Eighteen years ago my mother was here with me, welcoming our first child, a girl. Mom stood on our deck, smoking cigarettes and commenting on the spectacular display of autumn leaves. “That,” she said, nodding toward a large, bright red sugar maple, “will be her tree, because it will always be beautiful on her birthday.” And for 16 years, it was, casting lovely pink light into her bedroom on sunny autumn mornings. It is both satisfying and sad to know how much of the world we shared in those heady, confusing days of new parenthood is gone. I look at it now as the cusp between being a child and becoming a mother, feeling only now, with my girl 18, that the transformation is nearly (though never, I guess) complete.
We are renovating our bathrooms, the last rooms untouched since those weeks she spent here, and it was recalling her blowing smoke out of the downstairs bath window (please don’t smoke in the house, Mom) that prompted me to think of all that has changed since then. Little by little we have made the place our own, replacing the carpets, the floors, the kitchen, the boiler, the air conditioning, the roof, the deck and many of the trees (the sugar maple fell victim to a spring storm downdraft that sliced it clean in half). Nursing a broken foot, I am forced to slow down and note the changes to life, inside and out, as I walk gingerly down the street and up the lawn after getting the newspaper, just as she did.
She used to tell a story from that visit, in which she and my husband stood at the kitchen window viewing some small pine trees scattered around the back yard. They talked about how it would be so nice to have a little row of them lined up outside of that window. A couple of hours later she came bustling upstairs to my room where I was nursing the baby, to report that my husband had gone out that very moment and moved all the trees to create the row of tiny pines outside the window, where they remain today, almost as tall as the house now. She couldn’t get over it, “He just went out and DID it!! Just like that!!” It was a defining moment for her, and for us, as we have benefitted from – and been dumbstruck by – countless permutations of my husband’s thought-it-up-and-did-it moments.
She did that for me, and for many others, pointing out things in life that we weren’t really noticing but maybe should be. She wasn’t always right but she made me think, made me BE in my life in a way that is still hard to do without her, eight years after she died. But she has her ways of appearing, of reminding, of inhabiting the lives of her children and grandchildren. A day does not go by that I don’t tell a story about her, say something just like her, or wear something that makes me think of her. I wear her rings, I have her gray hair, I have glasses that are too big for my face, and I’m pretty sure I am buying her sweaters. So, while the outside looks more and more like Mom, inside I am less lost in her shadow than I have ever been. Life has thrown us different curves, and we have handled them differently, if with the same kind of determination.
This week I pulled out a china cup and saucer for my coffee like the ones she used to use to replace my usual white diner mug, partly to reduce the amount of coffee I drink (which is a Mom story for another time) but also because when I see it from across the kitchen, I can pretend for a second that she is just around the corner – or more likely, in the bathroom (I painted it her favorite color, periwinkle) having a smoke.