I have this memory of my mom. Whenever I think back to it, I’m not quite sure if it’s a memory, a dream I had or a story I was told, but it’s still very vivid to me regardless of its truth.
It’s a memory I have in which my mom and I are in matching dresses. I couldn’t have been older than seven at the time. My mom’s hair is short and brown, her face is just starting to earn the wrinkles of wisdom she would soon be anxious to erase. We are under a blooming magnolia tree, burrowing our feet into the damp soil and the softening white petals as she holds my hand. Beyond us is the Pacific Ocean, and behind us is our family. Everything is warm, and the air is like a thick blanket.
I think this is the last memory I have of who my mother used to be — when she seemed quiet and still enough to hold the ocean that held the dappled moonlight. Today, my knuckles white, I still hold onto this memory.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer — maybe two or three years after this memory under the magnolia tree — she had changed. She started a race against her own mortality.
She began to work out every morning at 5 a.m. She went road biking in the early afternoon and drank coffee at 4 p.m.. My mom, raised Irish Catholic (guilt and all), had even discovered a newfound salvation in the Jewish faith — an explanation for my own affinity for challah and seder dinners.
Reluctantly, I had begun to reformulate my idea of a mother from the woman in my memories. She was moving faster and faster against time, until I woke up one morning to a stranger. She had become that vivacious blonde, with a tongue like a whip, that wreaked havoc in her hometown of Philadelphia. My mom somehow had managed to go back in time.
She was as hard-headed and adventurous as she was as a kid, but now she was an artist, too. Not just someone who created art, but someone who was neurotic about it.
She was obsessed with interior design — not that she wasn’t before, but she was even more so now. She would be up until sunrise browsing carpet samples and choosing between chartreuse and lime with a patchwork of floor plans on her desk.
When I see her now, I feel as though I’m looking at an imposter. This woman took the place of the mom that I had — the one I felt entitled to. The mom that has wisdom to spew and super strength to hold me with, but looking back on it, maybe that brown haired woman in my memories was just a person my mother became out of necessity.
I had believed that I wanted Carol Brady or Betty Crocker as a mom. I wanted to learn to bake pies and sew quilts, but instead I had this artistic mentor who charged in and out of my life. She was always quick to dole out artistic criticism, but when it came to emotional support I would just be talking to a person planning design meetings on her phone.
I think when certain roles are thrust upon us — mother, wife, survivor, Catholic, etc. — we try our best to become what people expect of us. But what happens when you can’t fulfill these roles in a way that the people who surround you expect you to?
And I think that’s really the place I lost my mom. I lost her in all those points in time when I expected her to be someone that she wasn’t.
But what I did learn from my mom is that our lives are art. My mom spends her days constructing the backgrounds of people’s memories, piecing together the places we call home. She lives her life curating every moment to be as beautiful as it can be.
And as the artist she raised me to be the image of I believe she has given me permission to manipulate my own mementos. I have the liberty to place a few more petals on the ground, to pour more moonlight into the ocean.
But I think it’s because I hold the weight of all these embellished memories of who my mother used to be that I’ll never be able to go as fast as my mom. I’ve never been able to beat time like she has.
These memories feel heavy as I go forward, they even stop me from going with her, but I have to keep them. They help me try and piece together the woman who stands in front of me today.
I keep them because even when my mom is gone on her next great adventure she is there, holding my hand, rooted into the rich soil under the magnolia tree. She’s still, and she’s quiet, and she’s holding the Pacific in her arms.