“I just smiled at a potted plant, thinking it was you”.
She thought she saw me at her table when I was having a long distance phone call with my Mom.
This was when her mind was beginning to go a bit wild. I did not know it then but it was a sign of things to come. I could see her in my mind’s eye, smiling at the plant and I felt her affection, it did not matter that the plant was receiving it. We laughed merrily about the absurdity of her giving her glowing loving face to a potted plant.
We laughed a lot in the last years. We had as much fun as you can have when someone is evidently dying. On my many visits to Toronto the walk from the bathroom to the couch became increasingly like a marathon with pep talks and breaks along the way. “This is fun”, said Mom, “a sort of fun, if a bit ridiculous…” as we collapsed on the pillows in exhaustion and giggles.
“The upside of dying is having your kids come around, a compensation of sorts” said Mom, and also, “I can be insightful, in bizarre moments when I am not making jokes or confessing sins”. Conversation was intriguing and unpredictable, full of unforgettable images, such as this description of a discussion, “We huddle like rugby players and figure out what next to tackle”.
There were times when her spirits lagged, tired of the tricks of her mind; “I have forgotten why I am here. I don’t know where I am, and, I have forgotten who I am”.
She began to live with one foot in the other world. She saw things; she described images in her mind, as you sat before her. Other images, other times, other space. “I see you looking down and away, most likely at your child ”. I was sitting beside her, seeing myself in her mind, looking away.
Visions were dreams, objects were symbols, actions or fleeting moments were caught and symbolized. Her mind was making a film, writing a novel, dreaming a poem. Her mind was doing what it was supposed to do, move into the ethereal, leaving behind the earthly limitations of time and space.
My Mom’s main advice to me was to write it down. “You won’t have the energy later. Write it down now”.
I am writing. And I am thinking about mothers and daughters and what they teach each other. What advice do we act on, what lessons are more bodily memories than lessons. Did my Mom teach me how to make bread or do I just remember her hands and what they did.
What did we learn by accident, what lessons were not meant to be lessons?
My Mom decided that 25 years was long enough for her marriage and that we were all old enough to handle the separation. She would make proud jokes about the 25 year deadline. Once I had been married 25 years I entered a panic. It was as if the due date was over, the marriage was ruined, spoiled, unfit to carry on.
But also I remembered how my Mom thought that her time was up when she was 63 years old, the age her mother died. We set dates in our minds. I had set myself an invisible deadline. I felt a surge of emptiness and a dread of the future. I was not sure what I was supposed to do. I was not sure how to proceed.
When I was a young girl my Mom decided to put aside her married life and become a new woman. I see now that although her actions destroyed the family unit as it was, it also gave me a very strong sense of what it was to be a woman and look after your own self. Her best gift may have been her destruction of herself as a housewife.
From then on I never questioned looking after myself, my rights, my ability to attract a man, or my right to a good sex life that satisfied me. I felt right about asking for and getting what I wanted. And my beautiful older sisters may have had more trouble with that, being brought up by the good housewife.
I did not question my Mom’s right to live her life fully. What I did not realize was that I thought that I was disappointing her by living with the same man all my life. I slowly became conscious of my own assumptions about the 25th year of marriage and my own buried wounds.
It was her ball busting moves, limited as they were by her hesitant feminism, and not articulate or entrenched enough to give her a real release from her insecurities, that made me the woman I am today. I was capable of falling unwisely in love and walking away when I saw the unhealthy nature of that love. Afterwards, I had fun searching for the right man. I knew when I had found my partner, and I knew when monogamy was worth it. I knew how to express myself so that we could argue if necessary, and communicate without lying.
Just as my mom must have thought her days were almost over as she aged closer to 63, I had an unconscious unarticulated feeling that my marriage would be over at 25 years. My Mom lived for another 20 years longer than her mother. And she traveled every year, enjoyed her younger boy friend, and did acid in her sixties just to see what it was like.
I see now that I can have the long term marriage that she later spoke of wistfully, watching her old friends who had ‘stuck it out’ in the hard patches and then had loving relationships in their elder years. She wondered what that would have been like. She did not go so far as to regret her actions, but she was not too stubborn or proud to question the path she took.
I recognize that a long term marriage is not a lapse of courage, or an easier path, but a path of my own. I know she never meant to set up separation and ‘independence’ as the only path. During the painful process of discovering who she was and what she wanted, she did give me the tools for a real and stable relationship.
She would have been happy to see my husband and me out on our 29th anniversary, laughing and kissing. “Oh Meg”, she says from her location in the ether and energy, “But, of course! You know, I have always thought Joe was a gem”! And I smile at our other worldly conversation, and I continue to follow her advice, to write it all down.