Mom had hazel brown eyes, soft and sad, which betrayed the smile that usually greeted others around her. I always assumed I knew her, the woman who had known me longer than anyone else. Looking through old photos, however, I caught glimpses of a person much broader and varied in mood and experience than I had remembered or even realized. These images portrayed a woman with a life full of dreams and desires which existed long before I entered the world, one of gatherings, fond friendships, and miscellaneous adventures.
Mom loved to embellish her stories, especially ones that portrayed her as mysterious or a trend setter. She befriended gypsies and sketchy characters, and was drawn to people who seemed to live on the fringes of mainstream society. It was not uncommon for her, during the course of conversation, to emphasize just how edgy and different she could be by beginning statements with, “People think I’m crazy because…” or “People just can’t believe that…” followed by some fact from her past. I sometimes felt that her insistence on dramatizing daily interactions was prompted by her lack of ability to pursue the life she really wanted to live; she had mentioned on more than one occasion that she made career choices based on what her father would approve of, and had participated in major life events because of money that would be forfeited if she decided not to follow through, rather than listening to her instincts. I also believe that this behavior was a subconscious reaction to the myriad of physical conditions she endured toward the end of her life which were slowly diminishing her independence.
Her hair was thicker than mine, and (with the exception of a wig-wearing phase in the ’70s) she had let it gray naturally. Her natural salt and pepper coloring was something she was quite proud of; she loved to recount how all the women at the office assumed she had it done professionally. She had longer legs and fingers than me, and there was an ever-present kindness that emanated from her regardless of her mood. She wanted to be a private investigator and a psychic. She was drawn to Native American culture and spiritualism. She loved cop procedural programs. I used to discount these leanings as being ingrained in her generation of women, predilections adopted by her and others her age via the influence of marketing and bingo parlor conversation. As I mature and grow kinder toward myself, this softer perspective extends out toward her and others; I see now that I was not giving my mother credit for being the unique person that she was, someone with a vivid imagination and desires just as great – and valid – as my own.
Images from earlier years showed Mom to be quite beautiful, even though she never acknowledged or realized this quality in herself. I have found that belief holds tremendous power and influence over the shape of our reality; the more Mom had denied her own beauty, the more her appearance shifted away from her natural femininity. She became less curvy and defined, gained weight, and dressed without the care of someone who feels attractive. My sister recalled a time when Mom solemnly gazed at her reflection in the mirror and said, “I look like a man.” While that was a bit of an exaggeration, neither my sister nor I could deny that Mom’s appearance was far from where it had been.
She remained single after I entered my teens. There was a palpable longing in her, a desire to be loved and cherished which had long been subdued by a sense of unworthiness. Only a few years before she died, she was pursued by a man who lived in the same Assisted Living complex. He proposed to her, making broad, sweeping, romantic plans for them to run away to Las Vegas, where he had lived in his prime. She refused to get romantically involved with him, however, even though she cared for him deeply. She would talk about his attempts to woo her in the same way she recounted other events in her life, as though it was almost too fantastic to believe; such a venture should remain a story to be retold with flair, suspended in a state of possibility.
Her ability to sublimate her own dreams in order to uplift those of others was almost epic. She had played the roles of wife, mother, friend, neighbor, coworker, and caregiver – but the woman, the lover, the individual…those parts were muted once she divorced my father, not long after my sister and I arrived on the scene. Until more recently, I followed her lead, shouldering this lonely way of being like it was my inheritance. It was difficult for me to watch her remain alone when I knew what a tremendous capacity for love she had, as well as a great desire to share that love. I am, however, determined to veer from her example in this regard; I have decided to lay down that burden, that legacy of loneliness which she never intended to pass on to me. I think she would be greatly relieved to see that, as she just wanted both my sister and I to be happy.
Mother’s Day lunch, 2012
That said, the process of grieving, reflecting, and pondering my Mom’s life has revealed a boldness and depth in her which existed in contradiction to and defiance of mournful recollection. As I review old photos and talk with my father about the years when they were together, I am able to piece together a bigger picture which gives me peace of mind. In her life, there ultimately was a balance between sadness and joy, regret and satisfaction, desire and belief. In spite of the unfinished business and unrealized dreams, there is much evidence that Mom had a spectrum of wonderful experiences in her life. I find this to be a hopeful and soothing reminder that we are always expanding, never done, and that no time on this earth is wasted.
She would love that I am writing about this, working at unearthing those hidden aspects and events which made her a beautiful, unique woman. But more than this, she would be thrilled to know that she managed to get her wish after all; in the 265 days I have lived since her passing, I’ve come to understand that there are parts of my mother which will always, to some extent, remain a mystery. I think I can make peace with that – it suits her and makes me smile.
Mother’s Day means more to me now than it ever did, marking the existence of the dear and complex woman named Sharon McMahon. It was an honor to be her daughter; it is an even greater one to be entrusted with her memory.