This post was first published on March 23, 2011.
In the twelve days since my mother died, I have learned that my mother was greater than just the sum of her parts. She wasn’t simply a mother of eight children; she was a mother eight times over, playing a unique role in the lives of each of us whom she gave birth to.
This revelation began to dawn on me when my father asked me to write a memorial booklet for the funeral, containing memories from each of the eight siblings. It grew to include most of the grandchildren, and all of the husbands, wives and partners. I learned many things I hadn’t known. She made Easter outfits and other clothing for the older children. Like me, she loved Janis Joplin. Yet she died without either of us knowing we both admired the same artist. She gave my sister her first set of oil paints.
The revelations continued as we all gathered to hear her final wishes. First, there was The Secret. We all knew there was something in my mother’s family past that she did not want to talk about. I began to get an inkling about it years ago when a family friend with a penchant for genealogy “discovered” that my mother’s father had been married before and had children from that first marriage. I knew just from the look on my mother’s face when he told her that this wasn’t new information to her. I also knew without asking that she was not going to talk about it.
So over the years I played a game with myself: what was The Secret? Had her mother and father had an affair? Had her father gone back to his first wife, or had he really died when she was ten? Finally, my father felt we could all handle the truth: her father had never divorced his first wife, and her parents had never been married but had lived happily for ten short years before her father killed himself during the Great Depression.
After this revelation it was time to decide, as a group, how to dispense with all the possessions my mother had brought into the marriage and many others she’d acquired along the way. I learned as much about my father as my mother in this process, because it soon became clear that there is a stark difference between what my mother is willing to save and what my father is willing to keep around in what is now his home.
Ironically I have become the keeper of my mother’s sewing machine, sewing baskets, and all the sewing notions. I say ironic because I don’t exactly sew myself. I mend things. Sometimes I mend the same garment four or five times before finally releasing it from my misery. So I can never acquire too much thread, needles, and buttons. I have a book called Sewing For Dummies that I have consulted more than once to find just the right stitch for a new mending job.
If my brother hadn’t told me my mother used to make clothes for the children I would have completely misunderstood the wealth of sewing equipment I inherited. While I was growing up, my mother earned a college degree at the age of 49; worked as a substitute teacher, an Avon salesperson, and a secretary. She took us to plays and concerts and the beaches on Cape Cod. She did not sew, although she did teach me how to use a sewing machine. I now know that her lack of sewing activity was due only to the amount of time devoted to doing everything else. By the time she retired, arthritis was gripping her hands. It was only when I started sorting through her sewing basket that I understood that she was giving something up by not sewing.
At least 25 pairs of knitting needles. Lace basting fabric in pastel hues, jewel tones, and earth tones. A wooden tool for pressing creases. A metal board with magnetic tape stuck to it. Boxes and bags of buttons. The button collection I can understand; you have to buy a set of 20 randomly-matched buttons just to find one that you can use. You don’t part with buttons without a fight.
It took me a couple of hours to go through each item in the three-tiered, double-sided sewing basket. During that time, I thought about how my sister had told me that she serviced the sewing machine six years earlier at my mother’s request. My father joked at the time that my mother would never use the machine, and when I heard the story I thought my mother was like me. Prone to starting things without finishing them. I think now that there was more to it than that. As I sorted through the sewing collection, I thought of a woman who made suits for her children, collected seam-basting fabrics, and acquired exotic wooden implements for making creases. I think my mother had the sewing machine serviced with every intention of going back to her projects, but her arthritis had other ideas.
I think about this seamstress-mother as I twirl a silver ring with rhinestone “diamonds” around and around on my finger. I think about the woman who collected so much jewelry that her three daughters grew bleary-eyed trying to sort through it all on one too-short afternoon. I think about what different people my parents are and were. My mother saving everything from sewing notions down to a Red Cross certification card my brother earned when he was twelve. My father urging us to take everything away, from that Red Cross card to framed pictures of ourselves.
My parents argued a lot over things. I used to think it was just marriage-fatigue, but in some ways it was the essence of their differences. My father wasn’t just griping about clutter; he really, really doesn’t like clutter. My mother wasn’t just carping about discarded bits and bobs out of routine; she really, really, needed to know the things she valued were somewhere safe even if it was hard for others to see the value.
During the last twelve days, I have thought a lot about my mother’s love of color, her loud and hearty laugh, and the deep sense of shame that seemed to simmer beneath the surface in every interaction. Now that I have learned the likely source of that shame — her unmarried parents — I am both saddened and awed by the burden she kept to herself in an age where most people probably wouldn’t give two hoots who her parents were or what they did or didn’t do.
As the days turn into months and years, I know I will have many more insights about my mother and her relationship to her. It seems like there could never have been enough time to truly know my mother in the way she deserved to be known. But perhaps it is not too late to learn a few things about myself.