What Does the Loss of a Parent Leave Behind?
I lost my mother recently. It wasn’t to Covid-19, thank goodness, but it was very sudden. Because of the virus, I was not able to make a planned trip to spend Easter with her this year.
Indeed, and like so many other families who have lost a parent in the last few months, none of her four children were able to see her during the last few months of her life.
What I Notice
When you lose someone you love, memories of them resurface when you least expect it. Some friends here in London sent me some beautiful flowers when they heard of my mother’s death. As I went to change the water one day, I found myself reaching for the sugar bowl.
My mother always told me that if you changed the water on flowers every day – and added a teaspoon of sugar – the flowers would live longer. She was full of practical, everyday wisdom like that.
Then my husband opened our pantry and noticed a jar of instant decaffeinated coffee lurking in one of the back corners. The jar was a holdover from my mother’s last visit some two and a half years ago, the last time she was able to travel alone.
I don’t think either one of us ever actually clocked that jar before. It had blended into the obscure architecture of the back cupboard, along with other, long-neglected items like a bottle of yeast extract and a can of Brunswick Canadian style sardines.
Suddenly, that jar was all we could see. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to throw it out, even though there is no way on God’s earth that either one of us will ever drink instant coffee in this lifetime.
Rituals and Values
Another thing that happens when a parent dies is that you begin to appreciate all the myriad ways you’ve begun adopting their idiosyncratic habits. Ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about five ways I was turning into my mother.
These included things like carrying a large library book with me everywhere I go, lest things get dull, doing extensive back exercises every morning, much to the chagrin of my teenaged children, and re-purposing everything I possibly can to save money, including – yes – tea bags.
That list of shared behaviors has grown. When my mother moved from the last house she owned into a small apartment in an independent living facility, she could only bring one bookshelf.
A voracious reader (see library books, above), she had amassed an impressive collection of novels, history, and plays over the course of a lifetime. But she chose to bring only poetry with her to her new home. I’ve never read poetry in my life. A few months ago, I started reading it too.
I’ve also begun replicating her values. My mother became active in the League of Women Voters when, as a young mother with four children, she moved to a new town where she didn’t know anyone.
That political commitment carried on for the next 50 years. Right up into her mid-80s, she was still making phone calls for her local congressional candidate of choice.
I’ve never been particularly politically active, save attending the odd protest here and there and supporting causes I believe in on social media. This year, I joined a team of virtual volunteers, leading the charge to get out the vote among Americans living overseas.
The Gift of Writing
The greatest gift my mother gave me – and certainly the one with the longest staying power – was teaching me how to write. My mother wrote plays, children’s stories, and a terrific family history I’ve had occasion to re-read in the wake of her death.
When I was in high school, she would sit with me for hours and go over my essays, advising me on structure, wording, and tone. Everything I know about writing I learned from her.
When I took some time off years ago to work on a novel, she sent me a poem about writing, which I posted on my blog.
It was partly a poem about resilience: about falling down and getting back up, which is, of course, what writing is all about. It was also about how much we feel is riding on those words. But it was also about mothers and daughters, and how we connect through the shared struggle of writing… and life.
I end this post with the closing verse of that poem, called The Writer by Richard Wilbur:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
Have you experienced the death of a parent? What have you noticed about your habits since? Is there a difference regarding which parent has passed? Which of your parents’ habits do you cherish the most and embrace as your own? Please share with our community and let’s have a soulful conversation.