“The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.” — Author unknown
On this Mother’s Day I want to express my gratitude. I’m lucky. My eyes first met my mother’s over 66 years ago on the day I was born. She was the first person I ever experienced in life, whose flesh touched mine, her smell familiar, whose breasts nourished me, and whose arms held me close to her heart. I’m sure I was comforted by the sound of her soft voice and steady heartbeat that I heard while still in her womb. Every year on my birthday I felt intimately close to her. We often shared tears, tears of gratitude and joy. This year was the last one we’ll ever share together. Mom died 10 days after my birthday. This is my first Mother’s Day without her.
Today, I both celebrate my mother and lament her passing. Grief is a tricky business. We try to prepare for it, yet we are never really able to fully do so. We read about loss in others’ stories and obituaries, see it in the films we watch, or witness people we care about first hand, as we visit in hospitals or attend funeral services and celebrations of life. Grief is heart-wrenching, grief is soul-bruising, and grief is all about endings and loss.
Grief and the tears that follow do not always appear when we expect them to; often they arrive in an unguarded moment, during a pleasant memory, or when our senses experience the familiar: a sight, a smell, a touch, a sound, or taste. Those sense memories return us to moments we both cherish and lament.
I’ve written a lot about how I’m a grateful daughter. As the firstborn child to young parents, my mother, father and I grew up together. Teachers often mistook my mother for my older sister. My mother gave me many gifts besides the most important and essential ones, life and unconditional love. She taught me how to play and she shared her love for movies with me. I learned to cook, to care for others, and to love with an open and accepting heart. We’d sing together, I’d lose at cards to her (especially poker), and anytime she stepped into the car to visit her mother, pick up Dad from work, or run an errand, I would rush to be her traveling companion. I credit her for my personal sense of style and interior design. There was no safer place in the world than her arms.
Years later when I became an adult and married, my parents, husband and I became friends too, going out for dinner and drinks, staying up late and talking —and talking —and talking some more. My mother and I would sit in the kitchen and alternate between coffee and beer as we shared our “cracker barrels,” the name we gave to those late night conversations as we’d snack on cheese and crackers between drinks. Years later when I became sober, shortly afterwards, my mother joined me in recovery, and our cracker barrels were shared over coffee. Up until her death, my father would make sure every time I visited there was a pot of coffee brewing for us, so Mom and I could have our time together in the kitchen over coffee.
Mom (and Dad) loved their children unconditionally and when I came out as a lesbian they immediately accepted me though I’m sure it was not the dream they had for me. They were always generous to my friends, partners, and their children, treating my partners as spouses and their children as their grandchildren. When a relationship ended for me, Mom would comfort me and tell me, “Honey, all that’s important to me is that you’re loved and treated well.”
Mom loved holidays. Dad did too and together they made sure that as we were growing up we had everything we needed, including an abundance of gifts and celebration at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, for back-to-school, and of course our birthdays. Mom was the Easter Bunny, Mrs. Claus, and the holiday chef, cookie-baker, cake-maker and more. Both Mom and Dad were hardworking, working class parents who often held both full and part-time jobs to provide shelter, keep food on the table, and clothes on the backs of their six children. Mom and Dad also cared for their mothers later in life. For most of their lives Mom and Dad were a united team.
Mom taught her daughters — she had five of them —to always be independent and be prepared. When we were still living at home as teens and dating, she’d always remind us to take some money with us, or give us “mad money” so we could get home on our own and be safe if we needed to.
Years later when she went into treatment for alcoholism, she was financially prepared if she needed to leave my Dad and be on her own. She always squirreled money away, her own mad money. After she died, my father, sister and brother found over a $1,000 of cash hidden away in different places, in dresser drawers, a clothes hamper and inside a teddy bear. Mom was prepared.
After Mom died, Dad, and my sisters and brother found many mementos, letters and photos that she saved besides her mad money. We learn a lot about a person by what they keep close at hand. My sister Tami had a letter returned to her that she wrote Mom when Tami became a mother and thanked Mom for all her love, sacrifices and lessons as a mother. Tami found the recovery medallion of mine that I gave Mom when she went into treatment and returned it to me. Dad returned a poem to me I wrote Mom for her birthday years earlier, probably 40 years ago. An excerpt from Love Is You:
“for without you
this house would not be a home
and we would not be a family
you are everything
Mom collected many things including bells. After her death, each of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren chose a bell as keepsake. Before Mom died she gave each of her daughters and my brother, Rick’s wife Nancy, a piece of her jewelry. The past few years both Mom and Dad have encouraged us kids to take some things as remembrances. I have my mother’s glass menagerie and her grandfather’s glass Easter egg. Recently Dad gave me a couple of additional mementos, one of her embroidered handkerchiefs and a lace doily, the kind her Dutch mother and great grandmother crocheted and used to protect the furniture. It’s the small material things that become our inheritance and keepsakes along with all of our memories.
The way we talk about death reveals our discomfort and dread of it. We employ euphemisms. We “lose” our loved ones. No, we don’t lose our loved ones. We are often at their side in the hospital or hospice, as we surround their deathbed, and if fortunate, able to be with them and hold their hand until the moment they take their last breath. Though my mother is no longer here on earth except her body buried in it, she lives in our hearts, our memories, in her children and the generations that followed, in the yet unborn babies, and in all of our traditions, rituals and holiday celebrations, in the food we eat, the songs we sing, and the stories we tell. She is in our DNA, in our spirits, and in all that is important in life. Today, I celebrate my mother, Ethel Mae Lenzke. Happy Mother’s Day! I’m your grateful daughter.
For additional reading about mothers, home, and life: