I am mourning my mother.
She died nearly ten years ago.
I am thinking how difficult I must have been for her.
A month before I was born, she started coughing up blood. She was sure that she had cancer and was going to die. But it wasn't. It was active tuberculosis. I was lucky, lucky that she had hemoptysis before I was born so that they could protect me. TB is very infectious and airborne and kills new babies very nicely.
As it was, I was the first baby born in the Knoxville, Tennessee tuberculosis sanatorium in 20 years. My mother said that everyone was very excited. She was reading about the French Revolution. They drugged her to the gills for the delivery and she had nightmares about Robespierre and the guillotine and could never read about it again. She was afraid to kiss me when I was born because they had so impressed upon her that I would die if she breathed on me.
I went home with my father, his parents, his sister, my great-grandfather and my great aunt. My great grandfather would rock me in the crook of his knee while he played bridge. My mother saw me through the window of the sanitorium, only.
Until I was four months. Then she was told that she could come home -- if I wasn't there. She was not strong enough to take care of a baby. She had to take 36 pills a day.
My father took me to my maternal grandmother, from Tennessee to New York State. He flew home to get my mother.
My mother reported that I was stubborn with my grandmother. I refused to eat mush. I closed my mouth to cereal and strained vegetables. I would take a bottle but would not let anyone feed me. "All right," said my maternal grandmother and namesake, "if you don't want to eat it, you don't have to." I apparently lived off a bottle, peas and cheerios that I would feed myself. That grandmother was my namesake and she approved of rebellion, even if it was against her.
At nine months old it was Christmas and my grandparents took me home.
My mother said, "You had a little blue coat with white fur around the hood and cuffs! You were so bright looking."
But this was the second time I had been handed off. "You didn't like us at all at first. You cried in grocery stores whenever you saw a white haired lady." And it was never my grandmother, so it must have been very difficult. "You always wanted to be as independent as possible. We didn't think that you liked us until you got sick. We went away for a night and left you with friends and you were so mad at us when we got back that we knew you loved us."
My sister was born five days before my third birthday. I considered her my baby and was very protective. She and my mother had an entirely different relationship. My sister writes of talking to her every Sunday and how close they were. Sometimes I am jealous.
But the mother I had chosen was my grandmother. I loved her and was more like her than like my mother and the circumstances must have made it really hard for my mother. My sister is more like my mother than me in her character anyhow and I am more like my maternal grandmother and father: more introverted, more of a thinker than a feeler, and more judgmental. I might have been more like my mother if we'd had the early time together; but then again, maybe not. It made me more suspicious and independent and standoffish. And yes, from the earliest I can remember what I wanted was strength and independence.
It has taken me years to admit weakness and vulnerability. The strengths we are most proud of mirror the things we most fear.
Of my generation, I am the one who most resembles my matriarchal bitchy maternal grandmother. She was known to tease close to the bone and she was definitely not always nice, though her manners were strict. Miss Manners would approve. I have six cousins and it is interesting to watch the family history play out in my generation. I study it and think of my grandmother and my mother and how the feeling of being cast out can lead to clearer vision when studying the cast, so to speak.
I loved my mother too and mourn that we weren't closer. The tribute that I will pay to her is to stay in touch with the maternal family. The tribute I will pay to my maternal grandmother is to do it with her terms and her rules. I will try to preserve the land that she left to us on a lake in Ontario. I know that she would like that and I also know that she did not play fair. What is sacred in the dead and the family memory of the dead may not be loved in the living: whether I model my mother or grandmother, the result seems to be the same. The family refuses to choose a leader but my grandmother would want them to be united. They may be united in opposition, but the effect is the same.
I go barefoot there because the land talks to me. It longs for the soles of my feet. The water tastes familiar, of love and tears. I know the trees and rocks. Voices whisper in the susurrus of the trees and the lap of the water; the storm and the mink are my grandmother. The great snapping turtle brings my uncle to mind. The dragonflies were the mark of my grandfather. My mother is everywhere there.