It has now been sixteen days since my mother passed. I would be lying if I said that I am doing great, but I am moving forward…sometimes. I still find it difficult to be around people, and the tears remain close to the surface. There are days that hurt like hell, when the sting of her loss overwhelms me, and then more gentle days, when the sting lessens and the ache of loss is softer, more pangs of remembrance.
Today brought a fresh surge of emotion as Dan broke into Mom’s strong box for me. I used to know the combination years ago, but never thought about asking Mom for it. There wasn’t going to be any major treasure of the monetary kind, but there would be the papers or things that Mom felt were her most important. I was anxious to find more clues about the woman my mother was, this woman I loved so much, but often thought of as my mom and not always who she was as a woman separate from that role.
Dan brought the box to me when he had finally opened it, saying I should be the first to see its contents. I sat down, took a deep breath, opened the lid of the rectangular blue metal box, and went back in time. As I carefully unfolded each yellowed piece of paper, each document, waves of emotion washed over me. I felt a renewed sadness for what my mother went through in the divorce, learning more about how deeply my father hurt her by reading the details of the events listed in the official paperwork. Divorce was a different animal in 1964, and I felt pain when I looked at the long and detailed list of typed questions the lawyer had asked Mom to answer.
Dad had forced her to sue for divorce, something she never wanted, leaving her with three children still at home, my sister Linda, fifteen, my brother Mark, eleven, and me, only fifteen months of age. When he left, he promised her he would come back to court her, that this was something he had to do…something she held onto always. The final paperwork stated the cruel things my father had said to Mom, trying to make her miserable enough to give him the freedom he wanted, and that he had already left her not long after I was born to live with the woman who would become his second wife. None of this matters anymore, but it makes me see Mom in a different light, makes me understand how this event marked her so deeply. It also makes me admire her even more for picking up the pieces and moving forward the way she did.
I laughed out loud when I saw the alimony of $150 listed, with $100 per child. Dad would never let Mom work or get any job training, so at forty-two, she was dependent on this meager sum to live, other than the small amount she was able to earn by babysitting and cleaning houses. I still remember so clearly when Dad would wait to send the check, Mom ringing her hands, sometimes being so late that she would be forced to call him. It seemed Dad enjoyed playing this game with her, relishing the power he held over her still. I wanted to go back in time and hold that Dorothy, wipe away her tears.
I found other things that weren’t so sad; two passports for the two tours of duty she went on with Dad to Germany. The first with a photo of a very young Dorothy holding my oldest brother and sister, Bud and Sharon, as very young children, and the next, a photo from the fifties of Mom with a Bette Davis hair cut, surrounded by all of my siblings. I thought of what an exciting challenge this must have been for a young woman from Athens, Tennessee, to pick up and leave her family and friends to live for five years in a foreign land. I looked at all of the passport stamps from the different places she saw; Germany, France, Austria, England. I remembered her counting to one hundred in her Tennessee German, even just a few days before she died.
I found her birth certificate, being reminded that there was a snafu, that they had mistakenly put the name ‘Minnie Pearl Schultz’ instead of ‘Dorothy Land Schultz’ on the original document, and a letter was included from the family doctor who delivered her at home in the old oak bed, stating the correction. I smiled, thinking I couldn’t see Mom as a Minnie Pearl, making me think of the woman on the old ‘Hee-Haw’ show, with the price tag hanging off of her straw hat. Maybe I could see Mom with the hat and price tag…if she thought it would make someone laugh.
It feels strange to go through private papers belonging to someone else, even your mother. Each time I have to do this, it gets a little easier, but still makes me feel an ache in my heart. I know she lived a good, long life- almost to ninety-three, I am glad she is no longer hurting and is at peace, I know it is life to suffer loss…I just miss her. I feel the holes in my heart and in my day, the gaping pockets of time that used to be for phone calls, visits, trips to the doctor or grocery store, doing her laundry or other chores, visiting and laughing with her. It feels strange to have this time, and ultimately it will be a good thing, I suppose. Time to take care of the many things I put off to take care of Mom. I would do it all again in a heartbeat- I would have done anything for her. But now, it’s time for me to take care of myself and learn a new way of living.
I am thankful for these glimpses into my mother’s life. I feel a renewed sense of pride for the woman she was. She was not perfect, just gloriously human. A woman who did the best she could with the circumstances with which she was faced. I smile as I think of the courage she found, the wonderful sense of humor she kept. She used to say that she and I grew up together, and now I understand what she meant. As I grew physically, she grew into a new and different woman, separate from my father. I am glad for the divorce that rocked her world, as it enabled her to blossom into a woman that she never would have been allowed to be with Dad.
Now it is time to take these lessons from my mother, learn from them, and move forward with my own life. I will still grieve, it is only normal. Each day, though, I will let my heart open up to life, be open to the beauty, the gifts that life brings. I feel such gratitude for the wonderful memories I have of my mother, the woman who loved me fiercely, who believed in me without reservation, and who set such a good example of overcoming sadness and loss. I look forward to the day when the pangs of loss will mellow into beautiful remembrance.