In Her Image

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home

African-American Spiritual

Katie Lyman
Age 20, circa 1933

I’m going to lose my mother. It’s an inevitability I never used to think about. My grandmother, Katie lost her mother in 1920 when she was only seven years old. She was the second of five children and the oldest daughter. Separated by scarcely more than a year, the first three were born before her parents divorced. Her mother remarried and after a four-year gap, two more babies were born in quick succession. Katie’s stepfather moved the young family from the city to a rural farm in Wyoming when the littlest were two and one and her mother, Loretta, was eight months pregnant.

My Grammy wrote in her memoirs, “I remember snatches of my mother. It seemed she never sat down at the table because she was always waiting on we kids and Papa.” From my 21st century vantage point, I can only imagine how exhausting and laborious this 24-year-old mother’s life was, raising five small children on the prairie, without modern conveniences, while pregnant. Again. Before they were settled in the new homestead, Loretta’s sixth child was stillborn. Flooding prevented the doctor from reaching her, though we can’t know whether it would have made any difference. She became very ill in the days following but managed to send a letter to her mother, Tennie, saying the baby had died but she ‘supposed she’d be all right.’ Without the convenience of modern technology, that letter didn’t arrive until 2 weeks later, and on the same day as a different letter which carried the news that her daughter had died.

In Katie’s words, “. . . [they] took her to town in a spring wagon with a bed made in it. It was the last time I saw her alive. She said, ‘Goodbye kids. I’ll be back in a day or two.’ I had such an empty feeling. I went behind a tree and cried.”

I was 18 when I left home for the first time to attend college and I missed my mother, Patricia, deeply. A vocal music major, I sang with an elite a cappella choir. Every day at 1:00 pm we rehearsed, our voices painting tonal landscapes in which I lost myself. The eight-part harmonies of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” wrapped around me as the haunting melody, in a minor key, wept with visceral sorrow, expressing the universal loss; a child without its mother. I was reminded of my grandmother and how she was set adrift so young, alone in the world without an anchor to keep her safely harbored. I wondered, what happens to a girl when her mother dies before she’s become a woman herself. How does she know who to become? And who will show her who she already is? A mother shapes her daughter by simply being. Not nature verses nurture; the unfolding lies in both.

There is something profound in the biological connection between a mother and her daughter that transcends the quality of their relationship or the amount of time spent together. The genetic design that serves as a blueprint for the subsequent generation exists despite circumstance. Daughters can sculpt themselves, choosing how they manifest their best potential, but DNA maps their identity; the double helix provides the framework on which they build themselves. We emerge from those who come before us, carrying their pedigree within; there is no escaping our lineage.

At times, I’ll admit, this is the very thing I’ve rejected—the sameness. When face-to-face with the likeness, I balk and break away, accentuating my difference: I am my-SELF, not a copy of my mother and aunts and grandmother. And yet, at other times, I embrace my tribe with pride and solidarity; the familiarity claims me and I cannot deny my own belonging.

My life unfolded with similar patterns to my mother and grandmother. My grandmother was the eldest daughter. My mother was the eldest daughter. I am the eldest daughter. My grandmother had three daughters and one son, and her youngest, a daughter, was born when she was 40. My mother has three daughters and one son. Her youngest was a daughter, born when she was 40. I have three daughters and one son, and my youngest, a daughter, was born when I was 40. And we have more than numbers in common. We come from strong women; pioneer stock with do-it-yourself independence. We come from mental illness and trauma and divorce. We come from creativity, talent and passion, fiery tempers to match. We come from tender hearts and soft bodies and soothing hands.

I am my mother. I am not my mother. I want to be like my mother. I want to be nothing like my mother. All are true. And one truth remains superlative, no matter how old, we need our mothers; as babes and teenagers, as young mothers ourselves, as aging adults. To be nurtured and comforted, to be cherished and reassured; these are needs we do not grow out of. The simple presence of one’s mother on the planet provides the possibility of a light in the darkness. And regardless of conflict or resolution, intimacy or estrangement, issues past or present, in the end, forgiveness clears the space for only love to remain.

When Katie neared the end of her life she said to her daughter, “When I can’t live alone, will you come and get me?” And Patricia–my mother–did.  Instrumental in the sacred metamorphosis, she gently ushering her mother out of the world, just as her mother did, bringing her into the world.

It’s nearing the end of my mother’s life and the loss has already begun; the grief is nudging me, whispering. A mother’s first instinct is to shield her child from pain, but she cannot shield them from the pain of her own death, try as she might. I’m going to lose my mother, and soon, yet I feel the stirrings of my ancestry lending me strength. I sense the circle of grandmothers bringing me peace. Tennie, mother of Loretta; Loretta, mother of Katie; Katie, mother of Patricia; Patricia, mother of Lisa; we are linked, one to the next, and an unspoken knowledge pulses between us: a mother cannot be lost. She is connected to her children forever. Wherever we go, we carry our mothers with us and we are never far from home.

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Filed under Aging, Family, Growing Up, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting

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