Understanding Mom

Through my mom’s passing, I gained a deeper understanding of myself by seeing my mother through a different lens. Prior to her death, we had many difficult and healing conversations. In our moments together, we laughed, we cried, and we held space for one another in silence. We forgave one another for petty issues and misunderstandings that no longer mattered with the inevitable ending of death lurking in the approaching future.

In the days after her passing, I yearned for a knowing and understanding of her life. I examined and re-read every letter and card she had ever written to me. Paging through her Bible, I noted the passages she underlined and her handwritten thoughts in the margins. Through it all, an epiphany began to emerge about my mother. When I stepped back, I could see past my personal trauma, and open my heart to knowing my mother, the diverse aspects of her personality and different pieces of her life opened and provided clarity. I glimpsed joy and playfulness hearing from her sister how she liked to stay up late at night to watch Alfred Hitchcock with her mother. Tenderness emerged as I read her account of a birthday phone call in my grandmother's last year. Mom recounted how my grandmother sang Down in the Valley - a song frequently sung when my mom was a child. Now she struggled to recall the words through a filter of Alzheimer’s.

My mother was a second-generation descent from European immigrants. Her family settled in West Virginia and made a living working in coal mines. Her father was a hard-working man while her mom was a fiery redhead who gave her a strict upbringing peppered with wit and compassion. My mom inherited these personality traits and evolved into an independent and ambitious woman. She was valedictorian of her high school’s senior class and was the first person in her family to graduate from college. Post-graduation she moved to Washington DC and worked for the Government. Always adventurous, she eventually made her way to Akron, OH where she met my father.

A tumultuous marriage garnished with affairs, cancer, and abuse changed my mom. As a stay-at-home mom who didn’t drive, she created many outlets to ease her personal heartaches and trauma. She was an avid gardener, could take a piece of old furniture and give it new life, and she loved to sing. Prayer was embedded in her life along with the importance of solace and quiet to process thoughts. Through sewing and painting, she made our house a home. As my father struggled through job loss and struggled with alcoholism, it was my mom who navigated our family through crises, and at times, near poverty.

Much of this took a toll on her and at times it was difficult to see her free-spirited and fun-loving soul – but there were breadcrumbs. By day Mom could be a force to be reckoned with. Yet, at night, a supportive and caring person emerged as she had her quiet time. She’d write supportive and compassionate notes for her children to read the following morning. At times, it provided great confusion as the mom in the letters didn’t match the mom we experienced during the day. She could be hurtful, heartless, and, at times, abusive.

In the year following her death, I struggled to make sense of my life. It felt like the rollercoaster ride came to an end, but I longed for answers. The breadcrumbs she left made me feel like an archaeologist as I uncovered her story and my heart and mind began to open to understanding. As I removed my own thoughts and opinions, my mom’s life became like the stripped-down acoustic version of a song. Nothing remained but what was necessary to see. I gained a deep understanding of her life and found the answers I’ve searched for since I was a child. Some were easy to accept while others led to more questions.

An image comes to mind of a powerful and fierce Tigress captured in a cage with two small children. People outside the cage tease and poke the Tigress until she has no choice but to act out in rage at the children cowering in the corner of her enclosure. Once I understood the sources of her pain, it naturally opened a door to my mom’s soul making space for wisdom, understanding, and gratitude.

I’m grateful for the qualities my mom instilled in me. Her free-spirit lives through me. My passion for yoga and movement stems from seeing her in the living room of our family home doing yoga with a television show in the early 1980s. She influenced my spiritual life and belief system encouraging me to think deeply and contemplate life’s meaning. At a young age, she opened my eyes to embracing varying spiritual perspectives. A creative spark was ignited through her needlepoint, sewing, painting, gardening, singing, and writing. And I’ll even admit a secret adoration for Peter, Paul, and Mary and other 60s folk music was born! Interestingly enough, most qualities about myself that I like have a pathway that begins with my mother.

The qualities of empathy, understanding, and humility awoke after her death as I got to know my mom differently. In the past, I longed for the mom who wrote nightly letters to her children. Now, I realized she was there all along. Once the veil of my mom’s traumas was lifted, I could see her for who she was at heart.

One expects losing a parent will be excruciating and difficult. The emotions we think we’ll feel tend to take a back seat to the emotions we long to keep hidden. There’s not an expiration date for grief and frankly, the old adage, time heals all wounds, doesn’t ring true. This is evidenced in a conversation with a neighbor the day after my mom passed. She recalled stories of her father and how she misses him daily. I asked her if the pain ever goes away or if it gets any better. She thought for a moment and responded it doesn’t get easier and will never go away - Instead, it becomes something we learn to live with and work around like a heavy piece of furniture that seldom gets moved.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer as we started building the studio. She encouraged me to move forward with the project and said her death doesn't mean I need to stop living. Through the building process and opening the studio, Mom provided inspiration and cheered me on. She eventually made the 2.5-hour trip to Columbus with my sister to see construction.

A year before her passing, I asked Mom how she’d sum up her life. She responded, “I carried laundry upstairs and downstairs.” Ah, Mom, you did so much more. Happy Mother’s Day. And thank you – you’ve always been enough.

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