What We Are Given

I am back at my mom’s again, this time by automobile rather than airplane because I don’t know how long I will need to be here.

On other trips I have come out of obligation (could she tell?), with silent wishes for a mother different from the one I have (could she hear?). This time I have forgiven her, forgiven myself, forgiven all of us in that unhappy house and this time is different. When I got in the car to start driving here I could feel the glad expectation in my chest and it surprised me.

The mother I wanted was Empathic Mom, someone who could say “I love you,” someone who could hug me. But if I had that mother I would have been in trouble. Empathic Mom wouldn’t have survived the storms created by the weather system that was my father. Instead, my brother and I got Prepared Mom.

On my last trip here, Prepared Mom and I got in the rental car to visit her friends at the Calico Cat, a secondhand store where she volunteered. Mom had been the Friday team lead. As soon as we got the tollbooth ticket, mom asked for it, determined the fare, and started counting out bills and coins to be ready. When she had the correct amount she clenched the cash tightly in her left hand for fifteen miles, until her hand grew tired. I suggested she put the money in the cup holder. When we got to the exit tollbooth, mom counted the money again. I smiled up at the toll collector, a fortyish woman with thick, long, beautiful blond hair. 

“This is going to take a moment.”

She could see my mom counting and she smiled back.

“That’s okay.”

On this trip, my mother had an appointment at the cardiologist’s office on Monday at 9:00 a.m. Early Sunday afternoon we planned the trip.

“Mom, since the appointment is at nine and it’s twenty minutes away, what time would you like to leave?”

Her lips pressed together, moved out and in. She calculated.

“I don’t know.”

“How about eight-twenty?”

“How about eight-fifteen?”

We agreed that I would drive the car to the main entrance and pick up her up there. I pulled under the awning at 8:11a.m. and saw her through the glass doors, seated on the waiting bench. I was sure she had been there since 8:00 a.m., maybe earlier. This was the woman who, when I was back in high school, trained me to stand at the dining room window to watch and wait for my pickup thirty minutes before the driver was scheduled to arrive. 

I didn’t get Empathic Mom, I got Prepared Mom and it is not fair of me to ask or hope for Prepared Mom to be different from who she is, when she is what she needed to be.

The proceeds from the Calico Cat benefit women and children who have been abused. Previously, my mother had volunteered for the blood bank. When she first started at the blood bank, she reported to me how many pints of blood the United States needed every day. When she started at the Cat, she reported the number of women and children abused in the United States. Then she said,

“I was never abused as a child. My parents pretty much ignored me.”

I thought about my mom as a child, a skinny-legged girl on a small farm outside a small town in Nebraska, a girl who milked cows and gathered hens’ eggs and on some days, wrung a chicken’s neck for dinner.

“Being ignored is a form of abuse, Mom,”


“Yeah. Babies who are ignored can die.”

“They can?”

“Uh-huh. I learned about it when I worked at the hospital. We were supposed to watch for it—signs that a pregnant woman wasn’t all that interested in the baby inside her.”

Mom thought about that.

“What are the signs?” she asked.

“Umm… one was lack of preparation. Like she’s seven months pregnant and you ask her where the baby is going to sleep and she has no idea.”

My mom dropped her head, tucked her chin into her neck, pressed her lips.


We were both quiet for a time.

. . .

A long time ago, on a snowy drive between Chicago and Minneapolis, I was listening to a radio call-in program. A mother called in because her younger son wasn’t sharing his Christmas presents with his older brother. The radio host advised the mother not to expect her younger son to share until he fully owned what he had been given. “You can’t share what you don’t own.”

. . .

There is a small community room between my mother’s apartment and the cafeteria and there is usually a jigsaw puzzle in progress. On my last trip, the morning I was heading back to the airport, I stopped at the puzzle and worked on it for about an hour. Usually my mom and I worked the puzzles together but this time I worked it alone.

When I got home that night I called mom and asked,

“Did you see how much I got done on the puzzle?”

The puzzle was a beast and a brat, a thousand cheap pieces that fit together poorly. There were twenty repeating sections and I had assembled three entire sections, when most of the time mom and I were happy if we were able to place three or four pieces. I wanted some affirmation from my mother but affirmation was not forthcoming.

“I got even more done after you left. I placed a lot of pieces.”

Previously, I would have complained to a friend, “My mother can never be happy for me, she always has to be in competition with me.” But that’s not it. You can’t share what you don’t own. You can’t give what you haven’t been given.


Chewing the Cud of Good

new growth on an evergreen

On the same morning that we learned about the fire at Notre Dame, my mother told me about a smaller loss near her. There was a garden she and I had visited the last time I was here. It belonged to the daughter-in-law of one of her friends. The garden was about half an acre, with tall trees thickly under-planted with shrubs and flowers and decorated with fairies and found things, birdhouses and bowling balls. It even had a scavenger hunt for visitors, with the clues and little golf pencils in a plastic box next to a concrete swan. 

The daughter-in-law gave us a tour of her garden. There must have been more than a thousand daffodils in bloom. She picked a bouquet of daffodils and gave them to my mother. A week later, a microburst pulled up the trees and dropped them on her cars. The tree roots pulled up her bushes and flowers. The wind carried her found things to places she could not find them.

The daughter-in-law had been building the garden for twenty-two years. Next Saturday twenty neighbors are coming over to help rebuild her garden.

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