You Never Know Who The Angels Will Be

For most of my life, my mother has been my “big mystery.” She is a person to whom I am intricately connected, but whom I barely got the chance to know. My grief over her death ran most of its course over a decade ago, when I was a young teenager, trying to find direction in a world without rudders. At this stage in my life, I am so accustomed to my mother’s absence, and to the effect it has had on my upbringing and my development as a woman, that I don’t often get upset about it anymore. Every once in a while, however, the tears come–and they come in torrents.

This afternoon, my father dropped off a few boxes of books that had been stored for the past two years in his shed, since I didn’t have space for them in the places I’ve lived since my move to Boston. My new apartment, however, has plenty of space, and roommates hungry for my accumulated wealth of literature. One of the boxes my father brought was unexpected–it did not contain books; rather, it contained journals and date books–more specifically, my mother’s journals and date books.

My mother kept a written record of nearly everything that happened in her life. She wrote primarily in Steno notebooks and date books with Degas paintings on their covers. The date books she used to record a day’s events, rather than to plan upcoming engagements. The pages of her life are peppered with nuggets of truth, such as “Punkin cranky today,” (Punkin is me), or “cannot feed self, cannot garden” (when Multiple Sclerosis had taken its toll on her body). I have paged through most of these books, but I have not read them all in their entirety, and I was surprised to flip one open this afternoon and discover a sort of letter–a voice from the grave. Her words were directed at me, but I imagine they were more of an internal monologue of her own with me in mind–she likely never expected me to see them.

25 Jun 90
…you had a big ow gouge in your knee when you were last here….I have a phone; consideration is easier than distrust. Let’s make good times–we must, there aren’t that many. Each cupful is precious. Will you show up tomorrow?

…But he did drive away and leave while I cried in the snow. (Crying in the snow is dumb, but I’d still do it.)
I feel that way about you, too. THAT is, I care about you having consideration, manners, thank yous, ability to maintain a schedule…Wish I could produce someone to help you. A grown-up friend. Suzanne not old enuf, Tanya either.

…Do you remember painting the boat? The brush was almost as big as you were.

This entry was written shortly before my mother moved to California, after I’d stopped living with her and moved in with my father. We’d grown distant unintentionally, as school scooped up much of my time, and illness and preparation much of hers. Also, at ten, I was too shortsighted to realize how little time I had left with her, though she as an adult (with a clear plan of self-deliverance from her illness) knew precisely how dear each moment was.

Sitting in my living room this afternoon, fifteen and a half years after her suicide, I found what is the closest thing to my mother’s voice that I have. I was both grateful and devastated: grateful to have found it, and devastated all over again at how profound the loss of this woman has been in my life. I wished for a way to assure her that I do have manners, and consideration, and have learned to follow a schedule. I wanted to tell her that it took me a while, but I found people to help me through the hard times, women who mothered me as well as anyone can mother a daughter who is not their own. I wanted to apologize for the difficulty I put her through when she was ill–for every entry that said, “Punkin angry, spiteful,” or “Punkin out of control.” More than anything, however, I wanted her to see how far I’ve come–despite the inherent pride I feel in my accomplishments of late, there’s still a part of me that feels like none of it’s completely real because she wasn’t there to see that I turned out okay after all.

I ran my fingers over the ballpoint indentation of my mother’s words, and I wept. I turned the pages and watched her handwriting grow more and more illegible as the illness overtook her body; there were parts even I could not decipher, after years of practice.

In one date book, I found an entry that put a smile where the tears had been. It was from February, 1989, my week-long school vacation. Reade overnight, it said. Monopoly all day. Great. 3 hotels on Boardwalk for Reade. I remember the day as though it were yesterday. It was snowing, and Reade (my childhood best friend since her birth 3 days after my own) and I were off from school. The three of us sat on my mother’s huge bed and played the game for hours–the majority of the day. I was eliminated after about three hours, but Reade and my mother played on, until finally my friend was victorious. It is one of my few clear memories of my mother, and one of even fewer in which she was truly happy. To read in her date book that the day had been as special for her as it was for me was rewarding, a confirmation that the memory was accurate, and that she really was as happy as I remember.

Tonight, Reade came over to see my new apartment. She’s six months pregnant with her first child, and she’s radiant. I wish my mother could see her. The two of us were raised for a time by each other’s mothers as well as our own–we have been family from the very beginning, and it would have overjoyed my mother to see Reade so happy.

For Reade’s “something borrowed” in her wedding, I suggested she choose a piece of jewelry that my mother made-and wore-and wear it during the ceremony. She chose a silver bracelet that my mother wore every day. I knew my mother would have been proud of the choice: it was simple, elegant and graceful, like Reade.

This evening, I shared my discoveries with Reade–she is perhaps my only friend who would understand the depth of emotion that can arise in me when such a thing is uncovered, and she is the closest to my heart; she’s known me nearly as long as I’ve known myself, and probably knows me better. Also, she remembers my mother. Most of my friends never even met my mother, but Reade remembers her–at times, I think, better than I do. She loved my mother, and my mother loved her.

With Reade there, i felt comfortable voicing my own regret–regret that I know intellectually is foolish because no nine-year-old has perfect manners, and no child can know the strain that their own behavior puts on a parent. Similarly, I felt she’d understand my gratitude for being granted an intimate glimpse into my mother’s last months, regardless of how painful that gilmpse was.

Looking at Reade across my new kitchen table, I was instantly transported back into my mother’s bedroom, on that snowy afternoon, before grief and adolescence and responsibility made a smile on my face such a rare occurrence for such a long time. Even during the dark parts, though, there was this friend–this one person who did not for one moment allow me to question her loyalty or her love. I’m so lucky, I thought, and that child in her belly is the luckiest kid in the world.

My mother gave me this friend. She and Reade’s mother were in Lamazze class together when they were pregnant, and from our earliest stages of infancy, we were together. In childhood we’d spend days on end at each other’s houses, and we celebrated every birthday together. During adolescence we did not see much of each other–we had different friends by then–but still I knew that Reade was the one true friend I could turn to without ever doubting her. That’s what family is. And as we left high school for what would eventually bear the title of “adulthood,” we reconnected, and have been as close as ever since then.

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I’m eternally grateful to my mother for her role in Reade’s presence in my life–and I’m equally grateful that Reade has grown to be every bit the woman I’m sure my mother expected her to be, and that she’s still a close part of my life. She has a wisdom beyond her years, and a heart that is beyond measure, and I love her as only family can love. Likewise, I’m glad to have someone around who remembers me–and my mother–before tragedy took us down and made us merely shells of what we once were. She has been here for the long haul; she’s seen the ups and downs, the scary parts and the dreams come true, and she knows me better than anyone I’m not related to.

I realized, too, as I sat talking with Reade this evening, that it is she who has been one of my most significant role models. She has always been kind, and polite, and dependable, and when I am around her, I am my best self. My mother wished for an “adult” role model to teach me manners, and gratitude, and grace–little could she have known I’d learn them from someone no older than myself, the girl with whom I’ve suffered all of my growing pains, and without whom I probably wouldn’t have made it past the fifth grade.

As I watched Reade’s silver car drive away tonight, I thought to myself, “You never know who the angels will be.” But maybe–just maybe–my mother did know.

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~ by saltgirlspeaks on 13 July, 2007.

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