You never belong to someone quite like you belong to your mother. Not in an ownership sense of the word, but like a puzzle piece. My children. They are mine. They are a part of me and fit in with me. No matter what, they can always find themselves perfectly at home next to me. They shout my name when they are scared or lost because they know I’ll come for them. Mothers provide a sense of belonging that can’t be replicated. I remember the feeling of belonging to my own mother. It’s like a blurry memory. Sort of the way they say La Croix tastes like someone whispered the name of a fruit in the other room. I remember it but can’t feel it. What do you do when you’re nobody’s daughter anymore, when you don’t belong to the one person you always used to fit next to?
Have you ever walked into a large room filled with people you don’t know? Typically I scan the room to see who I know and what path to to take to get to them so I can settle in next to “my people” and feel at ease. When I don’t see them though, a little shot of panic runs down my spine. Where do I sit? Where do I stand? Who do I talk to? As an extrovert who hates to be late, I often find myself in new places before my people arrive, but my panic is short lived; I just introduce myself to someone near me. But right before I do, it still happens. That quickened-heart-rate moment of uneasiness, that I’m-not-sure-where-I-belong feeling. It’s the same feeling I get when I pick up the phone to call my mom when I’m upset, or when the anniversary of her death approaches.
It’s the feeling I get when my son asks about my childhood but I can’t tell him what my favorite animal was when I was his age–because only mothers remember those kinds of things. The same panic shoots down my spine when I meet someone new and I know they’ll eventually ask about my parents.
“Where do your parents live?” they’ll say.
“My Nan is in Heaven” my 4-year-old will gently reply if he’s there.
“Yeah ’cause she died” my 3-year-old will frankly chime in.
It’s a 15-second part of a conversation that makes my hands sweaty every single time. 4 years after her death it’s awkward mostly for the new person. As you can tell, I try to talk to my kids about my mom and our loss of her. And they are little people with no filters so they spout the truth wherever it fits. I’ve become accustomed to a surprise “Hey Mom! Your mom died, right?” for no reason other than I’m sitting and drinking a cup of coffee minding my own business. And I am glad to say that it no longer makes me choke on said coffee because it’s caught me off guard.
My kids are also good at reminding my friends, who obviously know she’s gone, that my mother died. Thankfully my friends reply with the most gentle answers like, “I know. And I also know she really loved you.” But when it happens with new people, well then we’re both covered in sweat. I can see them scrambling because they don’t know what to say to defuse and redirect. And I am scrambling because immediately the reminder of loneliness you get only from losing a parent surges, but I know I need to say something to make this person feel better about asking about the mother I don’t have because they were, after all, asking a pretty standard get-to-know-you question.
I’ve gotten better about navigating that particular conversation, but afterwards I always wish I could call my mom to tell her about it. She would laugh, I know. She would say that it’s cute the kids will talk about her. She would be thankful to be mentioned. And that tightness in my stomach would dissipate.
But in my story, this version of not-belonging-to-someone-panic doesn’t ever fully go away. It’s always present in some form. It ebbs and flows in and out of every situation and circumstance. It especially rears its ugly head every time one of my kids is sick and I am not sure what I should do. A baking soda bath? Go to the doctor? It shows up when I am feeling defeated. She wasn’t here to tell me that 3-year-olds, without warning, sometimes just stop eating food for some reason, that it was normal, and it wasn’t my fault. By the time I had finally asked around, my son and I had both cried at every meal for weeks.
Sure, I belong with a lot of people. I am a best friend and have a best friend. I am a wife and have a husband. I am a sister and have siblings. These are my people. Those with whom I belong. But I am also a daughter without a mother. A vagabond girl who is loved deeply by so many but still searching for the home only a mother can provide. A daughter who, for all intensive purposes, belongs to no one. There are no multi-generational family photos in my future. No one to give my daughter a family heirloom on her graduation day.
My mother’s death was sudden and unexpected. The jewelry that I have of hers, for the most part, has no story to accompany it. Most are just pretty pieces that I like to wear and imagine who gave them to her. A few I know because I remember her telling me whose they were when I was young. I remember a set of earrings she wore to a military ball when I was in 4th grade. I remember a necklace she bought at a farmer’s market in New Mexico because she said it looked “Cha Cha.”
I remember… I remember that she always rubbed my back when she hugged me. I remember that, even as an adult, if I laid my head on her leg she would brush my hair from my temple. I remember the way she looked when she held my infant son on the couch, telling him about all the fun things she thought they would get to do. I remember the tightness in my stomach disappearing if I could hear her say things would be alright. I remember what it was like when she was mine and I was hers.
And as I run my hand through my daughter’s hair, I tell her how her curls are exactly like my mom’s. She always tells me that she remembers, too. When I fasten a necklace around her neck I tell her my mom would want her to wear it. She always tells me that she remembers that Nan loved it.
And when she remembers that my mom died before she was born and that they never met, she tells me that makes her sad.
“Can you rub my back when you hug me?” she asks. “It will make me feel better. ‘Cause you’re my Mama. And I’m your girl.”
I can’t help but smile. “Don’t ever forget that.” I whisper in her ear. An urging for the both of us.