Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day Memories and Musings

Looking throuugh some old photos last week, I came across this page in a Photograph album from my late teens/early twenties, an album populated by photos taken with either the Brownie Hawkeye box camera I wielded from perhaps my tenth or eleventh birthday onward or with the Kodak Instamatic X-15 I bought when I was 18 or 19. These would have been snapped with the latter, judging by my siblings' apparent ages here.What struck me in these Instamatic snaps is that my mom looks happy, natural. I don't remember her often being, or looking, this way, and certainly there's little photographic evidence of it. But I remember priding myself for a few months on doing more candid photography, and silly as that project might have been, I've caught something that I'm grateful to have, so many decades later. The woman on the left in the photo above is my Aunt Eileen, eight years older than my mother. Last month, Mom visited Eileen for a few weeks, thrilled to have the time together with the "big sister"she still admires so much, Eileen still driving at 87, active, living independently in her house, gardening. (Reminded Mom again that she's still mad at having to give up her car, but that's another story). Mom always told us how fashionable Eileen was -- I think both women demonstrate here a shared family commitment to looking good, both busy mothers as they were then, Eileen moving towards her 50s with four teens at the time, my mother very early 40s.

And in her early 40s, my mother is pictured here with her 9th, 10th, and 11th children (my two foster sisters who we considered family as well). ADDED TO CLARIFY: MY baby sister, not shown here but about four or five at the time, was our family's 12th child. Stretching her naturally introverted nature to the requirements of caring for such a large family (even with my dad's solid support) resulted in the regular outbursts of anger I remember and the tight lips and the constant demands for our help in housework. All very understandable, and probably symptoms of a clinical depression she actually managed astoundingly well.

But it could be tough for us, as well as for her. Then a few years after these photos, my brother died suddenly at 19, and Mom descended into a long, long depression which, even after she eventually surfaced, has had its way with her cyclically ever since.
So these few photos are quite precious to me. They remind me of how good my mother was, as Pater has always remarked, with young children. Although I suspect she was dismayed at each new pregnancy after, let's guess, four or five, I remember her being quite wonderful with my last two sisters, taking them on picnics and library trips and various outings while the rest of us were in school.A schoolteacher before she reconciled herself to her largescale maternity, she taught each one of us to read and write before we got to school, haunted by memories of children she'd seen in various schools, still not reading by Grades 3, 4, or 5. I remember her setting up finger-painting sessions with my middle sibs, she taught several of us to knit, many of us our piano rudiments, and every one of us grew up with at-least-weekly visits to the library.
The Hallmark version of Mother's Day asserts that all mothers are warm, nurturing, nose-wiping, cookie-baking paragons of comfort and reassurance. Especially, they love, happily. Mine, I suppose, was most of that, but the warmth wasn't always easy to see, and while the love for her children was always there, she was not always, or even often, happy. Depression is a bitch, and so many mothers struggle with it that it obscures their personalities, makes it tough to see that mother-love. So as my mother's memory fades with the depredations of old age and Mild Cognitive Impairment, I'm pleased to have mine refreshed, to tease out some evidence of happiness from her difficult years.

One last photo, this one of myself as an infant/toddler in my mother's arms
She's 23, obviously proud to be a mother, looking into a future neither of us can imagine.

I love you, Mom -- Happy Mother's Day. . .


  1. Life is so complex. And so unrevealing sometimes. We have to try to figure it out, we're wired like that. But for someone new to this information, it seems so dramatic. 11 children? Depression? My goodness. It's amazing to me the way similar facts can be lived so differently by different people. Wonderful post.

  2. Family life is not a Hallmark card...I agree.
    All kinds of events contribute to make us and shape us into the people we grow up to become.
    Thank you for sharing your images and thoughts.
    Hope that you are enjoying a Happy Mother's Day and that the sun is shining on your patch of the island!

  3. Wow, I can only imagine the pressure that a family that big would put on you. It's lovely that you take the time and celebrate the moments of happiness that your mother undoubtedly had. Families are so complicated - difficult, rewarding, exhausting ...

  4. Even now I just really struggle to comprehend the enormity of that many children, my mother often cites that having 3 is what made her the frost fairy she became! but 12...
    Photographs like these are so important for illumnating our somewhat jaded memories.
    My mother has unearthed a box of slides which I am hoping to scan and print, I suspect these too will illustrate that we also had good times as well as the bad.

  5. 12 kids?? Wow! Your mother had a serious mother archetype. I am so sorry to hear about your brother and your mother's resulting depression. I am so glad that you have these photos to remind you of the best of your mother.

  6. LPC: It is interesting, isn't it, how indiscernible such foundational stuff can be? Few people realize that I'm the eldest of twelve, and of course my days living that reality intimately and immediately are long gone, but it's at my core. . .
    Hostess: I hope you had a lovely Mother's Day anticipating your soon-to-be grand-motherhood.
    Tiffany: Yes, it always amazes me that families, such a basic element, are so very complex, each and every one.
    Alison: I don't think the enormity of what my mother did/experienced hit me until I had my own children -- and even though I was 'there' in some sense, I still can't fathom having 12!
    LBR: In fact, I think my mother was far from being an archetype, in many ways, but she took on the role as a consequence of religious belief/adherence. . . it's complicated.

  7. Your mother is an utter star of maternity! What a lovely woman who has had her share of parenting joy and sorrow.

  8. The photo of you in your mother's arms is so moving. I grew up with several families who has 12 and 13, because of conformity to religious (in my case Catholic) edict. Not till I was in my mid teens did I recognize the enormous physical and psychological toll that took on these particular women.

  9. What a beautiful post, emphasizing as it does the love and the complications of motherhood. As I look at this from my own cultural, and also introverted, standpoint, I cannot imagine how your mother managed this as well as she did, producing such an apparently solid, close family. Really, it is a remarkable achievement, as is battling depression on its own.

    How fortunate you are to have these lovely photos which capture some of those magical moments too often forgotten,

  10. I loved this tour through your album. Your mom is indeed a really amazing woman. I lavish my kids with physical love, even as the older two are into teenhood. I want them to remember me as loving and affectionate despite the fact I didn' t bake enough cookies or let them do crafts in the house because I hate glitter and glue so much.

    I could have had one more kid to make a foursome, but twelve must have been something else. We had a family in the neighborhood who had twelve kids and I remember thinking it just soooooo odd.

    Did your mom keep a journal at all ? It would be amazing to have her thoughts around in the future to reflect on....

  11. K-Line: It's not easy for me to see her as a star of maternity, but I believe she did her best and we seem to bave turned out fairly well . .
    duchesse: yes, Catholic in our case as well, and yes, an immeasurable toll . . .
    Mardel: I find it hard to imagine as well, even though I'm probably at least slightly more suited to manage a large family than she is/was . . . and yet she did it. And I'm glad to recognize that she did find happiness along the way . . .and certainly she takes comfort in her grown children now.
    Karen: I'm not sure I would want to read any journal she might have kept, given the ambivalence she sometimes felt about her life, but I have, and do, sometimes get her to talk about that and try to pass some of it along to my kids

  12. Mater,

    This post truly hit home with me. I am in awe of your mother. That is what I really wanted. Being sort of ( another story ) an only child, I longed for more family.
    Being an introvert too, albeit a friendly one. It would have been too much for me, as I didn't have much help. I still feel sadness about the children I didn't have. That is something I will tell people, I regret not having more children, though I think it was probably best. Therefore the imbalance of the Catholic belief vs what I thought best for me.

    Thanks so much for this post, I really enjoyed it and it was very poinnant.

  13. Julianne: While this choice was obviously tough for you, in my experience it was a wise one. My mom actually told my happily-married childless-by-choice sister once that she envied her life, not what one wants to hear from one's mother, but the strain of family life was obviously huge. While I can never regret our large family and the wealth I have in my siblings, I think your children are very lucky in the focus you're able to bring to them. Thanks for your eloquent and honest comment.

  14. Thank you for your sweet response. It was a little bit of a salve. I also see that I misspelled poignant. The perfectionist in me has to correct that:-)

  15. I came to your blog after this post. If I'd read it I'd have had lots to say - but like you, in the light of my mother's decline, I will demure. Perhaps I'm losing perspective. We certainly had a lot in common as we grew up - as the oldest in our family I bore a lot, and it wasn't until I had my own children that I realised how much my mum had relied on me and how much of my childhood was spent being a 'little mother'.

  16. It's very interesting to me, Pondside, how much my perspective has changed since I wrote this -- and, I expect, will change again over the next few years. It's not a question, as some might think, of not wanting to speak ill of the dead. It's more that different aspects of my mother, and perhaps a deeper sympathy for the way her life was shaped, allowed me to relax about elements that I can nonetheless still recognize as, hmmmm, difficult parts of my childhood.
    I really hope that one day you and I may sit down together and talk about this shared experience -- I suspect we would have much to offer each other.

  17. Frances, this is my first time reading this post and it is very moving. Acknowledging the struggles of our parents doesn't lessen our own difficulties growing up with them but I think it can help in letting go.


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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