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A mother's bond

Grief and recovery transform the author's relationship with her mother.
By Barbara Hamilton-Holway
May/June 2004 5.1.04

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We are always saying hello and goodbye in this world. Each transition is partly an arrival, partly a departure, always a kind of commencement.

I remember when I saw my daughter off to her first day as a seventh grader in a small, experimental junior high program in a large high school. We agreed that we would walk together to her bus stop and that when the bus came into sight, I'd leave. When we got near the bus stop, I could see all the big high school students standing and waiting. I said to Sarah, “You probably want me to go now.” We said goodbye. I hid behind a van to watch.

A very crowded bus arrived. All the big kids and Sarah boarded. Sarah's world was expanding. I thought of the poet Netta Gillespie's words: “I hurl you into the universe and pray.”

An older couple came walking down the sidewalk. As they approached, the woman said, “Seeing your kids off on their first day of school?” They had seen it all before. For this is our human story—of letting go, of endings and beginnings, of departures and arrivals, of venturing forth and coming home.

I remember a fall several years later, and my husband Bill and I putting our 20-year-old son Ben on a train headed east. He took time off from college to see the country, visit other schools, work on a communal farm, discover himself. His world was expanding. We sent him off with bread and cheese, with fruit and cookies, with joyous wishes and tears, with a hurl into the universe and a prayer.

At the same time, I was saying goodbye to my mother. She had late-stage lung cancer. Mother had never smoked and lived all her life in Nebraska under a big, open sky—not in industry and pollution but in clean air, farmland, and prairie. Her world diminished from the whole planet to the United States to Nebraska to Lincoln to her neighborhood to her home to her retirement home to one room, one bed, one more breath.

Sometimes I have an image of my mother from a time in my late teens and early twenties. She is strong, powerful, full of life, talking, laughing. It seems like such a short time ago. The wheel keeps on turning. In the fall of her eighty-second year we were saying goodbye to my mother.

The last two years of her life, my mother let go of all the things she had cared so deeply about and worked so hard to maintain: her home, her mind, her independence. As a woman who grew up during the Great Depression, she made purchases wisely and took care of her things to make them last. When she moved with my father to a small space in a retirement home with no family nearby, Mother's carefully tended and cherished things brought in a few dollars in a rummage sale, and much went the way of the trash. This powerful, strong woman weakened, diminished, suffered, and, after twenty-seven months of cancer, died. We released her into the universe and prayed.

A thin, dark ribbon

I am beginning eighteen days in the California desert at a retreat center, a Catholic convent. I walk the neighboring vineyards and hills, remembering my mother. I look for signs, paying attention to little found objects and seeing what memories and reflections they evoke. I notice and pick up a long length of dark and shiny, narrow, curly ribbon.

In the beginning: a first home—my mother's womb, her body, my consecrated host. In her I lived and moved and had my being. Communion, intimate relationship, is our oldest and deepest knowing. We were one and became two, though sometimes I think the umbilical cord connecting my mother and me was never severed. Like a thin, dark ribbon, like a telephone line stretching from Nebraska to California, it grew thinner and thinner and longer and longer through the years, but it was never quite cut. Maybe even now it is a strand, almost invisible.

I nursed at her breast, and she quenched my thirst. She was the provider of my daily bread, many a banquet, many a feast. She refreshed my weariness. I found comfort in her arms, in the laying on of her hands. She bathed me, washed and cleansed my wounds. She could kiss it and make it all better. Mother—a god in the shape of a woman, a woman in the shape of a god.

I am a second child. My mother told me that before I was born she asked my father how she would be able to love another child when she loved my brother so much. And then she said, “Then there was Barb.” She said she couldn't believe how much love she had to give.

She was a kind of first aid station. Her kitchen was the heart of the home. She rocked me to sleep. She sang me songs like “An Irish Lullaby,” “Galway Bay,” and 1940s big band tunes. She carefully chose gifts for me. And she always had plenty of words, words, words.

How beautiful she looked dressed up to go to church or to go out dancing with my father, how she swam off with sure strokes, how she sang and played the piano, how gracefully she danced, how capable she was! Her embrace, her arms around me, was like a life preserver—or a straitjacket.

My brother and I were blessed and cursed to be the center of my mother's universe. I remember feeling it was a burden that my mother's life seemed so wrapped up in my own. I was angry that even when she worked outside the home, her children were her career. Our successes and failures were not ours, but hers. I resented that she was quick to make a judgment and was nearly always right. She saw right through a lie, yet she saw the truth in the worst light. She could make me feel guilty when I didn't even know what I had done.

Mother's love was creative and destructive at the same time. She was my slave, my master, my maid, my martyr, my playmate, my teacher, my critic, my cheerleader, my judge, and my defender: “You're getting kinda chubby, Barb. . . . Is that a pimple? . . . Have another piece of chocolate cake. . . . Want some chocolate chip cookies, some ice cream?” And there was the battle of the hair—how to manage, control, and tame my hair!

There seemed to be so many conditions to fulfill to earn her love. She was a monster in the shape of a woman, a woman in the shape of a monster.

How can we love and relate, and not be fused? How can we be both separate and together? Even as a young girl, I had the fear of becoming my mother. I would look at my hands and think, “That's how Mother would hold hers.” I'd change the position of my hands and then think, “That's exactly how Mother would change hers.”

Separating, letting go—it doesn't come easy. When I was in the Peace Corps in the Fiji Islands, 18,000 miles from my mother, I felt her influence even more than when my room was next to hers in her house. When I was in graduate school, in seminary, my mother was visiting me. I was 36 years old. We were together, preparing a meal in the kitchen. She said to me, “Oh, Barbara, be careful with that knife.” And I thought, “Who does she think reminds me when she's not here?” A moment passed, and I cut my finger with the knife. Her mothering continued. When I was 50, she greeted me with, “I won't say for the millionth time, when are you going to get your hair cut?”

“No matter how old a mother is,” writes Florida Scott-Maxwell, “she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement.”

In mother's image

Here at the convent are images of Mary and Jesus, of mother and child. I am created in Mother's image. I am a mother. I loved being pregnant. I was so obviously a part of something larger than myself. I was carrying creation as if encircling the whole globe inside me. I was carrying power within me. I experienced this mysterious presence, and I responded with some fear and reservation, with much awe and anticipation.

Mothering joins the human and the divine. Remarkable changes happen, most obviously in the body. Here is creation, transformation: A baby forms in the womb. A mother spends nine months turning bread and wine into the body and blood of new life. Milk rises in the breasts; this body gives and sustains life without losing life. The human body both mirrors and magnifies divine creativity; the spirit rejoices in creation.

Virgin mother is not an oxymoron but rather my longed-for reality, virgin meaning being whole unto oneself and, at the same time, being a mother, intimately relating to another. I want images of Mary birthing Jesus, of that crowning moment. If depicting the Crucifixion, the crown of thorns, was not too much, why not the birth? I want images of Joseph wiping a bottom. I want art glorifying parenting.

Still, I am glad for all the artistic images of Mother and Child—of the mother holding her newborn; the mother in blues and clay reds, like intense blue sky and rich earth, with the crescent moon at her feet, her child sometimes holding a globe; images of the mother holding the lifeless body of her adult son. If she can hold that body, she can hold the whole world.

The baby and the book

I go and sit in the empty chapel of the convent, look at the stained glass images, and wonder if the Bible stories I was taught as a child have meaning for me now.

As a baby, my parents presented me for baptism at the First Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I grew up in the church, and one day I turned my back on it and walked away. So much seemed elitist and limiting, hypocritical, patriarchal, irrelevant. So much seemed contradictory and convoluted. So much seemed baffling, bizarre, and bloody. I didn't want anything to do with it. I said no to all that and closed the door behind me. I walked away from the church of my childhood.

I spent time playing intellectual and critiquing it all. I turned to novels and poetry for meaning. I attended demonstrations and rallies and sought out adventures. I traveled around the world and learned something of other cultures and religions. I believed the truth couldn't be contained in any one form.

But when I gave birth to a daughter and then a son, I joined a church to provide them with a spiritual community. I found there a home to support my learning and growth. With that community's encouragement, I entered theological school and became a minister. Growing up in the Congregational Church gave me roots in the Jewish and Christian heritage. My Unitarian Universalist faith has grown out of this heritage.

Last year I was feeling frustrated as I worked on a sermon. I wanted to turn to a source book and read what it had to say on the theme I was writing about. I wanted a starting point for my own reflection. The religious freedom I knew and loved provided me with all the source books in the world. I could turn to any or all of the world's great religions and the commentaries and studies about them—poetry, novels, essays, newspapers, the research of scientists and sociologists, the lives of exemplary women and men—all the learning of human beings. I felt like grieving. Having all the source books felt like having none at all.

That night I dreamed my daughter was pregnant, laboring, bringing forth multiple births. There were six babies, all of them emaciated and weak, none likely to survive. One of the six babies had a little more weight and substance than the others. In the dream, my daughter and I had the responsibility for these babies. Should we try to nourish and nurture them all against the odds of any surviving, or should we strengthen the one that was likely to thrive?

In the dream, I was a grandmother. The cycle of life turns. My daughter becomes the mother, and I become the grandmother. In reality, my energy is different from when I was younger. The time of my life is limited. How can I nourish my interest in all the great religions and other great sources of learning and truth? Without denying the other truths, perhaps I have to strengthen the truth that for me is already a little filled out—even if it is still an infant and needs lots of attention to develop.

In the last two decades, the writings of many individuals—Alice Walker, Matthew Fox, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Bob Kimball, and many others—gave me freer access to my Jewish and Christian roots. My dream urged me to tend and nurture those connections. My roots in the Jewish and Christian tradition help sustain the growth of my religious identity. No cutting off at the roots, no blockage. A yes to my heritage allows a yes to my growth.

Many of us religious liberals who grew up in the Jewish and Christian tradition walked away from it. We threw it all out—the baby with the bathwater. I want to draw the baby out of the water and see what promise that baby holds.

Ash Wednesday

After Mother died, I wanted to attend an Ash Wednesday service. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which commemorates Jesus' forty days in the desert, when he wrestled with the meaning of life and death and figured out who he was. Ash Wednesday reminds us that our lives are fleeting. Out of ashes we came, and to ashes we return.

I wanted a ritual to mark that I had been touched by death. I wanted to understand the meaning of my mother's living and dying in the Christian context of Lent and Easter. I wanted to understand how Mother could go from being such a strong, powerful woman to nothing at all—just dust and ashes.

My friend Lowell and I walked the hills near our homes in Berkeley to the All Souls Episcopal Parish for an Ash Wednesday service. We kneeled, and the priest made his way up and down the aisles, touching each forehead with ashes. He came to our row. He touched the foreheads of the people to my left and then worked his way behind us. He touched the foreheads of the people to my right and then worked his way in front of us. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he spoke. I leaned in his direction so he could reach me. He moved throughout the room, but he never marked my forehead with ashes. If this were a dream, I asked myself, what would this omission mean? What would it mean, this not being seen, this not being touched?

When Mother was dying, my brother imagined being seen by her and receiving a last blessing. He imagined that Mother would reach out and hold his face in her hands, touch his forehead, and say, “You are my beloved; on you my favor rests.” My brother says that actually, her last words to him were, “You have bad breath.”

I too wanted my mother's blessing. I wanted her to touch her hands to my head, give thanks, and bless me. I wanted her to call on her mother, and her mother's mother, and all of humanity's good women and men of prophetic and poetic voice and courageous deed to watch over me. I wanted her to invite the breeze moving through my hair to uplift me and the ground beneath my feet to support me. I wanted to come home and receive my blessing.

On that Ash Wednesday, we all rose from our bent knees to sing. Lowell turned toward me and saw my unmarked forehead. She touched her fingers to her forehead and then to mine, and she looked me in the eyes. She said, “You're beautiful,” and she blessed me.

The haircut

After forty years, I finally got a summer hairdo. The wild and woolly mane was shorn.

The young woman who cut my hair asked me to take a deep breath, because, she said, hair is very connected to our identities. Then she took the whole long, wiry gray mass in one hand and, with the other, cut it off.

In the mirror, I could see both myself at ten and my mother at eighty. Ten was the last time I had my hair short. In the mirror, I could still catch a glimpse of that same bewildered, lost kid I sometimes was. In the mirror, I could see the old woman I was becoming.

All the gray short-haired old women (like me) love my haircut: “Oh, Barbara, I love your hair!” One said, “Ever since I met you I have been wanting you to get your hair cut.” But people will say just about anything to me: “You look like the back end of a plucked chicken!” “What did you do? Back into a fan?” “I know you're perimenopausal, because you got your hair cut.” “Does this mean the revolution is over?” “As a child of the sixties, I don't like this.” “What does Bill think of this?” “Oh no, oh no, oh no! Why on earth did you do such a thing?”

Why did I do such a thing? The truth is, it was impulse. Sarah, who was preparing for a first and solo trip to Europe, asked me to accompany her for moral support as she got her hair cut. When we met at the shop, she said she couldn't do it. I told her she didn't need to. Her hair would be no problem in traveling. I told her I would take the appointment and get my hair cut.

The truth is, it was a long, slow decision. For years I had been saying that maybe I should just get the whole thing cut short.

This haircut was a mother-daughter event. There was the flesh-and-blood presence of Sarah and the mind-and-heart presence of my mother, who had died nine months before. Of course, Mother would turn up for my big haircut.

During my late childhood and early teen years, Mother escorted me to get my hair professionally straightened. We also ironed my hair, fried it with electric curlers, rolled it around orange juice cans, coated it with mayonnaise, tied weights on it, stretched panty hose over it at night to hold it down, glued it down with gels, did everything we could to tame and control it. This was hair wilder than Jesus wore it. My hair was sleek and smooth until I got excited, ran freely, danced with abandon, or rode in a convertible. The kinks and curls, waves and frizz then came back to life. Finally, I made peace with my hair and just let it go wild.

Mother didn't talk much in the last months of her life. Still, when I arrived on one of my last visits, she managed to say again, “I'm not going to tell you for the millionth time: Get your hair cut.”

So why didn't I get my hair cut while my mother was still alive? After all those years of fighting my hair, I was sick of people trying to control it. Even strangers would walk up to me and say, “Did you know you can get hair professionally straightened?” I just wanted to let my hair be. Some sort of power resided in my hair, and I didn't want it stolen away like Samson's hair and strength were by Delilah. And I was defiant with my hair, like daughters are with mothers.

In the last years, I witnessed my mother gradually let go of everything. If I could let go of a trademark—of something closely identified with myself—perhaps I would do okay with all there was ahead for me to let go of.

In biblical times, a common rite of mourning was tonsuring, clipping the hair or shaving the head, to grieve like a child. Few people alive have any memory of me as a baby. I am a motherless child. I cut my hair as a rite of mourning. Cutting my hair marked the end of one time of my life and entry into another time. This haircut, “the gray helmet,” crowned me as the oldest living female in our family.

Even with change, much remains the same. When people ask me how I like my haircut, I say it is still my hair. There have always been qualities I like about my hair and qualities I don't like. That's still true. But in the mirror, I see eternity. I am ten and fifty and eighty. And Mother, gone since fall, looks back at me.


This article is adapted from Who Will Remember Me? A Daughter's Memoir of Grief and Recovery (Skinner House Books, 2004; $14). Copyright 2004 by Barbara Hamilton-Holway; reprinted by permission.

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