I wrote this for a contest in Real Simple a year ago, and then forgot to send it. The question was: when did you truly know you were a grown-up? This is a tribute to my mom.
My grandmother stood by a window in her retirement community, on the assisted living floor, her gnarled hands clutching her walker. Yes, tennis balls on the bottom, and yes, a little calico bag on the front to hold magazines she could no longer read. She was wearing a floral summer skirt with plaid winter pants underneath, a green woolen blazer that had been her father’s, and her pajama top. The nurses had given up telling Dorothy Rinehart what to wear. She’d been waiting for me, like so many other “white heads,” as she called them (though her own hair was white as snow), who were waiting for a visitor, or else for the shuttle bus that would take them to the drug store.
When I came inside, she clutched my still-young hand in her freakishly strong one, and immediately began to tell me how her room was too cold and the food was terrible and the nurses were stealing from her. Specifically, her bras. She was convinced that the nurses in this lovely, expensive retirement community were stealing her underwear and bras. Probably wearing them when they went “out on the town.” I listened, because I’d learned that trying to make her see things as they really were was pointless, and all she really needed was somebody she trusted to listen. Eventually, she would let out a big sigh and change the subject.
But on this Saturday in September, she did not change the subject. To my horror, she cried. She’d never done that before. And they weren’t the tears of a senile old lady, confused or tearing up about stolen brassieres: for a moment, she was completely lucid. “I miss her so much,” she said. She was talking about my mother, who had died two years before in an accident. She’d been hit by a bus; all the more horrific because it was so Chaplinesque; the way a minor character dies in a bad comedy. My mom was only 54, and she was vacationing with my father. It was sudden, tragic, and as devastating as anything could possibly be for our family.
That is why, on a beautiful fall Saturday when I didn’t have to be at work, I was at a nursing home, where I would listen to my grandma talk for a while, then take her out for lunch, and return to her apartment to clean up and check her supply of Depends. My sister and I did this every weekend, because my mom couldn’t. We also went to see my now-single dad more; left soups and casseroles in his fridge, dropped in on him at work, and called him every single night.
My grandma and I talked for a while about my mom; about what a “character” she was. Our perspectives were so different: my grandma spoke of how my mom had been so mischievous as a girl; how she could outrun all the boys, how she was a better dancer than “all of them,” even little Nancy Spencer, who’d had lessons. And how brave she’d been to marry my father, a weapons officer on his way to his second tour inVietnam, and
how strong she’d been when I’d had terrible asthma as a child. (It was the ’70s. There was some talk of having me live in a bubble, literally, to which my mother said something like Oh, fiddlesticks! I’ll have her get some exercise and learn to play a wind instrument, and she’ll be fine. And I was.)
Mostly I listened, assimilating this version of my mother into the one I had of the feisty, funny secretary who loved her morning coffee, sang too loudly in church, sewed every school play costume I ever wore (as well as my clothes, until sixth grade, when I begged her to stop), played a fabulous game of racquetball, and was my biggest fan. I still missed her, too, and wore a blanket of grief around my shoulders constantly. Back then it was so heavy, I could scarcely lift my head.
After a while, I noticed that we were still inside. An hour had passed, and it was beautiful outside. “C’mon, Grandma,” I said. “For goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine.” That was it: my moment. I knew absolutely, right then and there, that I was a grown up. I was twenty-seven and married with a baby on the way. By all rights I had been an adult for several years. But the prosperity of our culture allows most of us an extended adolescence, in which we work and play and decide what we want to become, and until my mother’s death I was in that miasma of my twenties. I did not realize I’d become an adult until I uttered the same words my mom used often on my sister and me, when some childhood drama had upset us. She’d let us have a good cry or tantrum, and then she’d say for goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine. If it wasn’t sunny, she’d say for goodness’ sake, dry your eyes and help me with the salad, or for goodness’ sake, let’s bake some bread.
She really believed in this force called Goodness. She believed in God, too, but more apparent to me was her belief in noticing what is good and pointing it out for others, especially others who were hurting. It didn’t matter if it was a childhood pain or an adult pain. I can remember her comforting a neighbor I played with, Libby Landry, when her Easy-Bake Oven broke and we all knew that her parents could not afford to replace it. I can remember her comforting another neighbor, years later, when she’d just heard her husband’s diagnosis of cancer. There was the time I didn’t get the part of Daisy Mae in my high-school production of “Lil’ Abner,” the time I didn’t get the teaching job that a fancy private school had all but promised me, and all the less-than-perfect grades, deceased pets, and unrequited crushes in between.
My mom was a comforter, always pointing her friends and neighbors toward what was good or might offer them hope or comfort: a cup of tea, a walk in the fresh air, the comfort of some tangible act of labor like baking bread. It wasn’t in the absent there, there way of a stout English nanny or a character in a Rosemund Pilcher novel, either; her advice was that of a true friend who sees you are drowning in quicksand, and doesn’t say take it easy, but instead says I’ll get a rope. I learned to say For goodness’ sake… so well that I could say it to myself, speaking in the royal “we.” It served me well when I lost the baby, when I was home with two babies only a year apart, when my husband left me eight months pregnant with a fourth baby to go fight in a war, and many times since. To be able to get up, to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other and do some small thing, and eventually to reach out to others, is a life-preserver in a storm.
That was my mom’s legacy to me: that belief in moving forward; in going out into the sunshine for the sake of its goodness and for goodness’ sake. Stuff happens. Life hurts. You grieve, you mourn, you shout or rail against the heavens, but then, when you are a grown up, you step out of yourself and serve others in any little old way you are able. You drag them out into the sunshine, and if you cannot say Follow me, you say, C’mon, we will do this together.
So as I let my grandma take my arm (my mother taught me that, too: you never take an old person’s arm, you let them take yours), and walked slowly with her out into the fall air, I knew I had crossed that threshold into the land of grown-ups. A land where you try—you at least try, for goodness’ sake—to put others before yourself. A land where you notice the small, good things. Sunsets. Brisk walks in the fresh air. The deep purple of a perfect eggplant, even if you don’t especially like eggplant. The sturdy legs of toddlers, holding their mother’s hand; your own kids laughing. Homemade bread. You notice them, and you try to help others see them too. I was a little sorry to have left the land of childhood, but I would do okay here. I had a good teacher.