By Paula Damon
This is Mother’s day. My 39th and I’m searching for my mother’s heart, wondering what drove her, what inspired her, what led her on the way to the 59th Mother’s Day she endured before her death in 2005.
Mom didn’t linger long, and during the years before she fell ill, I was far too busy raising my own brood to even contemplate these things about her, let alone formulate questions with the right words, in the right place, at the right time that would produce viable and meaningful answers from her, other than, “Oh, you never mind!” or a polite and speechless dismissal of herself from the room.
My mom was tight-lipped. Her heart was clamped shut. She went to her grave never expressing her longings, her dreams, her fears and other complexities that comprised her.
Oh, I do know she loved coconut cream pie. Her favorite color was green. She preferred her potatoes baked over fried. She liked to sew her clothes rather than buying them off the rack. My mother viewed monumental domestic chores, like cleaning and cooking, as relatively easy tasks, which she preferred to do herself, rather than watch someone else not do them as well as she could.
While stoic to the point of being robotic, Mother was extremely self-conscious, spending hours in front of the mirror preening her hair and refining her makeup – not because she liked the way she looked but quite to the contrary.
Yet, she had a following. No matter where my mother was, she had a magnetic field around her that seemed to draw needy women 10 to 20 years her junior. Weeping, seeking shelter in the rare wisdom and faith she imbued so effortlessly, co-workers and young ladies from church would flock to the house or call her on the phone
Mom would listen to them for hours, whispered pearls of advice and they’d leave or hang up breathing sighs of relief, feeling hopeful and much, much lighter.
My mother’s smile was as pretty and refreshing as a slice of key lime pie, but she rarely showed it off. There was a sullen grace about her. She was quite soft-spoken unless her children were under attack, and then she would become as defensive as a mother bear protecting her cubs and watch out!
I never heard her swear, except for “Damn it!” once in a while. When she’d holler, “What in the Sam Hill are you doing?” I always thought she was cursing but eventually learned she was not.
Today when I think of her, I see a locked room. I am not sure what gladdened her heart more – watching her children come forth in life or seeing them go, because she didn’t say much either way.
And, I’m mystified why she tore up our baby pictures, kneeling there over the cedar chest in the boys’ walk-in closet on the second floor of my childhood home.
By then, I had already married and moved away to Iowa. That old wooden chest with a hinged lid was the closest thing we had to treasure chest. In it were family keepsakes: Mom’s alligator shoes, her wedding dress, scrapbooks, postcards Dad wrote from his U.S. Navy post in Puerto Rico, baptismal gowns, black and white baby photos of her six children, lots and lots of baby photos.
It was around that time the bank was foreclosing on the house. Except for the two suitcases she had packed, everything in the century-old Victorian house would go. Many years later, my siblings told me that was when Mom had a nervous breakdown and ripped our baby photo to shreds.
I want to think it was because she was protecting us. I reason that she merely didn’t want all those precious images of our innocence landing in some thrift store or garbage heap.
She couldn’t take them with her, probably didn’t think of shipping them to a relative, so she destroyed every last one.