Hope Edelman is one of the speakers at the River Teeth creative nonfiction conference this year, which I help plan. When I checked out Edelman’s bio I felt an immediate need to get a copy of her book Motherless Mothers and see what insights it might provide.
I didn’t get past the first chapter without learning that many of my strange personality quirks might have roots in my mother’s early death. I already knew I was overly independent, perhaps overly morbid and focused on death, that many of my personal decisions have been swayed by my mother’s death at 29 (marrying late, staying home with the kids as a young mother). But it also explained an odd thing that happened to me during my first year as a mother.
Michael was a mere 3 months old. Just beginning to develop his little personality – smiling, laughing, and other fun things. We were driving back from Christmas holiday with my in-laws in Texas. About half way back to Ohio I suddenly burst into tears.
I had no inkling that it was coming. The sudden outburst scared the hell out of my husband, Jeff.
I had been reflecting on the holidays – the fun of sharing Michael’s baby cuteness with Jeff’s family, when out of nowhere the absence of my mother from his life hit me like a tornado of emotion from a clear blue sky. I cried and cried.
Behind those tears came a parade of memories I hadn’t thought of for over a decade. I remembered muddy boots and nature hikes, how much she liked toddlers. Listening to her chat with her friends: like Lynn Wiltrout who called us kids “schmucks.” The way she used to get exasperated when we forgot or couldn’t figure something out – She would say “Observe!” in this flat voice and then patiently show us for the 25th time how to rinse our plates or tie our shoes or fold a towel or latch the door to the chicken coop. The time she swore us to secrecy before playing one of our Beatles records backwards to see if there was really a hidden message. I remembered the way she tied bright red handkerchiefs around her head when she worked outside. The ways her cheeks dimpled and flushed. The way her hair frizzed up in humid weather.
It was intense. And totally unexpected.
According to Edelman, this is a common experience for motherless mothers. Losing a mother young is such a traumatic event that we have to mourn the loss at different stages of development. These little reopenings of the wound even have a name and (of course) an acronym: Subsequent Temporary Upsurge of Grief (STUG).
A woman who’s lost her mother early in life can expect to experience these STUGs at life-changing junctures, but I can’t say I remember being hit like this when I graduated or at any point during my wedding. There was something about becoming a mother that suddenly brought the magnitude of the loss to bear in a way I had not experienced since the grief was new.
I grieved for my child who would never know her love, her humor, or her sense of wonder at the world. I grieved for myself without a mother to guide me through this strange new frontier of motherhood. I grieved for the loss of what was, for the loss of what could have been. But most of all and more than anything else, I grieved on my father’s behalf.
Because with the slumbering infant in the car seat behind me I finally understood what it felt like to be a parent – the protectiveness and worry, the weight and responsibility and the love – the bottomless love. This new understanding clarified all that my brother and I had lost that cold November in 1984. But it also made me see my father’s grief in a harshly revealing light. I finally got it. I understood how he must have felt at every milestone in my life. I understood what the word bittersweet really meant. I marveled more than ever at how he kept any semblance of sanity during those years.
This is what I was able to express to Jeff in the car that day through tears and sniffles. And after reading through Edelman’s book I realize how fortunate I was to have a father who gave a damn. He was by no means perfect. Grief caused his own personal foibles to mushroom to addiction status and affected my life too. There were arguments, there were things I just couldn’t do at school because of my family situation. I had chores at home like cooking and laundry that my 7th and 8th grade classmates weren’t in charge of. After his remarriage, there were feelings of anger and betrayal, which were perhaps, in retrospect, a bit unfair.
But so many of the women Edelman interviewed in her book, spoke of neglect, abuse, of young orphaned daughters shouldering all the household duties, of fathers who became emotionally and physically absent, or worse. For me, there was never any doubt through those grief stricken hazy days that my dad was there for me; that I could talk to him about anything; that we were in this sad sojourn together.
As my own children approach those hard-to-handle teenage years, I understand more and more how much he gave, how much he worried, watching us grow up and away, hoping beyond hope he had gotten something right. And how alone–how unfairly alone he would have felt in all of it. Although he remarried, my brother and I were too old by then to attach to another woman. He was still alone in parenting. And he pulled it off.
I bought my dad a copy of All the Light We Cannot See for Christmas this year because I knew it would be good. I had read Anthony Doerr before and knew he was worthy of all the accolades this book has won (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award). Because my dad taught me to love reading, I wanted to share something excellent with him. But mostly I bought it because I knew I’d finally get to read it when he was done. (I was about number 58 on the waiting list at the public library.)
I didn’t know enough about the plot to expect this paragraph in the chapter entitled “Bath.” As the father prepares to leave his blind daughter with relatives and be away from her for the first time in her life, he reflects on raising her by himself:
There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is no good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. All those Parisian mothers pushing buggies through the Jardin des Plantes or holding up cardigans in department stores–it seemed to him that those women nodded to each other as they passed, as though each possessed some secret knowledge that he did not. How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?
If I had read the book before giving it, I would have gift wrapped just that one paragraph and answered the question at the end.
Yes. You did a whole lot of things right.
Read more about the books mentioned above: