My mother has been gone from this world two years today, so I took the day off and spent it in the garden. My new Blessed Mother statue, a late Mother’s Day present from my husband, arrived appropriately today, just in time to replace the one that did not survive the winter. I placed her in our devotional garden alongside other icons of faith we look to as a family. She was my mother’s favorite. Last fall, we yanked out two overgrown juniper bushes from the raised garden in front of the house and this week I filled it in with perennials and roses for my mom.
Now to be patient, to wait for things to fill in and grow. A gardener’s mandate if there ever was one.
Also, a daughter’s mandate.
I was patient with my mother. I waited for a long time to have the close relationship we had when she died. It was worth the wait, which makes today both bitter and sweet to think about.
My mother was an alcoholic. She wouldn’t mind me telling you that. In fact, she might even insist upon it. By the time she succumbed to small cell lung cancer on May 17, 2021, she had something like fourteen years of sobriety behind her. She was clear-eyed and clear of heart. She had fully embraced the culture and community of AA, had worked all 12 steps, had sponsors, and had been a sponsor many times for others. She had found friendship and purpose and peace.
AA saved her life and our relationship. It gave me back someone I thought for a long time I’d never see again.
A long time ago, my father died, too, and I have been writing about that loss for so long–more than thirty years–and it feels strange to now be drawn to write into this new grief. It’s a strange thing to have no parents in the world anymore, but it’s interesting, too. My father died when I was in a hugely formative moment of my life–on the cusp of adulthood. Our relationship never got to grow beyond the tender shoots we had barely managed to plant. That kind of loss leaves unanswered questions, holes and gaps that can never be filled in. His death, I have often said and written, completely obliterated me. For years and years. Now psychiatrists have a word for this: Prolonged Grief Disorder, a condition marked by, among other things, identity disruption, “such as feeling as though part of oneself has died.” Accurate.
But not so with my mom. We got to mature together, get to know each other through years of growth, despair, struggle and joy…all the things that make a full life. I feel lucky that we did. Oh, I miss her, to be sure. Painfully. Particularly when I see how much my daughter misses her. That’s a grief I cannot weather for her and I know so well the pain she feels.
My debut essay collection is coming out in November, and when I began writing it, it was to be a memoir about my relationship to the loss of my father through the lens of food. It has morphed and changed many times in the intervening years (and I will write about that process, too), and now it also includes my life as a mother to my children, as well as my relationship to my mother and her death. I didn’t expect that when I started, just like I didn’t, for a long time, expect that I would miss my mother when she died. That sounds horrible, I know. But she’d want me to tell you that, too. She was big on honesty and acceptance and done hiding behind alcohol or shame. We had a rough time for a long time. I understand now, in a way that I couldn’t when I was younger, that she had a much rougher time inside her addiction–a place where you are ultimately very much alone. I’d tell her in those later years how proud I was of her. How much I admired her strength. She’d always shoo my compliment away, giving all credit to her “Higher Power”–what they call it in AA–but which was always, for her, the God she found (and I left) inside the Catholic church. Okay, I’d say, God, too. But you showed up for it. You did the work.
My father and I shared a love of food and my connection to him is made of culinary nostalgia. My mom liked to eat, but food wasn’t one of the primary pleasures of her life, the way, for instance, shopping for bargains at TJMaxx was. Today, I took my daughter there to buy a pretty dress “from grandma,” and we joked that we should be able to summon her spirit from the fitting room or the shoe aisle or the home goods section. God she loved that store.
After, I made dinner–linguini and white clam sauce (my mother’s famous recipe) and steamed artichokes (a favorite of us both.) The clam sauce was terrific but the artichokes were mediocre at best. I’d always heard that they could be bitter, but had never really experienced that until tonight. Maybe they were a little old, maybe I didn’t steam them long enough. I don’t know. What I realized though as I cooked was that it doesn’t matter that my connection to my mom isn’t through food the way it is with my father. Cooking to remember people is just what I do. It’s always been my path through grief and back to love.
I had to really scrape to get the fuzzy choke off of the artichoke heart. It wasn’t the tender, unctuous last bite I always look forward to, the thing that makes all the work of scraping the leaves so worth it. But I ate it, dipped in a lemon tarragon aioli I had picked up at TJMaxx and decided it was okay enough adorned with that delicious condiment.
More sweet than bitter in the end. Like our life as mother and daughter.
Miss you, mom. Love you. My clam sauce is not as good as yours.