My mother and I did not speak for the final 3 years of her life. Even before that, we shared a tempestuous, often-estranged relationship for almost the entirety of my life. Each year as Mother’s Day rolls around, I am not among the majority who easily and joyfully celebrate mothers and motherhood. Because my mother passed nearly 20 years ago, the time for face-to-face reconciliation has ended.
Imagine my surprise when Elizabeth Benedict’s book What My Mother Gave Me opened a window to healing this long held mother-daughter wound. Let me explain…
What My Mother Gave Me is a collection of essays written by daughters about things handed down by mothers, sometimes physical objects, sometimes life lessons. I didn’t want to read the book. Reading about happy, loving mother-daughter relationships is quite painful for me. Yet, something drew me in. As I read each heartfelt essay, I envied the love that I believed had been so easy for others. About halfway through the book, I asked myself, “Do I have a story to tell? Can I look beyond the years of pain to lovingly remember something my mother gave me?”
After reading What My Mother Gave Me, I rummaged through my closet and found my afghan. As I took it out of the box, I felt of wave of emotions… sadness & regret chief among them. I do not exaggerate when I say I felt my mother’s presence as I looked at each carefully crafted stitch. I remembered her hands, her short, wide fingers skillfully looping reams of yarn into beautiful pieces.
Many years with a wonderful therapist have prepared me to move from my self-perceived role of victim to accepting responsibility for my role in our estrangement, and this understanding has allowed me now to hold the afghan with great tenderness.
With the pink and berry red across my lap, a memory floated up. I am a little girl, home sick from school. My mother has taken a day off from work, and lost a day’s pay, to take care of me. I see myself wrapped in blankets, watching daytime TV. My mother stays near. She brings me tea and a cookie called Social Teas. She makes me Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup. She comes home from the store with a tiny Mickey Mouse for me, a real treat because money didn’t allow many luxuries. For those few days, I bask in the nurturing love of my mother.
You see, my mother was not emotionally demonstrative. As a single mother raising 3 young children on her own, she spent most of her time keeping her head above water. She was not the hugs and kisses type. My mother explained to us that she showed her love by putting a roof over our heads and food on the table. However, when you are 7 years old, you need the hugs and kisses, until eventually you learn to stop wishing for them. But everything was different when I was sick at home. My mother transformed into the most loving, nurturing mama any girl could want.
This early memory triggered another. In it, I am an adult woman of 33, newly diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, an autoimmune disorder that rendered me nearly helpless and absolutely terrified. Even though my mother and I had been in a period of estrangement, she asked if she could help take care of me. It was like I was 7 years old all over again. My mother put me to bed, a warm afghan tucked around me. She made me soup, no longer Lipton’s, but real home-made chicken soup. We played cards together, I took naps, and for those few days, I felt safe, nurtured and loved.
My mother and I could not mend our broken relationship permanently, and I regret that she died before we had the chance. But now as I sat on the floor of my closet, pink & berry red afghan wrapped around me, I finally understood that in spite of everything, I had been deeply loved.
My afghan now holds a place of honor in my home. I wrap myself in it as I lie on the sofa with my nightly ritual of TV and tea. Sometimes when I’m having a tough day, I’ll curl up inside my mother’s handiwork just to feel her near, and to receive her warm, loving embrace.
Sometimes we have to look beyond the stories we tell ourselves about the past to find life’s dearest truths hidden within. Thank you, Mom. I understand now that in spite of your own personal struggles, you loved me as best you could. I’m grateful that I am finally able to recognize that love comes in many colors, in my case, pink and deep berry red.
What did your mother give you? Do you have a story to tell?
For those interested Elizabeth Benedict's What My Mother Gave Me, you can purchase a copy here.