Category Archives: legacy

Paul Simon & the Mother-Child Reunion

At 12, I listened to The Concert in Central Park with my mother, cassette wheels spinning in rhythm to snow falling outside. We sang all winter: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The Boxer’s” lie-la-lie chorus. She could never carry a tune, but sang because she loved Simon & Garfunkel, and I loved them because she did. I didn’t know The Concert in Central Park happened the year I was born or that Simon & Garfunkel were no longer a duo. I didn’t understand most of the playlist, but I loved the songs’ mama-pajama beat and their mystery.

Years later, before she died, my mother and I fought about music. I was 20 and home for a weekend and listening to a mix CD one of my roommates made. Who Stopped the Rain came on and my mother said, “That’s my music. I can’t believe you’re listening to my music.” She was remarking on how strange and beautiful it can be when children adopt the best interests of their parents, but I didn’t want to be likened to her. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be my own person, not a copy of my mother, not her life repeated, and I didn’t understand how she was really complimenting me.

I was angry in a way I’d never been before or since. I knew she was dying —I’d made her death real by writing it down in my journal. By giving what was happening to us a name, I sanctified her death with power. No one ever needed to say the word death because I already knew she might not see me graduate college. I already knew she would definitely not see me marry. I already knew she would never know a grandchild. She was still alive, wouldn’t be dead for another year, but I was grieving the mother who was going to die. My grief came out in anger. It came out in fights with her about inane things like her music and my music. It came out in me lying: The cigarettes weren’t mine. The beer bottle caps in the back of my car belonged to someone else. It came out in the only socially acceptable culturally conditioned way I knew, as one woman turning against another.

The summer before, we’d had Dylan tickets, but she was too sick to go. So I went without her, already resenting the many more places I’d have to go without her, a life full of her absence and my presence. I was enraged because she was leaving me, and enraged because I wanted her to leave, which was a thousand times worse than her leaving. To this day, I wish I’d just smiled and sung along with her to CCR, the way we used to when I was a tween, the way we sang to Simon & Garfunkel.

Last week, I saw Paul Simon at Wolf Trap. I danced the whole time with my husband, a man my mother never knew, a man who loves Paul Simon and Dylan, and is my husband nonetheless. The concert overflowed with energy and summer abandon. People danced all over the lawn. We danced from the first song, The Boy in the Bubble, to the last one, The Sound of Silence. We danced in the rain, our umbrellas bobbing to the beat. We danced as the sky blazed red and purple and lightning sizzled beyond the trees.

No question, I thought about my mother. How could I not? I love Paul Simon because his songs entwine life with death, joy with loss, and make plain how each amplifies the other. I know I live with more vigor and vivaciousness because my mother died, because I know how starkly short a life can be. The Wolf Trap performance was the last leg of Paul Simon’s 2016 Tour, a tour that could be his last. I think he gave it everything he had. There was a moment when I looked at the stage, directly into his line of vision, and felt as if his exuberance flowed into the crowd and our exuberance flowed back onto the stage, uplifted him, just as he uplifted us.

I knew I’d have seen this concert with my mother, had she lived. I know that last clause holds all my life’s desires in three words. Had she lived. My mother is dead —her ashes, scattered in the Chesapeake Bay, swam away from me long ago. She was not at my wedding. She does not know her grandchildren. But she is also alive in the same way Paul Simon’s music will be alive long after his last concert.

Her exuberance lives in the music I love, the music we sang and fought about. Her love for me lives in the choices I make each day to be honest and to steer clear of destruction. I do not believe in clear categories of afterlife, but I do believe I am the full sum of my mother’s life. I am everything that eclipses her death. My life, the life I live without her, unfolds in rhythm to all she showed me, and her hope runs beside me, as constant as a heartbeat, as steady as breath.

Watching Hillary Without My Mother

My mother introduced me to Hillary Clinton one afternoon as she watched the news and I read The Hobbit and the Clintons flashed onto our television’s small screen.

“She uses her last name,” my mother said, pointing to the new first family. “Rodham.” Each syllable spread out on her tongue for emphasis: Rod-ham

This was a big deal, and I glanced away from my book, to the television screen, to the woman with big eyes and blonde hair and a gigantic grin. My mother’s gaze never moved from Hillary.

My mother used her own name too, LaSov, after her divorce. Until Hillary Rodham Clinton, I knew no other woman who’d made this seemingly bold move. In all honesty, I knew few women like my mother. She worked when my friends’ mothers stayed home. She wore pantsuits. She never owned a single apron. By first grade, I knew the words sexist and feminist. My mother taught them to me. She used the former to describe a male teacher who insisted girls wear skirts to school concerts.

When Hillary talked about having more important work than baking cookies, my mother applauded. (Our cookies came from a bakery or Pillsbury dough roll.) Still, I barely understood the controversies swirling around this new first lady in 1992, as she shirked gendered assumptions without apology, the same way my mother was teaching me to do. To us, Hillary stood for equality and promise, one dream of second wave feminism coming true. She stood for an America where women could be wives and mothers and leaders, the way men had melded career ambition and family for generations. Hillary blew right past the binaries, all the false dichotomies.

To my mother, Hillary also stood for an America where more could be possible for me, her daughter growing up at a time blessedly different from the pre-Civil Rights era when she came of age. Unlike my mother, who believed she had to be married by twenty-two, and choose between two careers –– teaching or nursing –– I could be anything. Do anything. Marry or not marry.  Just look at Hillary Rodham Clinton, my mother said.

She made sure I listened to Hillary’s speeches and read articles about her trips to China and Africa. We discussed them at the dinner table and between school and basketball practice. The year Hillary became first lady was the same year I declared myself a feminist, like my mother, and plastered my bedroom door with National Organization for Women stickers.

I voted for the first time at age 18 in New York State. No question: I voted for Hillary, then called my mother to tell her the news. We were both ecstatic.

Had my mother lived, I’d have driven 50 miles to her house this week to watch Hillary’s victory speech. We would have ordered Chinese takeout and watched Hillary command that Brooklyn stage again and again. We would have laughed together as the glass ceiling shattered into eighteen million pieces, so much light and possibility now dawning on our country.

I know my mother would have paused the speech somewhere around minute fourteen and said, Do you see? She remembers to thank her mother. We would have listened, breathless, to Hillary’s description of her “biggest rock,” her mother, born the same day Congress voted on the nineteenth amendment. Goosebumps would have risen up on both our arms, as Hillary smiled and the crowd cheered.

But my mother is dead. And I’ve had to learn to mark milestones without her. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d give anything to have her back, to be able to drive to her house this week and watch Hillary together.

In the end, I watched Hillary’s speech with one of my dogs curled against my lap and a cat perched beside my arm. I fought tears when I heard her call her mother her “greatest influence,” and listened to her tie her vast achievements to her mother’s struggles. My tears let loose when Chelsea took the stage to be the first person to hug her mother.

Rarely do I see mothers or daughters or mothers and daughters front and center in national politics. This moment feels rare and precious, historic and without comparison. Rarely do I hear world leaders applauding their mother’s influences or discussing their mothers at all. But this is a truth I cling to and a truth that saves me, the truth Hillary voiced at the heart of her speech, the truth that a mother’s legacy can survive death to live on in her child, the truth that a mother’s influence changes the world.

 

 

On Dead Mothers & Bathing Suits

For as long as I knew her, my mother had the same black bathing suit, a one piece that covered her cesarean scar. When she changed in front of me, I loved looking at that scar, a train track that ran down her navel. Her scar signaled her ultimate sacrifice, her body broken open in order to give me life. She never hid her body from me, but I inherited her shame, her scorn for her hips and thighs. I don’t know when this started, when I came to understand that mine and my mother’s bodies had failed in some deep and unknowable way, but I remember being nine and not wanting to put on my bathing suit for a swimming lesson. I remember wrapping myself in a towel and walking, head down, to the pool, hating my hips, wishing they’d disappear. I carried that shame into my adolescence and stopped swimming, even though a swimming pool is, to this day, the one place where I feel most boundless, and most like myself.

Years later, before her funeral, I uncovered a mirror and took a good, long look at my reflection. In that exhausting moment, I felt my shame dissolve. My body looked exactly like my mother’s. How could I not be comforted?

A week later, I left the house to swim. It was a big deal, one of the first times I re-entered the world without her, understood my life could continue beyond my most unfathomable loss. I wore a black bathing suit, a two-piece she would never have worn, and lost myself in the water. For that hour, as I kicked and pushed and breathed, I returned to myself, and to my mother. I felt the sharpest glimmer of hope arise within me. In the pool, in the water, I could stop time. I could shed my sadness, even if only briefly. I continued swimming that summer, and a year later I wore that same bathing suit on a beach bordering the African Sea, on the Isle of Crete. A person I’d just met snapped a photo of me standing, waist-high, in the pale, sun-dappled water. In the photo, I am squinting light out of my eyes and smiling. My head falls back in joy. I am thinking about dolphins and hiking and writing in a journal I’d given my mother to record her dreams; she’d never written a single word.

I wish I could say I batted shame away for the rest of my twenties, but that would be a big lie, or maybe a half-truth. I’m 35 now, and my body shows it –– grey hair, spider veins, a stomach that won’t quite ever be what it was nine years ago, when I wore bikinis on my honeymoon to Mexico. I still wince when I see my hips and thighs in a harshly-lit dressing room mirror. I still feel old hatred simmering. This week, as I prepared for a beach vacation, I spent more time worrying about bathing suits and my hips, than appreciating my good fortune, the fact that I’m going to the beach.

I resented my mother’s absence, the fact that this was just one more thing I’ve had to do without her for the past fourteen years. Often women tell me they can’t imagine doing the big things without their mothers: graduations, weddings, mothering their own children. But I think the small, everyday things are more brutal in their relentlessness. I’m incapable of shopping alone. Each time I try, I am reminded of how utterly, miserably bad I am at shopping without my mother. I need her in the mundane spaces of my life. And she’s not there. A particular grief stirs when I shop for bathing suits, a grief for the mother who is no longer with me, and a grief for the body I’m told I should have, but don’t. And then, there is the grief I feel for the body I once had, and is no longer mine.

I think bathing suit shopping is among the most complicated experiences a woman can have. By late May, the only options left seem to be bathing suits for a Kardashian or my Bubbie Fran. There’s rarely a middle ground in department stores, at least in my city. For comfort, I turn to Anne Lamott, whose book Traveling Mercies has sat on my shelf for almost as long as my mother’s been dead. Lamott describes the typically fruitless body-comparisons most women experience in dressing rooms, locker rooms, and on beaches. She details her own misgivings about her “dimply thighs,” but finds consolation in the “grace” of “comfortableness,” and writes: “And of the several things of which I’m most positive, one is that if I live to be an old woman, I won’t be sitting on my porch berating myself for having leapt into a swimsuit to swim in warm ocean water at every opportunity even though my thighs were dimply.”

Truly, I want to  leap out of my chair and shout “Amen” at the end of this sentence, but am afraid I will frighten my Unitarian husband and our skittish cats. So I will quietly whisper namaste, namaste, and start packing, knowing how happy my mother would be with the life I’ve created, and how if I called her right now to tell her I felt badly about my body, she would tell me I take after her. I am beautiful.

Purgatory

(According to random internet googling, I am the exact same height & weight as Beyoncé.)

 

Love & Immortality

My mother dreamed of climbing Mount St. Helens. She’d never been to Washington State, but once glimpsed the Wasatch Range from a Salt Lake City hotel room.

“They’re capped in snow, like in the movies!” She told me on the phone one morning, before leaving to run in the U.S. Transplant Olympics. Breathy and energetic, her voice sounded like that of a teenager.

At 43, my mother was thriving after an experimental kidney and pancreas transplant saved her life two years prior. Once barely able to walk around the block, she participated in two U.S. Transplant Olympics held in Salt Lake City, Utah and Columbus, Ohio. Her transplant freed her to dream of all the possibilities restored health could hold.

She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1966, before the widespread use of insulin pumps and blood-glucose meters. Although she once aspired to be a flight attendant and travel the world, my mother relinquished those ambitions when her insulin reactions became unpredictable. She chose a career in nursing and worked in healthcare until disabling organ failure forced her to leave her job.

After she left the workforce, I came home from school to find my mother watching Days of Our Lives or Another World, a Diet Coke in her hand, and a Dean Koontz novel spread out on our coffee table. At 10, 11, and 12, I didn’t understand my mother’s malaise. I hated her sweat suits and pallor. I longed to see her dust her eyes in coppery powder and sweep pink gloss across her lips.

I could not know then that my mother’s illness forced me to face my own mortality. The failure of her body, by extension, represented the inevitable demise of my own. I couldn’t understand how terrified she must have been to come so close to death in her thirties, not far from the age I am now.

Nor could I know the grief she felt, as she watched friends ascend their own careers and have enough energy to meet the daily demands of mothering. While her peers attended meetings and baked PTA cupcakes, my mother languished in our living room, caught in the snare of daytime TV.

Her organ transplant changed all that by offering an unexpected midlife reprieve. There were no limits to what she could do, and she wanted to do it all: travel, climb mountains, see her daughters graduate college, become a grandmother. Even when her transplanted organs failed midway through my junior year of college, my mother still clung to her dreams. She ordered luggage for far-off future trips and bought Harry Potter books for a hypothetical grandchild. Done with soap operas, she watched outdoor adventure television.

Maybe her behaviors represented denial, rather than hope. As my mother progressed on dialysis, death began to look like the most merciful path. But she had the imagination to dream of better days in the midst of her worst ones, and she taught me to do the same.

Six weeks after her death, I found myself on a plane to Glasgow, Scotland, traveling to work at a newspaper I’d never visited and live with a person I’d never met, in a city I’d never set foot in. I should have felt terrified, but I’d already experienced the worst thing that had ever happened to me. What could be worse than losing my mother? I embarked on the kind of adventures she’d always dreamed of having.

For a long time, I followed this path of living a mix of her dreams and mine, of doing what my mother could not do because she died, and I lived. I fantasized about climbing mountains that once beckoned her –– Mt. St. Helens and Everest. I even took her last name. I told myself I was honoring her legacy, and that is true. But I was also bargaining, offering up my life for hers, as if such a trade could resurrect her.

I don’t know when I accepted my mother’s death as final. I know acceptance came quietly, after years of reckoning.

People like to tell me my mother is proud of me, or that she’s watching over me. I do not accept these sentiments, but I also do not begrudge them. It is true that my mother is dead. It is also true that the best parts of her live on through me.

This time of year, when spring changes to summer, I remember how I found her sunbathing in our backyard one morning. She wore her black bathing suit. Her skin smelled of baby oil and coconut. A book rested against her chest.

What are you doing? I wanted to know. At six, I was full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Where does God live? Does death hurt? My mother pulled me to her chest, let me burrow into her shoulder, and began to read a story about a girl who rescued a pig.

I took the book inside our house and read the whole thing without stopping. I didn’t cry when Charlotte died after spinning the sack that held her eggs, or after her babies crawled out of the sack and into a world without their mother.

I understood Charlotte had died, but she wasn’t gone. She was the oldest story her children remembered, their first experience of sacrifice and kindness, a foundational current moving through their lives.

I no longer believe in sky gods or resurrection or clear categories of afterlife. I do believe in the force that was my mother, the power of her kindness and her dreams, her immortal love.