My mom died from lung cancer (no, she wasn’t a smoker) in March of this year. Yesterday, we all gathered at the Minneapolis Club downtown to express our love and respect at her memorial service. It was beautiful — perfect, really– and I know my mom would have loved it. I delivered a eulogy for her (somehow without tears, though I lost my place a couple of times). For those of you who couldn’t be there and have asked to read it, here it is …
The wisest mothers — and mine was absolutely among them– know that our ultimate purpose is to teach our children not to need us. To know and love us, yes, to respect us, absolutely, but not need. Carol Thacher was not the kind of mama who ever wanted to hear her daughter say “I would be lost without you.” She made sure I would never be.
So you may be surprised to hear me say that the hardest part of losing my mom has been losing her protection. If you knew her for at least five minutes, then you know hers was not a nervous, fluttery kind of maternal protection. It was way better than that — more generous because it made both of us strong, not just her. She was not here to shield me from the world, she was here to get me ready for it. There were a few times when my mom stepped in to fight a battle for which she didn’t believe I was ready, but that was rare. For the most part, her protection came in the form of empowerment –coaching me towards independence, sharing her community, and showing me how to experience motherhood within the context of womanhood.
I did not come home to milk and cookies after school, unless I was at my grandma’s. If I wanted cookies — and I ALWAYS want cookies– I was going to have to learn to bake them myself. So I did. My mom loved to talk about me as a 5th or 6th-grader, home alone after school with the television and stereo both blaring, teaching myself by trial and significant error how to follow recipes. In her office downtown, she would take a call from a client about a lease she was negotiating, then a call from me.
“Um, Mom? Sorry to bother you, but my recipe calls for corn syrup and all we have is corn oil. I can use that instead, right?”
Then a call from another client seeking her counsel about a tenant dispute, then another from me, apologizing for the egg white that dripped into the silverware drawer. She giggled at the juxtaposition and answered everyone’s questions. She didn’t tell me to stop baking and she didn’t rush home to take over — she let me make my messy mistakes, trusting that I would ultimately work it out.
She was not here to shield me from the world, she was here to get me ready for it.
I know there were — and maybe still are– people who felt sorry for me because she wasn’t home with me after school, but I love what I learned to do on my own. And I love my mom for giving me the space and the trust to do it. I love her for sending me to Camp Lake Hubert for a month every summer, where I found my best self, and I love her for teaching me how to rescue myself instead of doing it for me. She rolled her eyes on my behalf when someone was thoughtless or petty, but then came the smile, the slow nod. “I know you can handle this, Lamby.” So I did — sometimes well, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The point was that she believed I could and expected me to try. That is still the point now.
There was plenty of time alone in the house, yes, but I was never alone in the world. From the beginning, she surrounded both of us with powerful nurturers, thoughtful teachers, creative problem-solvers, wise counselors –to raise us both, through childhood and beyond. She shared everyone : her big, loving, musical, complicated family; her devoted, brilliant, meddlesome friends, her accomplished, formidable, deliberate professional network. I was welcomed and loved in your homes; GramBea’s rice pudding is still my ultimate comfort food and I wouldn’t DREAM of any other birthday cake besides a Sue Burritt’s World-Famous. Some of you graciously consented to interview me after college when there was still a chance I might turn out to be employable. A few of you even bravely tried to teach me math.
There you were, every time. And here you still are. You’re checking on me, inviting me to the theater with you, walking me through the estate stuff, helping me plan today. You get credit for that, absolutely, but so does my mom. For me, your comfort and aid always were and still are an extension of my mom’s comfort and aid. If she trusted you, I trust you, almost without exception. My mom died, yes, but I am not motherless. I have you, if you’ll have me. The best mothering happens in community and communities don’t die unless we let them. This is not to say that we all have to go to each other’s birthday parties — though you really should invite me because I make excellent birthday cakes now. What I’m saying is that all of us who loved her are torches lit from the same fire. We’re related in this singular way, she brought us together, so whenever we’re together, I feel her taking care of me.
She was my mother, always. She was clear about that from the beginning. In junior high and high school, when describing one’s mother as a best friend was in vogue , my mother would have none of it. “There are elements of friendship in our relationship, but I am your mother, not your friend. You will have all kinds of friends throughout your life, but only one mother.” At the time I resented it, because I understood it was my job to resent EVERYTHING she said and I took that job very seriously, but it was a loving distinction, one she never abandoned. When Steve, my stepdad, was dying from melanoma thirteen years ago, I told her she should lean on me.
“I am a grown woman now and I have experience with this disease,” I told her. “Just let me help you.”
“No,” she said. “I am your mother. You lean on ME. I don’t lean on you.”
I was frustrated — and not a little bit insulted– but she understood her purpose better than most, I think. Her job was to prepare me for life as a modern woman — whatever that meant then, whatever that would come to mean. She couldn’t do that if I related to her as a peer. Peers are the people who have gone no further than we have. She had gone much further. She was never my peer. She was my mentor, teaching by example the most essential and difficult lesson of my adult life: remembering to grow myself along with my family. For her, motherhood happened within womanhood, not the other way around.
She could have built her life inside of mine, engineering my every experience in terms of her own latent ambitions, but then we both would have turned out small.
Her great gift to me was allowing me to know her as a woman, the one she had been growing into all her life, long before I arrived. She loved music, James Bond movies, raunchy humor, singing along with Handel’s Messiah on Christmas morning, giving advice, finding the most efficient way to do anything and everything, her career, her friends, and travel (though not packing for it). She hated gravity and woodpeckers and being inconvenienced and losing her husband. She had a wicked little computer solitaire habit, she was disciplined, competitive as hell, and threw giant tantrums when she broke a nail but was a rock in an actual crisis. Because she was a loving mother, she shared her life with me. Because she was a strong, wise woman, she never handed it over. She would do anything for me except dissolve into me. Mom, I thank you deeply and sincerely for that — not only because I got to know you as a real person, but also because I got to see what all of your hard lessons about independence and growth were for: they were for learning to live my life on my own terms. I’m not quite there yet, but I understand.
My mom built an enormous, delicious, satisfying life for herself, full of the people, work, music, theater, travel, and causes she loved. Why shouldn’t she? She could have built her life inside of mine, engineering my every experience in terms of her own latent ambitions, but then we both would have turned out small. By living her own life, by pursuing what was meaningful to her, she taught me how to do it too, to be a grown woman. I don’t always feel like one — nothing has ever made me feel more like a child than losing my mom. But I know I can figure it out and I know I am not alone. I have a big, beautiful life to live — different from hers but just as satisfying. I have a family to raise and a self to raise with them. I will not ever be lost without her. Because I am not without her — she made sure of that, too.