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?