From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

Celebrating My Mother

When I stopped seeing my mother with the eyes of a child, I saw the woman who helped me give birth to myself.

Nancy Friday

Almost five years ago at her 80th-birthday celebration, my mother, feeling fine and looking wonderful, closed her eyes and died in my living room.

Her death made no sense to me, and for a year I stumbled through the motions of living, probing the dimensions of the hole that her passing left in my world.

To me she had been larger than life, larger certainly than other people’s moms. She would lean out of the car window to lecture knots of smoking teens on the evils of tobacco. If she caught us watching American Bandstand, she snorted and asked about the dancers on screen, “Why aren’t those children out playing?!”

She was fiery and funny. She was brave and honest. But most of all, she was compassionate. For 30 years she and my Aunt Grace owned and ran a summer camp for girls and enjoyed nothing more than watching young people blossom in confidence and happiness. She married late and then suffered seeing the marriage dissolve quickly. But she raised her two girls with joy and without a backward glance. We felt safe with her; we felt loved. “Be careful what you pray for,” she once said to us. “I prayed for children all my adult life.” She paused, for meaning. “I never prayed for a man.” And her eyes twinkled.

The month before Mom turned 80, my sister, Nan, and I had talked with our husbands about the great birthday event. “Instead of celebrating in October,” one of us had suggested, “how about we do it in December, when the whole family can gather in New England? How does the 20th sound?”

About eight weeks ahead of time, I sent out the invitations. Inside was a photo of our mother as a baby, along with the caption, “How did this baby, who was so good and sweet and neat and quiet through most of her early years, turn out?” On the back was a recent photo of her smiling broadly. “For a more personal viewing,” the invitation continued, “come to her 80th birthday celebration.”

On her real birthday, October 26, my sister sent her a grandmother’s ring with the birthstone of each of her four grandchildren; it thrilled her. I gave her a watch with a large dial, specially suited to her dimming sight, and a jacket with a mandarin collar, made in China, which she immediately put aside. “I’ll wear this at my party in December,” she vowed.

October and November passed; the 20th approached. Nan and her family flew up from their home in Florida. The party was to be at my house, and the morning of the big day, my family and I were all up early. We talked and laughed excitedly as we polished silver, set out glasses and mixed the punch. Snow had fallen during the night, for an added touch of magic.

Just before two, my sister called Mom to say that I was on my way over to pick her up. “I feel like a bride,” she said to Nan on the phone. She looked like one too, a bride dressed in a Chinese jacket with a mandarin collar. Her face glowed.

At my house, as we walked together into the living room, everyone turned toward her and began applauding. “Oh, say,” she cried, bowing her head in a mixture of modesty and strong emotion.

The time came to cut the cake and offer formal congratulations to this family matriarch. We gathered in the dining room. During the toast, I read two documents that she and I had recently unearthed from the depths of her desk. They were written by her father—grandfather to almost everyone in the room—who had been dead for 30 years.

One was a series of small envelopes enclosed in a leather pouch, labeled in his small, precise hand, “Caroline’s Account with Time.” Each envelope had once held five dollars, marking a significant stage in her life (the first “for learning to crawl and walk, and eat with a spoon,” the second “for starting school,” and on up).

The other was a letter he had written to her at college on the eve of her 20th birthday. “How glorious it must be to be 20,” he wrote. “At that age, I was filled with hope and courage, both of which, thanks to God, have never left me. . . . I had good health and was not afraid to match myself with anyone. But I never dreamed then that in this or any other year I would have a fine daughter like you . . .”

As I read, tears streamed down our mother’s face. I finished the toast, and we raised our glasses. Mom turned to her sister and said, “Oh, Grace. Did you feel that? It was as if he was in the room with us.”

Well, perhaps he was. Because 20 minutes later, she left us to join him. She was sitting in her favorite wing chair in my living room, chatting and holding a plate of pastries on her lap. Then she closed her eyes and was gone. It was that easy, that graceful.

In the year that followed, I grew fearful and jumpy; I imagined all of the people I loved dying before my very eyes. I forgot appointments, dented the car, grieved deep and long. On a rainy April day, in a burst of poor judgment, I took my three children to see her grave for the first time.

It had not been sodded. It had sunk some six or eight inches in the thawing spring. We sat in the rain on the base of the large headstone marking the family plot, and we wept. Then we drove to a mall to try to cheer ourselves up. There was a wishing well there, and we threw in some pennies. “I wished that Grandma would be happy where she is,” said my third-grade daughter. “I know Grandma is happy, so I wished we could be,” said her sixth-grade sister. “I just threw my penny into the dark,” said their three-year-old brother, miserable.

But time has passed and healed us all. Slowly I recalled things she said to me in the months before she died. This came back among them: One night, just weeks before her party, we were chatting on the phone in an aimless, comfortable fashion, the way we always had done. Then her tone changed. “You are so kind, Terry, so compassionate, and you bring such light into people’s lives. You girls both have that gift: a talent for liveliness . . .” I stopped her there.

“Mom! That’s not me you’re describing; it’s you.” But she would have none of that.

Maybe she was trying, that last fall, to hand down to us her set of attributes, to state for one last time the values that she’d lived by. Or was it more mystical than that— “Here, I give these gifts to you”? I don’t know. I guess I never will. But although the hole that her passing left in my life is still there, I feel that I can look into it now without the terrible vertigo I felt at first. Slowly I have come to see the closing of her “Account with Time” not as the cruel parody of a birthday celebration, but as something else entirely—a celebration of her entire life, with the people she loved most all around her—a launching, almost.

Every day of my life since then, I have worn her large-faced watch. Always, I tell her stories. “You know, you sound a lot like your mother,” people tell me more and more lately.

“Where do the dead go—our own closest dead?” we ask ourselves. We don’t know, of course. But I sense that the woman who mothered me is someplace not far off. Inside, or all around. In a sudden familiar twinkle in the eyes of one of my children. Even in my very mirror.

Terry Marotta

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