Mother, Daughter, Mother, Daughter — Round and Round It Goes
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother and my grandmother these last few days. Mother’s Day is tomorrow and they’ve both been gone a long time.
My Grandmother-Maddy-died six hours after my first child was born. His name is John. Maddy was the oldest of thirteen and grew up in far northern Maine. She grew up in a time when men made the decisions. She always wanted a boy. She had four miscarriages-all boys-before she had my mother. My mother was an only child. My Grandfather died when my mother was fifteen. My mother and Maddy had a complicated relationship from then on and possibly before that too. Maddy had several jobs over the years. House mother at an all boys college and housekeeper for the Bishop of Maine. Later when she moved closer to us she was the housekeeper for the priests at the Catholic church in our town. My mother married a good Irish Catholic boy from Boston and they had two girls, me and my sister. By the time I was married and pregnant with my first child, Maddy had developed bladder cancer. I lived in Chicago by then so I went home to visit her before I could no longer fly. The doctor said her time was short and she probably wouldn’t live to see the baby. When I saw her she said “You’re having a boy and you should name him Peter.” I have no idea where the name Peter came from but that was definitely not happening. My father, both my grandfathers and my father-in-law were all named John, so IF we had a boy, we were naming him John. I left letting her think it was a possibility. I flew home and shortly thereafter Maddy was put into hospice. On the morning of April 12th, 1999 my son John was born. My sister went to see Maddy and told her about John. She definitely understood. She finally had her boy. Six hours later she was gone. I believe they passed each other somewhere in the sky.
My mother had two daughters. I love my sister dearly and can’t imagine another sibling, yet there were times when I was young that I desperately wanted a brother. I don’t think I ever wondered if my Mom wanted a boy. We all knew Maddy wanted boys — that was very clear. She favored men and while I knew she loved us, I subconsciously knew that if we had a brother that he would be her favorite. I never felt that way about my Mom. We didn’t always get along, but I always knew she loved me and I didn’t get the sense that she cared about the gender of her children. I did know that her relationship with Maddy was complicated. I think Mom felt that she was never enough for her. My Mom didn’t like to talk about feelings so we never discussed it but I always felt it. When I was about to have John, my Mom had to decide if she was going to be with me or stay with her Mom, who was actively dying. She chose me. She didn’t get to say goodbye to her Mom, but my sister says that the visit to the hospital before she left for Chicago was brutal. I think there were a lot of things left unsaid by Maddy.
My relationship with my Mom, like hers with Maddy, was complicated. There were times when I was the favored child and times when it was my sister. Most of the time we were both in her good graces and we both definitely knew we were loved. That said, you definitely knew when you were not in her good graces, some times deservedly so and others maybe not so much. My Mom died in 2007 when my daughter was six and my niece was two. I do have two boys and my sister has one son, but as the girls have grown older my sister and I have realized that the mother-daughter relationship is more complicated than the mother-son. Simply said, boys are just less complicated. They break things and smell bad sometimes, but they get mad and get over things a lot faster than girls. I can’t seem to find the right words to explain the difference beyond that, but I think if you’re a mother with a daughter you understand what I mean. I realize now that I expected a lot from my mother and I didn’t always give her the respect she deserved. In my defense, the majority of those times happened between the ages of thirteen and twenty. My daughter is currently 18 by the way. During those teenage years I wanted her to allow me to do the things I wanted to do and I also wanted a lot of “things”. I thought I was pretty smart too-smarter than her for sure. Things improved while I was in college and then took a temporary nose dive at twenty-four.
In order to give context to our relationship in my twenties and thirties, you need to know that my father died when I was twenty-four. My father had suffered from depression for years and he took his life in 1992. I can write pages about that on another day, but today is about my Mom. My Mom was a fighter not a talker. She never wanted to talk about it, she just wanted to get through it. She wanted to show everyone that we were ok. I didn’t agree with that approach and the next year or so were tough. Truly though, they would have been tough even if we were on the same page. The good news is that we got through it and even managed to plan my wedding. Over the next few years there were the occasional squabbles about when I was coming home to visit and her spending habits. I had two children and there were even more squabbles about coming home and about baptizing grandchildren, but for the most part we were able to keep the peace. She was an amazing grandmother and she was there for me when I needed her. Then she got sick.
By the time she went to the doctor in 2003, she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. They told us the survival rate was about five years. She went through a lot of treatments and was in remission in 2005 when my third child (boy) and my niece were born. She was actually staying with us when Brian was born and was a huge help with the other two kids. We were really hopeful that she was the exception, but the cancer came back and by the spring of 2007 we knew we were looking at palliative care instead of treatment. I’ve said she was a fighter not a talker and that never changed. She never did talk to us other than to say “he chose to leave and I’m not doing that. I don’t want you two to be alone. I don’t want to leave you alone.” That one exchange said so much about Mom. I think she felt that she was left alone by her father, my father and even her mother. She never said that directly, I just felt it. My sister and I promised her that we’d always be close and that we knew she wasn’t leaving by choice. Some really strange things happened the day she died which resulted in neither of us being there in her final moments. In hindsight it’s like she orchestrated it so that we wouldn’t be there. She needed us not to be there. Someone who loved her and promised to watch out for us was there to let her go without us having to see her leave. I miss her every day, but I’m ok with how we left things.
A lot has happened in the thirteen years she has been gone. During that time my sister and I have become even closer. I’d argue that we are closer because she is gone. I used to visit my Mom and “see” my sister, now my sister is my only family. My kids have grown and my daughter is now eighteen and my niece is fifteen. My sister and I are smack in the middle of the push-pull years. Our girls are bright, strong willed, and determined. They love us and hate us depending on the day. I take that back, they don’t hate us, but we’ve now become the adults that occasionally disappoint them. We are no longer just their Mom, we are adults who don’t alway do the right thing. Sometimes our mere existence is annoying and other times they tell us how much their friends love us. We are windows to their future and they are windows to our past. The mother daughter relationship started over again, each mother trying her best to do it just a little bit different/better. My daughter and I have had lots of ups and downs. To be honest, she has challenged me since day one and she continues to do so. Then just the other day she blew me away with her very adult view of a difficult situation. I know I wouldn’t have had the same view when I was her age and I certainly would not have discussed it with my Mom at that time either. Undoubtedly there will be a few more downs along our journey together, but I’m ok with how things are and I’m hopeful that I’ll be ok with how we leave things. I look forward to seeing the next mother daughter relationship if that is in future.
Happy Mother’s Day to all Moms — past, present and future.