When a Parent Dies
Others, too, said the missing comes and goes but never fully stops. "It's when I've done something beyond what she dreamed that I miss her the most," Mary says, "like when Dolly Parton came backstage to congratulate me during the opening week of my show Cowgirls. Wouldn't that have been great for her to know?"
"If she could have seen me go to the White House and receive an award," says Sally, "there is no way she couldn't have been happy. Well, she might have wanted it to be a different president."
Ooops, didn't Sally's last line come from that internal voice? Yes, but for Sally as for the others, the voice has a different ring. It may cause a smile or a wince, at the vagaries of human nature, at the recognition of who one's mother was, but it doesn't carry the weight of judgment. Which makes Sally say, "You know, I've tried so hard not to be my mother. I don't think I'm the least bit judgmental, but I bet my daughter wouldn't say that."
If I had interviewed sons rather than daughters, I suspect the internal voice would have been a father's, but I don't know for sure. The research is not there. And perhaps the impact of these mothers' deaths upon these daughters was unusually strong because these two generations lived their adulthoods on the opposite sides of the cultural divide carved between them by the women's movement. But there is always a tug-of-war between generations, and when parents die, so does the tug of their generational or personal values, if they have not become authentically one's own. For the adult child, it seems, the sudden slackening of that rope is disorienting at first, then liberating, and eventually enlightening—as she roams untethered, sees her mother from more vantage points, and finally constructs an image in the round.
And what about me? I wish my mother could read my books, which I couldn't have written when she lived, lest they reveal too much of our generational differences. And yet I also became more like my mother after her death, more domestic and nurturing. And when my father died, I became more like him, more of a naturalist and an outdoorswoman. And when my brother died, I became more like him, more of a scientist, and more of a presence to his children. The qualities I had relied on in them I tried to make my own, and I was enlarged in the process. Am I grateful for that growth? Yes. Do I wish them back in life? Every day. But when I wish them more life on earth, I do not think of them as my mother and father and brother. I think of them as Newt and Bea and Mike, the center of their own lives, as I am of mine.
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