By Lynn Litterine '96
When families tell children stories, they shape their view of the world. My mother was a good sport and a big kidder, and most of her stories were funny ... most, but not all. There were dark tales she told only me. These were about mothers and children and described a deep love subverted by death and loss, and a grief so unassuagable it swallowed children whole. She spoke from experience. Her own mother had died of tuberculosis when she was nine. Months of hiding what was a feared and shameful disease had turned the family in upon itself; then my grandmother’s death removed its stable core. For years after, my mother, her sister, and father lived as boarders in other peoples’ homes.
That sad event, some 29 years before my birth, shaped the story my mother and I inhabited as I grew up. Her thought on seeing me, her first (and it turned out only) child was, “Please, let me live to raise her.” She told me so and added that my arrival was the greatest moment of her life. What was wonderful was also inextricably precarious. She cried every Christmas.
Physically, the evidence that she might ever not be around was nonexistent. She was a big, healthy Norwegian, who had played semiprofessional basketball in her teens. At the age of 38, she delivered all 8 pounds 6 ounces of me—without complications—in an efficient four hours, breakfast to mid-morning. And, rare in the 1940s, she saw me arrive. Her health was excellent. From a family of women plagued by migraine and “female troubles,” it was the odd year when she had a headache that put her in bed or a cold that kept her down. She sailed through menopause. She was, she said, “a healthy horse.” But that was evidence for the eyes, and I was reading with my heart, which was filled to the brim with orphan imaginings.
“For years after my mother died,” she’d tell me, “I’d see a woman ahead on the street who looked like her from behind. Then I’d run as hard as I could to get to her. I was sure they were mistaken about her death. But when I got in front and saw it was a stranger, it felt like she died all over again.”
I studied my mother’s face as she spoke. I felt my heart break with her and I worried about losing her, about becoming that girl with the deep loneliness inside. It could happen. She worked hard like my grandmother had, too hard. I had been told the story of how, already bedridden with TB, my grandmother had gotten up and boiled her laundry through another rinse on the coal stove, because the laundress hired with their meager funds had only rinsed once. For my grandmother, the whiteness of her daughters’ shifts and drawers was worth risking a hemorrhage.
And a hemorrhage is what followed. My mother told me this. I know the laundress’ name: Annie Cheese. In the image I hold, she is circled round by my grandmother’s sense of duty and her self-sacrifice, and by loss, always loss. I would climb onto my own hardworking mother’s lap and listen to her breathing, to her heart, and worry about each whisper or wheeze that sounded out of place.
I wasn’t willing to count on my everyday happiness. In the view of the world I had taken in at my mother’s knee, the most loved, most needed person could easily disappear forever.
“I remember the sound of the dirt hitting my mother’s coffin,” she’d say. “Such a final sound.”
And I would tremble to think what it would be like never to bury my face in her shoulder again.
My mother had not only lost a parent; she felt she had lost a perfect parent. Her memory of my grandmother was of a woman without flaws. At age nine, we don’t really see our mothers as human beings, limited like all people. My grandmother in her absence towered over my mother’s childhood. To her little girl, she had never been less than perfect. She wielded terrific moral force.
“Grandma never had to spank me,” my mother would say. “Just her look was enough. She had a very quiet way of letting you know she was angry. It made me wish she’d spank me and get it over with.”
The image of my grandmother set a high standard for the two of us. Failure to be “good,” whether in behavior or even in secret feelings, was hurtful. If in a childish fury I said I hated someone, she’d suck in her breath through her teeth as if in pain.
“That’s too strong, Lynn Bernice. You don’t mean that. You don’t ever really hate anybody,” she’d say.
Because I knew I wasn’t up to that standard, I lived with a dangerous inner self that I needed to keep hidden. I imagine she did, too.
When I was old enough to wonder why cleaner laundry mattered to my grandmother more than maintaining her life for her children’s sake, it seemed like blasphemy. What kind of a dark little soul would question my grandmother’s great goodness? Or even later, see her own mother as less than perfect? If I noticed some pettiness in my mother, I figured that pointed to my own limitations, not hers.
When my mother died, I was 38 years old, and she was 76. Not bad for a woman who’d smoked for 58 years, quit exercising at the age of 21, and never met a butter-based food she didn’t like. She was healthy until she had a stroke, then lingered only a little over two weeks in the hospital. As she daily sank more deeply into a coma, I felt pain, but not shock. There was something so familiar about grief.
It was a feeling I’d been practicing imaginatively all my life.
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