When I was in college I took a literature course about African American women writers. Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks — so many amazing writers. One of the central themes of the class was something the professor called “motherlines.” Her theory was that these writers used the lessons we learn from out mothers as a tool in their writing, a literary device.
I was nineteen at the time, so I read the books, loved the class, but really didn’t fully understand the concept of motherhood, let alone motherlines. But lately, man, motherlines is heavy in my day-to-day. I feel my Mom in so many ways, that same Mom who died eleven years ago, just a few months into my first pregnancy. It’s comforting, actually, as I carry a sense of guilt about how I grieve my Mom, compared to how I grieve my daughter and Dad.
Our daughter was born five months after my Mom died. I spent the end of that pregnancy both grieving and prepping. It was an odd combination. There were tears and sleepless night writing thank you notes to friends and family, but there was so much joy, too. I just couldn’t collapse into sadness the way I imagined I might. Then just a couple years later, our baby, then a young toddler, was diagnosed with her own cancer.
My Mom got lost in the shuffle of that.
More than missing my Mom, I often felt a relief that she never had to live to see her granddaughter die. When she was alive, my Mom often said that the worst way to die was a brain tumor. We would see a news story about them or a famous person might be diagnosed and there would be my Mom, “Oh, that’s a terrible way to go.” I sometimes wonder if my Mom knew on some unconscious level that she hated brain tumors so much because both she and her namesake granddaughter would die from them. Magical thinking, I know, but still.
After my Dad’s death last year, I feel my Mom’s absence in a completely different way. It’s much more potent to me. I feel her, often, as I pass through my days. The connection feels strongest as I mother and mark the milestones of childhood. A few weeks ago my niece celebrated her First Holy Communion, and, BAM, there was my Mom, dancing through my memories, mothering me as I celebrated my own first communion that May day in 1977.
Yesterday I stopped by a small store to buy my oldest son a Cub Scout shirt and hat. BOOM, there was my Mom again, just floating through my thoughts. My brother was a Cub Scout and my Mom and a neighbor managed their den. I was a very little one at the time, so kind of tagged along to all the meetings. I remember how she ironed my brother’s blue shirt and neckerchief and adjusted them just so before meetings.
The connection I felt was visceral and I am so grateful for it.
My years as a mother never overlapped with my Mom’s life and those two things — my life with my Mom and my life as a mother — always felt very separate and distinct. But now, mothering my boys as they grow into older boys, well, I feel the connection and her presence. It is a very welcome surprise. There is a thread, not always apparent, that exists that connects my Mom and I as mother and daughter, and now as mothers — my very own motherline.
I hope to learn from her, remember what she taught, allow her to guide me as I walk this path of motherhood on my own. It can be lonely, motherhood. Feeling my Mom these past few months has helped. Eleven years is a long time apart. I am so glad she’s back and keeping me company.