Brand building through storytelling

The most important thing my mother never told me

Twenty-one years ago almost to the day, my mother died without telling me the one thing I most longed to hear. She had not said anything to anybody in weeks. She lay immobile like a sculptured countess atop a medieval tomb, closed eyes contemplating a realm known only to herself. Sometimes I thought the brain tumour had not so much stolen her speech as released her, for all time, from the conversation I craved, in which she would admit that I had done a few things right as a mother.

I have one child, Ben—my mother’s first grandchild. She adored him, indulged him and made it her mission to be his champion. Somewhere along the line she cast me as a threat to his future. She worried that I cared too much about my editing job and not nearly enough about my child’s well-being.

My mother hosted a parenting show on TV and had written scores of articles on child development. Sometimes her gray-haired fans stop me on the street to exclaim at how reassuring she was, how attuned to their secret maternal anxieties. “I’m glad to know she’s so warmly remembered,” I say, although these moments always sting. My mother never told me not to worry so much about everyday parental blunders. She maintained that I should worry more. When Ben became the class hellion, infamous for making faces and snapping window blinds, my mother blamed it all on me and pronounced my child desperately unhappy.

I know how widely and emphatically she said this; my mother kept carbons of all her correspondence to me, my sister and an ever-growing tribe of absent friends. I cherish these letters for the verve and wit of her storytelling voice. But I fear them too for zingers like “Rona has not mothered Benjamin and his behaviour is worrying.”

To be a mother is to feel the sting of judgment from teachers, checkout clerks, seat mates on planes and other women who have made different choices about breastfeeding or child care. One new mother I know, back at work since her baby turned six months old, reports this pursed-lips comment from a colleague: “Well, to each her own.” There’s no critic more wounding than another mom. Especially when she’s the one who raised you.

My mother lived long enough to see Ben come into his own. At 17, he set high goals at school and nurtured friendships dating back to childhood, but often cycled over to her house for conversation and cookies. He had her father’s smile, both twinkly and rueful. “Ben’s a wonderful young man,” my mother said one day as we sat in her garden, sipping mint tea among the potted geraniums. If she’d been well, I would asked, “Don’t you think I deserve a little credit for that?” But it seemed cruel to argue with a dying woman whose once-formidable grasp of language grew weaker by the day. Did she even remember our blistering fights on the matter of my mothering? And besides, how many summer days did she have left?

I thought I was protecting my mother, and yet to some degree I was also protecting myself from what I feared she might say, even as speech began to fail her. In nearly 40 years as my mother’s daughter, I’d never known her to relinquish the last word, let alone confess that she had been mistaken.

Many friends have told me that I did just fine as a mother. The real expert, my son, says pretty much the same thing (although he does roll his eyes at my perfunctory notion of a lunch bag–day after day, peanut butter on brown). So it really shouldn’t matter what my mother did or didn’t say. But from time to time it does in that vague, nagging way of a bum knee that aches in cold weather.

I had more or less resigned myself to this when I struck up a conversation at my club with a lively-looking woman whom I took to be a new member. As it happened, she was just passing through, a psychiatrist visiting Toronto for a meeting. Heather had kids, a crazy schedule and the usual worries about falling short as a mother. Within minutes, we were sharing our stories.

When my new friend learned about the unspoken words I still wanted to hear, she offered a suggestion: write my mother a letter explaining what hurts and what she could do to ease the pain. Nothing new about letters to the dead; they have a long history in the the fad-riven kingdom of self help. But Heather proposed a second step—the more powerful one, in her experience with patients.  After I write to my mother, I should put my letter aside for a while and then write another from her to me, taking my time and giving every thought time to ripen. “Your mother must have been so proud of you,” Heather said. “If you really think about her, you’ll discover that you know what she would say.”

That sounded so convincing, I nearly gave it a try. Instead I wrote this letter to you, in fits and starts over a couple of days. It’s been ages since a post eluded and perplexed me as this one did until…well, until right now. I’ve just seen my mother’s answer here on my screen: “Ben’s a wonderful young man.” Not the apology I thought I wanted, but the perfect sentiment for a bright June day in my mother’s last summer, and for all the days to come.

Click here to read one of my best-read columns, “When your mother dies.” 

Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

October 10, 2010 at 8:08AM

The old saying, that the cobbler’s children go barefoot, applies to your mother’s willingness to advise and praise strangers, while blind to the needs of her own daughter. “In the heel of the hunt,” as my mother used to say, the only judgment of your abilities as a mother that counts is Ben’s. If his only complaint is your lousy lunch-bag making skills, then I think you have reason to be proud.

October 11, 2010 at 7:07AM

Ms. Maynard.
I agree with Tessa 100%! As long as Ben did not turn out to be an axe murderer, drug dealer, or an all around blight on society, you did yourself proud…I could write a PhD thesis on half of the mind games and crap that my mother subjected me to, even threatening to take away my only child at one point because she told everyone within 150 miles who would listen that I was an unfit drug addicted whore, when I did not even so much as drink alcohol or take so much as a Tylenol, and did not run around with men.
Sometimes I think it is a blessing when a parent does die . Then the child can finally be allowed to become a person in their own right, and not some half baked notion of what they should have been that the parents concocted since birth…

Donna Champion
October 11, 2010 at 8:08AM

Your mother’s concern over your parenting skills is part of that powerful dynamic between mother and daughter. Mothers often see their daughters as mirrored images of themselves, who will continue the dynasty of the self. Perhaps you’re fortunate, Rona, to have had a son, a son your mother adored. Obviously, she knew that you had done right by her with your wonderful son. Her loving relationship with Ben was her silent acknowledgement of your good parenting skills.

As mothers, we do continue the dynasty. We take what we learned from our mothers as parents and give it our own unique twists. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I always tell my daughter, who is the mother of a new daughter, that a child doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We do the best we can with what we’ve learned and what we know instinctively.

I just lost my mother four weeks ago. The daughter of a successful business woman who had little time for her children, my mom had some of the quirkiest parent skills I’d ever seen. We would get little finger sandwiches in our lunches–chopped olive or cucumber with the crusts cut off–as if we were an after thought to a tea party. However, we always knew that she loved us, and we all vied for that love. Her love is what we pass on to our children and grandchildren. The rest we have to learn to let go or toss out, like those dreaded finger sandwiches.

Rona Maynard
October 11, 2010 at 12:12 PM

Donna, I see you’ve stopped by at a momentous time in your life: your granddaughter just born, your mother recently dead. No wonder you have mothers, daughters and dynasty on your mind. I love the story of those weirdly dainty little finger sandwiches. Bet none of your classmates had seen any of those (not in their lunch bags, anyway). Yet here you are, celebrating the quirkiness of your mother’s offering. Love takes a multitude of forms; we don’t get to choose the one that comes to us.

ruth pennebaker
October 19, 2010 at 6:06AM

Oh, Rona, this one hurt to read. So sad how that pain lingers, even though Ben turned out so well — the ultimate proof you were a good and caring mother. The only thing we can do is try not to repeat those same mistakes in our own lives as mothers. But that’s still not good enough, is it?

Rona Maynard
October 19, 2010 at 6:06 PM

Hmm…never thought of my sadness as proof caring. But of course it is. Thanks, Ruth.

May 10, 2011 at 5:05PM

Hi, i am 12 and my mom just died i feel like crap most of the time i am staying with my aunt she and i are pretty close but we have are moments and i just think why me, i did nothing wrong I would really appreciate is you would respond.

Rona Maynard
May 10, 2011 at 6:06 PM

Dear Marie, I’m so very sorry you’ve lost your mom. It’s hard enough to lose a mother when you’re 45 or even 60, let alone when you’re 12 and still long for her comfort and advice every day (even when she drives you crazy). It’s normal for you to feel as disoriented and angry as you do. I’m not going to tell you that time heals all wounds; it does not. You’ll always miss your mom, as I miss mine (who died when I was 40). But you’ll learn to find other women who can counsel, guide and love you. Here’s hoping your aunt will be one of them. Remember, though: she’s in mourning, too. With sympathy, Rona

October 24, 2012 at 1:01AM

Hello I’m Leslie I’m 36 the youngest of 5 girls. My father died when I was 15 in a car accident. My mom and I have been very close as long as I can remember. She is 67 and in the final stage of Alzheimer’s . My oldest sister and I have been her caregivers since her diagnoses. I live next door to mom. In the past 4 years I have completely surrendered my life to care for her. I’m very grateful for the opertunity the problem is. I have became so entwined to her. She has became my entire life. Now I only have days left with her. I do not know how to seperate myself enough to let her go. I know this is called emeshment but I do not regret any of our time together. I do feel like she is my heart how do you keep going with out a heart. I feel like I will not be able to be in this world with out her. She has became my life.
Y’all probably think I’m crazy and I maybe but I would appreciate any advice on how to deal with my situation. Thanks, Leslie.

Rona Maynard
November 10, 2012 at 4:04 PM

No, Leslie, I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re a loving and devoted daughter in a painful situation. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and you will discover it is indeed possible–although terribly difficult–to keep on going when you feel that you’re “without a heart.” Grief will lay you low and you have to expect that. If your experience is anything like mine, your attention will gradually shift to the good times you had with your mother and the many gifts she left you. She’d like that.

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