Motherless day

white-carnation1One of my earliest memories, one of my only memories of my mother, and the sweetest memory I have:

I am four years old. My mother and my aunt are in the kitchen, talking grownup talk. I am playing with my younger cousin, John, who is still in diapers. He is throwing a ball down the basement stairs, and I am running down and fetching it, like a dog, over and over.

It’s fun. I’m out of breath. Our basement is scary, but safe because the stairs lead off of the kitchen, where my mother and my aunt are talking, and I can hear their voices. I’m thumping all the way down, thumping all the way back up. The carpet on the stairs is thin, like felt, over the wooden steps. We all had bruises on our shins, all the time we lived in that house, from those stairs.

And they’re slippery. My cousin laughs and throws the ball. I run after it, and halfway down I slip and fall, and bump my head.

I start to cry. I leave the ball and run upstairs, sobbing. My cousin on the landing, wide-eyed. I go straight to my mother with utter faith that she will make it right.

And she does. She turns from her conversation, all her attention on me. She kisses my forehead, clucks in sympathy at the goose egg growing there, consoles me. She gets an ice cube from the freezer and wraps it in a paper towel, to press against it. She holds me until I stop crying.

She died less than seven months later.

Fast forward thirty years. My brother is dead, too, suddenly, tragically, his son the same age my brother was when our mother died. I am in Michigan for the funeral and all that goes along with it. My father is stoic, as ever. My sister and I are in his basement, going through things. He’s pulling stuff out of boxes, old report cards, stuff we left behind, especially me, because I’m almost never there.

And out of one box, he pulls a small packet of letters. Letters our mother wrote to him the summer he was in Japan, for work. The summer before she died. The summer I fell down the stairs. We had no idea these letters existed. What a treasure. My sister and I sit down immediately and read.

There are only four of them. And in one, my mother describes how I fell down the stairs, the goose egg, how she got me an ice cube.

It’s as though she reached out of the past, and kissed me on the forehead.

I didn’t need validation for this memory, but here it is.

I’m sure she wasn’t perfect, since no one is. The letters reveal a woman who is afraid to drive on the highway (born and raised in the city), who hates being alone at night, who teases her husband to buy her gifts and wonders if the geishas are making her look bad. She can’t work the lawn mower. She worries about money. She makes sure to tell my father what we kids are doing, and that we talk about him all the time. She obviously loves her husband and her children very much. And in one letter, she mentions that she’s losing weight and “feeling rotten.” She ascribes it to her nerves, her crazy diet, and missing her “sweetie,” but I’m sure it was the first sign of the leukemia that killed her.

No one ever took her place; no one even tried. If she’d lived, maybe when I got older we would have fought. Maybe she would have told me to wear less makeup, or more, or to put some decent clothes on, or pressured me about my relationships, or told me I was gaining too much weight. I hear all kinds of things about problems between mothers and daughters, but I don’t know anything about that. My mother was still my whole world when she died.

It’s the only time she ever let me down.

3 Responses to “Motherless day”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    Jesus.

    Beautiful.

  2. That was the river/This is the sea « AbsurdBeats Says:

    […] the other hand, C. wrote a beautiful essay about one of her few memories of her mother, a beloved woman who died when C. was very young. […]

  3. Shanghai Slim Says:

    A very touching piece!

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