The Tears of a Motherless Daughter

Lucille Johanna Lyons Corley first gave birth on 27 June 1947 and last on 25 December 1959.  In the intervening 12 years, the shape of her life morphed in painful spasms.  Through nearly thirty-nine years of married life until her death 1985, my mother cradled sons with broken limbs; endured fractures at her husband’s hands; agonized over piles of unpaid bills; and waited outside of hospital rooms and courtrooms for news which could send her world into a tailspin.  She stood beside one grandchild’s grave.  She buried her mother.  With her sister, she made the agonizing decision to put their once-leonine father in a nursing home.   She stood with her lawyer brother-in-law despairing over the ruination of her household and the sad reality of a legal separation which could bring at least temporary calm.

I first understood the depth of the complexity of my mother’s life on her wedding anniversary when I was about five years old.  My oldest sister spent the evening making a cake with which to surprise our parents.  They had gone out to a rare meal away from their eight children, probably with my aunt and uncle.  My siblings must excuse my description of this memory; I know how painful it might be.  As evening drew to a close, my sister heard the sound of my father’s car in the driveway.  She pushed us all into the sunroom at the back of the house, closed the French doors behind the giggling group of us, and turned out the lights.  The lopsided cake stood on the breakfast room table just feet from where we hid, waiting to spring out and cry, “Happy Anniversary!”

My father had consumed far too much alcohol as usual.  I do not know what angered him, but he entered screaming.  In a mad and terrifying moment, he threw my mother across the table.  Her body shattered the glass doors.  The shards showered over her children.

My sister Ann responded quickly, running to my mother, throwing the light switch.  One of the older boys must have darted past my father and run next door to a neighbor who called the police.   My father went to jail and my mother to the hospital.  My clearest memory of that night is sitting on a step with a policeman, who asked me, What did your Daddy do to your Mommy, honey?  The chinstrap of his hat fascinated me.  I kept my eyes on the bobbing fabric as I answered.  My words have faded but I still recall the warmth of his responding hug.

But the dark times and the frightening hours find counterbalance in the warmth of my mother’s laugh and the cleverness of the plans she laid for us when times allowed.  She worked at a nearby shopping center in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  On Friday nights, she would walk home with a gallon of vanilla ice cream and a jar of Gold Brick.  At some point, our paternal grandmother gave us her black-and-white television.  Friday became TV night in our household.  We ate ice cream and gathered at my mother’s feet, watching the flickering screen, growing drowsy as the night waned.  I’d often fall asleep with one arm around my mother’s legs and my head resting against her knee.  

I can’t hide the fact of our tumultuous childhood.  After one particularly difficult episode — and by difficult, I mean, terrifying and chaotic — my mother left the house.  I don’t know where she went but she did not come home for many hours.  One of my sisters convinced us that we should clean the house to make our mother want to return.  We scrambled to comply.  I remember waxing the top of a dresser, laying out a lace doily, and arranging little vases on top of it.  I put clover flowers and dandelions in those tiny ceramic vessels.  I must have been seven or eight.

My mother learned to drive at forty-two.  She died at fifty-eight.  When I do the math, my mind boggles:  She only legally operated a mother vehicle for sixteen years.  She reminisced once about a driving lesson early in her marriage, either by her husband or her father.  She claimed to have ploughed the car into the fence of the Gillespie, Illinois cemetery.  I will never know the truth of the story, but when we visited her parents and walked down the cemetery street, I imagined my mother sitting in that car, squeezing her eyes shut and murmuring I’m sorry, I’m sorry.  

My mother taught me to drive.  I took a class at the public high school to get the insurance discount, but learned from my mother’s tutelage.  I’m not a good driver, but my failings reflect years of sloppiness, not the result of my mother’s poor instruction.  She also taught me to crochet, knit, embroider, and iron.  She tried to teach me to sew but I never quite succeeded in mastering that art.  Anything decent that I can undertake came from my mother, from making Schmarren to singing lullabies.  Like my mother, I consider myself hilarious and often tell the same stories.  I laugh on my own punchlines.   I’ve often been told that I’m not as funny as I think but I amuse myself, like my mother before me.

A dozen times a day, still, thirty-six years later, I wish I could call my mother.  I realized this morning that I have lived more than half of my life as a motherless daughter.  I want to know what she would think of my tiny house; whether she would advise me to put doors on my new cabinet; how she would handle life’s thornier problems which besiege me. I long to show her the test results which keep landing in my inbox and talk about their scarier portent.  I need her to sit on my newly refurbished deck and admire the gardenia bush that I’m cultivating in her honor.  I yearn for the touch of the long brown fingers of her Lebanese hand and the feeling of her arms on my trembling, weary body.

Yet I had my mother for thirty years longer than many have theirs.  I take those thirty years and wrap them around me as I sit listening to the wind howling across the meadow.  Yesterday I dusted the Melmac dishes which came from my mother’s house and the Fire King fruit cups which my mother and I found at a junk store fifty years ago.  I touched the edge of one bowl, running my finger along a little chipped spot.  My mother held this, I marveled.  Maybe some speck of her still lingers here.  I studied the delicate bowl for a long minute, then reached to put it on the shelf beside the little yellow Oven-Ware dish that she also gave me.  Outside my window, the sun shone and the breeze lifted.  For reasons I could not comprehend, my heart suddenly felt lighter.

It’s the eighth day of the one-hundred and first month of My Year Without Complaining.  Life continues.

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