We were alone in the room, her room in our house, my mother and I, and she was dying. We both knew she was, but neither gave any indication of knowing. It would have clouded the assurance that each of us had always given the other—that things work out. That assurance of the goodness of life, of people, and of Heavenly Father was at the heart of our need now to comfort each other in the parting that loomed there like a thunderstorm, the kind of storm that Mother had prayed away when any of us were traveling and she was “working on the weather.”
But now there was no staying the inevitable. That last day, on the 23rd of December, 1972, had started like the others with a bath, a sponge bath of course, but a touching ritual that had lent us a closeness long lost in the routine of adulthood. Just before Thanksgiving Mother had suffered a massive heart attack. After three weeks of intense hospital care, it had become apparent that the damaged heart would never be able to pump the fluid from her lungs and she would die, maybe in a day, maybe in a. … No one really knew. So we brought her home to the rooms she loved in the home she had built with us fifteen years before when my father died at 59.
Our house had become hers, our lives and those of our five daughters a running, hectic, noisy, and very alive part of her dailiness. Until the day she went to the hospital she had been a vital, perky, busy participant in our lives and in those of scores of others, family and friends who now came to her with a terrible need to hold to her.
It was that need that eased my hand under the washcloth across her shoulders and down her arms. Bathing her was somehow a return to the essentials of human contact. She was tiny—only 4 feet 10 inches—barely to the neckties of my father and husky brothers and husband—and her body was like a baby’s, soft, plump, white, smooth, and without a blemish. I laughed as I washed her feet and rubbed fresh smelling powder on her back, telling her, “You’re marvelous, Mother. You take me back to bathing my babies—to all that delight in making them sweet and clean.”
And I’d pat her and smooth her nightie and make sure her pillow was fluffed just right against her cheek. She’d smile too—even that day—and take my hand covered in powder and lotion and grip it thumb to thumb, letting me feel her affirmation flood into my palm and up my arm and into my soul. If ever there were a bond between mother and daughter, it was there in that bath time, growing firm and tight for anything that might come.
In the days since, I’ve thought often of how that all worked as I’ve looked at my own girls and pondered the reasons for good and not-so-good times together. It seems that a lot of having what psychologists call “a great mother-daughter relationship” is dependent upon my being able—and I do assume almost all of the responsibility for what happens between us—to maintain the kind of warm, obvious, gentle concern for them that I exhibited when they were babies and I had the joyful job of giving them a bath.
This may appear ridiculous. How can a mother sustain that feeling of active guardianship throughout the life of her growing, independent, challenging daughters? How can she continue to demonstrate in concrete ways that she still cherishes them? Surely the actual process of washing and anointing with love is long gone, as is the need for that kind of authentic motherliness. But between any one of my daughters and me there is a tremendous need to explore and keep alive on a very daily basis those elements that made that early association so satisfying for both of us.
I do think it’s possible, and here’s how it might go: It involves all of the miracle of being human and demands a constant sharing between me as a mother and each of my daughters in all five areas of human potential—the physical, the emotional, the mental, the social, and the spiritual.
First, the physical. How easy it is to forget in our relationships with a child the power of touch. I remember when each of my girls was tiny how I couldn’t hug her tight enough or rock her long enough or soothe her softly enough. What makes me think that same touch has lost its magic for either of us? True, a lot of it is not feasible now; but I can still pat her shoulder when she looks as if she needs it or squeeze her when she’s glad or sad, and keep in touch all the time. What better than a good-night kiss to seal the day with I love you?
And there’s another side to the physical. I played and worked with her when she was little. Snowmen and mudpies and jumping in the pool together. Now we can put on a party or hit a ball or ski a mountain or pull weeds and share the same exhilaration we did then. It all tightens the bond. It was this same touching tenderness that made my mother my best nurse and most eager companion on many an excursion; she never forgot to express her love by hand.
Then there’s the emotional. When my daughter was small I was in on her every hurt or excitement. When she came running to me while I was gardening, saying, “Mommy, butterflies scare me,” I held her and smiled the fear away. What difference should it make if now she’s afraid of going to a new school or of breaking up with that special boy or of the awesomeness of thinking about marriage? And if the sharing of traumas draws me closer to her, why shouldn’t I tell her about mine and allow her the privilege of smiling me out of them—or at least of hearing them and understanding me better?
Someone once said that the greatest disservice we do each other is to give the constant appearance of “normalcy.” No one is free of weakness, failure, ineptitude, anxiety. To participate in the emotional life of my girl, I must be willing to accept her problems without condemnation and to share mine without fear of losing my status of the all-knowing, all-powerful, always-in-control grown-up. It is her humanness and ability to feel, to laugh, to cry, that draw me to her. Why not let that communion work actively for both of us?
And why not preserve perhaps our greatest outlet for tension—laughter? Always we’ve laughed. I remember getting the giggles during a violin recital when she was ten and chuckling at the antics of the puppy or at the embarrassment of my falling flat on the ice in a group of strangers. What pleasant, binding exchange can we now have simply in laughing together? In trading stories of the day or breaking up over the crazy happenings in a wild household just before a party?
In the sharing of frailty and laughter my mother was always there to listen and to tell and to laugh, almost more and more as the years drew us both into womanhood and its complexities. And more and more her understanding drew me to her for the intimacy of sharing grief and joy.
Now what about the mental? When my daughter was a child I loved to teach her, to learn with her—how to draw a monkey, how to put the visible man together, what words were, why the sun came up. And now that she’s a “people,” there are horizons neither of us has explored. What finer meat for my mental mill than her saying, “Read this, Mother, you’ll like it. And I want to talk to you about it.”
Am I disqualified, because we are now one adult to another, from reading what she’s written—a paper or report—and gleaning as well as constructively criticizing? By sharing the intellectual—books, concerts, plays, art, ideas (maybe not always together, but the same ones)—we cultivate awareness not only of our world but of each other and our responses to that world. In consensus or divergence we can foster vast areas of interest that will pull us together for talk and stimulation. Mother never lost interest in life or in me and was always my severest and most sought-after critic—of what I read, what I thought, what I saw, what I believed. I needed her.
And about the social. When she was young my little girl and I went everywhere together. She absorbed my feelings for people in the grocery store, at meetings, in the houses around the block. Then when she went on her own, a birthday party, a Primary class, a bike ride were subject to detailed and exuberant accounting. We shared it all. And in depth. How more likely then to indicate my continued cherishing of her than to care—really care—about all that: about who said what to whom at school, about why she’s jumping when the phone rings tonight, about the possible disaster of going or not going to that out-of-town formal.
And what insight might she have into adult workings if I mention the crisis in that class I taught today, or the funny situation at the party last night, or the poignant struggle of that friend in trouble this afternoon? How urgent can our need to confide be if we give each other current specifics from our lives and refuse to float apart on inch-deep generalities?
In another social way, we have the beautiful right to lend to each other’s lives the people who occupy ours. In my mother’s death I realized more than ever how she had exercised this right. Her friends are mine because she made me feel an important part of her life with them. In the same way she made my friends hers. One of my oldest friends said not long ago, “One reason I always liked to come to your house was that I never felt that I was just your friend. I felt like your parents and your brothers all thought of me as their friend too—and that made me more welcome than anything.” What more expensive gift is there than my daughter’s giving me her friends—boys and girls—to broaden my base? And what better can I give her than genuine companions from my sphere who will care about and coddle her into and through adulthood as my mother’s friends did me? What range, what diversity, what depth we can hand to each other through the people that we love!
Finally, there is the spiritual. When my little girl wondered about crocuses in the spring or the taste of snow or the speed of a hummingbird outside the cabin, I relished the chance to marvel with her at the glory and the Giver. Throughout the day, by the bed and at the table, we shared every prayer of gratitude and supplication. My feelings about divinity and grace were hers through telling and example. I made sure she knew of my profound need for strength beyond myself, and of my easy faith that it was there. Almost by osmosis she sensed and enjoyed the rites and privileges of believing.
What makes me suppose that such osmosis is not still a strengthening product of expressing to each other what we feel about our spiritual soundings? Can she tell me how she felt about that talk or someone’s seeming hypocrisy or someone else’s fine sensitivity? Can we talk about what Jesus might have done in a touchy situation that confronts me? Can she share a Sunday School lesson at the table or expect my during-the-day prayers to be for her when a big test is in the offing? Do we have access to each other’s spiritual make-up so that it is as real and operative in bringing us together as fixing a meal in the same kitchen might be?
On that last day, my mother’s hand in mine, I knew a feeling for continuity and faith I’d never had. Through her lifetime of “working on the weather,” of praying us through crises, of showing us how to give—goods, time, interest, ourselves—of demonstrating a caring, laughing, loving, expectant way to go, Mother had done it all. She had preserved believing and had led us quietly and happily in the paths of righteousness by making those paths flower with fun and good spirit and camaraderie. Whatever storms there had been had been met with the certainty that they would pass and that like Job, where we could not control our circumstances, we could control our responses.
So now I was losing her, my mother, my pillar, my soft, soft lady with the lamp. I leaned close to her, concerned that she hear, as she always had, my concern. I’d been a daughter different by far from the one I’d always imagined her wanting—a needlepoint, demure daughter more like her than my athletic, involved father. We’d joked about it before, but now I said, “Mother, I know you’ve always wished I take a gentler horse.”
She opened her brown eyes, flashing in dark circled settings, squeezed my hand harder, and said, “No. I always loved you on the wild one.”
And there it was. The whole secret of why she succeeded as a mother and why the bond of that moment held us firm. In every way she treasured me—physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually. She loved me as a person, as a unique, functioning, floundering potential, as truly a child of God. In spite of my failings, my impetuousness, my differences from her, our differences over the years, she loved me. And she showed it, always. She loved me as an adult just as she did when I was a little girl. She knew how to let her love mature and take on the dimension of whatever stage we both were in. And along the way she let me go, gave me the honor of being myself, knowing that that was the surest way to bring me back.
That night just before Christmas I had to let her go. While smiling at some flowers that had just arrived, Mother gasped and was gone. Alert and wise to the end, she remained my link with how to do it. And I’ll keep going back and back to that memory for constant help in trying to see that my five girls grow up as I did—with love, Mother.