Monday, May 15, 2017

A Mother's Day Addendum

Almost as an afterthought, on Mother's Day, I posted a few photographs of my mother on my Facebook page. I don't have my mother here to spend time with on Mother's Day—or even where I could pick up the phone for our traditional Sunday afternoon calls—so for the last ten years, Mother's Days have been pretty anticlimactic for me as a daughter. I don't generally share much in preparation for that special day because I don't really have anyone to do that sort of thing for.

I did it, this time, anyhow. And it instigated a few comments almost instantly. Admittedly, the photographs present a striking image, considering these were from a collection my mother used in her portfolio during the years she lived in New York City with the hopes of breaking into the then-thriving entertainment business there. But the comments may also have popped up because not many people know my mother's story.

As a family history researcher, I find it quite easy to dig into old documents and unearth the details on the life of any ancestor long separated from my current era by decades or even hundreds of years. It's quite another thing to tell the story of someone you know quite intimately. Then, too, those for whom the concept we refer to as "Mother" calls up apple pie images, or cuddly recollections of kissed boo-boos, might not find themselves relating to the experiences that come to mind when I think of "Mother."

Far removed from both the image of the pudgy hug-dispenser and the Mommie Dearest nightmares of the abused, my mother fell somewhere in a very peculiar middle ground. How do you explain a mother like that? Partly the product of her immediate family's circumstances—born into the desperation of the Depression years—and partly the reaction to her family's own personality quirks, she was likely a person who traveled nearly an entire lifetime before she found herself—if she did so, even then.

That person-in-process became my mother long before she arrived at the answer to her question. Now that everyone in her generation is long gone, I've inherited all the papers saved—the college term papers she chose to save, the unpublished fiction she tried to market, even the newspaper clippings her proud mother preserved as bragging rights over luncheon gatherings with friends. I could piece the story together from all the scraps found in the files handed to me at subsequent family members' passing, but I don't really need the papers; I already know the gist of it, myself.

It was as if this one person had three lives: the young life of hopeful preparation, first in dance, then in acting; the years of motherhood and return to college for a "serious" career; and the days-turned-to-decades drudgery of working that professional dream in widowhood. She did, almost, seem like three different people.

And then, one day, it all came crashing down. It was a Saturday when she had just—mind you, in her eighties—completed her daily workout at the club that she decided to take a drive out to the hills where she often liked to hike. At an intersection close to her destination, she crossed the path of an oncoming car, and the resultant impact broke her neck. She was still conscious when medical help arrived and she alerted them to her concern about the break.

She was never the same after that incident. Considering her overall health and physical fitness, it took the injury nearly a year to finally claim her life, but she eventually succumbed. In the meantime, I learned a lot about being at the bedside of someone artificially sedated on account of medical necessity.

I also learned a lot about how other people see someone in that condition, as well. While I had the liberty of seeing that mangled mass of flesh as someone I loved, even the most caring of professionals may have had trouble seeing that loved one through the same eyes—for good reason, I understand, but still possibly hampered by stereotyped assumptions. While I saw someone with whom I had had a lifetime's relationship, others saw merely an eighty year old woman.

It was at that point when something occurred to me. Believe me, I've had plenty of experiences working professionally with "the elderly," myself, and I can understand how easy it is to put clients (or patients, or students, or any such classification) in a box. It's easier to do your job when you use labels; they're convenient. But those labels have a way of blinding the very people who need to be able to see what the problem is they are there to resolve.

It occurred to me: find a way to help people see my mother, not as the "old" woman they thought she was—after all, how can you explain a person like this?—but like a person they can relate to. A whole person, not a label on a box. So I made a copy of the photograph I used in yesterday's post and pinned it to the poster board in my mother's intensive care unit cubicle.

The next day, when the usual stream of nurses, therapists, and lab workers came by for their routine visits, they'd stop me to say, referring to the photograph, "Is that her?" Of course, after that question was answered, they wanted to know the rest of the story.

I can't say that incident, repeated for each person assigned to my mother's case, made all the difference, but gradually, I think, it changed the perception, which then changed the way people cared for her, even though she was still comatose and could not provide any prompts through her interactions with them.

Now, though, every time I see that same picture, I can't help but flash back to those painful times in the hospital, awaiting the inevitable, but somehow having it drag on for months—getting better, but not better enough. She was never the same again.

And yet, that's the way our family has ended up remembering her, not as the woman at the end—strong, fiercely independent, intelligent, but eventually broken—but as a summation which, really, was a snapshot of her potential from a more hopeful vantage point.

Perhaps, someday, I'll delve into those files with all the scraps of memorabilia from grandparents, aunt, and local resources, and see if I can take that composite and weave it into a comprehensible explanation—everything that went into the making of my mother. Such a heritage she had from her family—in fact, my sister prompts me to pursue that link potentially gaining us entrance into the Mayflower Society—but such a disjointed combination with the calamity of her times.

Perhaps delving into the lineage society application will become a therapeutic exercise, as would be the telling of the story. Yet, once again, it would be a biography of an insignificant life—but isn't that the point of our endeavors for all the ancestors we pursue? We hope to preserve their stories because...well...just because that's what we want to do.


  1. Her life was not insignificant. Remember the butterfly that flaps its wings and its effect ...

  2. Thank you Jacqi. My mother too was a composite of all her experiences in addition to her role as a mother. And sharing those 'other' years of her life had a influence on who I am today as well.

    1. We really are our mother's daughters, aren't we, Gayle? After all these years, I'm still surprised when I notice something new about myself, or even my daughter, and remember, that's exactly how my mother would do it!

  3. What a struggle her last year must have been for you and for her. :(

    1. It really was, Far Side. Everything she always wished would never happen to her eventually did.


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