Wish You Were Here, Mom
Last week I had the pleasure of attending an overflowing, warm-spirited event at the NY Open Center entitled “Keeping Alive the Memories of Lost Loved Ones for Healing & Resilience.”
While I had planned this week to write more about the evening—specifically the transformative power of stories (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Soledad O’Brien, and Allison Gilbert shared a wealth of wisdom on the topic)—I am going to instead take a personal detour in honor of Mother’s Day. And, more importantly, in honor of all the friends and family who have shown love to me in the days—and years—since my own mother passed away…
When Remembering Lost Loved Ones Hurts
At the Open Center event, Professor Gates, noted Harvard scholar and host of Finding Your Roots, briefly spoke about how profoundly the loss of his mother impacted him. He described seeing his mother hospitalized, “with all those tubes attached, and then, she’s just gone,” he said. His grief “is still as raw and as fresh, almost, as it was when it happened,” in 1987.
“If I let myself go there, I can start crying in about two seconds,” Gates said. “It’s like a stream flowing under this carpet—it’s right there, and I can tap into that grief at any moment.”
Oh, how those words resonated with me that evening. In the midst of a vibrant, thought-provoking discussion, upon hearing his admission, I had to re-center myself, take a deep breath, and, well…not “go there” myself.
On March 16, 2017, on what would have been my mother’s 70th birthday, I shared a longish update on Facebook about what I was feeling. The responses both public and private from my circle of friends were overwhelmingly supportive, as close to a warm hug as I could get from social media.
Because a number of people expressed gratitude for my words that day—for recognizing my prolonged grief as their own, for glimpsing something universal in my very individual experience—I decided to share the post in this broader setting.
Professor Gates, I have ordered your book Colored People: A Memoir, not only to give me a chance to revel a little longer in your eloquence and humor, but to be introduced to the woman who had such a positive and lasting influence on you. In sharing my personal post below, I hope I am able to pay some small tribute to your mother, Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates, as well as to my mother, Lillian Miller Roode. They live on in our memories, as joyful and as painful as that may be.
From a March 16, 2017, Facebook post:
Today my mom would have been 70. It’s hard for me to fathom. And yet how easy it would be to let myself go there—to imagine that she’s been with us these past eight years, grandmother-ing [my son], supporting and guiding and loving me on weekend overnights and hours-long phone calls, making [my husband] chocolate cream pie.
I don’t let my mind go there, ever. I don’t usually imagine her in my kitchen browning oxtails for barley soup. Or sitting on the floor near our fireplace Christmas morning, relishing in her grandson’s joy over opening his piles of presents. I never think of her sipping tea in her bathrobe at my kitchen table, in my home she never ultimately saw. I especially never allow myself to feel her arms tightening around me in a meaningful hug.
My mind never goes there because my heart couldn’t take it. It would be overbearing, distracting.
There are moments that come unbidden, though, thoughts that my mind could not squash because they are made exclusively of feelings, that simply hollow me out some days: When instincts alone move my hand to hover over the phone to connect with her. When I realize anew she is gone (I had not forgotten, exactly, just not remembered, right then, that the worst had happened).
I would have guessed eight years ago that those times would have come when something sad or even a tiny bit bad had happened—when I needed her. But I would have been wrong.
Every time I have been so in the moment that I have *not remembered* that she is gone—every time—has been when I wanted to share my joy with her.
Those who knew her will recognize that, while she was one of the most supportive, least judgmental, and most generous souls to have crossed their paths (oh, the stories I could tell!), she was also gracious and grateful beyond measure—and sharing joy with her always multiplied one’s own joy.
I lost my mom when my only son was just three months old, and it was an unexpected blow to bear. And yet it happened in the midst of the most substantial, indescribable joy I had ever experienced: motherhood. I have been blessed with many great things in the years since, and I am forever grateful (a lesson learned well from her). If only I could share those joys with her. If only I could express my love for her, impossibly amplified since becoming a mom myself. If only I could imagine her as my friend walking this earthly path with me, still.
I don’t let my mind go there, not most days. But today, on what would have been her 70th birthday, I will. I am going to imagine, for just today, what it would have been like. xoxo
“Mothers, Mementos, & Memories”
I am excited to be spending a portion of my Mother's Day this year in my old neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn for a unique and meaningful event, “Mothers, Mementos, and Memories.”
Celebrate your mother at this free Mother’s Day-themed show-and-tell event! Like childhood “show and tell” days, you are invited to bring an object that reminds you of your mother, mother-figure, grandmother or aunt, such as a photograph, piece of jewelry, card, letter, teacup, apron, rolling pin, or a recipe. No advance reservations needed.
Come to the event and you will be invited to share a 3-5 minute story of your object. You are not required to participate; all are welcome to join and listen.
The New York City chapter of Association of Personal Historians in partnership with StoryCorps® and Show & Tale will sponsor the event to celebrate Personal History Awareness Month and the StoryCorps® Listening Challenge.
If you are in the area, please drop by the event—and please stop by to say hello! I'll be sharing a story about a blanket my mom crocheted for me, and will be available to answer any questions at all about personal history and Modern Heirloom Books. Mostly, I look forward to a heartfelt few hours sharing stories of mothers we love!
Mother's Day, Sunday, May 14
3 – 5pm
The Old Stone House at Washington Park
336 3rd Street
- The NY Open Center offers a full calendar of holistic-minded programming, including various programs on The Art of Dying.
- Allison Gilbert shares a multitude of specific ways to keep lost loved ones’ memories alive—to actively remember them—in her book, Passed and Present.
- See how the first legacy book I ever created honored my mother—and eventually inspired Modern Heirloom Books.
Up next week on the blog: More from the NY Open Center Event in a post entitled “Story Is Everything”