My mother was supposed to live a different life. It says so in her high school yearbook:
Winsome is the word for our Clara. She’ll never be bitter or despairing, for she can always find something good in anything and dream of a better, happier tomorrow.
Like most girls on her South Philly yearbook page, my mother’s shoulder-length dark hair poufs back off her forehead. If you look closely, you can see her widow’s peak. Unlike a couple of the more glamorous girls, my mother’s features still show a hint of adolescent awkwardness, but even in the black and white one-by-one you can see the dreamy-happier-tomorrow-in-the-distance reflection in her gaze. For a dark-haired Italian, she had a pale complexion and the gentlest light blue eyes.
She was thirty-seven and pregnant when my dad’s brain tumor was diagnosed. Eight months later, she was a widow with five children, ages fourteen, twelve, ten, two, and three weeks old. My father’s death ripped a cavernous hole in her universe. It took years for her to climb out.
At twelve, I was terrified by the depth of her sorrow and heartache. With one of my parents gone, and the one left so breakable, I craved a way to control my part of the world and make it a secure, less frightening place. I was left with no choice but to create my own rules, grow up fast, and learn to live up to myself.
My mother spent the middle months of her last pregnancy visiting my dad in the hospital daily. She never learned to drive and got there every day that hot summer in her maternity dress and thick support stockings, on two buses, or through the kindness of family and friends. A couple of months before his death, she brought my father home to die, moving the dining room table and chairs to the basement to make room for his hospital bed.
Too young at twelve to be included in the adult circle of truth, too old not to know their assurances were a lie, I’d make deals with God in bed at night: if you just let him get better, I’ll never do this, I’ll always do that, I swear to become a nun. In my make-believe miracles, I’d skip through the streets, run to the convent where the sisters who taught us lived to proclaim his miraculous recovery.
The day after my father died, my three-week-old brother’s christening went ahead as previously planned. Through my twelve-year-old eyes, it seemed my mother wished she had died along with my father, but somehow that day, and every day, she dragged herself out of bed. With five children she loved depending solely on her it didn’t leave her much choice.
She never actually attempted suicide, but in the early years of deep depression after his death, at times the rage and despair boiled over in her. She’d rant about dying in a wire-tight voice like too many nails on a chalkboard. She raged at the loss of her dream of a happier tomorrow, for the fatherless children she couldn’t fathom how to support. Afterward, she always wept with regret for alarming us. Scared stiff, I’d pray each time was the last time, that she loved us all enough to face another day.
I hated those breakdowns and promised myself to never be like her. For years, I mislabeled her fury and desperation as anger. In my rule-ordered world, anger became an unmentionable to be shoved deep inside and never, ever let out.
I was almost fifteen when my mother had her first blind date. As she got ready to go out with the brother of her close neighborhood friend, I sat on her bed watching. She borrowed my eye shadow, changed from one dress to another, fretted about the shade of her nails. She put on her glasses and turned so I could look her up and down.
“Are my glasses better on”—she gave me a few seconds to consider before reaching up and removing them—“or off?”
It shook me that her grownup, pre-date jitters so closely mirrored my insecure teenage self. I couldn’t always admit it, but that was the first of countless times over the years that I stared into her perplexed face and caught a glimpse of myself.
My mother loved two men after my father, but never in the same way she had loved him. She never attained her dream to marry again and it took years for her to come to grips with the fact of aging alone.
Growing up, there were unspoken rules in our house: the biggest—do not dare risk upsetting Mom by talking about Dad. The merest reference could plunge her into a bottomless crying jag.
He must have been dead more than twenty years when she started to talk about him more freely. I can still feel the clutch in my chest the first time she did, still see the panic on my siblings’ faces that surely reflected my own. This new language of feelings was as foreign as Russian to us. It was a language we hadn’t been taught. Word by word, she managed to put whole sentences about him together and none of us cracked apart. Still, even as an adult there were things I couldn’t put into words. I always called my mother on Dad’s birthday, the anniversary of his death, their wedding anniversary. I’m sure she knew why I called on those days, but only in the last year or two did we find the words to actually admit it out loud.
All the unspoken rules and bottled-up words, all the swallowed-whole feelings put a bull’s-eye on my forehead for the eating disorder that plagued me through my twenties. It might also have been genetic, an imitation of my mom.
In pictures of her in the years right after my father’s death, she is waif-like, a fraction of her former self. When protein drinks didn’t reverse her weight loss, one doctor suggested she put on weight by chasing her daily dose of Valium with a couple of afternoon beers. Those were different, less informed times; he must have meant well. It became normal to find her napping on the couch in the late afternoon when I came home from high school. Back then, I assumed she retreated to sleep because her life exhausted her. Years later, girl-talking around my mother-in-law’s kitchen table, was the first time I ever heard my mother refer to those naps as “sleeping off the beers.”
At least some of my mother’s insecurities stemmed from growing up in an alcoholic home. Marriage was her way out, her answer for her happy-ever-after life. Even after it went so wrong, she drilled into her girls the need to get married to be accepted and fulfilled. When I was still unmarried in my mid-twenties, I felt less than whole, another eating disorder bull’s-eye on my head.
The afternoon we girl-talked at my mother-in-law’s kitchen table, my mother admitted she’d been afraid she would turn into her own alcoholic mother, and that’s why she took herself off the beer. Eventually, she railed against the doctors who prescribed antidepressants and mood elevators and sleeping pills to mask the depth of her sorrow instead of helping her to mourn it out. She took herself off those, too, and turned to talk-therapy with my older sister, aunts, and friends to slowly find her way back.
My youngest sister and baby brother were in grade school when my mother went back out to work, cleaning other people’s houses, doing their ironing, standing for hours ringing up and bagging their canned goods at the neighborhood grocery store. As young teens, all of us siblings worked neighborhood jobs, paper routes, cutting grass, babysitting, washing dishes at the diner, clerking the bakery and dry-cleaning counter. Our habit of lending Mom money to help make ends meet started in adolescence and stretched throughout the years. She’d jot the amount of the “loan” on a list she kept in a dining-room drawer. “We’ll catch up,”she’d always say in her better-tomorrow style.
In my late teens, I tried to get her to join a typing class with me as a means to a better job. On some level even then, I must have known she was more capable then she realized, but she took my suggestion as an affront, snapping out and screeching, “Why would you make your own mother do that?”
Job applications and interviews intimidated her. Over the years she found the courage to face that down, too, working her way up to a real cashier job in the credit office of a national retail store.
Typing wasn’t the only thing we disagreed about, but by my late teens I’d honed my ability to swallow my feelings and act as if I went along. You can count on one hand the outright arguments we had over the years.
One of the most dramatic was in my late twenties, about six months into my recovery from anorexia and bulimia. I had kept my therapy secret and decided it was time to tell her. I was still in the mother-blaming stage of recovery, so my confession made both my eating disorder and therapy sound like they were her fault. We screamed back and forth at each other. She accused me of abandoning her and my youngest sister and brother, leaving her to raise them on her own when I moved out into an apartment several years before.
I shrieked back at her. “I wasn’t the other parent—I was one of the kids!” My words reverberated between us. Her whole body shook; her face looked like I’d slammed the side of her head with a board. It was hard-earned, but when the dust settled, we seemed to have a new understanding of each other, the seeds of a dawning respect.
A year or so later, as my husband and I planned our wedding, we selected wording for our wedding invitations we thought honored both of our widowed mothers. Although we were paying for our own wedding, the invitation read: “In the spirit of Christian joy, we and our parents, Ms. Clara Fragale and Ms. Margaret Mary Brill, request …”
Instead of the pleasure I expected, my mother threw a fit. She insisted we redo the invitations, engraving her name as “Mrs. Vincent Paul Fragale.” At the time, it seemed ridiculously needy for her to still want to be referred to as my father’s wife, to cling to his name eighteen years after his death. Her same old single-is-inadequate mantra riled me, but we went ahead and changed the invitations. I’d like to say we reprinted them to make her happy, but really it was just to keep peace.
It was another one of those times I swore to be different than her, never to lose myself like she had or feel that needy in my marriage, yet twenty-five years later, when someone calls me Mrs. James Brill it fills me with pride, affection, and delight. After years of growing into our marriage, being referred to by my husband’s name makes me more me, not less. Our marriage has taught me how to be one without losing how to be two.
In my early forties, I started to see my mother as a widowed single woman, not only as my mom. At that point, I’d been happily married for over ten years, accomplished in my career, pursuing a graduate degree part-time, achieving a 4.0. In spite of my successes, I still felt so not-fully-formed inside—there I was feeling so young yet already a few years older than my mother had been when her whole world blew apart.
Some days it’s scary feeling like the lucky one. At times, I still feel guilty being happily married for going on twenty-seven years when she only got fifteen.
My mother scraped by and held on to the
row house where my father died and where we all grew up together until she was in her sixties. With everyone grown and getting married or moving on, a four-bedroom house was much too big, and the neighborhood was changing. Selling the house meant more letting go. For the first time in her life, she had to face living alone. It took a while to warm up to the idea, but as she realized her children were adults and somehow she’d made it, she settled into herself—and as she used to put it, came to accept that it was time to “squooze down.” Philadelphia
By the time I fulfilled a life-long dream to live at the
a few years later, my mother and I had come to rely on our regular contact. Our new Jersey Shore Cape May home was a hundred miles from her in . We needed a way to keep in touch every day, and on her very fixed income, daily long distance calls weren’t the best option. Email seemed a good solution, but the idea of a computer made her nervous. We settled on an email-only machine. When it came time to set up her email address, I remembered a story from childhood. My father, a huge Yankee’s fan, once teased her at the dinner table, saying, “Your mother was some baseball player. The neighborhood kids called her Home Run Clara, because when she came out to play with her bat and ball, all the other kids ran home.” I labeled her HomeRunClara@yahoo.com, and a new identity was born. Maybe harking back to that old fear of typing, the keyboard upset her at first. Like so many hurdles in her life, she mastered it over time. As I expected, our emails became an important part of her day. What took me back and still surprises me now is how vital they became in mine. Philadelphia
How do you explain the day your mother has a life-threatening stroke? The first day when all her words are gone forever, the look in her eyes you pray is recognition but seems far too much like fear, how the touch of your hand seems to calm her, and you convince yourself that when you squeeze, she squeezes back … You are sure it is the most terrible day of your life, until the second day, which is inconceivably worse—her unseeing eyes closed to slits and her hand listless or flailing, and there is no way to deny or pretend to yourself—there is no squeezing back.
The last thing I whispered to her two days later before leaving the hospital to drive back to
Cape May was, “Jim and I will be back tomorrow, but if you don’t want to, you don’t need to wait.”
We were in the car ten minutes from the hospital the next day when we got the call. I like to believe she heard my goodbye and went without guilt or regret.
My father died so young it denied the opportunity for me to know him as anyone but Daddy—robbed him of the chance to know me as a woman and for me to see him as a fallible man. I’m grateful my mother lived long enough to know the woman I became—grateful every day now that she lived long enough for me to grow up and look past her faults and admire her strengths and be someone she called her friend.
I find I miss every phase of her now: the “before” mommy who was afraid of monkey bars and the ocean and Ferris wheels, but let me have fun with them as long as Daddy was around; the mommy whose heart was full of music, who taught us the words to“Peg of My Heart” and “Moon River” and “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”while she sponged down the table and stove, and my sister and I washed and dried; the skinny, terrified mommy of my “after” youth; the puzzled dating mom of my mid-to-late teens; the mother I butted heads with in my twenties and early thirties; the mom I started to know in my forties who grew into HomeRunClara and found joy in me being her friend.
I long for her most in the early mornings when I would read her newsy email about her previous day and I’d fill her in about mine.
She sneaks up on me everywhere, in the graham-cracker aisle in the grocery store, sitting at my computer to open email, on my long commute home from work when I reach for my cell phone to call.
I know she’ll sneak up again when the warm spring air carries the scent of lilacs, a scent from my youth, and the huge lilac tree she loved too much to ever cut back even after its heavy blooms drooped and blocked the path in and out of her yard.
When the ground thaws in spring, I’ll plant a garden in my mother’s memory in the corner of my backyard. It’s the view I see through my window when I read email or write at my computer. I don’t know what all I’ll plant, but probably a lilac and for sure a forsythia—she always loved their bright sunshine color with their promise of summer and a better tomorrow to come.