May 12, 2008 by Ellen Stimson in Memorial, Mothering, Parent's Death

This was my first Mother’s Day without my mom. I didn’t worry or wonder much what it would be like. We have lived apart for a long time, only these last few years it was also geographic. I moved to Vermont, but part of me was also always moving away from my mom. Though I always called, visited, and sent presents, this day has been about my sweet life with my own brood for many years.

My mother was a complex woman with a big brain, generous heart, a hilarious dry sese of humor, too many worries, lots of bitterness and a whole mess of regrets. I knew her for forty-five years and she was mad for most of them. If she had been born later she might have chosen therapy. In retrospect all that craziness over clean baseboards, and letting me choose pets only to make me watch her give them away later because of a little shedding was classic OCD. Meds and therapy might have changed the world for her and for us.

On the other hand this was the woman who made me tell a teacher that I believed I had been given the wrong grade, when I was ten. I begged her to call and talk to Miss Rose, but she would have none of it. “Honey if you don’t stand up to city hall nobody is going to do it for you” Much later, after my A had been restored, I took a note to school to be excused for a doctor appt. As Miss Rose read it she teared up, hauled me in front of the class, and told everyone how brave I’d been to speak to her and that we children should never be afraid to stand up for what we believed was right. I could hardly wait to ask mom what had been in that note. But I learned that day the meaning and benefits of being assertive. If you don’t ask for what you want, you can’t get what you want. She gave me a much bigger gift by teaching me to try and get back that A by myself, than just doing it for me, ever would have.

My dad died when I was five. We had tough times financially for a long time after. But, every summer Mom made sure we went to the Muny and saw all the plays. There were free seats up high. We would take a picnic supper with her homemade fried chicken and cherry pie, and sit under the big whirling fans and watch Yul Brenner and Julie Andrews in the King and I, or Angela Lansbury in Mame. I saw them all, Hello Dolly, and Music Man again and again. My childhood brain was and still is filled with show tunes, and I learned on those hot summer nights that you can choose to have some fun no matter what. My mother never quite got the hang of choosing joy for herself, but she showed me how anyway. It is a gift I treasure still.

The same woman marched me out into a the dark night once when I was about seven carrying pies and a newspaper clipping. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going or why. But I pestered her. We never went out at night and we were dressed in our Sunday clothes to boot. She explained we were going to make some people feel welcome that some other people had been mean to. That was all I got. We drove to the army depot where the town’s only black family lived. Their grass was burned and you could still smell the recent fire. A tall black man answered the door with a younger one standing very straight beside him. My mom said we were sorry for their troubles and had brought pie. The men stepped aside, and a woman opened the door to us. My mom explained that she didn’t know if they preferred apple or cherry so we’d brought both, and told her she and her family should know not everybody in our town was ignorant and mean. We handed them the pie, drove home, and went to bed. That night I learned about justice and dignity and respect. She never talked about it. She didn’t have to. It was a lesson that stayed with me all my life.

So in the intervening years when her angry demons got the best of her, it was to these memories that I returned. I have all kinds of course. And for a while in my twenties I was too mad at her to think much of these. I promised myself that I would be a soft loving place for my children. I pledged that I was going to talk, and then listen to everything they thought. They would never feel my hands in anger only in loving hugs and long back scratches. I figured I’d get another chance at the whole mother child bond, and I was damned well going to make the best of my second chance. And I have too. So that is another of her lasting gifts to me.

Now I am forty-five and she is gone. Annie Lamott said she wondered if it would be easier to have a dead mother than it had always been to have an impossible one. I wondered too.

Now I get to pick how to remember mom. It has always been hard to hold the contrasts. It is easier now….


  • Family Adventure

    Oh, E, this was beautiful (as always). I think you are right when you suggest that your mother was born too soon – that she could have had a happier life if she was of a generation where medical help was acceptable.

    As it is, though, you still have some fantastic memories to hold on to, and to share with your own children.

    Thank you for also sharing them with us.


  • Bia

    I can tell by your writing that you are a warm, sensitive, imaginative, and adventurous person. I can tell you are a wonderful mother. Despite all her struggles, it’s apparent that your mother did teach you well.

    And the story of your mother fixing those pies for the black family . . . bravery, compassion, love, dignity . . . what a lesson!

    Have a wonderful week. God bless.

  • library lady

    I’m so glad you told the pie story…I have told it to many people, and I can’t do it without tearing up. I only met your mother once, but it was a happy evening and she was so funny–her extolling the virtues of viagra is a story I tell without tears!

  • Casdok

    Lovely post. 🙂

  • jamie

    Great post, E.

    Happy Mothers Day.

  • Jennifer

    This is beautiful. Simply beautiful. I have a lump in my throat…

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Kellan

    Oh, was stories!! I will remember these stories forever, now – too! Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories and your mother with us.

    I hope you had a good Mother’s Day – see you soon – kellan

  • TheCynicalOptimist

    What a great post. I think you need to write a book. OR have you? I don’t know- but great post either way! 🙂

  • Law Student Hot Mama

    What a wonderful lesson she taught you probably without intending to teach you anything at all.

    There’s this odd period in life when you realize your parents aren’t perfect after thinking for years that they are. Then as you get some distance from it, you realize they’re flawed but are also wonderful in their own way. Great post!

  • Law Student Hot Mama

    FYI, I totally said that “Just because you’re cold doesn’t mean I am” to my mom, too.

  • katiedid

    I have never read a better or more loving portrait of what was obviously a hard relationship…Beautiful. The pie story brought tears to my eyes

  • Molls

    I have a tough relationship with both my parents.The happy memories only make me sad.The dark ones seem more real.But then I am still in therapy, Maybe I’ll get better at “holdimg the contrasts” as I simply get better.Thank you for this

  • bobbie

    As law student said, there comes a time when you realize your mom isn’t perfect. For me, that made me angry for a while. But I grew out of that, and was rather glad because of it.
    this is a beautiful tribute to your mother. She taught you well.

    Thank you for coming to my blog. I look forward to reading more of yours

  • Motherhood for Dummies

    I wish I could write like you. and it is also nice to hear storied about your mom…. sounds like a great lady 🙂

  • jamie

    I think you make a great point–we get to choose how we remember. That’s such a great benefit to those of us who didn’t have idyllic childhoods–we have the ability to remember them how we want to. And i think that’s extremely important. I loved this post.

  • CMJ

    This is simply beautiful. Thank you for writing it. I have never quite gotten the hang” of holding the opposites. I may do better now because of this, because of you”

  • Anonymous

    Yes beautiful and moving and redeeming.Your writing is inspiring

  • Mighty Morphin' Mama

    Wow, what an incredible post. I am so glad that as you have grown up you have been able to take all the wonderful memories and lessons from your Mother and treasure them, while forgiving her shortcomings. Seeing them as a grownup, not excusing, but giving understanding and forgiveness.
    I believe in this very strongly, I have a very human mother who has gone through some really painful times, painful for her and for us her children. I am able to see her as a fellow, struggling woman. Wonderful but flawed, as we all are. Not all my siblings have been able to get this yet, unfortunately.
    Bless you and yours.

  • ilx

    ilx said he is glad you see the good and remember the best…that is the only way to do it with troubled parents…not that we might not have been quite a handful ourselves…

  • Susiewearsthepants

    What a beautiful post. I struggle with a less than idealistic mother myself. I am going to try to think of the good things she has done from now on.

  • painted maypole

    beautiful post. I’m sorry for your loss, and for the hard times, but grateful for the good things your mother taught you.

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