photo of composition book memory of mother
My mother’s composition book from a banking class, 1940.

My mother ended her long battle with life four years ago today. I think of her daily in one thing or another as I’m sure we all do our mothers. Though ours was a more antagonistic relationship and memories are not so fine, in my everyday thoughts I find a different story and one small theme has come back to me frequently lately.

When I was little and discovering the world I took everything I found that I could carry and presented it to my mother. She rejected everything—bird feathers, rocks, flowers, small household items I’d found in the street, kittens—telling me she was allergic to the thing and not to bring it into the house. If I did, it disappeared. Years later, living in personal care, clothes I purchased for her were similarly rejected, or if accepted, would appear on someone else as she’d given them away.

Fifty years of that never stopped me from trying. My mother suffered from serious depression and I think I sensed that very early on, possibly because it was particularly bad after I was born, and I had the urge to both share my wonder and to make her happy, and I also brought things I just thought she’d like. Those patterns can be difficult to shake. I’ll never be convinced that nothing I shared through life—success in college, my paintings, my artwork, my writing, on and on—got into her. Every once in a while she would slip and make a remark that proved she remembered exactly what I’d shared and why.

So every once in a while, when in the course of everyday life I look something up on the internet, often read e-newsletters and my newspapers and magazines and watch movies on my computer, I think how much she would have loved the internet, just absolutely been absorbed by it. A lover of crossword puzzles, I remember her sitting in her chair working a puzzle surrounded by all her reference books, the crossword dictionaries, thesaurus, encyclopedias—old, but some information is timeless—various almanacs, world atlases and other reference books. Then there were the television shows and movies and the reference books on those subjects, then baseball, especially, and football to a certain extent, and the Olympics, and politics, and she had it all there in books and if she couldn’t relate a fact immediately she would find it.

She loved looking something up, just the act of pursuing facts and finding them was exciting. So was proving someone wrong, but that might be expected. And so was voicing loud opinions and having a heated discussion about politics or music or current events, sitting in her chair in the corner of the room and not often leaving the house, indulging in early talk radio.

To have all those facts and more at the click of a mouse would be exhilarating. I can picture her today constantly researching something just because it was there, and also firing off comments on Facebook, repeatedly watching her favorite movies on Netflix, and checking the weather hourly. It would be ideal for someone like her.

She had lung cancer surgery and a near-fatal cardiac condition in May 2001 but recovered enough to return to her home for a little over a year, after I had begun working at home. I constantly checked on her, finding her asleep in front of Lifetime TV and a movie she’d watched over a dozen times already. Her eyesight for small print was failing and she was nearing cataract surgery, so I got her a small boom box with both cassette and CD and checked recorded books from the library for her. Same rejection pattern with those, although there were some all-time hits that she could listen to over and over and I was glad they were long ones.

I had the chance, briefly, to introduce her to the computer, and did so. I cooked for her all the time, taking the food to her house in meal-size containers that could be heated in the microwave, and at least twice per month I drove her to my house for Sunday dinner, which was usually some sort of soup or, unbeknownst to her, vegetarian/vegan variations on some favorites like stew or holuptsi (stuffed cabbage) as I didn’t eat meat and she was supposed to be careful of cholesterol and such things.

While here, I used my computer to show her around the internet. A computer can seem completely unmanageable to people who’ve never used one, and in 2001 there just weren’t as many computers in everyday life as there are now and most people didn’t have a computer at home, though many did at work. I wasn’t concerned she wouldn’t learn to use it. In the 80s I had taught her to drive and she got her license the day she qualified for Medicare. If she wanted it, she’d learn it.

I used the mouse and, humoring me, she typed, we looked up a few things, equating that with using the index in an encyclopedia, showed her a few early online stores using JCPenney and comparing it to the catalog. Quickly enough she was frustrated by the mechanics of it and I knew I’d just have to find one moment of her discovering its potential. One afternoon she actually moused around herself and looked up a few things, and then a few facts pertinent to our conversation. Then we sent an email to my niece, her granddaughter, in Savannah GA (we are in Pittsburgh PA) and got an answer back. I could see the wheels begin to turn.

Unfortunately she was regularly developing pneumonia living at home and spent some time in the hospital after that day, moving directly into personal care. She was weak for a long time and angry to be where she was, and as much as I thought about how much fun a computer would be where she lived, in that day, personal care homes did not have wifi. By the time computers and wifi were widely available it was way too late.

If she had not suffered that illness and still lived at home, a computer would have been one of those gifts I would have gladly gotten for her, one that would not have been rejected, I know that for sure. She probably would have had me install it on her kitchen table where she spent time in the morning at crafts and creative things. I can almost picture here there. It may not be a memory, but it’s the next best thing.

Read other essays and poetry I’ve written about my mother.

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  1. It is funny, the things we remember Bernadette. My mother has been gone since 1997. She too was always doing “her” crossword puzzles, surrounded by her reference materials. I will open an older book and find a crossword (mostly finished) and think this would be done today if there had been the internet as we know it. She was stubborn though, teaching others her whole adult life was one thing but to be taught modern technologies by another was something else! Not a day goes by without a thought of her, how she would react to this and that, etc. You were/are a good daughter and person- what you bring to others on a daily basis ( the animals and humans alike) is a representation of that. Please keep up all of that good that you do. God bless!

    1. Anne, thanks, I’ve made my peace with her, but probably the biggest lesson wasn’t that my parents taught me compassion, but I learned it through caring for them. I find my mother’s newspaper clippings in books. It’s funny to see what she found worth keeping.

  2. Memories are curious indeed… not always loving ones but part of the journey, part of what we are, what we learn. Both of my parents are gone, I also think of them and picture them living what I see.
    Anne is right, you are a good, caring person, many human and non human people can swear on that… including my dear Emmie.

    1. Maru, I like thinking about them more than living with them–there was so much care I could hardly get to know them, and that’s a little different now.

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