I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out how I would commemorate the first anniversary of my mother’s death on August 8, 2014. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to adequately convey its significance in my altered life.
I read a lot of poetry, hoping that it would elevate my writing. I studied old photos, the kind that come with thin white borders and couldn’t be “shared” except by hand. I spoke with friends and family, hoping to see what Lucy had meant to beloved others.
In the end, it was two strangers who taught me the meaning of my mother, and made some sense of the last year when she was missing in all but spirit.
First, my best friend posted this quote from Emerson on her Facebook page, which resonated like a clarion:
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Looking back on her life, or rather my life with her, I’m not certain that you could call my mother “happy.” She had moments of great happiness, when she married my father and had her five children, and her greatest joy came with a grandson in 2008. That, I think, was when she touched the lower edges of heaven.
But to say that she was happy would be a stretch, because she was too busy caring for others to stop very long for pleasure. A particularly good chicken cutlet at the diner would make her eyes shine, peach ice cream made her smile, watching “Say Yes to the Dress” would coax out some giggles. Lucy Flowers was content.
And so in all respects, she exemplified the words of Emerson, since her every act and word was either honorable, useful, or compassionate. She raised five children alone, after her husband died at 43 from lung cancer. She ended up with three lawyers, a physical therapist and a marketing director.
She made more than “some difference.” She was the dividing line between life and death for me, in a very literal way. After my father died, she was the link to wholeness that kept a family together, and hope alive. I’d like to think her strength was passed down through the umbilical cord to me, infused in the amniotic fluid but I’m doubtful. Strength like that, and courage, and the rough mercy and kindness Italian women show to lesser mortals, sometimes skips a generation.
Most people have told me that the passage of time really doesn’t change the feeling of loss because a good mother fills the world she inhabits with such light and substance that the devastating subtraction is something you’re never prepared for. In my case, that’s been true in the small things more than in the larger ones. This first Christmas without my mother was unexpectedly cheerful because of the extra effort we made to give my nephew a happy day. Her birthday in January was celebrated with a cake, and streamers in the kitchen. We remembered to decorate the house for Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s too, fearful that her ghost would haunt us if we forgot the rituals.
But the mundane moments when you catch yourself thinking “I have to call Mom about that” and realize there won’t be anyone at the other end of the line are the knives to the heart, and they are frequent, and always unexpected. That is when you realize the full measure of your loss.
That’s also why I thought Emerson had done the best job capturing the essence of my mother, until I read an essay in another paper, which confirmed the contours of my grief. A young woman wrote about how she was happy to have been the daughter of a “working mother.” My own had the night shift for years when I was young, only I never missed her presence during the day when it mattered. She was there when I got home from school, with a bowl of icing and a spoon (child abuse, by Michelle Obama’s standards). She was there with the band aids, and the Lysol, and the lost sock. She was there.
Some people might think that having a professional role model, a high powered mother is the best example for a daughter. That’s become the conventional wisdom in an age when so many women do work outside of the home. But my mother lived a life of importance without ever straying far from the neat perimeter of our home. And so I had to thank this young stranger, too, for reminding me of what truly matters. It doesn’t come with a title or a paycheck.
I will spend this first anniversary of Lucy Flowers’ death in simple celebration, walking in Old City, reading a book outside in the sunshine, eating the icing off of a lemon cake. And I’ll remember, through tears mixed with longing, that useful, honorable, compassionate life which made a difference that is still felt in the deepest part of my bones.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org