For years, I stood in the card aisle of stores searching for a Mother’s Day card. Mother’s Day cards were always hard to buy. Pictures of children with a beautiful mother or one of those mom’s who did everything and wore the Super Mom Cape filled the aisles. Written in verse on the inside were phrases like “You’ve always been there for me”, or “You taught me so much,” and “I love you.” On the front, were big bold letters that declared “For My Mom” or “Mother.” I would finally settle on a rather generic card for my mother with a picture of puppies or flowers that read “Happy Mother’s Day-Hope you have a wonderful day.” Finding one for Grandmother was even more difficult.
I don’t remember much about my mother before she left my brother and me. I was only four years old. She left me with her mother, and my brother was sent to live with my father’s parents. She came back to visit and stayed with us a few times, but by the time I was six, she had moved across the county. I didn’t see her again until I was sixteen. Letters and phone calls were all that kept us connected, but my grandmother only allowed one short call a week. I think she would have been happier if my mother had just disappeared altogether.
When I was young, Grandmother would look at me and say, “I love you” in a way that let me know she was waiting for the proper response. I wouldn’t look at her, but I would hesitantly respond with, “I love you- But I love my other Momma, too.” Grandmother told me I didn’t have to call her Momma, but I knew better. So, I did my best not to call her anything. I would walk across an entire room to get her attention and ask a question, so I didn’t have to say “Momma.”
I didn’t understand what had happened or why my mother left until I was grown. In an old trunk of Grandmother’s, I found the note my mother wrote the day she left. Scrawled on small, yellowed, unlined paper, you could feel the pain and panic of her words: “Please take care of the kids. I love them more than anything in the world, but they are better off with you. I guess you think I am awful for leaving the kids like this. Me and Joe just can’t get along. I tried to talk to him, but it’s no good. It’s just not good for the kids with me and Joe fighting all the time and him drinking. Please don’t turn them against them. I don’t know if I’ll see them again, but tell them I loved them an awful lot.”
My mother was not only leaving an abusive, alcoholic husband but was leaving behind her young two children; She had just turned 20 years old. What I soon learned was that he was not only abusive to her, but to me as well. She was afraid my brother and I would be hurt if she stayed. Sadly, we didn’t fare much better in our new homes.
As an adult, I tried to have a relationship with my mother, but it was hard. She walked away from me so many times; usually for a man. When my first son was born, she was supposed to come to my house to stay for a few days to help. Instead, she left home and never showed up at my house. Her husband kept calling me looking for her. I didn’t hear from her for three days. She used my son’s birth as a way to have time to leave her husband for her new boyfriend. You get the idea?
She was used to shutting people out. She had been hurt by so many for so long. She once told me that she had spent most of her life running away from anything she thought might hurt her. Many people considered her to be a “hard” woman. She didn’t take anything from anyone. However, If you got to know her, you would find that she would go out of her way to help a friend, yet keep her distance emotionally.
I could never bring myself to call her Mom or Mother, but I didn’t want to hurt her feeling by calling her by her given name, so just as I had when I was a child with Grandmother, I tried not to call her anything. Not long before she passed away, I took a trip with her to the place she grew up. She told me stories of her life that helped me understand the pain that made her the woman she was. When we returned from the trip, we sat down to talk before I left for home. As I was getting ready to leave, for the only time I can ever remember, she told me that she had always loved me. She paused and said, “You know that, don’t you?” I smiled, took a deep breath, and said, “Yeah, I know that.” I gave her a hug and walked to my car. I took a few steps, stopped and turned back to her. I said the words that have always come so hard for me. “I love you, <PAUSE > Mom.” It was the last time I would ever see her. She passed away four months later.
After she passed away, her husband wrote and said, “You were her daughter, and she was so proud of you. You meant more to her than you will ever know. She wasn’t good at telling people she loved them, but you were the heart of her joy before I met her and still so to the end. Her greatest joy was being your Mom.”
For many years, I rarely used the word love except with my children. I lavished it on them. Honestly, it was a word that scared me. After getting clean and sober and being in therapy, I was able to use the word more honestly. My kids and grandkids hear it all the time. I don’t use the word lightly or freely. If I tell my friends and family, “I love you,” I really do.
I didn’t tell my mother I loved her very often. I wish I had told her more.