My mother used to come into my bedroom at night smelling like my father. She’d crawl into bed and wake me, wanting to tell me a story, or try to crawl inside my small womb that did not yet recognize her as my child. My eyelids fluttered to the lie of sleep. Her breath smelled of cigarettes and night, her hair like wildflowers. She liked to tell the story of losing most of her hair when she gave birth to my oldest brother, she liked to tell me the ghosts woke her up again, she liked to tell me everything was going to be alright when her world was shaken to its core.
She had a waist the size of a nickel and was built for the stage. She was flabby and old and wore my father’s shorts. I have spent my whole life looking at her in the rearview mirror.
Each morning my brothers and I studied my mother’s face to see who would show up – the nurturing mother or the woman who would throw a shoe across the room for punctuation.
Many years later, during a time my mother wasn’t speaking to her children – my brother decided to break the ice and invite both my parents to his wedding. I warned my brother she’d ruin his wedding. I reminded him she never called after his wife died, but he wanted to forgive.
And sometime after this, she and my father arrived to California for the wedding, she called me and said, how could you have had a baby and never once think of me?
Her asking me that question made me realize just how fucked up our relationship had become. I hadn’t thought of my mother, not once while I was pregnant or breastfeeding my daughter. Sometimes my daughter would ask me about her, and I always told her about the books, the singing, the extraordinary gardens.
The day of my brother’s wedding, my mother leaned forward in the church pew and looked at my3-year old daughter for the first time, and my daughter leaned forward and looked at her grandmother for the first time. Instantly their love became like a wrinkled photo in an old leather wallet.
I wish I could tell you my magical, nurturing mother reappeared. She was complicated and she was no less complicated in her later years.
There were times I had to protect my daughter from my mother, from her DNA, though the questions remained how do I protect my daughter from the parts of my mother that live in me?
My daughter was thirteen when my father died, and my mother succumbed to dementia. Kele decorated my mother’s room in a nursing home, took her out to lunch with me and willingly flew across country on a regular basis to help my mother and make her laugh.
My mother often visits me now that she is gone, sometimes sitting at the foot of my bed smoking, other times telling me I’m going to bed too early, even though it’s 2 a.m.
Didn’t we have fun in the middle of the night, she’ll say?
We often played Parcheesi. We ate Cheerios and whole milk while the moon winked. When I was older, I’d type her manuscripts and go to sleep with white out and mistakes on the tips of my fingers.
It took me so many years to remember all the rest and I’m still remembering the love and the terror, like the puzzle pieces we tried to force together on our family game table, so the picture came to life just like the scene on the box.
What emerges most now are my mother’s gardens, her daily separation from her family – how she fed her soul through words and worms and religion and bulbs she pushed deep into the earth.
Our mothers are never just one thing. They are also daughters and sisters and wives and girlfriends. They are somebody’s best friend. They are the antagonist and the protagonist, the mystic and sometimes also the monsters.
The mountain and the quicksand.
We spend our lives forgiving them and also forgiving ourselves for being imperfect children, for becoming our own imperfect versions of them over the years. Sometimes all we have is grace and mercy as the light guiding us toward our best selves. It’s important to remember you once shared the same body and were swimming inside her – growing limbs and lungs and smiles and hope.
I still wake some nights at 3 a.m. to my restless mother, our common and uncommon blood. Sometimes I sit beside her, this lovely ghost of my DNA at the foot of my bed.
And I say, mama – thank you, thank you, thank you.