Puzzling Over People

Wouldn’t it be great if there were practice runs for losing loved ones? Like they pass on but just temporarily, so that you can do the work that seems to come out of losing someone close, and then get to use those lessons you’ve gained towards a better relationship. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my relationship with my mom recently, but it seems slightly futile as she is not here for me to practice my newfound relationship skills upon. So I end up just writing down revelations and sighing a lot.

My latest mom-lesson was triggered by a string of things — which is how triggers work after all. I was applying to a writing retreat called Tusen Takk. I applied because of the name. Tusen takk means “thank you” in Norwegian. Here comes the string: I lived in Oslo, Norway for a year (not by myself, precocious as I was); my dad was teaching at the university, so the family accompanied him on his sabbatical. I attended nursery school at what I believe was called (a?) Børnehaven. It rained a lot and I remember a plaid rubber rain coat, how heavy and wet it felt against my little body. Anyway, when we returned home, my mother took to saying tusen takk for a while. You know how we return from big trips and try to hold onto some shred of what we just experienced as long as we possibly can? (Like the last time I was in Paris and I swore I would only wear heels when I went out for the rest of my life. Like French women. Before the pandemic. So, yeah). At any rate, when I saw a retreat with this Norwegian name — located in my home state of Michigan, no less — I felt compelled to apply. (I’ll let you know if I get it).

This all got me to thinking how whimsical my mother could be — and must have been so long ago. The research shows that the manner in which our very first years go can greatly affect the way our lives will progress as we grow older. If there is love to be had at the start, a whole lot can go wrong and yet we can prevail, because we stand upon this little child-size foundation of confidence that says we are worthy of being loved. (And so it goes to the contrary, apparently). I think my mom was pretty loving at the start. I have seen photos where she’s holding me or my sister and looking like a very loving mother, happy to have her children in her arms. I recall funny songs she would sing — mostly to our dogs, but I think to entertain us, as well. Like Popocatepetl. It does not seem to actually exist as a song, but it is most certainly a volcano in Mexico. My mom would sing, “Popocatepetl, Popocatepetl, mountain of looooove…” I can hear her intonation even as I write this. If you read, “The Legend of Popocatepetl & Iztaccíhuatl: A Love Story” you’ll see where the “love” part came from! https://www.inside-mexico.com/the-legend-of-popocatepetl-iztaccihuatl/

Now you might be thinking, So what if your mom sang funny songs. That’s what moms do. But, you see, this particular mom in question soon stopped the “silly love songs,” and in place of that music silence invaded our home. That kind of silence you can slice with a proverbial knife. An angry, resentful kind of hush that made us sure a shoe was going to drop, but of course we never knew when. That silence, that sadness in our home, is what I carried away from it. It is why I took flight as soon as I possibly could, why before that I spent more time at my best friend’s house in a subdivision than our quite charming home located on an acre of land. It’s why I did a whole bunch of other things that did not reflect a whole lot of self-esteem. I just hated the silence.

But now. Now I have had so much time to think over this past, almost three years of time spent far from my mother’s being — and all the varying requirements of those last decades. I am remembering the songs and the quirky art projects and wondering how they vanished so quickly — from our lives, and from the forefront of my memory. And that’s what I mean by suggesting how magic it would be to have a second chance to see my mom. I mean I forgave her all the anger a long time ago, but I did not really engage her as someone who sang songs about Aztec princesses and thought decoupaging kids’ lunchboxes was a fun idea. I responded to her as the woman she had come to be — on the outside anyway. But imagine if I had spoken to the playful, witty mom with a penchant for foreign languages and sword dances — even when the woman in front of me was deeply focused on the inequities of life. Might that have awakened those dormant traits in her? (Traits, I might add, that she shared with her grandchildren now and again. And for that I am so very thankful).

I do not know the answer to this question, of course. And now I cannot experimentally look upon my mom as that young mother, or ask questions about when things all went wrong. I don’t have the opportunity to encourage her to explain feelings, describe the process she engaged in of leaving her children behind in a certain kind of way. I know she knew that’s what she did, but I never gave her the space to say it. I was too busy combatting what was emanating from her spirit at the moment. There is just so much more room to think about people when they are not in your life anymore. Ironic, no? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, yes, and it also makes the mind grow broader. I see my mother — and my father — so much more expansively than before. I just wish I could talk to those expansive figures now, no longer spending time fending off old hurts from days gone by, or explaining my apparently alien self to them. But alas, that will not happen in this realm. And so I pray. And I write in my journal. And I bend the ear of a few good friends, lean on my children now and again, as I slowly put together these puzzle pieces that are producing a picture much more beautiful and radiant than I was able to see in those disarrayed pieces of mom, so many still in the box where she kept them.

Yes, I think we are all puzzles. We are formed with pieces of nature and nurture, jumbled together, ill-fitting at times, fully missing at other times. I have always admired folks who sit down to do a puzzle, impressed by their patience and the focus required. I think I am becoming one of those people in my own way, albeit a bit later in life than I would have liked. And because I cannot use this newfound wisdom on my mother, I am going to put it to use considering the other human beings in my life. I am going to step back and look at them more fully, missing pieces and all, and simply admire their unique images coming slowly to light in front of me. And for that lesson I must say, “tusen takk, Mom.”

4 thoughts on “Puzzling Over People

  1. Oh Katie, this is such a poignant, beautifully written piece. I am weeping over here as I think about your Mom and my Mom and the history they shared with us. And, also the history we are left to piece together from our shards of memories and so many complicated narratives. Your piece feels like the start of a memoir….so much wisdom and eloquence. As we both say to our students, keep going…


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