Like other thumb-sucking preschoolers with braces in their future, my 4-year-old daughter, Mia, struggles to be understood. She points out the car window and yells emphatically, “That’s you! That’s you!” At least I think that’s what she’s yelling. What’s me?
Mia is practically panting, struggling against the straps of her car seat. “Dat chew!” What? Her baby sister, Eleanor, looks at Mia blankly from the other car seat. I spot a piece of public art through the windshield. Breakthrough!
“Mia! Did you see a STATUE?” She nods in relief, relaxes, her thumb back in place.
Believe it or not, this is progress. Six months ago, if we misunderstood her, it was the stuff of tragedy. Desperate for us to know her thoughts, she would give up language and fly into a kicking rage of fast tears. “Use your words!” we would cajole her as she writhed on the floor.
Sometimes I would look at her tantrums with, I’ll admit it, impatience and exasperation, but just as often I would feel sympathy for her sweaty struggles. I understand her frustration and desire in a way that can only come from sharing her experience. Like her, I am wrestling with language. But while she tries to describe her beginning of life, I am trying to articulate an ending of it. Mia is working to talk about her world; I am working to write about the world of my mother. And, through writing, to understand and to grieve.
This month, Mia will be the age I was when my parents died. In March of 1969, one month after their 10th anniversary, my parents, Bernadette and Ron Fey, were en route to the Bahamas with another couple via a single-engine prop plane flown by my father. Despite his hundreds of hours of flying experience, both in the Air Force and in his own planes, my father couldn’t beat the bad weather that day. The plane went down in the tree-covered hills of eastern Tennessee.
While comprehending the loss of my father is a mountain I’m still climbing, my new role as a mother has compounded for me the power of my own mother’s absence. As I approach this strangely painful and painfully strange anniversary, I am taking on the work of knowing my mother for the first time. And while I learn who she was, I am changing my ideas about memory—what it is and what it cannot be.
Memories of my mother
I have only a few memories of my mother. These actual bits of the past are strung on a delicate chain of the facts of her history, like a silver charm bracelet, laden with tiny symbols burnished with handling: Grabbing on to the hem of my mother’s red coat in the grocery store, then looking up to see a stranger. Watching her dance to Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. Hiding under her ironing board while she worked above me because I was frightened of a television show. For a long time, these traces of memory, along with a rocking chair, a jewelry box and a few photos, her eyes always laughing, were about all I had of her.
For many years I knew very little about my mother’s life. Raised by my father’s sister, 600 miles from adults who knew my mother well, I felt awkward asking questions. Wondering about Bernadette seemed a thing to do late at night, whispering to my younger sister from my bed in the dark.
“Do you remember our mom?”
“No. Do you?” she whispered back.
Well-intentioned Aunt Ruth would talk about Bernadette if I asked, but I did not ask. Ruth may have been waiting, not wanting to cause pain.
“I wore that hat to your mother’s wedding,” she told me once when I was a teenager, trying on her red sunhat with the wide brim and velvet ribbon.
“Oh,” is all I said, suddenly shy. How do I ask? What do I ask?
Attending Notre Dame meant being only a short drive from our old home in the western suburbs of Chicago. Occasionally, at a wake, a reception, I would be introduced to a stranger who’d say, “I was a friend of your mother’s.” I’d feel a little panicked—what to do, how to react? I pictured my face contorting into a tragedy mask of clenched upward eyebrows, mouth pressed into a firm little smile that was supposed to be both brave and sympathetic. Lots of nodding. How else do I respond to this person who actually felt the sorrow, who knew what my mother’s loss really felt like?
“I was too young to understand,” was how I explained having no memory and little feeling about her death.
I may have been afraid. Afraid to open Pandora’s box. Why welcome pain in? For what reason, for what purpose? What did I need to understand? They were gone. I was fine. “I know it’s strange, but I don’t miss them,” I would say to friends. They stayed silent, raised skeptical eyebrows.
I knew there were some boxes of my mother’s letters, scrapbooks. But what would I do with all that life? Where would I put all the knowledge I learned about her? The boxes stayed packed away in Aunt Ruth’s basement.
The floodgates open
And then. At the birth of my first daughter, a flood of emotions for my mother washed over me. Here was not only the birth of a child but also the birth of a family, happening before my eyes. Looking at my newborn daughter, I felt like I was witness to some primordial event. I thought of my mother more than I had in years. I had so many questions for her, about her. What did pre-epidural childbirth feel like? Did she breastfeed? Did it hurt like stabbing knives? How did she juggle the needs of four young children? How did she keep the screams at bay?
By the time my second daughter, Eleanor, was born, shortly after Mia, my questions about my mother had become a deafening chorus. Perhaps it was going twice to the place of pain that is childbirth. Perhaps it was coming back from that place, triumphant, a new child in my arms, that gave me the courage to try to find the answers.
I started to open the boxes of her things.
At first I read and sifted with detachment. The papers of a stranger. Then a story started to emerge. A figure, recognizable, familiar, loved, stepped into the light. I touched a letter, traced the penciled words with the tip of my finger. Here her hand worked, this she held, here her gaze concentrated.
Disintegrating scrapbooks told me the story of a Lithuanian-American girl from the shady streets of Clarendon Hills, Illinois, who was deeply Catholic, both religiously and culturally. I smiled as I read the lyrics my mother wrote for a Catholic Book Week assembly at Nazareth Academy for Girls: “On magic carpets spun by authors old and new, we can find new worlds, sought by many, found by few.”
I discovered tiny dance programs with iridescent covers, hung on silky knotted cords she wore on her wrist. I learned Bernadette was a 1950s party girl whose formal wear was as familiar as her dungarees. She majored in proms and nightclubs, with a minor in dancing to the big bands until dawn. On a snowy day in February 1959, she married in splendor and joy my handsome father, a former Air Force lieutenant. Ten months later, their son, Ronnie Jr., arrived.
My brother Ron remembers sailing on their boat, The Christy, out of Chicago’s Burnham Harbor. Home movies show Ron, curly haired Christopher and me waving at Dad’s Super 8 camera on ski slopes, from swimming pools, under the Art Institute bronze lions. My mother, always smiling, holds up Baby Nancy’s arm to help her wave.
Even with the demands of running a small business and raising four children, my parents became active in social justice and education. I could just see Bernadette, lipstick carefully applied, the graciousness every friend attests to firmly in place, ringing doorbells to encourage her neighbors to support integrated neighborhoods in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Over drinks and dinner, I laughed with astonishment at the stories pouring out from my parents’ friends. With five other couples and a firecracker of a Brazilian directress, Ron and Bernie built a Montessori preschool from the ground up in less than a year.
“Oh, we partied a little bit,” Weezie Johnson told me with a laugh. “But building the school, it was pretty serious to get this all done. It was kind of blood, sweat and tears. But, you know, everybody was, ’we’re doing this for our kids!’ Yeah, it probably was, by far, the most exciting thing I have ever done.”
She paused to look at me. “When you talk, I keep seeing your mother and father. You have a lot of your mother. . . . You look more like your dad, but you have a lot of your mother.”
Hearing this is deeply reassuring. But tantalizing.
As I expected and hoped, learning and writing about Bernadette has been challenging and cathartic—like climbing a mountain of emotion. The feelings range from delight at discovering my parents’ love letters to despair when I allow myself to miss her. From confusion over the permanently unfilled gaps in her story to frustration when I feel cheated out of embraces from the very first person to hold me. From deep and newfound love to echoes of alarm, shock and panic when I snap out of imagining her life to realize again that she is gone.
“Tell me about when I was a baby!” Mia asks. Like tucking away shiny pennies and nickels for her to spend on a rainy day, I whisper bits of her past to her at bedtime. “When you were a baby on the changing table, I’d tickle your belly, then your chin, then your nose, like this. I’d say, ‘Bump, bump, bump!’ You would laugh, and I would do it again.” She giggles now, perhaps imagining what she will someday swear is an actual memory of infancy.
As I open the once-closed doors of Bernadette’s too-brief life, I’m learning that mothers are the caretakers of memory’s keys. I gently nurture Mia’s and Eleanor’s pasts, recalling their own lives for them. I’m discovering how much children are like memory; both are delicate, uncontrollable, often surprisingly resilient, and precious beyond measure.
The most painful lesson has been learning to live with what I cannot have: more.
As Mia approached the age of my last months with my mother, I would study her for clues. Watching Mia grow, I am shocked at the amazing intellectual abilities of a 4-year-old. We have conversations now. She tells me her plans, her dreams. If this is how I interacted with my mother, how could I remember so little? How could I have so little of her?
Before I became a mother, I was not bothered by my lack of childhood memories. I had had little experience with young children. Watching other people’s children flit from one room to another, I thought they had minds as light and insubstantial as butterflies.
A child’s memories
No. Mia has an amazing memory. I look at her, and I know her father and I are her world. Will she remember our love? Are we building a strong foundation, a house of care that will stay with her? Will the house remain even if the patterns of the walls, the arrangement of the furniture, fade from memory?
I cried as I tried to explain this to my husband: “I remember kindergarten so well, and that was only a year and a half after she died. I talked to her! She spoke to me! Where is she? Why can’t I remember her? I can’t have her, I know. But why can’t I have her memory?”
Randy comforted me, simply. “She had a huge, rich relationship with you. You might not remember it, but your mother did.”
I stopped crying. He was right. I had been fighting to remember her from the position of a needing child. I had not thought of her as a woman like me.
Last summer I took Eleanor and Mia to a new children’s sculpture park. The freshly planted prairie grasses and young trees still needed some patience and imagination, but the grounds were well-designed with surprising corners and lovely curves of path. We found tiny carved creatures, a curled newt and a little frog, hidden in the curves of a sculpted deer. The June sky was bright and high, the sunlight softly warm.
I turned back from watching Mia’s game of weaving ribbons in a fence to see Eleanor leaning over to carefully kiss a stone rabbit’s head. I smiled. When Randy is around for this kind of sweet moment and we’ve left the camera at home, I tell him. “We’ll have to remember this.” But do we?
I watched Eleanor, trying to remember the cautious way she bent over, still not confident with gravity but more eager than afraid to show that bunny some love. I watched Eleanor, and I felt content. Because I knew I might forget this one. And that’s okay.
We can try to remember the heart-leaping moments, but they keep flowing on and on. What abundance. Every day has something delicious, bright and persistent glints flashing through the dark forest of fatigue and irritation and guilt.
Looking at Eleanor, I realized that my mother had the same abundance of loving memories. I don’t have access to her days, what her quotidian life was. But like this daily waterfall of private pleasures between me and my daughters, Bernadette’s days with her children are real, they happened. The memory of them is less important than their reality. They happened.
Cindy Fey parents and writes in Wilmette, Illinois. Find her on the web at www.cindy-weallfalldown.blogspot.com.