The stories we carry

I was several years into my 40s before I could forgive my mother for being herself.

Seeing her so vulnerable now, it feels terrible to admit that, but it’s true. For most of my life, I wanted a different kind of mother. A less embarrassing, more supportive, not-so-critical one. A mother more “evolved” than mine. One whose vocabulary included words like “I’m sorry.” I was sure if my mother loved me she would “deal with her issues” so her issues would stop hurting me.

“Oh, the arrogance of youth,” her mother would say.

Lately I hear my grandmother’s voice a lot. Mom talks about her too, often in ways that imply she’s been in the room and just stepped out. Maybe she has. I like to think she’s close by, helping her girl make this transition. That’s me seeing the world through my favourite rose-coloured glasses, probably. The angst Mom expresses about a potential imminent reunion makes it clear their relationship was as complicated as ours.

But no less loving.

The mother-daughter relationship is so complex, so fraught with identity struggles and expectations, met and unmet. Layers of hurt and disappointment, fears of not being enough, not being accepted and loved just as we are. On both sides: mother and daughter.

I’m grateful —that’s too small a word —that Mom and I came to peace with each other and our relationship before we landed in this bizarre terrain. She doesn’t remember I’m her daughter most of the time now, but she remembers we love and trust each other.

I was watching her sleep the other morning as I listened to Pádraig Ó Tuama read Marie Howe’s poem “My Mother’s Body” on Poetry Unbound, On Being’s new poetry podcast, which has arrived in my life at the perfect moment.

I love the way Ó Tuama talks about the poem. About “all the ways we carry people who have tried to love us, and maybe the person succeeded, or maybe they didn’t, but nonetheless, we carry their story into our own surviving.”

I like to think I know my mother’s story. Her mother’s, too. But I don’t. Not really. How could I?

Yet I hope to carry their stories into my own surviving.

My Mother’s Body

by Marie Howe

Bless my mother’s body, the first song of her beating
heart and her breathing, her voice, which I could dimly hear,
grew louder. From inside her body I heard
almost every word she said.
Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing
the pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings, rain, moonlight, snow fall, dogs…
Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone.
Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor,
and my body hurt her, I know that – 24 years old. I’m old enough
to be that girl’s mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant
frightened eyes, her bedsheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.
It’s a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me
with her mouth, first grief, first air,
and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother
slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it
across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted.
Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers,
our voice in my throat speaking to you now.

It would be easy to focus on everything lost between Mom and me in the years when I couldn’t forgive her for being herself: her flawed, sweet, wounded, beautiful, loving self.

I’m just grateful she forgave me, long ago, for being myself.



11 Responses to “The stories we carry”

  1. Pat Kobierski

    I have tears in my eyes. Life can be so complicated with what if , and what should be. As I get older, I find myself working on what my kids think I should be. I can only be the person my mother helped me to become.

    • commatologist

      I never had the opportunity to meet your mother, Pat, but you certainly raised a wonderful daughter.

  2. Ramona Scott

    so poignant and true for me, too, now that mom is sinking into her own much smaller world. i am so grateful to have broken through my story in one phone conversation, a year ago, of the wrongs my mother did to me. suddenly, all became clear – her vulnerability, her courage, her strength to make the choices she made with very little emotional support throughout her married life with children, me being the first born. i am flooded with compassion for her, so grateful to have the time remaining
    to love her, forgive and be forgiven.

    • commatologist

      Ramona, I remember so well that moment of being flooded with compassion, for the first time, for the little girl my mother once was – a little girl, I recently discovered, who remained very much a part of the woman, though hidden until the very end behind a carefully constructed self-protective wall. That flood becomes a gateway to everything possible between ourselves and our mothers, if we allow it. I’m so grateful I allowed it, and happy for you and Dusty that you opened the gate.

      It’s interesting that we’re using the metaphor of a flood. I think of Dusty as a woman who was willing to live with the risk of living on a flood plain because she wanted the joy of the river’s proximity. It makes me think of that line in Calling All Angels: if you traded the pain and the suffering, you’d miss the beauty of the light upon this earth.

      Love and light to you and Dusty.

  3. Sheila Peters

    Leslie, this is beautiful in and of itself. It is also helpful for me – living here with my mother and also watching another mother and daughter negotiate this terrain. We, that is people of our age, want everything spoken, everything analyzed, explained. How hard it is for us to leave room for other ways of being, of loving.

    • commatologist

      In the end for Mom and me, our most meaningful exchanges were all unspoken. And yet I will try to convey our journey in words. Love to you and your mom, Sheila.

  4. theresa

    This is a beautiful piece, Leslie. Last night I dreamed of my own mother and our strange relationship in which there was love but not….well, affection. In the dream she refused to let me borrow her car to get home to my family. She never learned to drive and I thought it was unkind for her to refuse the car to me. She told me she just couldn’t trust me with it and that was our relationship in a nutshell, if a nutshell could hold all the suspicion, withheld warmth (on both sides), anguish in so many ways. I woke in tears. You are lucky to have this opportunity to offer your mother final comforts, unquestioning love.

    • commatologist

      I can feel the pain your nutshell holds, Theresa. Thank you for sharing your dream.


Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS