|My mother and me, circa 1949|
On this Mother's Day I wish to pay tribute to my own mother, Evelyn Cecilia Merritt, by remembering her and sharing with you the special person she was.
Born on March 27, 1916, she exchanged her earthly address for a heavenly one on October 6, 1993, at the age of 77.
Because she was there from my beginning, she is a significant part of who I have become, and I am grateful for all the gifts she gave to me.
My mother was punctual and tidy, and I know that it was she who taught me to be on time, to be organized and neat. She taught me to be mindful of the needs of others, to be financially responsible and to always pay my bills. She taught me a love for reading, for music, for romance. She taught me to tell my children and grandchildren — frequently and often — how very much I love them. And most of all, I think, she taught me how to love: how to give it and receive it — first with my parents and my sister, then with my husband and my children and grandchildren, and with all the special people in my life. She certainly taught me that it was okay to cry — and to always carry extra tissues in my pocket!
When I was little and before television came along, I loved to listen to her sing along when my father would play his banjo. She knew all those wonderful old love songs that were popular during World War II, and I remember thinking she had the most beautiful voice in the world.
I loved to find her in the kitchen when I'd get home from school, and I still remember all the smells of oatmeal raisin cookies and homemade applesauce, of bouquets of fresh-cut lilacs and lillies of the valley wafting through our home.
I loved to crawl in bed with her and my sister, snuggling all together as she'd read to us chapters from our favorite books: The Little Lame Prince, Little Women, or The Secret Garden.
I loved to watch her face and listen to her voice as she'd interact with babies or with animals. She was wonderful with both. She'd have you believe that she hated cats and wanted nothing to do with dogs, but for all her protestations, she always succumbed to their charms and took them full force into her heart. Because she permitted it and put up with it, most of my childhood and adolescence was filled with goldfish and guppies, dogs and cats and kittens, a turtle and a parakeet, rabbits and bunnies and ducks. Every one of them adored her, and she taught me to love them, too.
I've always thought of my father as the one who slew the imaginary dragons under my bed when I was little, and taught me to handle the real ones when I got bigger. But it was my mother who watched over my sister and me when we were little — and understood that we were little. It was she who played with us, nurtured our imaginations and indulged our childishness — because she knew that children we still were. Even when we were pre-schoolers, it seemed as if our father expected us to behave like fully developed adults. But it was Mother who let us act like silly little girls — and sometimes she would act like one right along with us! We'd have her to tea in our playroom, and we’d all pretend she was our dear friend, “Evelina”, who’d come to visit us.
When Mother would leave for a week to visit her brothers and sisters in Detroit in those early years, we'd miss her terribly. We'd steal away from our sitter, Aunt Mary, to the spare bedroom closet, and burrow ourselves into the folds of Mother's Persian lamb coat. It was as soft and as lovely as she was, and it smelled every bit as beautiful.
I remember how all my friends in high school simply loved my mother. I realize now that it's because she paid such close attention to them, treated them with respect, and really listened to what they had to say. It always made me feel so proud and so very fortunate when they'd say I had the neatest mother in the world.
To be sure, there were things about my mother that I truly didn't like. Her passive, accepting attitude about so much that happened to her always bothered me terribly, but her child-like Catholic faith was the driving force in her life. She believed strongly that whatever happened was somehow meant to be, because it was God's will. It never seemed to occur to her that she herself could do anything to affect the circumstances in her life.
I do remember one time, though, when she made a drastic change. She had gone on a trip to Florida with our Aunt Lorraine. She left as the brunette we had always known and returned to us as a blonde. She was a stranger in our midst! I remember feeling furious with her. How dare she change so fundamental a part of herself without our prior knowledge and consent?! It took weeks for my sister and me to get over our anger and forgive her. Looking back on it now, I realize it was one of the few things Mother ever decided to do completely on her own, without consulting us first. That was many years ago, and to her credit, she remained a blonde the rest of her life.
I always knew the life I'd lead as an adult would be quite different from the one my mother had. We lived in different times. She was bound to the domestic realm and, taking after my physician father, in addition to having a family, I was determined to have my own career and to be a practitioner of nursing.
But it was in my mother's presence that I found comfort, warmth and nourishment, and it was in her face that I first saw feelings being felt and expressed. It was from my mother that I learned about being a woman, about relationships of nurturance and commitment, about how to be a mother, about how to be a nurse.
When I'd fall and hurt myself, she'd gather me in her softness and soothe away my tears. She mothered me and nursed me, both physically and emotionally — whether I was flat on my back in a body cast for nearly a year, or tethered to a hospital bed with a broken leg in traction for five months. She wasn't out nursing someone else's child; she was home with me. She bathed me, fed me, medicated me, entertained me. She listened to me, cried with me and encouraged me when I'd be feeling sorry for myself. She was there for me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, month in and month out, and never once did I hear her complain.
As an adult I had some very special times with my mother. I loved the times she came alone to visit us in Princeton and in Boston, and I would have her all to myself. She was so much fun to be with, so easy to please, and we enjoyed so many things together — the theater, sightseeing, touring beautiful old houses and neighborhoods, good food, music, conversation. We'd listen to her favorite singers and musicians from the 30's and 40's: Glenn Miller, Eddie Arnold, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Les Paul and Mary Ford. I'd get her to tell me stories about her early life as a young girl growing up in Detroit; how she met, fell in love with and married my father; how she felt when Pearl Harbor was bombed and, without consulting her first, my father enlisted in the Army Medical Corps. (He would be shipped overseas, not to be seen by her and her two little babies for two long years. I can only imagine how frightened and alone she must have felt!)
In her book My Mother, Myself: The Daughter's Search for Identity, Nancy Friday wrote that when she stopped seeing her mother with the eyes of a child, she saw the woman who helped her give birth to herself. It used to bother me that throughout my entire career, my mother never expressed much interest in my experience and training as a psychiatric nurse. A retired nurse herself, I think she thought of nursing as taking care of someone's physical needs. But I'm grateful that, in the five years following her stroke and for the six months or so we lived in Florida before she died, I was able to spend a lot of quality time with my mother, both in person and over the phone, using all my therapeutic skills to help her with her emotional needs. I believe I gave her back some of the rewards of the work I've been able to pursue because of the wonderful habits she taught me: patience, empathy, tenderness, and paying loving attention. I've come to see how my mother helped me give birth to the best parts of myself.
In the last year of her life, as if by grace (or divine intervention) our extended family was all together for a time, and we were able to include Mother in some of our most treasured family moments: unpacking as we moved into our home; Mother's 77th birthday party; our progressive Easter brunch, dinner and dessert; our Mother's Day picnic at her nursing home; our younger son's beautiful wedding; celebrating Christmas and Thanksgiving all in the same week before my husband and I packed up the dishes (and everything else) and moved to Arizona.
The last few years of Mother's life were incredibly painful and difficult for her. It's a great comfort to know that now, finally, an eternity of peace and happiness enfolds her. She never got to visit us in Arizona, and we know she would have loved it — especially the breathtakingly beautiful and spiritual place that is Sedona.
But we did bring her to Sedona, and at the Chapel of the Holy Cross we cast her ashes to the wind. In that way, the breath of her spirit was carried eastward across the land, to her children and her grandchildren. Now, whenever the wind blows, I still think of her, and feel her touch, and know that she is with us.
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