10 years after my mother’s death

                “The Perogy Pinchers” ~ Lesley Lorenz *

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

It will be ten years ago tomorrow that, after hearing the news on the phone, I re-read the chapter called When Your Mother Dies, in Rona Maynard’s wonderful book, My Mother’s Daughter:

“Baby showers herald the transition to motherhood. Roses, greeting cards and invitations to brunch celebrate mothers every May. Yet, despite our culture’s motherhood mystique, no rituals mark the psychological journey we daughters begin when our mothers die.”    

My mother Joanie’s death in 2012 also marked my launch into orphanhood. As Christopher Buckley wrote in his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, when the last of your parents dies, you are an orphan:

“But you also lose the true keeper of your memories, your triumphs, your losses. Your mother is a scrapbook for all your enthusiasms. She is the one who validates and the one who shames – and when she’s gone, you are alone in a terrible way.”

May 7th this year marks both the occasion of my mother’s birth (she would have turned 94 this spring), and coincidentally the seventh birthday of Everly Rose, the darling great-granddaughter she never met. And she now has a great-grandson, too: our adorable Baby Zack is one year old.

Mom with her first grandchild, Ben - 1977        Mum with her first grandchild, Ben

Now that I’m a grandmother myself, I have an understandably different perspective on my mother’s relationship with my two children. As a Baba (grandmother), she showered time, affection and gifts upon each of her 11 grandbabies in a way her own five children rarely enjoyed, but with the universal infatuation grandmothers everywhere will recognize. Even though they lived thousands of miles apart, my daughter Larissa often mentions her fond memories of spending time during every visit to her Baba’s kitchen. They couldn’t see each other as frequently as I see my own grandkids who live nearby, of course, but their visits with my mother were stretched-out sleepovers with an adoring grandmother.  When my son Ben went away to Queen’s University, for example, he regularly took six-hour bus rides to spend holiday weekends at his Baba’s house in St. Catharines (and to load up on her homemade perogies to bring back to Kingston).

Her self-taught cooking and baking skills were legendary, and will live on in favourite recipes passed down through generations of her descendants – although no baker on earth could possibly duplicate my all-time favourite family birthday standard of hers: the famous Seven-Layer Mocha Walnut Torte.

And as we said in the obituary that my sibs and I drafted for our mother so many years ago:

  “Somewhere in heaven today is the aroma of her famous homebaked Chelsea buns and an apple pie or two, a jigsaw puzzle on the go, and the sounds of polka music as she finally gets to once again dance with her beloved Peter.”

She was the original multi-tasker, able to chat sociably with just about anybody while accomplishing the work of two normal humans – convinced that she and only she could run the planet correctly. (Full disclosure:  it’s clear that I inherited my personality, opinionated worldview and crazy-go-nuts Slavic work ethic directly from my mother).  She came by those feisty traits honestly, having somehow survived a nightmare childhood with 11 siblings in a 2-room prairie farmhouse, and then sent away on the train at age 13 to distant relatives “because I was too expensive to feed.”

By the time she died in 2012, she had been a widow for almost 30 years, and had never been quite the same since the death of my Dad (her lifelong love and favourite dancing partner). I think it’s accurate to say that widowhood for Mum was like a wound that never fully healed.  Despite close family, friends and neighbours who supported her, the standard dismissal of so many kind invitations over those decades was often: “It just wouldn’t be the same without HIM…”

Tragically, dementia stole the last few years of my mother’s long life. So when I survived a “widow maker” heart attack in 2008 (on the way home to the west coast after celebrating her 80th birthday in St. Catharines), we made a family decision to not tell her.  She lived far away, after all, and was lucid during only brief periods each day.

Because I had observed her decline, dementia is something that I now think about regularly (e.g. each time I misplace the keys I’ve just put down).  I’ve told my children that I often wish they had known me as their young mother in my 30s – so they won’t have to remember me one day as just that annoying old lady who kept repeating the same stories over and over.  After my mother’s death, I had to make a deliberate decision to remember her not as she was at the end, confused and upset, but instead to consciously recall her generosity, her quirky sense of humour and her wonderful face crinkling with delight when she laughed.

As Rona Maynard’s chapter on the death of her own mother observed:

 “The loss of either parent cuts deep, but mothers shape most women’s lives like no one else. What your mother served for dinner (or didn’t), whom she married (or divorced), the work she chose (or had forced upon her) – things like these tell a daughter what it means to be a woman.

“Whether you model your choices on hers or cringe at the very thought, whether she nurtured or neglected the girl you really were (as opposed to the one she thought you would be), your mother was your North Star.”

Rest in peace, Mum

 

May 7, 1928 – February 21, 2012

* The Perogy Pinchers, Lesley Lorenz

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  My book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“. reads like the“Best Of” Heart Sisters blog archives.  You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

Why I’m Nothing Like – Yet Just Like – My Mother

A Motherless Mother’s Day

“Bereavement Eating: Does Grief Cause Carb Cravings?

“Goodbye Mom” – cardiologist Dr. John Mandrola‘s moving tribute to his mother

.

26 thoughts on “10 years after my mother’s death

  1. Thank you for this! I was 35 when my mother suddenly died. I remember thinking, “This happens to all of us! Why did no one ever tell me how terrible it is?!”

    We need to see more of these stories in print!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Pat – the death of a mother IS terrible. I’m guessing that you likely had heard or read others describing the death of their mothers and that terrible loss – but who would believe that YOUR mother would die at such a young age – and so suddenly? How could anybody prepare for something like that?

      What really leaped out for me when I was writing this was the quote from Christopher Buckley: “She is the one who validates and the one who shames – and when she’s gone, you are alone in a terrible way.” This applies both to daughters who were very close to their Mums, yet also to those who were estranged from their Mums (because now all faint hope of renewing a difficult relationship is officially gone).

      I think that, like most kinds of loss (serious illness, losing a home or a job, divorce, a parent’s death, etc), until such a loss happens, it can remain just a moderately interesting topic, but not reality. But when it does happen – look out!

      Kind regards,
      C.

      Like

  2. Very moving. Thank you for sharing and for all those who commented. My mother was shadowed by depression all her life, had two hospitalizations for electroconvulsive therapy.

    I’ve spend a small fortune on therapy to scrape away some of her influences. She was also an incredible gardener, cook and bird watcher. When she died at age 98, we were at peace with each other.

    I made copies of her recipes for my sister and each grandchild. Some of them were treasured favorites and others were depression era doozies with ingredients none of us would touch now, spam and canned little sausages.

    Writing my memoirs, I feel more compassion for her struggles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Sara – thanks so much for sharing your unique perspective. Mental illness not only hurts the people diagnosed, but their children and other family members as well, who must learn to somehow live their own lives while worrying about the person with the diagnosis. I suspect that the small fortune spent on your own therapy was a wise investment for you.

      It’s telling that in the same paragraph you wrote about your therapy, you also mentioned your mother’s skills and interests. We grow up seeing both the “light” and the “shadow” of parents (as my reader Jill wrote, below). I’m glad that writing your memoirs is leading to more compassion. We could all use more compassion these days.

      BTW, I had to laugh at your description of the ingredients in some of your mother’s recipes: my own mother used to make a cold rice dessert with a delicious hot sauce that my sibs and I absolutely loved. We had always assumed it must be some traditional Ukrainian specialty – until one day we asked for the recipe. “Oh that’s easy!” said Mum. “You just cook up some Minute Rice, mix it with your Dream Whip” (a powdered whipped cream-like product) “and heat up some Aunt Jemima pancake syrup to pour over the cold pudding!” It wasn’t an old country delicacy at all – it was the latest processed-food recipe she’d found on the the back of a Dream Whip package!

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥️

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  3. Thank you for sharing Carolyn. Everyone has a story. Some stories are more painful than others.
    I was my Mom’s caretaker for the last 5 years of her life. Mom, Emily, was a tiny Scottish woman, 4’11 , 90 lbs.

    She had suffered numerous strokes and had some brain damage and early onset of dementia, she was innocent and childlike. It was tough for me at times but I had vowed to look after her. In 2015 I made a decision to place her in a full care facility and had hopes she would enjoy the company of other seniors during the day and be involved in activities instead of being by herself while I worked.

    In less than 2 months, she was attacked by another resident, a very large woman that also had dementia, and she suffered life-threatening injuries. She passed away a week later.

    I was riddled with guilt about my decision and fought the Care Home to get justice for her. I didn’t grieve properly and by 2017 suffered my widow maker heart attack.

    I truly believe the stress and sorrow of losing my Mom caused my heart attack.
    I think of her often and miss her dearly. ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Nancy. This is indeed a painful story. What a horrible nightmare that attack on your mother must have been for her, for you and for your family. Of course you had no way to predict that your mother was in any kind of imminent danger that day. Like any daughter, you reasonably trusted that this move would address both your mother’s quality of life and her future care.

      The decision to move an elderly parent into a community facility is one that so many grown children have to face, and none of us takes this important decision lightly. Even so, your feelings of guilt are understandable and common. But having to fight the Care Home administrators for justice? At a time when you should have been grieving your mother’s death – that must have taken a huge toll on you.

      We do know that longterm chronic stress can wreak havoc on the human body, causing damaging spikes in stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. I suspect you are correct: how could your subsequent heart attack NOT be associated with those years of debilitating stress?

      Please take care, and stay safe. . . ♥️

      Like

  4. What a blessing your relationship with your Mom was!

    It seems that one’s North Star in life can be either a female Mother or a male Dad that takes over as a Mother. My Mother figure was my Dad… and I have a brother who was a “Mom” because his wife was mentally ill.

    In my late twenties, I got over the fact that my Mother was just unable mentally to be there for me. Once I gave up judging her, we were able to spend the last years of her life in a peaceful long distance relationship. She left the earth on 1/19/2009.

    Love is a matter of the heart. . . Even with a healthy physical heart, some people have trouble expressing love and caring for others. Either way we grow, whether it’s in the light of our parents or their shadow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for those wise words, Jill – especially that last line, which knocked me right over (“Either way we grow, whether it’s in the light of our parents or their shadow…”) That is so true. And it’s also true that, as you remind us, non-mothers can and do step into that mothering role when it’s required.

      Much of my childhood also included both physical and psychological abuse, yet one thing that ‘shadow’ convinced me, even as a child, was that I really needed to be a different kind of parent when I grew up – and I was. I remember carefully “studying” other mums with their babies as if I were cramming for a midterm, and I surrounded myself with loving role models. I was lucky also to have professional therapy as an adult which helped me learn that both my parents were doing the very best they knew how to do, and if they had known how to do it better, they would have. It was only when I became a parent myself after the birth of my first baby that my parents seemed suddenly able to look at me with new eyes – which opened the door to what felt like fresh new relationships with them.

      One of my readers just posted a comment on Twitter in response to this post, 35 years after her own mother’s death: “As I age, I find myself catching moments of a deeper understanding of her & experience a gentler forgiveness for misunderstandings between us.” It’s that “gentle forgiveness” that makes such a difference.

      Take care and stay safe out there. . . ♥️

      Like

      1. So true. I remember as a child … watching “Donna Reed” and “Father Knows Best” Longing for what I was SURE a normal family should be. It took me a few decades to realize that normal can be much overrated and what SHOULD be is a flight of fancy.

        We are given the exact experiences that we need to grow and it is a choice how we perceive them. I remember Wayne Dyer talking about how both he and his brother were raised with an alcoholic dad and foster care but his brother grew up to be an angry alcoholic while Wayne went on to be successful in both his personal and professional life.

        You grew from your experience to become a well integrated, caring human being. I did too. My mom, as crazy as she was, did the best she knew how and I was forced to grow in ways I may never have experienced in a “normal” family.

        Of course we don’t realize these things while in the middle of them as a child. Life is too short to dwell on how things might be if our childhood was different. We must savor each moment and Love as much as we can!

        Blessings dear Carolyn, thanks for being who you are.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting observation from the late Dr. Wayne Dyer. I heard him speak at a conference many years ago in Chicago. He was a fantastically charismatic speaker, onstage for 3+ hours, no notes, no breaks, not a single ‘um’ or ‘ah’! But my main recollection of him that day was that his wife and young kids were all in the front row of the Hilton ballroom; he acknowledged and introduced each of them to the whole audience before his official presentation began. I recall throughout that event looking at the family from my seat two rows behind them, and thinking that my own children would never in a million years be able to sit so still, in absolute silence like that, for over three hours. He was indeed a professional success – and was also married three times. Nobody knows what really goes on in the personal lives of even the most successful motivational speakers!

          But I digress – what I wanted to actually say was that when you were longing for a “normal” family like “Father Knows Best”, I was longing for their cute 1956 house with the white picket fence and the rose-covered trellises. My guess is that neither of us could have known back then that we would one day grow up to be “well-integrated, caring human beings” – not because of our own childhoods, but in spite of them.

          Thank you Jill for being who YOU have become! ♥️

          Like

  5. Thank you for your story. I lost my mom last month.

    I moved back home 3 years ago to be her caretaker. I now sit in her chair in the living room daily. I seem fine till I try to speak about her and then I cry.

    She lived her adult life in the house my dad built for her. She raised 5 kids by herself in this house as she became a widow in 1968. My goal was to keep her home. She passed away at home surrounded by family. It was beautiful and so sad at the same time. A house full of people cooking, eating, laughing, crying and taking turns holding her hand as she passed.

    She will always be treasured.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jennifer for sharing these lovely words about your mother. I’m so sorry for your loss. I love your description of the “house full of people cooking, eating, laughing, crying and taking turns holding her hand”. None of us can plan how we die, but if we could, that’s a pretty wonderful description of how I’d like to go.

      I suspect that crying when you try to speak about your mother is universally common in these early days. I remember after my own mother died that I seemed to be “managing” pretty well, but all it would take was for somebody to ask, “How are you doing?” for me to start crying.

      You are a good daughter to move back home to care for her all those years.

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥️

      Like

  6. Thank you for this.  My mother died 10 years ago on January 31st.  (I had my heart attack that April).  She and I cared for my father at her home for 2 1/2 years before he died. 

    Being without him was extremely difficult for her.  You beautifully wrote feelings I share as well. She was my best friend and my North Star.  

    Best wishes,
    Sandra Behmke

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Sandra – I was thinking while reading your comment that there’s never a ‘good time’ to have a heart attack – but just three months after your mother’s death? That must have been an awful time for you to get through – and all without your “best friend and North Star” to help you.

      Thanks for telling us about your mother, and your Dad. You and your mother both helped each other as you cared for your father. I think that even when longtime spouses know that death is coming as their husband’s condition declines, it can be utterly devastating to suddenly be without him. That was certainly the case for my own mother.

      Take care, and stay safe out there. . . ♥️

      Like

    1. Of course they do, Gene. And if I were writing about men and their mothers, I would have included more on that. But since this site is about women, I tend to focus on women’s experiences.

      Take care, stay safe. . .

      Liked by 1 person

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