They raised you, helped you through your most difficult teenage years, and loved you even when, maybe, you didn't love back. But how well do you really know your mom and dad?
In my better moments, I write poetry. So it should not have come as a surprise to learn that my mother did, too. What was surprising was that I only stumbled on this information midway through my life.
Many of us in middle age feel a sudden urgency to know our parents, to understand the soil in which our own lives took root.
I was out in the garage, digging through boxes in search of old 35mm slides of my childhood, when I came across some keepsakes of hers, including a poem she'd written.
In one sense, the poem made perfect sense. Mom has always been a reader, and her letters showcase the language skills that allowed her to teach high school English after sending her own three children off to school.
In another sense, the poem was a shock, albeit a pleasant one.
Mom, I realized once again, is an enigma. When I think about it, it's amazing how little I know about her. I feel as if I've been playing detective my whole adult life, trying to figure out what makes her tick, while she tries to hide it.
And yet, as I've learned more, I've begun to understand why she hides it. I think about the pills she has been taking to counter depression for the past 15 years. I recall her saying once that, had she been born in another time, she might have chosen not to have children. I recall the unfinished oil paintings, and I recall the poem. And all the while I see the beautiful, laughing young woman in the photos from the 1950s.
I wonder if she doesn't somehow feel shortchanged by life, by parenthood, by the babies who exiled her from the life of poetry and art she once imagined for herself.
Robert Munsch's classic children's book, Love You Forever, tells the story of a boy and his mother, who, despite the frustrations of raising a child, sings each night to him: "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living, My baby you'll be."
The boy in the story drives his mother nuts, but her love endures. As an adult, he finds himself caring for his mother in her failing health, rocking her, singing to her. And then singing the same song to his own baby girl after his mother dies.
At holiday gatherings, my mother drives me nuts. She smokes too much, in contempt of her own and others' health. She unknowingly insults her guests with sweeping pronouncements about the quality of this, the color of that, the choice of something or other. And, despite the skill and willingness of her children to lift huge burdens and create wondrous stuff in her kitchen, Mom asserts an authority there that brooks no fresh food, no novel seasoning, no distinctive preparation.
She reads little these days, because the cigarettes are blinding her. She can barely cross the room without gasping for breath. She breaks into tears while watching the slides of her smiling young self and her handsome naval aviator husband on a far distant New Year's Eve, seven months after my birth.
Out of the blue, she will laugh herself to tears. Or coo at a photo of her first-born son.
"I'll love you forever."
She is dying. She is slipping slowly into the past, and we can do nothing to stop it.
"I'll like you for always."
My brothers and I dread the midnight phone call. We expect it any time. With her death, we will lose our most primal link to the past.
"As long as you're living, your baby I'll be."
And when she is no longer living? We try to resist the sense of loss and disconnection, the angst of losing that part of our identity forever. We turn, if we are lucky, to our children, our one sure stake in a future we'll never know.