I lost my mother and very best friend in 1996, when I was 33 years old. In some ways I miss her more now than I did 17 years ago. At the time of her death, I was an extremely busy woman, trying to juggle the care of an 18-month-old son with some serious career ambitions. I'll never forget she died on a Tuesday. Exactly one week later, I traveled to Haiti, my first assignment as a new foreign correspondent in Latin America for the Cox Newspaper chain. I was so dazed and distraught, the only thing I could think to do was to bury myself in work.
Today I'm still pretty busy, but I recognize more now than I did then the gaping hole her absence has left. She will never know my two teenaged sons and daughter, a hurt that's haunted me every day of my life. Indeed I'm not sure any word has ever cut like a knife in the same way the word "grandma" did when uttered for the first time by my son, speaking to my mother-in-law.
I think what's surprised me most is how close to the surface my emotions still are after all these years. Coming across my mother's handwriting can bring me close to tears. An old family movie? It can transform me into a puddle. My friends would never believe it, but I sometimes reach for the phone to call her, even now, only to suddenly remember she's no longer around to answer.
But I think I've done my mother a real disservice. As I've raised my three kids, I haven't brought her memory to life as vividly as I might have. Because going through photos of my mom with my kids inevitably brings that familiar lump in my throat, making me mournful and slightly out of control, I haven't brought the old albums out as often as I originally intended. Of course I've talked about my mother. But I could have talked about her a lot more. Suppressing my feelings hasn't helped anyone -- especially not my kids. I've been selfish, worried more about my own vulnerability than their need to know their grandmother -- and even to see their mother sad.
And so I wanted to write about my mother for the very first time -- for myself, for my children, for others who still have their mothers, so that they will never take for granted the time they have with them.
Here are just four things I want my kids to know.
1. My mother threw me the most amazing surprise party when I turned sweet 16.
Just like you, I didn't want my mom mingling with my friends -- and especially not with my boyfriend -- when I was a teenager. As a result, I told her many a time that I didn't want to do anything special for my birthday. I just wanted to go out. With my friends. And that was it. Obviously my mother was a lot smarter than I was because she went ahead and spearheaded a big celebration anyway, soliciting the help of all my best buds. I had absolutely no inkling of their secret plans and so -- when I walked in the door -- you could have knocked me over with a feather. SURPRISE! We had a ball. We laughed. We danced for hours. And we gobbled up the piano-shaped cake my mother had baked especially for her thick-headed, piano-playing daughter.
2. My mother knew your father was grade-A husband material way before I did.
Just a short time after introducing my now-husband to my mother, she took me aside and said "this is the one for you. He's not sweetie-sweet like the others. He's going to keep you on your toes your whole life. And that's the kind of guy that will make you happy." I looked at her, stunned, as she'd never expressed a strong opinion about any of my previous boyfriends. It took a few months before I realized she was right. She never pushed me but she always knew I was the type who needed to be constantly challenged. Thankfully I found a guy who would do just that.
3. My mother didn't bat an eye when, shortly after college, I told her I wanted to take my savings of $2,000 and move to Central America to try and become a foreign correspondent.
The worst thing a parent can do is make their child feel guilty about wanting to pursue their dreams, even if those dreams lead them far, far away. Her reaction is something I didn't fully appreciate at the time, but that I totally marvel at today, now that I'm your mother. Even though I'm sure she wasn't exactly leaping with joy over my decision, I never knew it. The only message she ever conveyed to me was that she wanted me to be happy. And she knew I would only be happy if allowed to write, and travel, many miles away from all things familiar. I'll never forget what she did for me, the feeling she left me with, that she'd support me no matter where I went, or what I did.
4. My mother was there for me every day, in little ways.
I called her Marmee, like in "Little Women." She called me, well, Shelley. She named me after an actress you've probably never heard of, Shelley Fabares. She made almost all my Halloween costumes including the cutest Raggedy Ann when I was about 7. She cooked the best chicken and dumplings. She was an excellent baker. She loved Lucille Ball and "The King and I." She also loved to play pinochle and do any arts and crafts project you put in front of her. She never yelled at me, not even when I accidentally broke her Singer sewing machine. But she'd shoot me a disappointed look that was worse than any punishment. She always wanted to be a grandmother and she would have adored all three of you.
Happy Mother's Day Marmee. I love you and miss you always.