I finally realized that we grew up with a similar but different struggle – I without a father from the age of eight and you without a mother from that same age. You go through every Mother’s Day not only as my mother, but also as a daughter looking out on the horizon wondering about your own. The word unfair is insufficient. While I was busy missing Daddy, you endured missing him without your own mother. It seems safe to guess that my own loneliness, overwhelming at times, is nothing compared to yours.
A couple of days ago, I called you for help with a parenting problem. That’s not true; I called to whine. My own daughter checkmated me when she used scotch tape to create a human-sized spider web during a time-out in her room. You spared me whatever judgment I deserved and just listened. That’s not something I’ve been very good at doing for you. Who did you call when I had a tantrum?
For over 35 years, you protected the bond between us even when I fought against it with ever fiber of my being. I want you to know that I understand why you hold on so tightly. I am sorry that you had to endure my pushing away from you like all children do when so many others left your life too early.
Perhaps I finally grew up the day you took me to Brooklyn. You showed me the house where your mother grew up, her family’s shop, and her high school. It is not lost on me that it’s the same one where you were a student teacher. At Holy Cross cemetery, as my feet crushed pure snow on my walk to our family plot, I expected to feel some intense emotion related to my own life. All I felt was sad for you and embarrassed for me. Sad because I never thought of you as being sad, but you must have been. Embarrassed because I never thought of how we share not only the hurt of losing Daddy but of being without a parent for most of our lives. I saw your strength but not your pain.
When you told me about the day your mother died, you said, “I remember sitting in a chair in the living room. The doctor walked out the front door. Our house was silent and dark. No one told the children. I knew my mother was dead. It was another time and adults behaved differently toward children.” You were alone with that knowledge. If I could change anything about your life it would be to go back to the moment and tell you that you will be loved in your life. You are loved.
I contrast that with that February morning the phone rang in our apartment. New York Hospital called to say that Daddy died. You hung up the phone, looked me in the eye, and said only the truth, “Daddy died. Now that it’s just you and me, that means that you are the person in the world I love more than anyone else.” After that, we laid in your bed for what seemed like hours. We respected each other’s silence, but we did it together.
I think of the many days we drove along the beach, together but silent. My favorite day was when I was in middle school. Somehow I managed to suspend being a thirteen-year-old girl and return to a semi-human state for an entire Sunday in early spring. You parked the blue Volvo at the deserted public beach.
When we reached the top of the stairs, it started to rain. We stood on benches under the partial cover of a wooden lookout tower. After a few minutes, we stepped out into the rain, looked at the grey ocean, and let the rain and sea spray wash our ancient hurts.
Yesterday, it rained during my own daughter’s softball practice. Like you and I, all those years ago on the beach, she looked up at the sky, closed her eyes and let the water wash over her. When I felt the rain on my skin, I missed that day. I hope she'll never have the kind of pain I've known but if she doesn't she'll also never know the bond that such pain creates.
“My favorite smell is rain-air,” she said.
“Me too.” I said.
So after all this time I’ve spent thinking about the smells that remind me of Daddy, I didn’t realize who my favorite smell reminds me of. The smell of the air just as it starts to rain is the smell of my connection to you. It will always be my favorite. Happy Mother’s Day. I love you.