For a long time I’ve wanted to write my mother a letter to tell her all the things she taught me, how her unyielding love gave me confidence and strength, how I adore when anyone says that we laugh alike or that I look like her, and that I miss her. A lot; as much as I did in the first days after she died.
It was going to be a thank you letter: this epic essay that would eloquently weave together all the things I’ve wanted to say to her during the last fifteen years. I don’t know who the letter was supposed to be for: her or me or other people so they could understand how wonderful and unique my mother was. I wanted to write it but I kept putting it off because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect.
As a rule, Mothers Day does not worry me. When I was little, my Dad, Mum, and I would celebrate it in a fairly ordinary way: with a card, maybe a small gift, and brunch. Dad might put in a call to his mum, who lived on the Welsh border with England, but that was about it. The first Mothers Day I spent without her was probably a bit sad, but honestly I don’t remember it being particularly significant. I figure the day is only as big a deal as I make it.
But this year, for whatever reason, feels different. The first sign was when I began deleting any email that arrived in my inbox announcing a Mothers Day sale– which apparently was every retailer I’m signed up with. And feelings crept in: a surreal mixture of ambivalence, sadness, pride, and anger. I didn’t want to feel all that stuff but I did, and still do: ambivalence because who cares it’s a made-up holiday anyway, right?, sadness because she’s not here for me to take out to brunch, pride because Mum was the best and I’ll take any opportunity to talk about her, and anger that we were cheated out of more time together. I know it’s irrational and probably not healthy but whenever I see other women enjoying a day out with their mothers, or when I come across a gift, a film, or a piece of music I think she’d like, I feel angry that I can’t share it with her.
So I guess it’s time to write the letter.
I miss you, but I think you know that. You also know all about my life because you’re still very present – not in a sitting-on-a-white-cloud-looking-down-on-me kind of way, but in a thousand intangible ways that only you and I would recognize.
Losing you as suddenly as I did is something I’m still coming to terms with. At first it meant having to figure out who I am in your absence – I don’t imagine anyone realizes how wrapped up their own identity is with their parents’ until a parent dies. More recently it has meant figuring out who you were – not only to me but to all the others in your life, even yourself. I’ve tried to piece that together by asking questions of the relatives left behind, a process that increasingly means filling in the gaps myself as more of the people you were closest to pass away.
When I think of you, the first thing that comes to mind is how resilient and positive you were. So much of your early life involved struggle: supporting yourself and your family from the age of 16, being repeatedly dismissed by a rigid class system, exhibiting ambition before there was a feminist movement to validate you, and so many other challenges that you overcame without breaking your stride. I’m sure you’d rather I didn’t enumerate your life like some kind of cinematic triumph over adversity, but the fact is you cleared so many hurdles that I never had to worry about, and it made you the strong, no-nonsense person who I wish I could consult for advice so often it’s painful. But don’t worry; I still remember the lessons you taught me, either by example or by a pointed remark as you looked at me over the tops of your glasses:
You taught me that every job is worth doing well.
You taught me to enjoy the moment.
You taught me patience (still working on it.)
You taught me how to be practical, and to consider fixing something when it breaks rather than throwing it away. At the same time you knew when to say “it’s only money” – that treating yourself once in a while is important.
You taught me to sing along to records, especially Ella Fitzgerald.
You taught me that loyalty to the people you love is the most beautiful thing in the world.
I wish more people had gotten the chance to know you, but those who did know how lucky they are. And since you died I’ve been lucky to have a handful of other “mothers” step forward and play some version of that role in my life. They’ll never replace you, but they look out for me in ways you might have if you were here, and for that I’m extremely grateful.
I’m sorry that I gave you such a hard time as a teenager; that I took you for granted and came home from college thinking I knew more about life than you did. I’m sorry I didn’t listen more, that the epic conversations that arose spontaneously when I was home and stretched across topics from relationships to raising children to politics, didn’t happen more frequently. I’m sorry I don’t remember those conversations more clearly. As I moved through adult milestones like getting married and dealing with the deaths of friends I’m sure you had something wise and kind to say that would have helped. I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet Dave, but I feel sure you approve.
I’m glad that you had me later in life than my friends’ mothers and that you never let me forget that in your eyes I was precious and beautiful and invincible. Even though I did my share of whining for a sibling, I’m glad I’m the only one in the universe who called you Mum. Everything that urges me to be loving, courageous, and moral comes from you. I hope you know that.