Mother. Mothering. Connection. Disconnection. Vulnerability. Expectation. Loss. Life Cycles. Aging. Regeneration. Where do I even start with a topic as broad and deep as “mother?” What hasn’t already been said by wiser voices than my own? I started this blog post on Mother’s Day. One week passed into the next as platitudes of unnecessary words fell into the computer screen. But I stuck with it and finally, as I continued sifting through my thoughts I made a connection between my mother, my grandmothers and myself.
On Mother’s Day I had brunch with my mom at her assisted living. She turned ninety the week before and her family and friends gathered to celebrate. Fifty-seven years old and I still have a mother. For this I am thankful. I have been blessed with two children, now adults, so am also called “mom.” As a recent newcomer to Facebook, I took the time to scroll through the posts of friends, to “heart” and post comments for their remembrances and gratitude of mothers, grandmothers, children. It seemed important to acknowledge both the joys and the losses. (And I believe the definition of “mother” and “mothering" is expansive.)
I had what I would call a good childhood. No reason to write a gut-wrenching memoir. Just a transplanted family muddling along, doing the best they could in the 1960’s-70’s (my childhood years.) But as I age and reflect back, look at photos, gain insight into what events unfolded at pivotal points in my development, I see where the tender spots of my soul hid. Where my voice quieted (though not always literally.) As an intuitive and empathetic child, I absorbed a period of my mother’s sadness brought on by several critical life events in short succession. I was a toddler who wished to make her mother smile. I know my mother did not intend to put this into me, nor did I even realize it resided in me until recently and I am still sorting out what to do with it. (That may be a post for another day.)
We are an immigrant family. Both my parents were born in England. My father’s sister married an American solider and moved to the United States after WWII. My father, always looking for a better life, saw that post-war England did not hold much promise, especially with housing shortages and having to live with is bride in his mother’s housing unit. My parents set sail for Canada and a few years after my brother was born, immigrated to the United States. Leaving behind her parents was difficult for my mother. There were no phone calls. Only weekly air letters. A trip home with scrimped savings to introduce my brother to the family when he was two. She made friends to share the joys and ask the questions of raising her young son, and, six years later when I arrived, me. But it wasn’t the same as having her mother close by. She has never directly told me she was lonely, but I sense it in her tone of voice when she looks at the fading photos as we reminisce. Maybe that’s just me, because I have always had my mom close by and couldn’t imagine not having her a short drive away, especially when my children were young.
I find grandmothers fascinating characters in folk lore. When I traveled to New Mexico recently, I met a Taos Pueblo Indian woman who shared about her grandmother and her role as grandmother to her family. It is a place of honor and authority. Wisdom and respect in her community. I have heard this common thread in many cultures in reference to their aging women. In some folk tales “Grandmother” is portrayed in this light…her words powerful, discerning. This ancient wise woman has also been turned into a hag, a spinner of spells that lead the innocent astray. I find the ground between the two, rich soil to explore especially as I reflect on the two grandmothers in my life.
My mother’s mother lived in England her entire life. Besides the weekly air letters crammed full of her penned words, I came to know “Grandma,” through Christmas parcels and the reel-to-reel voice recordings we would send back and forth annually (oh to still have those!) We first met when I was three, again at seven and I went to visit England when I was thirteen. Her sweetness and gentleness floated across the miles and I loved her. Or maybe my imaginings of her, for when you are not in close proximity, you can transfer your desires onto the photo and the few stored memories. It didn’t hurt that she had white hair from an early age, so she always looked like the quintessential grandmother. I have Grandma to thank for my smooth skin.
My father’s mother, “Nana,” with both her children in “the States,” left England and followed them, spending most of her time living with my aunt in the Seattle area. She was not the grandmother written into nursery rhymes, with ample breasts and soft words of comfort. Widowed when my father was eight, she seemed, at least as best I can remember, permanently dreary and contentious. She did not hide the fact she felt both of her children were supposed to remain single and take care of her. With room scarce, we often shared a bedroom. Body shaming was her specialty. She treated my mother with scorn and as a child this made me loath Nana. It is not unsurprising that when she died my sophomore year of college, I did not cry.
Of these two women, the one my mother in her dementia brings up most is her mother-in-law. I thought I had made peace with Nana, after all, the logical, grown up me can look back and see she was a wounded soul, possibly suffering from depression or other issues. And besides, she was my father’s mother and I thought he was special, so there must be good there. Still, that she dominates my mother in her waning years like she did when she was alive is stirring up some of my own hurt and resentments. The young girl in me wants to protect my mother from her and feels powerless to do so, just like I felt powerless when she hurled her hurtful words at me so long ago. And I feel deep sadness for my mother that these are the memories that cling like stale odors on a hot day.
When I explore grief and loss in my own life and with others, sometimes it is the less obvious relationships that are left un-grieved. Which brings me back to the story of the Taos Pueblo grandmother. She said “recall and honor your grandmothers and all they taught you.” My heart felt a pang, for I knew I did not have those grandmothers. One due to physical distance. One due to heart distance. When I meet with “matriarchs,” the strong “grandmothers” in a family system, I love to hear the stories and affirm their importance. The Taos Pueblo grandmother assumed all families have such grandmothers. How often do we assume other families look like our own?
My own mother is a matriarch. She has been a loving, compassionate and kind grandmother to her four grandchildren. She made a conscious effort to “not be Nana.” Her grandchildren have warm memories of staying over with her and getting spoiled. Of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. Of sausage rolls at Christmas. Knitted sweaters when they were babies. Taking them to county fairs on hot, sticky days. Of an advocate during rough periods—unconditional love.
She is a kind and loving mother, but not perfect. Just as I am not a perfect mother. (Ask my poor son, who I called the dog’s name way too often. What kind of mother does that? Imperfect.) However we come to “mother” or “grandmother” the world, it will not be a smooth journey. Those who taught us did so out of their own imperfections, some painfully inadequate and harmful. Others loving but overwhelmed. Or perhaps pretty darn good with some slip-ups along the way.
How have you mothered the world or have been mothered in the world? Reflecting on this essential relationship, the maternal linage, however you define that in your life, is another opportunity to peek beneath the layers and see if there is un-discovered loss. Maybe you will find only beauty and wholeness and want to celebrate! If not through, consider how you would like to open up a path for healing. If you were to invite a wise grandmother to come alongside and nurture you on your journey, what are the characteristics you would use to describe her? What would she sing to you? Play with this image. Imagine yourself as the grandmother. Even if you feel content in your mothering relationships, play with this image and see where it leads. These questions are not gender specific, for we all have aspects of the feminine in us. Our world needs nurturing mothers and grandmothers.
I have openings in my June 10th workshop still! Don't wait until the last minute to sign up! http://nurtureyourjourney.net/workshop-schedule/2017/6/10/journey-through-loss-exploring-grief-and-loss-through-the-archetype-of-the-labyrinth