Planting your mother

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My view

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Her view

Last week my sisters and I spread my mother’s ashes at the base of a grove of redwoods in a small state park in California.  She did not ask us to do this, and we were not communing with the supernatural or spiritual world.  We wanted some molecular bits of her to knit into the majestic, timeless setting.

She was a remarkable woman, brilliant and charming.  In an age when many women did not have careers, her innovative work in the social sciences contributed significantly to the way governments and organizations around the world function.  She wrote and traveled extensively.  Yet she was totally unassuming, and endlessly curious about people, places, and things.

She was also shockingly deficient in empathy.  Her inability to put herself in other people’s shoes was so profound that she had no idea she couldn’t do it.  And she was so good at almost everything else that it took many decades before I figured this out.  In many ways it worked to her advantage.  She had a buoyancy, even through five years of gruesome cancer treatments, that astounded me.

Still, she did me the ultimate favor.  My nuclear family is scattered across the continent.  As she failed, everyone assembled (we had all been shuttling in and out of Boston, where she lived, for years). She was in a coma by the time I arrived.  She waited for me.  While the others were at dinner, I thanked her for all she had done for me.  At one point her eye flickered open for just a second.  Then, as I held her hand, she stopped breathing.  Her pulse, still strong and regular, slowly weakened and a few minutes later stopped. We sat there for some time. Finally the heat started to leave her hand.  She looked exactly the same, and only then did I believe that she was not going to wake up and resume talking about the book she had read a few days earlier.

I had been present at such moments before, but of course this was different.  I didn’t know what to expect, then or in the days and weeks afterwards, as I began the impossible exercise of trying to give order to all I knew and felt. I still haven’t gotten far.  Somehow I feel there is more coming, but it will happen subtly, in its own time. That’s how she always did things.

She died just as I was finishing The Magic of Middle-Aged Women, so of course I have been trying to figure out how she influenced my romantic choices throughout my life—as a model, not as a judge.  She never interfered, and expressed few reservations about anyone.

Then came an even more difficult exercise. It is a truism that we marry our opposing parent so we can replicate the family we grew up in (though some pick expressly to make that impossible). This makes sense—you do what you know. (Because of my mother’s peculiar combination of qualities, it has been difficult for me to see her in other women.)

But how about if your first family fails, and you are making this choice for a second time, in midlife?  You aren’t replicating your family, or any family.  Does the hold our parents have over our romantic imagination remain as strong? Do we remarry our parents?

In my case, no.  Above all I look for empathy—though brilliance and charm continue to thrill.  I have not repudiated my mother, but I have learned from her in ways she would not have realized.

I do not know how this plays for others.  Can anyone help?

7 thoughts on “Planting your mother

  1. Wow Dan — What a completely honest and beautiful remembrance of a very special, and human woman. I’m glad you and your sister made it out to the biggest trees in the American woods to give her a wonderful place to be. Maybe your Mom was like those trees — strong, towering and always stoic. They are what they are and can’t be anything else. They don’t reach out, but their presence and physicality have inspired and comforted and challenged ions of people, and will for ions more. I am so sorry for your loss, but I believe you can make your way though this journey and come out the other side better knowing yourself and her. I wish I had better words to say, but I hope what I have said helps in some small way. My thoughts are with you and I owe you a big hug when I see you.

    • Thank you for your kind words. It is certainly true that she could only be what she was; she never considered being anything else. But she was not stoic, not at all. She took what she wanted, as, say, a redwood would from the soil; and she reached up as one would for the best light, and wasn’t mindful if spreading in the sun cast shadow on someone else trying to do the same. You would admire how beautifully she accomplished what she did; most never thought to look at the stunted underbrush around her trunk.

  2. What a lovely homage to your mother, Dan. I am very sorry for your loss, but one thing I do know about grief and loss is that it grows into strength over time. The gifts of your mother will hold you and continue to strengthen you throughout your life. And that is exactly how it should work, and how all of us strive to make our mark on our children and extended families
    As for my own experience, I married a man much like my father. So much like him, it seemed strange and wondrous at the same time. We had a long marriage, a good marriage, and we loved one another. But despite my resoluteness to NOT replicate much of the family life I had known as a child, in many ways, our family did resemble my own in my childhood. My husband, on the other hand, an only child, had a much different view of family and could never quite understand the bond, and especially the quibblings, between siblings. Perhaps his view somewhat mitigated mine and with time mellowed out that familial resemblance. (And I was never, ever convinced that he married me because I somehow resembled his mother, of whom he was never very fond.) I know I was fortunate that my first and only marriage was long and successful and happy. And … I sensed that it would not be repeated.
    Now, 16 years after my husband’s passing, I continue to date men who bear no resemblance whatsoever to my father, my late husband, or anything from my childhood. And I have been quite happy – in some ways, happier than I ever have been – although of course I credit the men in my life for only a portion of that happiness. After all, happiness grows within us, from a combination of external experiences and internal reactions, doesn’t it?
    All that said, I wish you all the best in dealing with your loss. I’m quite certain you will come through stronger, and ever-more grateful, for your mother’s presence and ongoing influence in your life.

    • Thank you, Judith, that is beautiful.

      I think one of the reasons I have not been felled by grief is that I have been experiencing it for a long time, since the onset of her illness. This probably happens to a lot of offspring. When you take over the point position in the myriad medical decisions that have to be made, deal with the flow of doctors (and in her case their contradictory recommendations), do research so you can help explain the options and their consequences more fully than the doctors have time to, deal with the inevitable emotional riptide that comes with every bit of bad news, support during year after year of horror, and then have the gut-wrenching end of life conversations, you don’t experience the loss as would a child who still thinks of his parent as his protector. You lose the person who is your mother, but not the Mother as she once was (and in my case, she was never much of a Mother but very much a person).

      I received a message yesterday from a doctor who disputed my truism about the way women choose the mates; from what she recalled, women are more likely to marry their mothers. I consulted with a psychoanalyst, whose recollection is that in the literature (and of course all of this is gross oversimplification) the first time around women marry their fathers and the second time their mothers. (I don’t know that you’d characterize your more recent romances that way, Judith. Would you?) I have been looking into this. It is so very interesting, and might say a great deal about the fundamental emotional change–for the better–during middle age. More to come, I’m sure.

  3. This comment is specifically for Judith. The wisdom in your words, combined with the rarity of hearing about long, happy marriages in this day and age, is refreshing; comforting even. I know that for sure my ideals surrounding marriage come from observing my parents over their nearly 60 years of marriage. I also know for a fact that I did not ‘marry my mother’ and that my choices in mates seem to be mostly disastrous! I know that I do seek a partner who has my mother’s sense of balance and fairness in treating everyone with an equal abundance of love. So as I seek these qualities in a mate, perhaps I am indeed seeking my mother. Not to contradict myself, but this topic can be very complicated. The good thing though is that my mother is still very much alive and I’d better get to the business of spending much more time with her as she pushes 80. She lives fairly far from me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call her every week as she asked me to do long ago. I need to listen more carefully to the wisdom she doles out so casually during our Saturday morning conversations.

  4. I lost my father suddenly in a car accident at the age of 10. My parents had been going through a divorce (rare in those times), so I did not see him very often, certainly not as often as I wished as he was God to me. And so I could never have him as much as I longed for, in fact his death was more than tragic, as he died the day after his birthday, and being only 10, I did not remember to wish him a happy birthday. (My mother, going through an ugly divorce did not remind me.) I suffered tremendous guilt over this for years.

    He was basically never mentioned again until years later. In my mid 30’s I was contacted (by chance at a business event) by his only sister, who also adored him. I thrived on hearing everything about him during the 2 times we got together, and then she died suddenly of a heart attack.

    Unfortunately I don’t remember him very well. My memories are illusive. I’m not quite sure who he was, but I have most certainly unconsciously replicated him in the men I have chosen, at least the father/man I believed him to be. And because I didn’t really know who he was (I was too young to really understand and see anything other than an image of a dominant, strong, tall and very handsome man), I have chosen men in my past that I really can’t get to know, (2 marriages in fact)! But also strong, dominating, tall, and handsome men, as he was. But also father figures, and this is the most unhealthy part.

    I do not want to do this anymore and I hope I am not doing this now. I do however love to put my men on a pedestal, make them Godlike, as I did with him. I cannot help this and it gives me tremendous pleasure so I no longer fight it. But I now want a partner, not a father.

    But of course one always finds similarities and I believe no matter how aware we may be, these things are engrained deep within us, and we replicate what we know and think we are comfortable with because it is familiar, in those we choose as mates.

    All I can say is that life is an ever learning experience, and hopefully we get something as important and powerful as love right at some stage in our lives… Hopefully for me now in my mid 50’s, I am starting to get it right.

  5. I hope this is not presumptuous, but from the realistic, balanced, and passionate way you say this, I would guess you certainly are starting to get it right.

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