Motherhood

It was the year I turned thirteen that I broke my first bone. Spring had begun to shift into summer, and I was walking my dog, the leash wrapped tightly around the first two fingers of my left hand. Our dog wasn’t the smartest creature, and he was prone to pull and yank without warning. I knew this, but still held his rope precariously, an invitation for injury. It was only a few feet from our house that he spotted a soft-coated white lab, immediately pulling tight against his restraints. I heard the snap first, the sound of my index finger breaking, then the pain followed, white hot and instantaneous.

My parents weren’t home at the time of the incident. My father was out, and my mother was on dinner shift at the restaurant she worked at. My fifteen year old sister did the best she could in the face of this crisis. Putting into practice what information we had gleaned from hospital scenes on television dramas, we tried to coax the finger back into place. It was only later, when my mother had left work early and driven me to emergency, that we understood how futile these efforts had been. My x-ray showed an injury that couldn’t be undone with a few skillful (or in our case completely amateur) manipulations of the finger. The damage was a diagonal fracture that cut clear through my bone.

The solution was surgery, metal pins to be inserted, and a cast for the summer. I had remained relatively quiet through all of this, but I was thirteen, and to me this diagnosis seemed catastrophic. On the way home, in the passenger seat of the car, I started to cry. I was mourning the loss of what was important to me at the time: summer, swimming, and the freedom of being unencumbered by something as socially damaging as a cast. I am embarrassed now when I think of the lack of grace with which I dealt with this news. I was dramatic. I yelled. I questioned the fairness of the universe.

My mother was quiet for about two minutes of this tantrum. She drove, her eyes affixed on the road in front of us, and then suddenly she stopped me.  “That’s enough,” she said. “There are kids in this world dying of cancer. You can handle a broken finger.” At the time I felt wounded. To me it was a glaring example of how she failed to be like the other mothers I had seen both on television, and in the homes of friends from school. Mothers who baked cakes, planted soft kisses on the tops of heads, and lingered in doorways if only to spend one more minute in the company of their children. While to many of my friends these mothers were a source of embarrassment; to me the coddling, the pet names, and the adoring looks all spoke to what I assumed was a deeper and more powerful love for their children than my mother held for me.

Love wasn’t something we talked about much in my house. We didn’t say the words often, and in fact my mother almost seemed suspicious of people who were apt to use the phrase in ways she deemed reckless. “Love isn’t something you say to just anyone,” she said once while talking about an acquaintance who used the words too liberally for her liking. “If you claim you love everyone, well then you probably have no idea what the words actually mean,” she said. But what did those words mean to her?  In my house an ill-timed “I love you” might be greeted with a curt head nod, or worse silence, and I sometimes questioned why it was so hard for her to say the words back. I understood you shouldn’t say things you didn’t mean, and you should mean the things you said. But, if as I suspected, love existed in our house, linking the five of us together, why couldn’t we speak it aloud?

Much of her emotional reserve I put down to her upbringing. Born in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1950’s she was the second child to parents with a fourteen year age gap. Her father was a large, indifferent man. One who I suspect loved both of his children, but didn’t really understand what that meant in practice. She was closer to her mother, a woman full of life and much adored, although not a person to cater to anyone’s need for validation or reassurance. It was a different time, a different place, and while I don’t imagine it was ever discussed, I know there was a thread of love that ran through their family as it does mine: quiet, constant, and almost imperceptible.

I believe in this thread because it reveals itself through my mother’s stories of leaving Scotland. In them I can hear her yearning, her loneliness in this new country, and her wish to return to what she knew. I believe in this thread because twenty years ago when my grandmother died, my mother fell apart. There was a sudden lapse in health, flights to Scotland to stand at her bedside, and then suddenly she was gone. My usually stoic mother was a mess. She had never been good at expressing feelings, and in the face of this loss she didn’t know how to hold herself together. She wept. She was angry. She couldn’t make sense of what had happened. I understand now how lost she must have felt without her mother. She was frustrated that none of us understood her pain. But how could we? I was a teenager at the time. I was inwardly focused, selfish, and deep in the process of taking my own mother for granted. It didn’t occur to me then that mothers were things that you could lose, even in the face of this clear evidence. My own mother was a fixture in my life, as solid and permanent as my own being. I didn’t understand then what my mother was in the process of learning. Those threads that tied us all together, well they were tied tightly to our mothers, and when they were loosened, everything could change.

I think a lot about these threads of motherhood now that I have a child. I wonder how much of my experience, and how many of my choices are defined and shaped by my mother, and by her mother before us. On the surface it would appear very little. Where my mother is emotionally reserved I am expressive. I am always reaching for my child. I repeat the words “I love you” like a prayer. I know for sure that I will be one of those mothers who embarrasses their children, hovering in doorways trying to sneak just one more kiss. This is my fate, and I will embrace it.  But it is careless for me to assume that this one component of who I am as a mother defines my whole reality. I am different from my mother yes, but underneath that surface level there is a genealogy of motherhood that snakes from me to her. I like this idea. That we are connected by a shared history of motherhood, and that I may not be as different from her as I have always assumed.

My mother is not warm in the traditional sense. She won’t hold your hand. She won’t tell you you’re beautiful. She expects you to know you’re smart so those words will never have to escape her stern Scottish mouth. A few weeks ago I told her I might write a piece about her, and that the topic was warmth. She laughed at this, then looked thoughtful. “Well, that’s the last word anyone would ever use to describe me,” she said in her matter of fact way. I didn’t disagree with her then, but I think perhaps I should have. My mother is warm. Although we don’t always see it right away, it’s there just below the surface. It’s quiet, subdued by a layer of strength, obscured again by her blunt truthfulness that can sometimes sting.

My mother the center of us all. She has stood by my father for over forty years. She has raised three children who are great friends, and created a family that still gravitates together for meals, celebrations, and sometimes for no reason at all. She has built a home where the door revolves and everyone is welcome. She has been there for each of us at every turn: through challenges, broken hearts, emergency room visits, disappointments and great joy. There are times I have taken my mother for granted, or failed to understand her. I thought because I couldn’t see her love for me in her words that it wasn’t there, but I was failing to look at her actions.

I realize now that that day in the car, my broken finger cradled in my lap, my mother wasn’t trying to be harsh or unkind. She was trying to tell me that I was going to be ok. My finger would heal, my life would go on, and she wanted to make sure that I understood that. My mother assumed that I was strong enough to handle whatever would come, and that assumption is a gift I want to give my daughter. I am grateful too, that she has a grandmother who will be there for her as well. Quick to remind her that life will throw you challenges, but you will survive. It’s interesting to me though how different my daughter’s relationship to my mother is. With Saoirse, my mother is playful, free, and loving in a way that I find equal parts surprising and beautiful.

I have watched them together, Saoirse cradled in my mother’s arms, a lilting Scottish tune being hummed. I have heard soft words, coos, and praise quietly directed at my daughter. I have even once, I’m sure of it, heard the words “I love you” whispered quietly into the tiny seashell of her ear. In that moment part of me wanted to draw attention to it. To say aloud, you said “I love you. I heard it.” But another part of me realized that the words didn’t really matter. To point them out was unnecessary. They were always there, invisible but present, unspoken, but no less true in their silence.

JOURNALIST: Beth McKinlay