Mary Murfitt, who grew up in a small Kansas town, was 29 when her mother died suddenly of a heart attack at age 71. "I adored her," says Mary, now 50. "I thought she was the perfect parent." And Mary had tried all her life to be the daughter her mother wanted her to be. "Clearly, she lived vicariously through me," Mary says.

"My mother always wanted to play classical violin, so I was trained as a classical violinist. She wanted me to go to her college, join her sorority, do the things she had done and certain things she didn't get to do."

It never occurred to Mary not to follow the course her mother charted for her. "I think because I'm adopted, and because I loved her so much, I just wanted to please her," Mary says. "When you're adopted, I think in the back of your mind you're afraid you might be given back, so you try hard to be good and to please."

For Mary at 29, this meant playing the violin and building a secure life with a good man. "When my mother died," Mary says, "I was living a semi-suburban-housewife life in New Jersey, working in a Manhattan office, and practicing the violin." She had stopped pursuing a performing career in musical theater in order to settle into the "safe" life her mother wished for her. "She wanted to know there was somebody to take care of me," Mary says.

Within a year of her mother's death, Mary and her good man split up. A year later, she fell in love with a woman. "I thought, Why not? Who cares? The only one whose approval mattered to me was my mother's." About the same time, she quit her office job to see what would happen if she put her energies into musical theater. What happened was a sustained, still-expanding career as performer, composer, lyricist, and playwright.

"After my mother's death, I felt free to explore things that just hadn't occurred to me before, because they weren't part of her life," Mary says. "I never thought about being gay. I never imagined I could compose or write. I used to think her expectations of me were too high, but now I think they were too low. Her death freed me to go beyond what she thought I could do."

Eventually, Mary came to see her mother differently. "I came to understand her limits," Mary says, "and accept that she didn't need to be perfect." Coming to terms with her "as a person, not just as my mother" allowed Mary to come to terms with another woman as well: She made a trip to the site of her birth, the Willows Maternity Sanitarium, in Kansas City, for "the better class of unfortunate young women."

"The building had been razed and the records burned," Mary says, "but for the first time, I allowed myself to imagine what my birth mother's emotions, her life, must have been like. She was only 17. I accepted it all happened the way it was supposed to happen, the way it had to happen, and that was new."

Next: Finding yourself through loss


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