Mothering myself

Mother is a verb, not a noun.”  ~ English Proverb

Its going to take several days to recover from last weeks domestic flurry – a self-inflicted storm of floor washing, napkin ironing, furniture polishing, and grocery shopping. As most women would, I blamed it initially on the Thanksgiving holiday and the fact that I would be hosting out-of-town guests.

But the truth is, my out-of-town guests were my son and his wife – dear ones whove seen our home in its most chaotic state and are not particularly fussy.

As it happened, I wasnt even scheduled to cook the big Thanksgiving meal this year. I knew wed be taking my mother (whose vascular dementia is monitored at a nearby assisted-living residence) to dinner at a local restaurant. A culinary no-brainer.

And as for kitchen duty, my only obligation was to provide breakfast, lunch, or light snacks for our small family of four throughout the weekend.

So why all the fuss? Was it simply my old holiday anxiety rearing its annual, festive head? Or was I trying to impress my new daughter-in-law, who was spending the nights with our son in the guest room?

None of the above.

It wasnt until my son pointed out that I was getting a tad neurotic about freshening the bathroom towels every half hour that I realized my housekeeping-on-steroids was another symptom of grief and mother loss.

Before I explain, bear with me while I spin through a Dickensian-style flashback of winter holidays past … Back when my mother was a busy commercial artist and homemaker who loved to entertain guests … Back before heart disease and dementia rendered her helpless and confused.

Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

Back then, my mother would put me to work alongside her at the kitchen counter. Under her artistic direction, I baked cookies, rolled appetizers, and speared tiny cornichons with cellophane-ruffled toothpicks.  Together we dusted and rearranged all the living room furniture. Halls were decked; mantels were festooned; bathrooms were sanitized and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles.

It didnt matter if the visiting folks were my grandparents or my fathers coworkers; Mom and I channeled Betty Crocker, Julia Child or Martha Stewart.  If the holiday guests were also spending the night (or more), Mom would throw the schedule into overdrive and put me on laundry duty. Cranking up the washing machine, shed order me to gather every towel and washrag in the linen closet that “needed freshening up.” Yes, even the clean ones.

I’ll admit there were moments when I felt like Cinderella in her scullery maid phase. Even so, those domestic chores trumpeted the arrival of the holiday season. And now, they’re an inextricable part of the memories and traditions my mother crafted for our family — even when the world was crumbling around us.

In December of 1992, five months after my fathers sudden death from a heart attack, I didnt want to think about Christmas. The very idea of hanging mistletoe, or clearing the dining room table for a “festive” meal, seemed like a violation of our familys raw grief.  It was my mother who convinced me otherwise, reminding me that Dad loved Christmas — and that he would have wanted us to celebrate for the sake of my little boy, who was barely seven at the time.

I believe, in retrospect, that sprucing things up for the holidays that year kept my mother from feeling totally engulfed by her loss. Cleaning, decorating, and cooking helped fill the unspeakable void while she made Christmas for the rest of us. Over the past five years, dementia has devoured that resourceful mother of mine, but only in recent months have I found the courage, and the words, to admit how much I miss the nurturing that only a mother can give.

And I know, now, that all the ridiculous furniture polishing and towel washing — my flurry of domestic fuss last week — was a way of mothering myself. Following Mom’s old example, I was cleaning for comfort and trying to recreate a lost sense of order. A memory of holidays long past.  â€“ Cindy La Ferle  

–Original collage detail above: “Gathering In,” by Cindy La Ferle–


27 thoughts on “Mothering myself

  1. This is beautiful. I’m sure many of us relate to your heartfelt words.

    On a lighter note, feel free to come over anytime you need some mothering therapy of cleaning, cooking, and fussing … my home would go into complete shock but anything to help you out 😉

  2. Beautifully written and I felt your pain and the comfort you received from doing what you were doing. I remember Thanksgiving 1998 a month after my mother died and I was suppose to fly back to OKC to have Thanksgiving with her and my dad in the nursing home – I ended up painting my condo, literally painting my condo. I could not fly back to OKC after being there a week the first of October and it was an extremely hard time for me personally – however, there was comfort in what I was doing with the painting and the putting my “nest” back together. As the years went by and a new tradition was started in 2000 with my brother and nephew coming to my condo ….. and I was cooking the turkey. I love Thanksgiving now and our tradition last year added my niece and her son. The condo is in chaos and we have such a glorious time. You need the mothering right now – and the miracle is you know why you are doing what you are doing and this is good! Hugs always, and thanks for sharing!

  3. I can identify with this. There is great comfort in continuity and traditions. Decking the halls. scrubbing, polishing, baking, etc., gives us a sense of purpose. I think we need to do it for ourselves as well as our families. In doing these familiar tasks, we find joy.

  4. I can truly relate Nin. The holidays do have a way of tugging on our heartstrings and memories. How precious are those memories. I see it’s a 10 year anniversary this year of your dad’s passing. Hugs and know I’m thinkin’ of you… xox

    • Thanks, Carla and Jan! I know you can relate to “mother loss” more than I can, although dementia is a form of loss, especially when a parent turns into someone who’s really not your old parent… My dad has been gone for 20 years now, and it’s very hard to fathom that, Carla. Time passes so fast — a reminder to treasure our time with our folks.

  5. Hi Cindy, My heart crept into my throat as I read this. I know how devoted you are to your mother and I totally understand why you felt the need to “mother yourself”. You expressed yourself beautifully at a sad thought. Sending hugs.
    xo jj

  6. Cindy, I’m so glad you had the Thanksgiving weekend with your son and daughter-in-law. I like having the house in order before company comes so I can relax and enjoy the visit. Now your house is all set for the holidays still to come ~

  7. Cindy, I know how difficult it is to need mothering especially while your mother is still with you but unable to fill that role. Hang on to those traditions and keep smiling at those precious memories you do have. I know how important it has been for me to remember those happier moments. Hugs to you!

  8. So beautifully written. I too lost Dad to a sudden heart attack, I too lost Mom to 8 yrs of dementia. I too reach for that dust cloth to bring forth the comfort that flows within from being in a daily ritual taught as a girl so many years ago. God love us all kindred spirits! Cheers.

    • Kathy, Kendall, and Sandi … Thank you all! I have to say, one of the things I love most about posting on this blog is that people like you share their own stories, how they relate to the posts. It is such a light in the darkness, knowing we are not alone.

  9. It’s so heartwarming to read about your love and devotion for your parents. I can feel through your words how much you miss them. You are wise for recognizing your mothers need to carry on as usual after your fathers death as well as your need to do the same for yourself. As the oldest of 4 with parents who were totally not I took on that mothering role very early in life. To this day I feel more like the parent to my mom (my father is deceased) and younger siblings. Although in years of late they remind me I am not their mother (right Nancy?) LOL!

  10. This essay touched me deeply, Cindy – I lost my parents seven weeks apart last year, and sold our beloved family home a few months ago … the place where “halls were decked, mantels were festooned and outfitted with glittering yuletide candles,” just as you wrote. We had magical holidays in years gone by and I’m still trying to figure out how to put it all back together – or recreate it in a new way for my family. Thank you for sharing such beautiful words and insight.

  11. Sweet. And true. We all know ourselves by how we’ve grown from our mothers (whether they were good or bad) and see our lives as an arc from our first homes. What is an arc when the starting point disappears?

    My mother is caring for my father as he slides toward the end. And I see the start of a slow slide in her too. I’m grateful to be close enough to help but sorrowful to see her begin to slip.

    • Kathleen, I will be thinking of you this season. So sorry to hear about your folks. It’s hard to watch them slip, isn’t it? You have to look for all the good you can find in the situation, as you know. Take care of you too.

  12. Pingback: Holiday Medicine For Loss | Better After 50

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