Two installments ago I described a letter my mother left for me to read after she was gone. The two-page missive, handwritten on yellow ruled paper, was still in draft form with some words scratched out, edits squeezed in, and notes in the margin. She had tucked it into a sheet protector in a three-ring binder that also contained her last wishes.
You may remember that I was disappointed in that letter because it was written 19 years before her death, originally as a thank you for a special gift I assembled on her 70th birthday. It contained no references to the dozen years we had just spent together. Indeed, that chapter of our lives was still far in the future and not something we ever would have dreamed would happen. If Mom’s destiny was to live with anyone, we always assumed it would be my sister, Leslie, a truly unselfish and very capable soul who tirelessly takes care of everyone. Well, you know what they say about that tricky word – assume. It can turn out to be the ultimate “gotcha.”
Our “gotcha” began to germinate in 1997 when my husband, Pete, our adult children and I left the rainy Pacific Northwest behind to create a new life in the high desert of Northern Nevada. Every winter for four years, Mom closed up her trailer on the Oregon Coast to snowbird with us in the land of year-round sunshine. Sadly, a couple of months before she arrived in 2001, Pete and I separated after 27 years of marriage. Our daughter and her husband were building a home in a nearby township, so I rented a duplex in the same neighborhood. My intention was to stay there until I was ready to make more permanent decisions about my future.
Mom couldn’t have been with me for more than a week when my sister called from Oregon with devastating news. Hurricane force winds and pelting rain had damaged Mom’s trailer beyond repair. While most of her belongings were intact, she had no home to return to in the spring.
Picture a heartbroken, newly single 47-year-old and an equally heartbroken, financially challenged 77-year-old sitting in the sparsely furnished living room of a rented duplex, staring at each other in shocked silence and wondering what to do next. Let’s just say, it wasn’t pretty.
What came next was actually rather pretty … most of it anyway.
Mom and I partnered up and forged ahead like all of the other fiercely strong women in our family lineage. We found a house for sale just a few blocks away that had a good vibe, bought it and stuffed everything we both owned into it. Over time, we painted the bland gray exterior a cheerful shade of yellow and picked an eye-catching periwinkle as the color for our fancy new door with a beveled glass insert. We nurtured the old roses in the front, planted young trees in the back and together watched the seasons pass. Joint vacations, leisurely Sunday drives, newly released films, final episodes of beloved television series and premieres of new favorites added flavor to our routine.
To the untrained eye, that description of our life as mother-daughter roommates probably sounds idyllic. To be fair, though, it was not without challenges.
When we first moved into our little house, the adjustment was difficult. She was grieving the loss of her trailer and independence. I was grieving the loss of my marriage and the promise of independence. For a while we both walked on eggs, trying not to say anything that might upset the apple cart. I slipped occasionally and made comments I wanted to take back but couldn’t. So did Mom. We put away our belongings with a “this is mine, that’s yours” mentality that resulted in assigned cupboards and drawers in the kitchen and assigned rooms in which to arrange furniture and display mementoes. That separatist attitude eventually changed, but it was palpable in the beginning.
Caring for Mom when her health began to fail brought even greater challenges. One of the first consequences was that she had to stop driving. I suspect she was irritated with me for at least six months for enforcing that. Meanwhile, I periodically held pity parties mourning my loss of freedom which, of course, were always followed by immediate attacks of guilt.
Overall, though, I think Mom and I did a pretty good job at a difficult task. Our mutual tenacity and purposeful effort to look for the good in each day made our years together a blessing rather than a curse.
These are the kinds of memories I had expected to read about in Mom’s farewell letter. I wanted validation that she felt as I did – that our 12 years together had been priceless. When the letter turned out to be 19 years old, I was crushed. Today I realize that no validation from Mom – or from anyone else for that matter – was ever really necessary. Those 12 years were unquestionably priceless.
And so, in the end, was the letter.
That old letter is the only tangible evidence I have of the way Mom viewed me before our circumstances changed; before our respective losses hurled us into co-habitation and before our roles reversed. Those two pages of unpolished lines are the musings of a mother who expected nothing from her middle child except to share a lifetime of memories, both good and bad, and to laugh together with wild abandon at things few others found funny at all. I know our last 12 years are worth cherishing. The letter reminded me that our first 47 were as well.
And then there is Laurie. What can a mom say to a daughter who writes books? She knows all the words and strings them together in such a way that all the right buttons are pushed and maudlin sentimentality reigns. My Laurie – I’ve always called you the last of the great romantics, and you are. We’ve shared much laughter, pain and tears, sadness and love. You and Leslie and I have all shared the same weird sense of humor and need only a glance to send us off to la-la-laughter land. I remember the little girl (big now but still the same) who got really weird and funny when she got tired. Who was always the buffer between older sister and younger brother. Who was always loving and understanding and still is. I know your father was as proud of you as I am. You kids are the best things that ever happened to me. Thank you for the 70th BD book. I will always treasure it. Always – for however long forever lasts.