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  • Writer's picturestephanieraffelock

Happy Mother's Day

If she were alive this mother’s day, my mom would be a hundred and ten years old. She’s been gone for twenty years, but I can still hear her laughter. Today she’d be laughing at the idea that she would ever have lived so long, “making it to a hundred and ten, “ she’d say and shake her head. And I believe that she would be telling whoever would listen that she was thirty-nine. At a certain point in her life, that’s where she landed and it’s the age that she told everyone she was, even into her eighties.

For reasons that I may never understand, my family did not seem like tightly knit clan. I felt like we were seeds, scattered in the wind. Once I left home, I never looked back. I no longer knew aunts or cousins or grandparents. I was searching for something, maybe it was a better life, or a greater sense of self, or maybe it was a sense of belonging that I never really felt with what I knew as family.

The other day, I was rocked back when I saw a comment on my blog, “awaiting moderation.” It was written under an older post. The post was marked by an old photograph of my mom as a child, posing in her first communion dress. I’d written a story about that time – a time when I didn’t know her, but could feel her and imagine her nonetheless. The comment on my blog was from a cousin, Chuck, the son of my mother’s sister. I hadn’t seen, talked or wondered about him since I was fifteen years old.

I immediately emailed him and back and forth we went. I conjured up the sense of who he was and how I’d experienced him. I’d known Chuck when I was very little and then known him a bit more when I was a teenager. He was at least six years older than I was. In my earliest memory, I’m in single digits and he’s telling me that there are ghosts in my grandmother’s root cellar. I’m pretty sure that my grandmother backed up that story in the hopes that it would keep all of her grandchildren out of the root cellar.

The cellar was dug deep into the ground at the side of my grandmother’s house. You entered from a door that you pulled open off of a mound of dirt. Rickety wooden stairs led into the cold, dank earth. The walls and floor were hard packed dirt and here and there were beams and reinforcements. Three walls of shelves wrapped around the earthen den, all of them filled with my grandmother’s canning. Stewed tomatoes, green beans, corn, baskets of potatoes.

Later I knew Chuck in my teenaged years. I remember him being a handsome boy, with thick hair that fell into his eyes. He was driving our grandpa’s car, which grandpa didn’t drive much anymore. A cute boy with a car to drive. At fifteen that seemed so worldly and sophisticated.

It turns out that Chuck still lives in Colorado, which is where my family is from. My mom spoke often of his mom, her sister Ann. They never lost touch with each other. Ann was the oldest of three sisters. My mom was in the middle. The youngest sister was the first to die, then my mom and then later the oldest sister, Ann. All these years, through all of those deaths, I’d had a cousin in Colorado and didn’t know it.

So to see Chuck on my blog was a curiosity. How in the heck did he wind up on my blog? Turns out it was his wife who found the blog and showed him the story about my mother. After our email exchange, he sent me a few photos. The one that I’ve posted here shows his mother (my aunt) on her wedding day. To the right of the happy couple is my mom, looking to be about 16 or 17 years old. I’d never seen the picture before he sent it.

A longing ache tensed in my heart when I saw her. Another time in her life, long before I was born, where she was young and open. The world was before her was beckoning her to dream and reach out. I wonder what went through her head that day? The day of her older sister’s wedding? Was she dreaming of her own wedding one day?

I can only tell her about the connection with Chuck in my imagination now. “Mom, isn’t that interesting, that somehow he found an old blog post that I’d written about you? And he sent me some pictures of you and Ann when you were little, a picture of grandma holding you when you were a baby, and the picture from Ann’s wedding day. You looked so pretty, Mom.”

And then I can feel my eyes starting to tear up. My mom and I had a tough relationship. I was no joy to be around in my teenaged years. She was way too controlling and I was way too wild. The tension between us finally snapped when I left home at seventeen – about the age that she was in the wedding picture posted here. I wish that I could show her the photograph and have her tell me about that day when she was a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding.

Though our relationship was fraught with conflict, I loved her and I know that she loved me. I miss her now and take some solace in the fact that our relationship didn’t end when she died. We’ve continued to talk in my heart and imagination, continued to try and understand one another. We were two strong independent women living in a time when independence wasn’t considered an asset for a woman. But when I look back now, I can see that she is the one who taught me to be strong, to speak up and to do life on my own terms.

“Happy Mother’s Day, mom, wherever you are. I feel like this old photograph sent to me in such a serendipitous way from your sister’s son, is a gift from you. . . a reminder that part of you lives on in me. People die, but love doesn’t. And somehow that’s the best tether to someone that I’m still trying to know. Love you, mom.”


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