When I was four years old and in preschool, my class did a craft project in which we shared what our mothers spent their day while we were at school. Those activities were listed on to some type of construction paper shape (what it was escapes me now) and after being displayed in our classroom for some predetermined amount of time, were sent home with us to make room for the next round of four year old craftiness.
The story of my answer to the question posed to me by my preschool teacher was one retold and laughed about many times in my family throughout the years since. While many of my classmates listed that their mothers went to work, or specifically what her career was, or that their mothers took care of a younger sibling and read books, or played games, my little craft simply stated “she does the dishes.” That’s it.
This response from me apparently was somewhat embarrassing for my mom, but she laughed it off with a grace and compassion that assured me that she thought I was quite adorable despite my response. I am sure now that this was a question I perceived in the moment as absolutely crucial to answer well, and I am certain that I felt as if everything hinged on a perfect answer. Apparently at four, I lacked grace under pressure, and I spouted out the first thing that came into my mind, but quickly regretted it when I saw the answers from my peers. I was quite a perfectionist as a child, something that would follow me and pull at my subconscious for many years, until the desire not to model that expectation for my own daughters would cause me to take a breath, relax, and accept myself for good enough, as long as I was a loving mother, and a kind and self-aware person.
While she was mostly a stay at home mom, my mother would go on in later years to pursue, and excel in, the college education that was nothing more than an out of reach fairy tale to a child that grew up the way she did. She held several careers in my adolescent years, volunteered for charitable organizations, and was accepted into graduate school, meanwhile structuring these jobs and class schedules around the time my brother and I would arrive home from school. To her, it was too important for us to come home to a loving parent at the end of our day. I look back now and wonder how she did it all.
I can imagine how a woman of her intellect and potential must have felt after seeing that her little girl recounted her mother’s day as one spent doing the dishes. My mother raised my brother and I in the most empathetic of ways. She played with us, jumped in mud puddles, played kickball with us and the neighborhood kids, and overall loved her role as a mother more than anything else she ever did. What she did in a day was endless and important. Before I became a mother, I had a flourishing career, and was a work-a-holic by every definition. Looking at each of my daughters as they came into this world absolutely shattered everything I thought I knew before then about what, and who, I wanted to be. I wanted to be their mother. That was it. I was fortunate enough to be a mom that wanted to stay home, and could actually feasibly do so. But that decision did not come without sacrifice on my part personally, professionally, and financially. My daughters are too young to know any of that now, but I can only imagine how I would feel if their perception of me was that I clean up around the house all day. They would have no more ill intent in saying so than I did in 1986 when I said basically just that about my own mother. But nonetheless, I feel guilty now for how it must have made her feel.
For me though, this is what I think of now when I remember my mom telling me the story of my class project and my sharing of her dish washing abilities. I grew up knowing that my mom was magical. She looked at me in a way that made me know, and feel, to my core, how much she loved me. She didn’t need the words, though she said them anyway. Often. I remember that many times, when she was actually doing the dishes, little bubbles from dish soap would manage to float out of the kitchen from the sink, and float through the house out towards the living room, and past me, where I was playing, or reading, or watching cartoons. This happened more times than I can count, and I was certain that my mother was able to make those indestructible little bubbles intentionally, just to mesmerize me with how tiny they could be, and how far they could fly through our house and up to the ceiling before eventually popping. They felt like little messages just for me from her. Another way to make me feel loved without even saying a word. It was nothing less than magical to me. I remember that feeling lasting long into my teenage years. Maybe it is why that answer that she “does the dishes” came so quickly to me as a child. Even the most mundane of tasks felt to me like my mom was showing me that she loved me.
My mother died a little over a year ago, just a few days after turning 54. Even saying it now, or writing the words, jars me into a reality I have yet to fully grasp. I was with her when she left this life, as her heart beat for the last time. I was with her every day in the hospital ICU for over three months, while her body failed, but her spirit and determination fought to survive the illness that would be the reason I lost her. In the end, it was an unfair fight, and she left a family in which she was the heart and soul. I know that she is gone, but I can’t quite accept the permanence of that fact. My memories deceive me. The love I feel, and that I know she felt for me, still radiates from the core of me, and leaves me wondering what to do with that love. Losing your mother feels like being on a raft, stranded in the middle of the ocean. You know where you came from, but you cannot return there, despite desperately needing to, or feeling that your survival hinges on it. Where you end up is beyond your control, or so it feels, and is a mystery. It is disorienting, and terrifying in its own way, and it is desperately lonely. I know how much my husband and children love me, but I can’t help feeling that no one will ever again know me as well or love me as deeply as my mother did. I feel I have lost so much more than the person, but everything she was to me and I was to her. I know the love I have for my own children, and I am certain that no person is capable of loving them more than I do. They are part of me, and I am part of them. It is no different for me with my own mother, and now that part of me is gone.
What I am finding is that seeing reminders of my mother in the day to day of life is the best way to find myself again, or at least the new version of me that is left after being forever changed. Recently, as I was washing a dish, a tiny bubble floated up and away, and I smiled, while fighting back tears. It wasn’t much, but it felt like one of those messages from decades ago, just from her to me. It reminded me that my mother still loves me. It has not just dissolved with the end of her life. I have known this since she first left, but in my grief, the reminders are necessary to break through the pain and sadness. For now, those bubbles will have to be enough. I can say they are still magical, because I need them to be. They can tell me she loves me without my hearing the words. They can remind me of happier times. They can make me grateful, even for four year old simple answers to questions posed, if for no other reason than to remember the sound of my mother’s laugh, and the sweetness of her smile when retelling the story.