On Motherhood and The Loss of Moms
My mother, Gale, is the most talkative person I know. She can carry a conversation from the time she wakes up, until the time you’re going to bed. It’s pretty impressive.
But there are three times a year that my mother is noticeably absent from conversation – that is the day my grandmother, Pauline, was born, died, and Mother’s Day.
Growing up with my paternal grandparents, I didn’t ask to many questions about my maternal grandparents and I didn’t know much about them. I knew my maternal grandmother was the oldest of eight children born in South Carolina, that she left South Carolina for Baltimore, like many other black people did in the early twentieth century, and I knew Pauline didn’t play around. She was also not very talkative, the complete opposite of my mom.
I was sixteen before I remember my mom really talking to me about Pauline. It was the middle of summertime before my senior year in high school, and the Georgia heat kept most of us indoors. I remember my mom sitting in this wooden rocking chair in her bedroom, and just...sitting. I crept into the room, and laid my head on her lap, and she stroked my hair and told me about Pauline. How tall she was, what she looked like, her smell, her hair. All of these details of my grandmother that I had never known. Apparently my grandmother hated taking photos and so my mom and her only sibling, my Uncle Dwight who we affectionately just call Uncle, only had a few photos of her. That was the summer my mom was redecorating her house, and she had hung a few photos of Pauline and Walter, my grandfather, above the nightstand next to her bed.
That was when I learned that this day was the anniversary of the passing of my grandmother. I hadn’t realized it before, but my mother did this, sit in her wooden rocking chair, or her chair in the living room, and just sit, three times a year. I was ashamed that I hadn’t asked her before why she was doing that, I just figured it was because she needed some peace from her seven children.
In my family, nothing stays a secret and if you want it to, you better not tell anyone, especially my mom. But, that day, it was me gossiping about my mother. I remember calling my sister Candice, who is seven years older than me, and was working in D.C. at the time.
“Mom talked to me about Grandma Pauline. She told me how she died and other things about her,” I said into the phone.
“That’s nice, I already know that,” she replied in her typical know-it-all big sister voice.
“Mom told you?” I asked. I couldn’t believe mom would tell her and not tell me or anyone else.
“Duh, I asked her. Plus everyone in Baltimore talks about mom and grandma,” she said.
It was weird to hear Candice call Pauline Grandma because we never actually did that. We grew up with our paternal grandparents and since we didn’t know much about Pauline, we usually called her “Mom’s mom” or “Grandma Pauline.” The distinction my sister made was noticeable to her and me.
“Mom’s just sad, she gets like this every year, especially Mother’s Day. She’ll be fine. I gotta go,” Candice said and she hung up.
It started to make sense then, that summer when the Georgia heat kept us all indoors, but I don’t think I really understood what my sister meant until a few years ago about why Mother’s Day was particularly hard for her. I mean, there’s the obvious reason: it’s Mother’s Day, a day of celebrating moms, and her mother was no longer there. But I think there was more to it than just that—I think Mother’s Day became a reminder for my mom of everything that Pauline had missed.
Like other women who have lost their mothers, I won’t begin to speculate how they feel on this day, but I imagine it’s very hard from looking at my own mom. I imagine there’s a lot they want to ask them or that they’d want to vent about from their own frustrations with life, careers, children, relationships and marriage.
For 46 years, my mom has had to do this without Pauline. She’s had to travel the world with her military husband by herself, without the comfort of her mom’s reassuring advice. I recall all the racist and discriminatory stories my mom told me she’d experienced moving to these small towns around the U.S. with my dad and her babies in tow, and I imagine she’d want to tell her own mom about them. Since moving away from my family, I still have a mom that I can talk to every day, who understands and shares my own anxiety and fears of living in a town with just my husband and no family around me.
When I was planning my own wedding in 2017, my mom was heavily involved. I needed her advice on everything from flowers, to invitations, to the wedding dress. When my mom, Candice and I found my own dress when we went gown shopping, I imagined what my mother felt shopping for her own wedding dress, with just her and her cousin. I imagine she would have wanted to share that moment with Pauline, just as I had with her, and it saddens me that my mom never got the chance to do that or share other moments of her wedding-planning process with her.
It’s these moments that I know my mom is thinking about every year on Mother’s Day when she can’t share her own challenges and joys of motherhood with her own mom. It saddens me that I can share all of the joys and challenges of marriage with my mom but she can’t do that with her mom. That every time she gave birth to one of her seven children, she would have wanted her own mother to be there. Now that I’m 28 and on the precipice of starting my own family, I know exactly what my grandmother missed out on in my own mothers life.
My mom lost my grandmother when she was twenty in the early 70s. When I was twenty, I was about to graduate from college and I needed my mom every step of the way. I can’t imagine the struggles she dealt with as a young, black woman living in Baltimore and trying to make a way for herself. My mom read college papers for me, put extra money in my account whenever I needed it, and was always around for me in a way that I know she would have wanted my grandmother to be as well.
Growing up with a mom that lost her mother is an experience many women deal with as it’s typically a natural part of life. People do lose their parents. But I can’t imagine how difficult it is to lose a parent when you’re still a child or young adult yourself. Without the guidance, reassurance and love from a parent that’s always rooting for you.
So, every year on Mother’s Day, my siblings and I acknowledge and feel the great sadness of the loss of Pauline. So often on this day, the world rightfully celebrates the mothers who live, but in our house, we remember those who have passed on. When my mom is sitting in her chair alone in her room, we know she is thinking of and remembering my grandmother. With a heavy heart I think of my friends who have lost their own mothers, and hope that they can find a bit of solace on this day. Like my mom, the burden they bear is too great. One that I hope to not experience too early in my own life.
What do you do without your mom? I guess like my mother, you keep moving, and remember them quietly on this day and celebrate the time you got to spend with them.