I wrote the post below when Mia was eight months old and Zoe was newly 3 years old. I was thinking about my mother yesterday, on Mother’s Day, how complicated relationships between mothers and daughters can be, how messy ours was. I was thinking about my own girls, about the imperfect parenting I’m doing. I was thinking about how all mothers do the best they can with the resources they have. And, now eight years after I first wrote this, I’m sharing it again here, even more grateful that I made the effort to repair my relationship with my mother in the limited time she had as a grandmother to my children, as a mother to me as a mother.
November 2007, Grandma Barb holding Zoe (10 months old).
August 2009, Grandma Barb holding Mia (2 months old).
August 2009, Grandma Barb reading “The Little Red Hen” to Zoe (2.5 years old).
March 14, 2010
A month ago, I drove to Ithaca for my last visit to see my mother. Two days before that was our last of many hundreds of nearly nightly phone conversations over the past three years.
I didn’t always talk with her daily. There were many years where I understood that her expectation was that I’d call each week and I dutifully did so, sometimes with stressful anticipation for many days worrying about what zinger of a remark she might make, what questions she might ask that I’d need to artfully avoid, and of course what small parts of my life I felt comfortable and safe to share with her.
But, something shifted when I became a mother myself. My mother’s last visit to the Boston area was for a baby shower when I was 7 months pregnant with Zoe. My sister Amy brought our mother and they stayed at Nan’s house where together my sisters threw me a beautiful baby shower. My mother enjoyed the trip, delighting in being part of the celebration of another grandbaby-to-be, reconnecting with friends of mine from high school, college, and meeting some more recent ones for the first time.
Her ability to travel was limited. Her health was fragile even then. And, her days were pretty monotonous. She spent a lot of time watching TV. She managed to get out to the pool 3-4 times a week for some water exercise. She had home health aides to help her get to her appointments and manage her own selfcare. She saw my 2 siblings who live in Ithaca frequently, and the rest of us less often.
So, I started to call, daily. In the early days when I was on maternity leave and spending great amounts of time sitting around nursing Zoe, it was fairly easy to call, and it helped the time pass. My mother enjoyed hearing about every little milestone, hearing Zoe’s coos through the phone, and I suppose remembering her own days nursing each of her 6 babies as newborns. Then, there were the few months that I started working part time while my house was also being renovated. She was interested in everything, Zoe’s adjustment to daycare, my return to work, progress on the house. We visited Ithaca every 2-3 months during Zoe’s first year so my mother often would say that she couldn’t wait to see Zoe doing this or that, whatever I had told her she was doing now. I also sent pictures every month. And, when I visited, she had albums ready waiting for me to fill with these pictures of Zoe. I have all those albums now. In fact, they’re the only photo albums I have of either of my kids. All my pictures are in digital albums and any prints are in a big box. There are several more months worth of prints that are in the basket where my mom collected them. I suppose they’re waiting for me to continue the tradition, to find an album and fill it. I might just need to make time for that.
As Zoe started to eat solid food, I adapted our phone conversations. I turned on speaker phone so I had both hands free to manage the feeding process. My mother wanted to know each night what Zoe was tasting now. “Is it all over her face?” “Does she like it?” “Did she make a face?”
Sometimes these conversations were as brief as 5 minutes, other times they were longer. It really depended on what was going on with us, how much attention Zoe needed, what else I needed to get done.
As Zoe started to talk, she could say things directly to Grandma Barb. At some point, they began a nightly tradition of “Night, night, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Only, my mother didn’t like bedbugs, so she asked Zoe to start a variation on the game. So, bedbugs were replaced by monkeys, kangaroos, koalas, and tens of other silly things that do and don’t really bite.
At times, mostly when Zoe was two, she didn’t want to call Grandma Barb, so I struggled to keep it interesting for her. Sometimes, we read stories together over the phone to Grandma Barb. Sometimes, Zoe’d be contentedly playing and I’d get to have an adult conversation with my mother, usually brief, often interrupted, but still a useful break from an evening of chatter with my extremely verbal toddler then preschooler.
These conversations went on through my whole second pregnancy. I didn’t know if I was having a boy or a girl. My mother wanted to know. She was impatient to find out. She was very excited that I had a second girl. And, then she was as worried as anyone when Mia’s early health complications arose.
At first, I was too overwhelmed to call her. Eventually, I did. She was frustrated and felt left out because a lot of the fast, real time communication in the days immediately before and after Mia’s birth went via text messages and e-mail, media she was not able to manage herself. My brother Andrew printed hard copies of these sagebaby posts and brought them to her. I have her stack of them, in the folder with flowers on it, where she kept them. She read them so carefully, and followed up with questions when we talked. At one point, she corrected me about Mia’s weight. She was sure that I had gotten it wrong in a post. In fact, she was right, I had made a typo off by a pound, and I went back and fixed it after she told me. Unbelievable.
She tried to keep track of every early appointment that Mia and I had. It was a lot to remember and so she’d ask me over and over again for the details and the sequence. She’d follow up to learn what had happened. She was remarkably understanding when I was unable to plan to visit until late August when Mia was almost 2 months old. On that visit, she enjoyed Mia so much. Mostly, I’d put Mia in a spot where my mom could watch her – in her carseat with a toy dangling for Mia to bat at with her hands, or on the baby gym mat where Mia looked at her toys and started to hit them. And, she held Mia too as much as she could. Even in August, it was tricky for me. I had to make sure my mother was in a chair with enough support that I thought Mia would be safe.
In September, my mother was hospitalized with pneumonia for 5 days. She was released with round-the-clock care at home and lived most of her last 5 months in one room. And still we called. I took Mia to Ithaca to visit right away, left Zoe for 2 nights with a friend from work. We all visited her in Ithaca again for Thanksgiving. And then, one last trip – Valentine’s Day. All together my mom saw Mia on 4 trips we made to Ithaca in her first 8 months. Mia had started to “talk” in our phone conversations, jabbering loudly enough that my mom would talk back to her.
In the weeks before her final illness, my mother said so many times that she wished she could come help us. She knew I was stressed juggling my two girls and work and the household maintenance. She tried to suggest things that might help. She was eager for us to visit again, though she knew that we were not ready to travel because of illness, weather, and my work. She said that she couldn’t wait for spring so I could bring my girls to visit again.
Spring is coming soon, perhaps jump-started today by the clocks springing ahead and the rain falling all day long.
We can’t visit her now. All we can do is remember and find small meaningful ways to keep her spirit alive for these girls who only barely knew her. I can continue the photo album tradition. I can wish Zoe “Night, night, don’t let the *** bite.” Lately, Zoe’s been wanting me to say “bedbugs!” Funny. I can go shopping for a baby doll for Mia. I had told my mom that Mia recently started to play with Zoe’s two baby dolls. My mom wanted me to get one (from her) for Mia that’s exactly like the one she gave Zoe at Thanksgiving 2008. I was busy. I didn’t go right out to get it even though she kept asking me about it. Soon, I will.