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