My mother’s fingers wind their way through my hair, tugging and twirling it free from the tight curlers that have pressed against my skull all night. I am wearing a blue wool dress that is itchy and heavy on my skin. My shoes feel too tight; my tights keep slipping down. I lean my restless body back into my mother’s as she fixes me up for church. We will most likely be late again, and she will march me and my six brothers and sisters up to one of the front pews so that we can all sit together, so that we younger ones will sit quietly rather than be tempted to socialize with friends near the back, where the bachelor farmers stand and shuffle, their coats smelling of smoke, their flat tweed hats lowered to cover their eyes.
My mother’s body is soft, warm, and feels like home. It is the anchor in our ocean, the lighthouse standing tall. Her hugs are always ready, her arms reaching down to swallow me and bring me safely in. She holds my hand when we leave the house, when we walk up the church aisle and everyone stares. With my hand in hers, I know I can make my way.
On precious days, she takes me out of school and lets me come with her to town to do the shopping. “Stay close,” she guides, and I do, squeezing her hand tightly as I watch the other mothers gripping their bags close and clip-clopping their way briskly through their errands. In Penneys or Dunnes Stores, I watch as my mother tries to relax into her task, she conscious of time and cost while I gaze at the displays and ask “When can we go? Is it time yet?” If I am lucky, she will take me to King Kanutes and buy me a toy, a wooden bank in the shape of a monkey’s face or a plastic gun that I will later take apart and put back together a hundred times. Or we will go to Tony Clarkes and she will let me pick out a used book, an Enid Blyton paperback or a girls’ adventure story where children ride horses, go to boarding school, and have picnics with their friends. Their world is fantastic and full of intrigue, the grownups with foggy faces in the background if mentioned at all.
In my world, there is only really one grownup who matters, and she is everything. She does not live in the shaded margins, only to be forgotten in the story itself. She is the one who gives me baths and puts me to bed. She is the source of huge pots of spaghetti, sloppy joe, mashed potatoes, pork, fried chicken, and roast. She is the one who decides how my siblings and I will treat each other, what the line is and what will happen if we cross it. She is the source of endless ideas for how to play, create, and imagine. Her hands knead playdough and pizza crust; her voice spins stories and warnings alike. It is her skin and smell that I know almost as well as my own.
Now that I have my own little girl, who squirms and sings her way through my days, I wonder about my mother in those days. She was about my age, then, with seven children to tend, and more who had been taken from her, leaving craters in her soul that could never be filled. I wonder how she managed, and how she somehow helped us thrive despite it all. I look at my daughter and know how good I have it, how much support and comfort I have to give her what my mother struggled to give us. And still, I wonder how I will teach Free what my mother taught me, how I will help her find her own strength, how I will create pockets of joy and quiet peace, how I will show her that despite all the glittery things the world will throw at us to entertain and educate and infuriate, it all comes down to little things–to finding a place or a person that means home.
My mother has taught me every important thing I’ve ever learned. It is her voice I continue to reach out for everyday, across telephone and state lines, to sort through the various tangle of stories and sadnesses that stretch over me. She continues to mother me, and I know it is through her love that I will find my way through my own acts of mothering. Free still holds my hand, still wants to snuggle and find home in my arms. When she starts to push away, I will have to trust that it is only a temporary thing and hope that she too will find her way back to me as a young woman, perhaps even as a mother herself.
For now, for today, I am content to feel the weight of Free’s body on mine as she reaches out for another hug. I am content to smell her hair and feel the warmth of her skin on mine one more time as she says goodbye before heading out to go swimming with her grandmother. I am content to look up and see my mother’s eyes on us, her arms reaching out to hold Free’s hand in hers.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and grandmothers in the world, and especially to my mother, who just so happens to be the best of both.