When Mom died, she left my dad with six out of ten children to raise by himself on a forty-acre ranch in the Missouri River Breaks of central Montana. The year was 1971 and I was only two years old. My sister, who is six years older than I, was the only other female in the house. The oldest of the six children still living at home at the time was a senior in high school. Dad never remarried, but instead chose to raise his kids the best he could with whatever God gave him.
We grew up tough because there was no other option. While trying to eke out a living by raising a few hogs, potatoes and small grain crops, Dad didn’t have time for much coddling. All but 40 acres of the big ranch had been sold and Publisher Clearinghouse never did show up on our doorstep so there was no room for whining and wishing for things that would never come to be. Dad expected us kids to do what we were told, but he also taught us to think. “Use your damn head!” was an expression he voiced when I was working on schoolwork, operating the farm equipment, or trying to navigate through a heart wrenching divorce. This stubborn Montana farmer ingrained in me that a person’s word, a direct look in the eye, and a firm handshake were just as valuable as any signed contract. He always told me that if I were ever in the wrong on something, then I must admit this, correct the situation as best I could, and move on. However, if I felt with all my strength that I was in the right, he would back me until the bitter end.
Growing up dirt poor in the Breaks with parents is hard enough. Not having a mother to keep the softer side of life’s balances in check is even tougher. At least, that’s what so many people have said to me over the years. “You poor little thing! I can’t even imagine what you’ve gone through not having a mother. And your dad! How could he raise you girls all by himself…and out in the wilds of the Breaks?” The intentions were pure and I still believe that people truly did care. But, like me for many years, most of them were so focused on Mom’s missing presence they forgot about the man who was still standing firmly on the ground making the best of a tragic situation. To my knowledge, Dad never wallowed in any kind of self-pity over losing his wife. He just kept moving forward each day, putting one foot in front of the other. Mom died and life went on.
I wondered about Mom of course. A child has no knowledge of psychology and all of the clinical definitions that could be used to describe the effect of my mom’s death on my psyche. All I knew was that this woman that everyone else knew, and who was dressed in a nursing uniform staring out at me from an 8×10 picture frame, was someone who was supposed to be in my life but simply – wasn’t. For many years, I was envious of my brothers and sisters because they had known her. My ever-present curiosity of this woman I never knew was fueled by story after story from my siblings of how she would give them rides in the wagons they had. Swimming in the CCC reservoir below the house on hot, summer days and going ice skating on the frozen ponds on the old place during the cold Montana winters were activities they were able to share with her. During my childhood, when my siblings would talk of her, I tried to imagine what life would be like with her around.
“Remember the time she shot Dad’s pigs?” My older brother, David, laughed as he looked across the table at Jim, the middle brother of the five.
“Oh shit, yeah! She was pissed! But the Old Man finally got the fence built didn’t he?” and they both laughed as I begged them to tell me more.
“Well,” Dave started, “Dad had these pigs over at the old place, and they kept getting into Mom’s garden. She kept telling him ‘Lester, if you don’t help me get that fence built around that garden, we’re gonna have pork on the table sooner than you think.’ But Dad just never got around to it and this went on for a while. Finally one day, Dad came home from the field, and there were two dead pigs lying in the yard! So, needless to say, the fence went up right after the butchering was done!” Jim and Dave both laughed; their faces gleamed as they recalled this vision of their childhood still fresh in their minds.
I sat at the table next to them, trying to imagine the scene at the old place. Under the shadow of the pine-tree ridge, two dead pigs were lying next to the garden that had vegetable plants torn up from the earth, exposed to the elements as Mom calmly placed the rifle back on the gun rack that hung on the living room wall.
By the time I turned 16, I became inundated with thoughts of her. I had needling questions inside of me that asked what role my mom played in my personality. Perhaps this was because I was finally cognizant of the fact that since first grade, I had been surrounded by other young girls who had mothers that were alive. My friends had moms who were active in their daughter’s lives. These moms attended parent-teacher conferences, ironed their dresses, and took pictures of them while they sang at school Christmas concerts. All I had of my mom were stories from other people’s memories and two faded photographic images of my own memories of her.
In the shadows of a dim kitchen light, Mom was standing at the stove in the house we lived in for a brief time in town. I remember standing at the top of the stairs that led to the basement. I wanted to go down to my brother’s rooms because I could hear their voices below me. As I looked down at the stairs made of weathered fir, I heard her voice warning me to not go down or I would fall. Her back was to me, but she knew what I was up to and the sternness in her voice made me stop my tiny bare foot in mid-air as I approached the first grey step downward.
Another faded snapshot is of Mom leaning over the kitchen counter, looking down on me in the living room while I unwrap my birthday present. This greatly anticipated gift came after watching endless commercials on the television, and I can remember the smile on her face as I watched my “Baby-Go-Bye-Bye” doll drive her wind-up car around the living room floor. Mom’s dark hair was neatly combed, and she was wearing a short sleeve white shirt with little flowers embroidered on the lapel.
Because these images haunted me relentlessly in my young adult life, I began to ask more questions about Mom. Everyone I talked to, including Dad, had nothing but wonderful things to say about her. It was as if she was this perfect being who had a Mary Poppins presence that touched all those around her. She was a nurse – an R.N. no less! She was funny, cheerful, kind hearted, a wonderful mother, great cook and an amazing shot with a rifle.
I wanted to know her personality. What made her laugh? What made her cry? What were her weaknesses? She had to have some negative attributes; that was only human! What gave her strength? What were her regrets? What feelings did she have raising seven children on a ranch in the Missouri River Breaks, 23 miles from the nearest town? Did she have any true female companions to vent about her kids or husband when she was upset about typical parenting or marriage issues? And, most importantly, what parts of her were inside of me?
It was frustrating as hell and there were many times when I was down-right pissed off at God. I had been told by Dad many times that “God is mysterious and He knows best” but how could He take her from me? What kind of God allows a 43-year old woman, wife and mother to die in a single car accident? My friends had moms – how come He didn’t take them to heaven? We never even got to say goodbye.
In my late-twenties, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska and struggling to find a full-time teaching job so I could use my college degree while trying to find a way out of a marriage that had been broken by betrayal. My life had reached a point of sadness I never thought possible but I had a friend who had also lost her mother at a young age. Over wine or coffee, Rose and I often talked of our mothers and how their void in our lives affected us. Besides my sister, Nona, I had never met another woman who had lost her mother while young and had to deal with the pain afterwards. Rose and I bonded over the loss and shared stories of our childhoods and how we managed to survive it all. One day, she came knocking at my door and, as I opened it, her feet and words rushed towards me.
“Oh my God, Mary! You’ve got to read this book! I was at the bookstore poking around and stumbled on it. It’s so awesome and it explains so much! I haven’t been able to put it down!” and she thrust Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (Edelman, 1995. Delta.)at me. After thumbing through the book at Rose’s direction, I purchased the book for myself and sent another copy to Nona.
I finally realized why I felt a sense of sadness every year around the month of May. Two never-ending anniversaries that were linked to this missing woman overwhelmed that particular month: Mother’s Day and May 26th, the date of her death. I learned that more anniversaries which serve as constant reminders would follow me throughout my life; weddings, babies, graduations, and her birthday. All of these events are typically linked to the relationship between every woman and her mother. And, in the case of a motherless daughter, the death day is also an anniversary.
While reading this book, I also began to look at Dad through different eyes. Edelman’s research found that many fathers who lose their wives will marry within two years of the death of their spouses. They feel overwhelmed by facing life on their own and, especially if there are children, this feeling is often much more than they can bear. However, my dad never did that. In fact, after Mom’s funeral, I was told that several people offered to take us kids and help raise us. They didn’t believe that a single man, living on forty acres in the middle of the Missouri River Breaks, could continue to raise six kids on his own. There were also suggestions that he remarry, especially so he could have help raising the two little girls left behind by their mother. Dad refused all offers, no matter how good their intentions, and vowed to not break up his family. He also refused to remarry because he felt that no woman could ever take the place of his wife or our mother.
Edelman’s book explained that the death of my mom actually contributed to the person I am. Many people have told me that I’m strong, independent, and fiercely determined. These are positive traits that I’m proud to have, and I’ve heard that Mom had these traits as well. However, as I grew older I could not disregard my dad’s constant presence in my life.
At the end of Motherless Daughters, there is a wonderful analogy of how a mother influences her daughter even after the mother’s death.
“Nature often offers metaphors more elegant than any we can manufacture. In the redwood ecosystem, all seeds are contained in pods called burls, tough brown clumps that grow where the mother tree’s trunk and root system meet. When the mother tree is logged, blown over, or destroyed by fire the trauma stimulates the burls’ growth hormones and the seeds release, and the trees sprout around her, creating the circle of daughters. The daughter trees grow by absorbing the sunlight their mother cedes to them when she dies. And they get the moisture and nutrients they need from their mother’s root system which remains intact even after her leaves die. Although the daughters exist independently of their mother above ground, they continue to draw sustenance from her underneath.”
When I read this passage, I could see this beautiful image in my mind – the young sapling trees full of fresh, green leaves that seem like hands holding onto each other, are circling the dead mother in their midst. The sunlight, filtering through the trees of the redwoods still standing, falls onto the shoulders of these daughters as they sway in the breeze that sweeps through the damp forest around them.
However, it was the vision of the giant redwood standing nearby that intrigued me even more. As I thought about Edelman’s analogy, I envisioned this remaining redwood as the father left behind. He was still there, his strong branches outstretched, providing shade and shelter from the storms that would threaten his daughters as they strived to grow. Because of his rooted sense of responsibility to see that his children reach adulthood safe and sound, he could not move. He had to stay and remain constant in their lives, providing that protection and filling the void of the mother who was lost to the best of his ability.
Edelman’s book also talks of the four different types of fathers: The “I’m Okay, You’re Okay Father”, the “Helpless Father”, the “Distant Father”, and the “Heroic Father.” I could see a few traits of three of the first fathers in Dad, but the “Heroic Father” was the one who resembled him the most.
This type of father doesn’t bury his head in the sand after the mother dies, nor does he keep emotionally distant from his children or turn into a sad sap. While he struggles with his own grief over his loss and doesn’t do everything perfectly, he is still the father who is in control of the household. In the absence of the mother, a safe environment is established and the support he offers helps develop positive self-esteem in his daughters who are left behind. While he has his limits, the heroic father becomes the rock – the giant redwood still standing – that his daughters know they can depend on.
Yes, I lost my mother at a very young age. Yes, this was very tragic. Yes, I often wondered about her over the years but I was blessed to have Dad. Mom’s traits are surely in me, but Dad raised, shaped and molded me. His devotion, faith and constant love made me who I am today. Thirteen years of turmoil beginning in my late twenties helped me to see that Dad and I had more in common than me just being a daughter he loved.