My mother’s birthday is coming up on March 4th. She has been gone for 20 years. I was a college student and she was only 50 when cancer took her from us. After her death, it was easier for me to worry about my Dad and my sister than to face my own grief. I spent years denying my anger and sadness over this loss, feeling alternately foolish and brave. It took years of slowly rolling back the curtain on myself to feel those feelings and realize they would not break me. My mom would not let that happen. The one thing that saved me was the knowledge that my mother would want me to find peace and happiness again, however impossible that seemed in her absence. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I was finally able to approach understanding how much she loved me, and how much I loved her. Eventually I learned how to feel that love again when I remember my Mom, and allow it to lead the way past the sadness.
As a ballerina and beauty queen in her youth, she was a hard act to follow. My Grandmother relished pulling out the scrapbooks and recounting her achievements: Homecoming Queen, Harvest Bowl Princess, May Queen, Miss Roanoke College, and Sweetheart of Sigma Chi… My Mom was always quick to modestly remark that her popularity was simply a result of her having many friends, in many different groups, and her belief in the importance of being nice to everyone and taking an interest in all kinds of people. (Sub title: Not just the beautiful and popular ones.) My mother was a very humble, kind and sincere person, and it was these qualities that I aspired to more than the superficial standards I could never live up to. A beautiful and joyful woman, my mother was known for her distinctive laugh that could be heard ringing through our home at any moment. While I did not wind up with the Grace Kelly looks, I did inherit that laugh, whether genetic or learned, and it is one way I can remember her every day.
My Mom had a way of showing a complete and total interest in me as a developing person. Having worked as an elementary school teacher before I was born, she had a natural way with children and an ability to inspire learning. There was that indescribable motherly love that seemed to emanate from her effortlessly, but there was also a conscious mission to her mothering. She was devoted to showing me a wide variety of delightful things in the world, and then was right there to share and listen to my every response. We reflected back each other’s joy and enthusiasm, like two shiny mirrors, laughing the same laugh.
As a very small child, I remember her taking my sister and I to the Enchanted Forest, a storybook and nursery rhyme themed amusement park where you could climb into a whale’s mouth, visit the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, or ride in a pumpkin to Cinderella’s Castle. She loved reading to me, so it was especially fun to visit the Enchanted Forest where those same stories and poems would come to life. Sometimes she liked to surprise us with a mystery outing. We wouldn’t know where we were going until we got there. I soon learned to anticipate a trip to the movie theater if she brought along my cardigan on a warm day. She didn’t want me to get chilly in the theater while watching Bambi or Fantasia, and I can still feel her leaning in to pull the sweater around me and button the top button.
She cared for me with so many of those loving details, whether it was a special event or a regular day. For our birthdays, my sister and I would always get a homespun outdoor celebration. Mom would set the patio picnic table with a red and blue checkered tablecloth and a homemade birthday cake. We would invite our friends and gather around in our party dresses for games and scavenger hunts in the shade of the poplar trees, surrounded by blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. Home cooked family dinners each night were a part of our normal routine. From upstairs I could smell the pork chops browning in the pan, served with my favorite applesauce on the side. Mom always made a salad in a wooden bowl to accompany our meal, and placed the thinly sliced radishes that my father liked so much on a separate small plate so I wouldn’t have to pick them out. She knew how to make everyone happy.
She took me regularly to the Baltimore Museum of Art where we marveled together at Degas’ dancers, the Impressionist paintings bursting with color, and Rodin’s larger than life sculpture, The Thinker. We drove downtown to the Walter’s Art Gallery and explored the hushed rooms of medieval tapestries and suits of armor. At the Cylburn Arboretum we wandered the gardens and studied the pressed leaves and startling stuffed squirrels in the Nature Museum. As I grew up and began focusing on my own interests, she would encourage me in every way she knew how. Anything I was interested in, she would learn about and be interested in too. She sent me to the best places for art lessons, violin lessons, music camp, field hockey and lacrosse camps…she never pushed me to do too much, just supported me in however much I wanted to take on. When I came home with straight A’s every semester throughout high school, she told me it would be OK if I got a B sometimes. It was an amazing balancing act as a mother– to cheer me on as fast and as far as I could go, while at the same time letting me know it was OK to stop and rest, keeping me secure in the fact that I would always be loved for who I was and not what I achieved.
As a moody teenager, I remember the solid background of her support that I knew was always there behind my emotional zigzags. In high school, I told her I wanted to be an artist… an unconventional choice for someone in our family. I remember trying to explain to her that this was more than a hobby to me, that it was my life’s work, what I needed to do, what I had to do. She took in my words with so much love and patience, seeing through my teen angst into the core of my fragile young being. She did not dismiss my melodramatic rant, or hope it was a passing phase. Mom just listened, and incredibly, she believed me and understood.
When I was small, I used to love it when she would put on her Andy Williams record, and we would listen to Up, Up and Away. We would take the kitchen stools, turn them upside down, climb inside them, and pretend we were in hot air balloon baskets, flying up, up and away. I can still hear the lyrics of the song in my head:
If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky
For we can fly, we can fly
Up, up and away
My beautiful, my beautiful balloon
Mom, I’m still chasing my dreams across the sky. Thank you for showing me the way.