Our relationships to our mothers have so many different layers of connection that we sometimes forget to ask ourselves the core question. Do I really know who this person is?
Mothers Day is a wonderful time to appreciate our mothers and the roles they have played in our lives. Though it is often a time for gratitude, for some people it is also an opportunity to be honest about what they didn’t get from their mothers, to acknowledge the lack or the pain that can plague your whole life because in most cases, your mother was the one who first mirrored back to you that you matter. If she smiled when you smiled, you knew you could trust and feel accepted. If she ignored your earliest gestures and cries, then you began to worry about what you would need to survive your loneliness. But today’s blog is not about her role in relation to us. It is asking: Who is this woman?
For those of you who have already read my memoir “The Woman in the Photograph,” you are not surprised to hear me raise these questions as you know I spent almost twenty years in pursuit of the question: Who is the woman in the photograph before she became my mother? But even if your family history doesn’t have the added obstacles and complications that mine did–a mother who escaped from Nazi Germany and chose to lock the past away, including any relatives or family stories silenced as a by product of that decision. Even if there is more continuity in your family history, have you asked about the details of your mother’s past? These days, we do tend to talk about ourselves more than people used to and many older people have even tried their hand at writing about their lives. But I don’t just mean the dates and events. The key to our emotional inheritance lies in the underlying attitudes and conclusions drawn from experience, often passed down to us implicitly and well as explicitly.
Mom, what were the pivotal events that changed your life? How did you feel when that happened? How did it affect you? What choices did you have then? What did you take away from that experience?
I met my mother-in-law Arlone when her six children were grown up and already forming their own families. She lived in El Dorado, California and spent her days growing roses and grapes and knitting afghans and sweaters for her grandchildren, eventually numbering twenty-three. I had a picture of her as a person who rarely left home and took minimal interest in the outside world. She seemed content to putter around while her TV continued its constant hum in the background.
Then I heard the story of her youth, born in Wiltse, Kansas, orphaned by her mom’s death and raised by her grandparents. When World War II broke out, she went to Witchita to work at the Boeing plant and was on the team that built the first B-29 bomber to role off the assembly line. When asked about her life, she went back again and again to that time. It was clearly a significant experience of her self at a time when she believed she could make a valuable contribution, the years before the men came back from war and she settled into the semi-suburban rows of houses in San Leandro and started raising a family. As I heard her stories, I saw the vivaciousness and felt the confidence with which she once embarked on her life, and wondered where that person had gone or how she still showed up in Arlone’s life. Knowing about her earlier years, I also understood more of her attitudes, her disappointments, her broken dreams, her beliefs.
The New York Times ran this article “Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them” to remind us of all a photo can tell us, whether your mom is still here or not. Get out those photos today, and get on the phone if you’re fortunate enough to have someone to ask questions. Sometimes we are more influenced by what we don’t know than by what we know.
And if you need more inspiration and a page-turning memoir mystery, “The Woman in the Photograph” is FREE on Kindle in honor of Mothers Day until midnight tonight. Enjoy.