If you’ve known a person your entire life, you may believe you really know them. But with parents it can be different; what we as children see is often the side of them we’re meant to see—the side carefully constructed to enforce discipline, stretch our view of the world, impose manners and otherwise prepare us for leaving the family home and making our own way in life. What we don’t see holds most of the clues to who they really are, as individual human beings in their own right.
If you’d asked me a year ago how well I knew my mother, I would’ve emphatically answered “too well!” Our relationship had moments when we managed to put aside our roles as mother and daughter and related as two people with a shared past. There was a period of several years where we got along very well. The other fifty, though, were a mixed bag.
But a year ago I received a huge dose of enlightenment, thanks to a crisis that nearly took my mother’s life. What I discovered as I endeavored to dispose of a lifetime’s worth of worldly possessions made me realize what I knew about my mother wouldn’t color in a small fraction of who she really is, or what her life had been like—from her point of view. Suddenly, the thin, moth-eaten filament I had regarded as my mom’s persona fell away, exposing a rich, rounded and complex past with more moving parts than I could ever piece together at this stage, with so few clues to go on.
What challenged my perception of my mother was finding a photograph of her that defied not only my view of Ruth Evelyn Schimming-Patterson-Wathen-Padgett-Baney, but her own narrative as well. Maybe from a distance of so many years she could no longer remember the woman she’d been prior to the man invasion, the young, vibrant, hopeful, joyous and conscientious girl with a surely promising future before her. The saddest part of this lack of awareness on my part is that had I known more about her life prior to my arrival, it would’ve gone a long way to strengthening our mother-daughter dynamic.
I was awoken to my vast ignorance of who exactly my mother is/was by a previously unseen photo of her taken at the age of 19 by her first husband. There couldn’t have been a more perfect indictment of my unawareness than the sight of this gorgeous, confident creature hamming it up for her eager audience. Her eyes are closed, her head tilted to the side, her smile as big and bold as it could possibly be. Nothing I had ever known about my mom had prepared me for this unknown version of her. It shook me and my misconceptions of her right down to my feet.
But what could’ve been an invaluable icebreaker, engendering a stronger bond over a generational divide, came too late. Had I known anything of this chapter in my mom’s life, I’m certain it would’ve allowed me a greater understanding of all she had endured in her 80+ years, just as it would’ve given her a chance to reflect on a time that held so much promise. It may have allowed her to enjoy the memory of the stunning creature she had been during that magical time as a young single woman with so much potential. Maybe if she’d shared that with me it would’ve helped her get passed the deep regret she must’ve carried inside as she struggled to right her world and reclaim the brilliant future that continued to elude her.
But I will never know now. My mother survived the fall and the fourteen hours she languished on the living room floor before I found her, but her mind was already at the mercy of Alzheimer’s. What stories she could’ve shared from her past now twinkle like stars in several hundred photographs spanning 86 years of living, despite all the obstacles in her way.
Finding my mother on death’s door was the beginning of an odyssey to find out who she was, as a complete person, not just in her role as mother. What I have discovered has changed my view of her and given me such a deep appreciation for all she has gone through and all she did to pull her three kids to safety. I am so awed by her strength and her ability to persevere, despite incredible hardships. Those difficult years before she lost her grasp on reality are so much easier to understand now. She had struggled so hard, yet in the end, she didn’t have a lot to show for it. Or at least, not the way she saw it.
My gift from her was a photographic trail that has allowed me to piece together, in large part, eight very full decades. Through that, I’ve been able to appreciate her for all her strengths. I am in awe of her fortitude. I am so grateful that she is my mother.
My gift to my mom is a retelling of her life’s story, a story she no longer has access to.
More details to follow…
Very truly yours,