When my mother died unexpectedly of cancer, she left five lost daughters, a husband who wrapped his mind around death by watching screaming news analysts on MSNBC, and a lifetime of paper. My mother made multiple copies of everything, from tax returns to brochures about preventing identity theft.
Looking for insurance policies and wills, my sisters and I waded into a sea of overdue bills, old family photos, heart-breaking fund-raising letters from ministries in Oklahoma, thirty-year-old magazine ads promoting the latest and greatest vitamin supplement, handmade birthday cards, embarrassing school report cards, precious letters from relatives we never met, cancelled checks, more copies of cancelled checks, and grease-spotted recipe cards.
Thank goodness, all of us are good swimmers. My mother, who could not swim, saw to that, religiously pulling us out of bed on lazy summer mornings and marching us down to the city pool for lessons in freezing water. So we did patient breaststrokes through waves of papers and found the important documentation, eventually.
We developed a system for clarity that probably would have seemed heartless and unsentimental to a stranger, but it was the most efficient method our grief-frozen brains could come up with given the immensity of the chore before us. We made piles: one to keep and one to burn. The grandchildren delivered the burn pile to a son-in-law who was tending the fire behind the barn. The sisters read and tossed; the grandkids carried; and our father worked the remote.
My mother’s preoccupation with identity theft came to weigh upon me with each box I sorted. Obviously, this was something that concerned her greatly. She was an orphan who had fought nearly every day of her life to establish herself, to be more than that girl in secondhand clothes who quit school, went to work at a restaurant, and was most assuredly headed for damnation. Head high, she fearlessly walked the hard streets of the small opinionated farm town where she lived, worked long hours, squirreled away her money, and made a name for herself in food services. She was so impressive that a competing restaurateur noticed her and actually hired her away with an offer of a percentage of the nightly take at his café—in addition to her salary, of course.
My mother knew who she was, and she wasn’t letting anyone steal it.
When you’re mother is taken from you, the ground shifts. Part of the grieving process is glinting into this bright light of loss and revelation—and seeing someone you don’t recognize. Who was she? Who are you now without her?
This question of identity buzzes around your mind. Even if we don’t realize it, we spend a lot of time arranging the pieces of who we are, what makes us who we are, and who others think we are.
Most of us are a compilation of little things, unobserved actions, quiet moments. Few of us live in the realm of the grand gesture. For example, I’m a catch and releaser. I scoop box elder bugs up in my palm and flick them out the door rather than flattening them on the wall. I do not offer the same courtesy to spiders. For them, I yell for my husband. What he does with them is no concern of mine. But sometimes, we are faced in this world with such an abundance of insect life in places where they are inconvenient to be, that we have to bend the karma branch.
Several months after my mother’s funeral, my husband plugged a hole in our house under the door where some bees were nesting, in an attempt to encourage them to move on to some other sucker’s siding. As expected, they didn’t like the relocation plan. “What’s that sound?” I asked. My husband motioned me over to the wall by the door. I leaned forward and jumped back. The wall was buzzing. Not friendly Sesame Street buzzing. This was taking-over-the-planet, Alfred Hitchcock-directed buzzing.
The bees were mad, trapped, and determined. It took only moments for them to find a way into the house. My husband dashed for the vacuum and began sucking bees from the windows, doors, carpets, and drapes. The vacuum dust canister was alive. He got stung on the arm and the foot. I surreptitiously moved to the back lines of this battle. And that’s the way the weekend went. Buzz, suck, sigh. Finally, in the relative quiet of Sunday evening, we sat on the porch and discussed the invasion.
“Do you think we got all the bees?” I asked, with visions of vindictive stingers creeping up on my pillow in the dead of night.
“Actually, they were yellow jackets. When you tell people this story (he knows me so well), make sure you call them yellow jackets.”
“Is that a type of bee?”
“It’s a wasp, I think. Anyway, we don’t want it to get around that we’ve been murdering bees all weekend. You know, with the mysterious declining bee population.”
Right, we don’t want to be identified as bee killers of killer bees. We spent the weekend with the yellow jackets. That sounds like a sports team or a band. And it was all in self-defense, I tell the karma scorekeeper.
My mother never cared what people thought of her. She was a survivor who did what needed to be done. She prayed for strangers, didn’t believe in karma, and probably killed her share of bees. Without apology.
Rest in peace, Mom. No one could steal your identity.
Do you have a memory that says who your mother or father was or is? Please leave a comment.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out my novels, Book of Mercy and Maud’s House.
Thank You for your site on your Mother, I too lost my Mom very unexpectedly to Pancreatic Cancer we were very close, actually I never really separated from her as I should have which I see has made my grief and confusion even worse. I lost my Beloved Dad when I was eleven. My parents divorced when I was six, and I have had an extremely difficult relationship with my Step Father for 43 years, as my Mother allowed him way more direct influence, and power in my life than he ever should have had or been allowed to have, for what hew was so unwilling to share. Every thing you said I could say applies to me. I am 53 years old yet I feel like a lost 8 year old at the thought of not having my Mom to lean on in so many matters. She was my best friend, yet as you said I realize I barely even could have begun to know who my Mother really was inside. She was actually a lot like you describe your Mom. I know my Mom would want me to put one foot in front of the other each day, to find some sort of happiness, and comfort in this life is what she would what me to find with every step. Sincerely Suzanne
Thank you for sharing, Suzanne. I just had a nice thing happen to me recently. My novel Book of Mercy was chosen as a finalist in the Midwest Book Awards, and my first thought was: I’ve got to call Mom and tell her. I could even hear the conversation, hear her say, “Hey, Shoog, that’s wonderful.” When I think of what my mother would want for me, I think of what I want for my daughters: to just be happy. If I allow myself to be unhappy, I’m not really making my mom happy, wherever she is. Somewhere in heaven she is calling people sugar in her own inimitable way and trying to help them, I am sure. Best to you, Sherry
I really love that piece. I knew so very little about your mom, including that she was an orphan. Your storytelling takes my heart all over the place.
Thanks, G. As I grow older, I value more and more capturing memories in some way, just as you are doing with your scrapbooking. Not just for future generations, but because it helps us create patterns in our own lives, helps us make sense of them and us.