I remember that Pan Am flight from Miami to our new life in England, soaring above the mid-Atlantic clouds — my mother wearing her standard outfit of Wrangler blue jeans and a floaty blouse, me in head to toe purple corduroy. We were up in the air, literally and figuratively. She was 34, which is younger than I am now, and I had just turned 9. She wore purple beads around her neck and lived her life with an openness that echoed the sentiment of her Woodstock generation, and she was my beautiful anchor.
We were headed to our new life. My mom had fallen in love with a handsome Brit, and we were starting over. My Peaches ‘n Cream Barbie doll sat awkwardly on the tray table in front of me. The bodice of my Barbie’s dress was the color of the frozen tundra out the window over Greenland. A Floridian born and bred, I’d never seen snow until this flight. This strange plane ride — Barbie, tundra, Mom and I — was our means of escape.
I didn’t know what we were escaping from or that we were about to start over. I didn’t know that when life handed my mother unimaginable cards (my father dying suddenly when I was 2 1/2 years old was the first big tragedy in her life, but there had been smaller tragedies before that), she was a woman who could pick herself up and start again, with resilience, optimism, and stability. This ability was a skill, a gift even.
I was too young to know any of these things. I was too young to know that my mother’s connection with the spiritual, the ethereal, and the “other” was a direct reaction to the conventions of her traditional upbringing by parents of a very different generation, who experienced World War II first hand. I was too young to know that she was taking enormous risks by leaving her support network in Florida, by “trying England out” with a man she’d known for just a summer and by taking her daughter with her, out of one school and culture and into another. She embraced risk, and she was brave enough to try, because what did she have to lose?
What I somehow understood implicitly, even though I hadn’t yet lived a decade, was that my mom had been steadily searching for joy — something which had proved elusive at times and easy to find at others, and that she’d never stopped looking. Her decision and determination to carry on courageously against some pretty tragic backdrops, and her ability to give love in abundance , I see now that these ways of being must have been imprinted in my psyche from early on. I’ve come to realize this lately because of the circumstances I find myself in, going through a divorce that was not my choice, after being married for just seven short months.
The joy I felt about being married to my husband, whom I was very much in love with, was dramatically displaced when he announced his intention to leave. After his abrupt exit from our marriage, I was grief-stricken, and my mom was by my side, as always, reassuring me with sage advice. Somehow, I’m finding that I’m resilient and channeling courage. Somehow, I’m starting again — something that, as a newlywed, I couldn’t have imagined doing.
As challenging as this period between marriage and divorce is, as much as I miss my husband and find it a strange and difficult task to try to fall out of love with him, I still believe there will be more joy ahead for me at some point. My mother is living proof that we can have several lives within our one lifetime, and that joy can arrive when we least expect it.
I’ve realized lately that the blueprints for dealing determinedly with grief lie within me, because I traversed the terrain alongside my mother. I was the young witness. I learned how. Growing up, I watched my driven, ambitious single mother try her hand at teaching, nursing, and being a paralegal. I remember how she wore long flowing skirts one year and ’80s power suits the next. She tried everything — there was always the trying. She worked so many hours, so many days of the year. She went on bad dates and had a few bad boyfriends. After my father died, I was the closest person to my mother for years, and the number one witness to her relentless soul searching. She was a woman steadfastly trying to bring her desires to fruition, even when faced with unimaginable obstacles.
Raising me alone had been hard. The life she knew as a happily married young mother had ended without warning when my father died; she’d found herself a single mom all of a sudden. I saw how she’d made use of a fabulous support network. Family, friends, and co-workers all lent a hand and gave their time to help with cooking, babysitting, everything, and I learned then that we’re not ever alone, not really. There are people all around us; we just have to reach out. I’ve been doing that a lot lately.
My mom’s presence in my life has been and will forever be large, but her presence and support during this challenging period of my life feels particularly poignant. Having lived through all she has — most especially the death of one husband and divorce from her second husband — my mom knows grief. She is the wise, learned matriarch, and her wisdom and care is helping me through. I’ve realized lately that the resilience I have within me (resilience I had no idea I had) echoes what I saw modeled from toddlerhood.
These days, my mom is an incredibly skilled therapist; she’s found her passion. Though she and my stepfather divorced several years ago, they remain good friends and have each found love again with new partners. Lately, she’s changed her name from Joyce (“too old-fashioned, too boring,” she says) to Joy. And she’s joyful. I’m not as joyful these days, but that’s okay for right now. What I am is strong, and like my mother, I live with passion, love, and courage, even in my grief.
Much like that day when I was 9 years old and flying above Greenland, my Barbie on the tray table, today my life is up in the air. I’m en route to a place I’ve never been, and my mother is faithfully walking alongside me, an ever-present anchor. I hope one day to model resilience, pursuing passions and living with courage for my own child, as I saw these things modeled for me. It would be quite something to be a wise matriarch and anchor of my very own little family one day, and to tell my child how cool Grandma Joy happens to be.