I remember my mom in the autumn of 1983, standing, dappled, below our apple tree, holding a rake.
“Take this,” she said, “and get all of these leaves into a pile.” I begrudgingly scratched at the ground, kicking wizened apples behind our shed. “I’m ready for a garbage bag now,” I finally declared. “Well, aren’t you gonna in it jump first?” she asked.
I remember piling into the back of my mom’s car on Sundays, the one we called “The Bomb,” its ceiling peeling in sun-bleached strips, its busted seats covered in an old rug. If my sisters and I could, please, please contain ourselves in church, she would treat us to a late breakfast at Roy Rogers. I remember the luxurious crunch of French toast sticks as my mom sipped quietly from a paper coffee cup.
These scenes replay themselves in my head perpetually, the film warping, taking on blotches of darkness with each passing year. Did we really go out for breakfast every Sunday? Or was it just once, a special occasion, skipping like a record, in my memory? After 30 years, I barely trust this movie, but I can’t stop watching.
My mom died when I was 8. My sisters were 6 and 2. I thought I’d made peace with her death a long time ago. Then I became a mother, and grief welled up from some murky, hidden reserve. In the middle of the night, when my newborn son flailed at my aching breast, as I rocked, patted, and prayed he would latch, I thought I would drown in longing for my mom.
“I do not know how to do this. Someone should be here to show me how to do this.”
Other women griped over their moms’ outdated advice about sleep training or solid foods. Meanwhile, I replayed the hazy memories, scouring each scene for the kind of wisdom that would get me through nursing or teething or the complete loss of my identity.
I remember an early morning spent screaming at my mother, “I don’t love you! I hate you!” And I remember my mother, red-faced, her jaw stiff, looking down at me and saying, “Yeah, well, you’re making it pretty hard to love you right now too.”
If I only had 8 years to be a parent, what lesson would I impart? It’s not as if my mom had time to prepare. She lost her battle with cancer three months after she was diagnosed. Unknowingly, she had already crafted a beautiful safety net for my sisters and me. We could not have asked for a more loving, capable dad. Our family, friends, and neighbors closed ranks around us, like a consoling huddle. Or swaddle.
As the years passed, I never lacked for love and support, but I still turned to my memories for reassurance, to feel their sentimental comfort. By the time I became pregnant at 36, the movie of my mother was so familiar that I assumed I had wrung all wisdom from its familiar scenes.
At a month old, my son began waking at 2 a.m. and howling until 6. I leaked milk down my filthy pajamas. My temples throbbed. I could not comfort my child. I couldn’t even comfort myself. If my husband didn’t look helpless, then he looked exhausted. “I am a failure,” I told him, which was really a euphemism for, “I hate this. Maybe we made a mistake.” I didn’t know yet how my son sounded when he laughed, or that he would like to dance and sing. That everything could change.
I remember telling my mother that I was running away. Maybe she refused to let me watch more television. Perhaps she made meatloaf for dinner. That part of the scene is lost. But I do remember stomping up to my bedroom closet, pulling down a bag, and filling it with toys. Suddenly, my mother was crouching down beside me, throwing shoes and pants into my satchel. “What are you doing?” I asked. She looked me in the eye and said, “I’m helping you pack.”
My mother is not a myth. When I think of her, I don’t see a June Cleaver version of motherhood, all clean apron and sensible heels. Nor do I see some earth goddess, moving calmly through the chaos, practicing her deep breathing. When I patch together my fragmentary memory, I see a woman who was beautiful even while driving her rusted-out sedan, who was playful and kind, but who could also be frustrated and tired.
My son is only 2 years old, but I can’t remember the exact moment, a year, maybe 18 months ago, when I fully realized what my mom taught me: that motherhood will never be what I expect it to be. Some days will make me want to give up, to pack my kid’s bag and point him toward the train station. Some days will require fast food bribery. Some days, it will be all I can do to contain my wonder or joy, and on other days, I’ll have to remind myself that this is not, in fact, a big mistake. She taught me that all of those days are normal.
I remember her quiet, wry smile as I dropped my rake and ran headlong toward the pile of leaves beneath the apple tree. She taught me that I don’t have to love every moment, but that I will love more of them than I could imagine, and they will be more fleeting than I think.
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