily. I agree that living life to the fullest really is the wisest response to grief, and I think it's what those who have died want from us anyway.Thank you, S. I've actually read "Motherless Daughters," but a very long time ago and I found it very helpful. I didn't know about the other one, thank you for telling me about it.

  18. Thank you for sharing this story. The circumstances are different but I too experienced the pain of loss and being an outsider and fear (and introverted). It never really leaves no matter how hard I try. One thing though, it has made me extremely compassionate toward others, especially children.Also, I always wonder why people like that become teachers? kp

  19. KC, that was beautiful…I'm so sorry for your loss, and for the heartless response of your teacher. As someone who works with kids (and as someone who was verbally abused as a child) I understand how fragile children are. I wish everyone did. …Thank you for sharing this…I was really touched.

  20. kp, compassion is a great gift. I've found the same thing, that my experience has made me more compassionate, and I am so thankful for that.Michelle, thank you. Sometimes people treat children worse than they would treat adults in similar circumstances and I have never understood why.

  21. KC- Just beautiful. The loss of a mother is devastating. I lost my mom at 28 and it brought me back to feeling like a child. It really is something that you never get over and it shapes and changes how you see the world. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  22. Dear KC, what a moving story. Reading it made me cry for the little girl that you were and who still lives on inside of you. Hugs.

  23. Thanks, Nicole. It's a loss that's difficult at any age because it makes us feel particularly vulnerable.Thank you, Saretta.

  24. A beautifully written and moving piece. I am so sorry you lost your mother at such a young age. It was heartbreaking to read about your memories and early experiences. My father died last year and it still feels so raw and painful to me. I can't imagine what it must be like to process that experience as a child. Thinking of you and sending wishes for comfort and peace.

  25. Thank you! Believe me that with time, it becomes less painful, even if the sorrow never completely disappears.

  26. Dear KC I have just come over fro Ciao Amalfi, Laura's blog. I didn't see her Sunday shout on you til now.This story struck a chord with me. Except it was my Dad, who passed away 42 years ago when I was 10..I never got to go to his funeral, the family didn't think it was a good thing for some reason, and just like your school, my family are all catholics!! I never got to grieve properly, and it tugs at my heart still! Take care Anne

  27. Hello Anne, and welcome. I'm sorry that you weren't allowed to go to your father's funeral. Adults think they need to protect children from the reality of death, never realizing that the best thing for them is acknowledging it. Children need to grieve just as adults do, and depriving them of that makes getting on with life even more difficult. (But you already know that from your hard-won experience.)

  28. I regret that I have been away from blogging for a while and missed what you had to say until now. What you have written is so touching. I am so sorry for you, and for your mother too. It is so unfair that you didn't get more time with her. I can't help but think though, that you must have a wonderful insight that most of us miss, how very important it is to really be present for our children. To be there for them, with them, in the everyday, and the mundane. Pata is so lucky to have you as her mamma! Hugs and blessings to you,Amber

  29. Thank you, Amber. I find myself very attracted to certain principles of attachment parenting, and I thought that was odd because I never thought I'd be the kind of mother I'm turning out to be…but now that you mention it, I think it's been the loss of my mother that has lead me prefer a parenting style based on being truly present.

  30. KC,This post really brought tears to my eyes. I am so sorry for your loss, and that it seems like you relive the moment when you first learned of her passing. That must be truly horrible to live with for the rest of your life. Hopefully all these condolences can make you feel a little better, even if words on a screen can't fully portray our emotions towards you in this post. I honestly can't understand why a teacher would feel that it was necessary to haggar such a young person. At the very least, she could have called home to ask about your absence. I always wonder why people do and say the things they do when they don't completely make sense.And so you know, Pata must have a great mother. Perhaps this dark moment in your life has helped you in some way – it has made such a strong bond between your mother and yourself, as with your daughter… If that at all makes sense.Hope you feel better.

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