Mothering with Grit

Five generations, including my mother and my sister, Barb on her lap. Her mother is behind her, then grandmother and great-grandmother on the left. I've always loved so much about this photo. 
My DIL asked me / us to spend Mother's Day with them, this coming Sunday, because 'it'll be your first Mother's Day without your Mom, and you shouldn't spend it alone."

Mom's been gone now for almost three months, and I'm still getting used to the idea. I'm not supposed to say it, but overall, I haven't been sad; it just feels strange. Which is sad in itself.

She was always too beautiful for her own good. This is her in her early 40's.
I was smack dab in the middle of six kids born within less than eight years, so she handled us as a pack, unless we really messed up, then we got some one-on-one that we didn't really want. I can only remember being spanked one time, and that was after all six of us misbehaved at the shoe store. We came home, she lined us up, and every single one of us got it. I still swear I was guilty only by association.

My one-on-one times with my mother really only started after I was a young mother myself and had moved several states away. Even then she was still busy working and I was raising little ones, so we talked on the phone now and then, mailed letters written with blue ink, on lined paper, and saw each other once or twice a year for a day or so. That was when cell phones and the internet didn't exist, and 'long distance' was expensive.

It's charming to remember back to the day when, if you were on a 'long distance' call, nobody interrupted you. To talk for a half hour was a big deal, because it would cost you $3.00 on your next phone bill. 'Collect calls' were even more pricey, and it better be an emergency if someone called you collect and asked you to 'accept the charges'. If that happened someone had died, or was in jail.

When our kids were all grown, and Mom was finally semi-retired, we started talking on the phone more (cell phones and calling plans had evolved by then) and taking road trips together. I don't know how many we went on, but I'm thankful for every single one of them. I think the first place we took Mom, with Cub Sweetheart's Mom too, was to see Niagara Falls after one of our daughter's weddings. I still laugh when I think back that we had the two moms share a room, and they were about as polar opposite as you could get. CS's mother never wore a pair of jeans or shorts in her life, disliked Cookie Monster because he used incorrect grammar, and was known for her canned beets. My mother listened to Bruce Springsteen, smoked cigarettes and liked margaritas with chips and salsa; she never did really learn to cook, and didn't bother much with cleaning. She did laundry only because we would have run naked otherwise. There were always other things that called her name, like reading psycho-babble books, or writing poetry. I'm sure that particular trip had them both twitching just a bit.

I believe this was the proudest moment of her entire life, when she received her BA in Psychology degree. She'd dropped out of school after the 8th grade, and yet she went on to accomplish this. 
Truth is I longed for a Mom somewhere in the middle of Opie's Aunt Bee, and Mrs. Flax from 'Beaches'. I hoped my mother would somehow turn into one of those Mary Tyler Moore types that wore matching outfits with a string of pearls, fixed their hair every day, kept house, but was fun. That's not what I got. Not when I was a kid, and not when I was grown. Mom was a bit off the beaten track, saying odd things, doing odd things, not fitting in anywhere. She wasn't good at clothes or makeup and never could fix her own hair. In spite of working her whole life to get an education, she was socially awkward - too talkative, too earnest, too everything - and constantly in search of something or someone to fix all the broken places in her. Sometimes it was a new marriage, sometimes it was moving across the country, but it was always something. I remember being thankful when I realized she was probably too old to ever marry again.

Over the years, as I tried my best to raise our three kids, and saw what an exhausting, daunting task it was, saw myself fall short more than once, I gave back the grace. Then there were days when I pressed on through the hard stuff, and I took back most of that grace previously given. Why couldn't she be more 'motherly'? Why couldn't she be more like 'everyone else's mom'?

The marker a funeral home places on your grave if you don't have money for a headstone. After finding this, she found a relative who promised to put a headstone in place for her 'Grandma Allie'. 
The year we drove to her birthplace, found the abandoned house that had been her grandparents', found her Granny's barely marked grave, and I heard more of her stories, I ended up once and for all on the grace side of the equation. I finally realized she'd mothered the six of us out of a bucket that had grit and not much else in it.

At some point in her mothering, and mine, I realized as a child I deserved better than I got. And so did she. She could not give me what she didn't have herself. I also realized, like me, she'd done the best she could. Abandoned / given away as a young child, then eventually returned to her grandparents who kept her alive but little more, she'd met my father and agreed to marry him when she was still a child herself. It was only when she started growing up herself, and all the longings for a life she'd never had began to force themselves to the surface, that she stopped wanting a husband who would also father her, and a rub that would last the rest of her years began.

The last time she saw her father. She didn't go to his funeral when he died.
She'd spend most of the rest of her life looking for that man who would complete her, father her, love her, but never show an ounce of authority over her, by God. She told me the last time she went to see her Father, it was clear he didn't care about her, but going through her papers I found a single letter from him, to her, telling her he loved her. I hope somewhere inside, she knew he cared, and that, like her, he did the best he could with what he had.

She'd lost her mother too early, when she was around thirty years old, and it was clear to me she chose to see the good side of the mothering she got from her. This mother who had been deserted by her husband, left with eight children, and making the horrible choice to give away several of the smaller ones because she couldn't raise them all herself. My mother wasn't adopted out - which might have been more of a blessing if she had - but was passed off to the grandparents. So whatever mothering style or standard she came away with, it was from her own mother's fierce determination to protect her children, but with very few resources to bring that about.

Does anyone else think about what they want on their headstone? For years I've known I want mine to say, 'She loved with all she had."

That's been my goal since I became a mother myself at the ripe age of twenty. No idea what I was doing, but determined to figure it out before I messed up this little one they'd let me take home and do whatever I wanted with.

This year - this first mother's day without my mom here - that's where I've landed. I can't miss what I didn't have; rather, I'm learning to be okay with what was. Being raised by her wasn't the stuff sappy, feel good movies are made of, but she left us a legacy of knowing she loved all six of us with grit - with all she had. It seems appropriate to me that the birth of a child starts with hours of painful labor; what nobody tells you is it continues as long as you and that child are both alive. It takes grit, and a lot of it. My mother gave it all she had, even when it wasn't enough. No one can ask for more than that. 


Gretchen said…
Fresh tears, Bev. "She loved with all she had." Yes. Hopefully to be said of me, too. My mom did the best she could with what she had. I wanted different, sometimes, too, but it's so much easier to give back that grace when I see that she really did so much with what she had; she just didn't have a lot, sometimes. xxxooo
Bev said…
Gretchen, exactly. xoxoxo

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