Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The only and last time my mother came to visit me in Minnesota, she made me curtains. She painted an end table. She put longer strings on my ceiling fan so I could turn it on easier. She refinished an old bench that I had found in the alley behind my house. And she helped me hang sixteen blank postcards on my kitchen wall. For years, we had been sending homemade or store bought postcards back and forth to one another with our cryptic communications, bits of poetry, drawings, inside jokes. A small mail art project. My mother was a painter and an artist. To commemorate our postcard project, she painted sixteen paintings of postcards on black tar paper. I wanted to hang them in my kitchen, but was afraid they would be ruined by grease or water. So, during that last visit, she coated them with medium to protect them, and on the night before she left, we hung them on my kitchen wall. I stood on a chair and she handed me up the postcards and nails. We were laughing about something and I kept dropping the small nails. At some point in the middle of the process, she said, "These blank postcards are all the things I didn't get a chance to tell you." Six weeks later she passed away. Six weeks and two days later I found out I was pregnant.

When I told my therapist (who works, appropriately, at the Center of Loss and Transition) about the blank postcards, she said, "Its sounds like your mother had every intention of continuing to parent you after her death." She said this not to suggest that my mother was communicating with me from the grave. My mother didn't believe in heaven or hell. She didn't believe it was that simple or that complicated. I don't either. I don't know where my mother exists in time and space or if she does, and I'm not sure it matters either way. What my therapist meant was that my mother had known her time was limited, and had been deliberate about the things she had left behind: Some are concrete things I can touch like her paintings, the curtains, the sculpture she built me out of old piano pieces. Most are words she said to me or ideas she planted in my head, or the particular philosophy she had crafted out of Buddhism, art theory, psychology and various other schools of thought.

My mother is not here to see me mother my own child. But I have internalized all she taught me and all she gave me, and as a result she is guiding me through this process in the ways she still can. Everyday I fill in the words of the blank postcards with what she would say, with the advice she would give me at this moment, in this exhausting, amazing, trench warfare first year of my child's life. (You have everything you need and more, she once said to me, you just can't see it yet) That is the goal of this endeavor: that your children can exist beyond you and past you, and without you. And that when you are gone, they have the tools you have given them to parent their children. This is how it works. A friend of my mother's said it best when she found me standing alone, six months pregnant, eating more than my share of the cheese plate at my mother's memorial: "Well girl," she said "looks like you got yourself caught in the cycle of life."

Ellis was born nine months to the day after my mother died. He has her fierce determination to live. He never stops moving. He never sleeps. I learn new things about my mother everyday. I understand better the shape of all those days she spent with us. When my husband is cooking dinner, or doing laundry or putting the baby to sleep, I understand - finally really understand - what my mother meant when she said, "Your father was never home with us. He was always working." Oh, I want to say to her everyday, so this is how it is, this is how it is to be a mother, to be the center of someone's world, to feel trapped, to breastfeed, to feel your chest tighten when he cries, to never sleep, to give over your body, to be greeted by applause and coos when you enter a room. So this is how it is.


  1. Hi Bree! Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Hi Bree,
    Welcome. Your first post has me in tears. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Bree...I..too...and standing here in tears. Thank you for sharing...its important in so many ways. I feel truly truly blessed that I had the opportunity to spend time with your mom -- I remember all of our conversations. She would be so proud of you ~ you are doing an amazing job....xo,j

  4. Bree...Ive been thinking about your posting...it struck me very deeply. Your mom left you with such special pearls of wisdom...I feel like as new moms, its hard for us to see the big picture...the view can be so short....but its true, sometimes its hard to see when we really have.... Speak soon...xo