From Mother to Daughter
My mother and I were never really close. Even when I was little, she pushed me too much. “Maye, what happened on this test, Maye, why did this grade drop, Maye, Maye, Maye!” I resented her.
“Mommy, Mommy!” My 6-year-old shrieked, climbing into the back of the van. “Miss Clearcy told us to make a family tree tonight! I’m so excited!”
“Would you like me to make you some cookies before you start, sweetie?” I asked, tight lipped.
“Cookies!” Crystal shouted in delight. I made a sharp turn on the road.
My husband, Darryl, was in his usual stressed out mood when he returned from work that day. I waited until we were in bed, then told him the only way I knew how. “Darryl, Marmee’s dead.”
Darryl calmly placed the book he was reading on the nightstand. “Who’s dead?”
“Marmee- my mother.” I always forgot that “Marmee” was a secret code between us. The only bond I seemed to share with her emotionally was that book, Little Women. She used to read me chapters to make me go to bed each night. Marmee was what the daughters called their mother.
“Oh my G-d,” my husband stammered. “But- how-“
“Daddy called me,” I explained tearfully and then suddenly everything came tumbling out, Chicago, the heart attack, all the memories I’d been reliving. “I want to go to the funeral.” I concluded, “and I want to take Crystal with me.”
Darryl shot me one of his favorite looks, the one my brothers called “the observer looking upon the primitive species.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mary Elizabeth.”
I clenched my fists, hating him for calling me by my full name. The only one who ever did that was my father. Marmee had nicknamed me “Maye” at birth and everyone else followed her into the easy nickname. But Daddy refused, always insisting on going “Mary Elizabeth this” and “Mary Elizabeth that.” “It’s the name she was given!” he’d exclaim in a voice shocked that people would think him anything but sensible.
“I have to do this, Darryl,” I said evenly. “I have to say goodbye.”
Darryl sighed in frustration. “Well you can indulge yourself into all the self destruction you want but you are not dragging my daughter into this.” He ran a hand through his silky blond hair. “I forbid it.”
“And why should you have all the say in our daughter’s upbringing?” I demanded. “Let me ask you this- who picks her up from school each day? Who tucks her into bed each night?”
“Your point is taken, Mary Elizabeth.” Darryl said darkly.
Now I uttered my own sigh of frustration. “It’s just… I think she should know she had a grandmother.”
Darryl seemed to consider this, pondering it in his over serious way. “Fine!” he blurted out finally, surprising me after his stubbornness. Maybe a small fraction of his mind sympathized with my case. “Just know that you don’t have my agreement on this, Mary Elizabeth.” The tone of his voice suggested that “his agreement” was always the voice of reason and without it I was lost. I’d heard the tone several times before.
Sometimes I wonder if I was too impulsive and rash in my marriage. I wonder if I made the match too quickly, to get far away from home, the life Darryl offered me. I wonder if I was so intent on that that I didn’t realize that he was my father underneath it all.
We only dated for five months. He was my first boyfriend so I must have figured this is it. I was 23, and working as a part time secretary at a law firm. He was five years older than me and already working as a sales executive for an affiliate of a network station. Anyway, he noticed me on a business trip to my little firm and talked for a few minutes before his appointment. He asked me out that night and we even kept in touch when he returned home, halfway across the country, to Maryland. Then… it was done. I was married at age 23 to Darryl Thompson with my father’s blessing. I left Topeka, Kansas to start a new life somewhere else, just like my mother had done seven years before.
I broke the news to my daughter, casually, while driving her to school the next day. “Crystal, tomorrow Mommy and you will go on an air plane and go to Chicago to see Mommy’s mother.”
“I didn’t know I had a grandmommy!” Crystal exclaimed, peppy, upbeat, excited for a new day. “Why didn’t she come to help with my family tree?”
“Mommy and Grandmommy… haven’t… haven’t seen each other in a long time.” I fought to keep my voice steady. “Now we’re going to Chicago to say… to say goodbye. Grandmommy…. Grandmommy passed away.”
“What’s ‘passed away’ mean?” Crystal demanded loudly, inquisitive as always.
“Passed away means… de- gone. Gone up to heaven. Do you… do you understand, Crystal?”
“I think so,” Crystal said somberly. She paused for a second, then said “Heaven’s where all the dead people are, isn’t it?”
I whispered “Yes.”
The next day I returned home from driving my daughter to school to pack our bags. In Crystal’s room, I got a change of clothes, some PJs, then scanned her bookshelf for nighttime reading material. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears. I picked out all the fairy tale classics for her, before she was born, before I even knew her gender.
G-d, I thought, Marmee would freak. She hated fairy tales. Too short and sweet, she would say. At Crystal’s age, I was read chapters from Little Women, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and countless other Victorian classics. Ten years later, when my friends got brand name clothing and Beatles albums for Christmas, I got The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and The Nutcracker tickets.
“Why don’t you buy me normal things?” I demanded in a teenage passion, just a few weeks before she left. “Don’t you want me to fit in at all?”
“Not if it involves blindly following society’s herd of cattle!” Marmee declared. “I want you to learn from the thinkers and schemers of our past, Maye, people who changed the world, not just lived in it, and some day I want you to sign their creed.”
I felt the wetness of tears on my face and pulled out the thick volume of Grimms Fairy Tales. Tonight I’ll make Crystal read one on her own, I promised. For Marmee.
That night, Darryl drove us to the airport and stayed until our flight was called. Swiftly, he hugged Crystal in his arms. “I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you too, Daddy.” Crystal murmured.
He put her down and moved onto me. Our kiss was distant, casual, as if it were just him leaving on a business trip instead of me going to my long lost mother’s funeral. “Take care of yourself, Maye.”
“I will. I am.” By going. “Goodbye, Darryl.”
The plane ride up to Chicago was the easiest part of the whole trip. Crystal’s energy was quelled with the coloring books and word puzzles I packed. As for me, I even managed to get a little sleep, a luxury lost to me for the next few days.
I had called my brothers and arranged to meet them in a small hotel on the outskirts of Little Nook at nine PM. At 9:15 I burst into the lobby, daughter in arms. “Hi, I have a reservation under the name of Thompson.” I told the receptionist.
“Yes ma’am,” she said in a strange southern accent. Punching a few keys on her computer she continued “Thompson, room 305. Third floor.” Reaching under her desk she produced a ring of keys. After flipping through them she handed me one. “Have a nice stay.”
“Maye.” A familiar voice called out my name. I turned and saw my brothers behind me. “My G-d, it’s been ages.” They reached out to give me a hug, waking Crystal.
“Honey, this is your Uncle Jack and your Uncle Michael.”
It had been nearly seven years since I’d seen them. We had all come to our childhood home for Thanksgiving when I was pregnant with Crystal. We spent a short time eating a dinner I’d prepared for a long time. Then, we sat in awkward silence as my brothers rambled on and on about their lab work, trying to outsmart each other. Finally my father, tired of his sons competing, turned to my husband. “And how’s the business world goin, Darryl?”
Having been offered an invitation, Darryl launched into explaining all of the current events of company sales, never once including me in the conversation but to ask “isn’t that right, honey?”
But when I look back on it all, I suppose it was alright. My mind was elsewhere anyway, on other Thanksgivings of the past. Not the more recent ones, after Marmee left, before I was married, when Jack and Michael would come home from college or work and sit in awkward silence while I prepared the turkey. But the Thanksgivings of my childhood, when my brothers would complain about grade school and I’d be reciting anything from “Lamb Chop” to Beatles verses. The years when everything was perfect and just the way it should be. And eight years after she left, I was still expecting that perfection to come back, for Marmee to walk in with a platter of food and ask “You want some more turkey, John?”
“Are you listening to me, Maye?” Jack’s voice broke into my thoughts, sharp, sharp like my father’s. My eldest brother was even beginning to look like him too, like he looked after Marmee left, tall with black hair just beginning to fade to gray. Michael looked like him too, except his hair was jet black, like Daddy’s was when I was a child.
“Yeah, I’m listening.” I said, tearing myself away from the memories. Memories were hard to deal with, especially when the memories were about someone who died.
“Well, I’m saying that the funeral is gonna be really strange. There’s gonna be a service but Mom’s gotten involved with a group of women her age, who practice all these ‘avant garde’ traditions or some shit like that- oh…” He glanced worriedly at Crystal. “Pardon my French.”
“That’s OK,” I assured my brother. “She’s too drowsy to remember anything you’re saying. But I don’t understand, Jack. What… avant garde traditions…”
“It’s what Mom’s friends call the things they practice.” Michael stepped smoothly into the gap. “Among them is a new type of funeral. It’s structured in a way that everyone who was close to Mom goes into the room where the casket is and spends a few minutes alone with her. And she’ll be surrounded by her favorite possessions; everyone is allowed to take one.”
“Mommy…” Crystal said thickly. “Can I go to bed now…”
“Of course,” I replied, looking at my watch. “Oh dear me, look at the time!”
“We can meet down here in the morning, Maye,” Jack offered. “Go out for breakfast or something before the funeral. Take it easy, OK?”
“Sure,” I said uncertainly, wondering how easy that would be to carry out.
The next day I awoke and took my daughters to meet with three strangers, my two brothers and the short blonde clinging to my eldest brother’s arm. The girl was pasty colored and looked like an 18 year old with a serious eating disorder.
“Maye, Crystal, meet my fiancé, Patti,” Jack introduced.
“Oh Jack,” I said, surprised. “You should have called.”
“Sorry Sis,” Jack said. “Too busy.”
Michael scoffed. “Not busy enough to avoid falling in love with his secretary though. I can’t tear myself away from the lab to make such a serious commitment.” There was a hint of smugness in his young voice.
We dined over coffee and doughnuts in a small café. Jack, as usual, couldn’t shut up. “Just you wait until you get outside,” he warned me. “You pass some nobody on the street, mention Mom’s name and snap! They’ve heard of her, they’ve been treated by her, something.”
“Mom was a psychologist,” Michael explained.
That comment struck me like a bullet through the heart. Until that moment my husband, the long hours businessman, and my brothers, the hard working scientists, were the most successful, the most educated people I’d ever known. But Marmee… Marmee’d gotten a PhD, was a doctor. And she went out and helped people, not just gained sales or watched over bubbling chemicals. A dark force seemed to be tugging from the edges of my brain, memories from long past, readying themselves to be revealed in the present.
By the time Marmee’s ceremony had started, I understood what my brothers meant by “avant garde traditions.” You’d think her funeral would be gray and dismal, just like all the other funerals I’d been to, but not Marmee’s. It was almost… happy. The casket was closed and in the front of the church but almost all of the people who went up to the podium with memoirs had a smile on their faces. Tears of joy would cascade down their cheeks as they recollected her dedication to her work, love and compassion for people, and all the fun and joy they’d had with her in the last fifteen years. Only as the last of her friends wrapped up did a sad occurrence begin.
A slam of the door suddenly diverted everyone’s attention to a disheveled young woman running down the aisle. Approaching the podium, her body heaved with gasps and sobs. Nobody made a move. “Mary..” the lady began in a voice hoarse with despair. “Mary Halligan was my psychologist. And…” Here she paused, trying to regain her composure. “And the best thing that ever happened to me. She was the one who got me to leave Tom… my husband, who was abusing me. She helped me leave him by being there for me ‘cuz he was my world… but now she’s gone too.” She let out a howl, the howl of a person in the deepest of despair. “G-d bless Mary Halligan! She was an angel if ever I saw one. She…” her voice dropped to a whisper. “She was a sure gift to the world.”
I heard a cough and choke before realizing that they belonged to me. Crystal gave me a look of worry and curiosity as I dropped her out of my lap and ran to the bathroom.
I persuaded Patti to look after Crystal while I strolled down Main Street of Little Nook. All these thoughts were going through my head, thoughts that were uncomfortable, painful even, but vital to my existence. Memories.
The Sunday my mother left was a rotten one. I was in agony over the breakup of the Beatles, Dad had a bad day at work. As usual after a hard day’s work, he was insistent on a “nice family dinner” and had dragged me downstairs. I was sulking in my chair and he was drumming his fingers across the table. “Mary,” he roared, unable to be calm. “Where’s the meatloaf?”
My mother entered from the kitchen door, but not bearing the dinner either Dad or I expected. Instead she had her coat and purse draped over an arm as if she were preparing to go out.
Which she was. “I’m leaving, John,” she announced.
I don’t think my father could get the thought through his head. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m going away,” she continued. “Going to college. It’s all been arranged. I’m going back to school.”
“What the hell?” my father roared. Glancing at me he pulled Marmee into a corner and started whispering hoarsely, “We already talked about this. Michael’s almost through with his bachelor’s, Jack is still getting used to the real world. I got no money to spend, definitely not on a woman going to college.”
“And I said that’s not good enough for me,” Marmee spoke with conviction. “I need to do this John. I’m using some money I saved up. I’ve been a good housewife, a good mother for 24 years, John. I have to do something for myself.”
“Well G-d, Mary, of all the selfish-“
“Selfish?” my mother spoke in rage. “Selfish? Because of my gender I’ve been someone else’s property my whole life! Someone’s daughter, someone’s wife-“ she glanced sadly at me. “Someone’s mother. But I’ve never been me. Selfish? For the past 43 years I have been totally selfless! How dare you make such accusations!” She started crying there and I forgot about my own sorrows and stared at her in horror. Something was going to happen, something that would change all our lives forever.
“Goodbye John,” she sniffed. “Goodbye Maye.” Dodging my father, she ran outside.
“Mary,” Daddy shouted. “Mary!” He tore away from the house, me on his heels.
Marmee was in the car, already packed with all of her belongings. We blanched and froze in shock and she sped out of our driveway that beautiful Sunday evening, sped out without looking back.
Tears gushed out of me, tears of a 31 year old, and it struck me that through all these 15 years, I hadn’t cried for her. I hadn’t cried for her until her death. I never even liked her much until then.
I ducked into a small coffee shop, slid into a seat and grabbed some napkins from a dispenser. Memories bring out the worst side to me so I stash them away into a small box of my mind and lock the door, hoping it won’t burst. But when it does, there’s nothing I can do about it but relive the memories of a selfish 16 year old, too wrapped up in pop culture to notice her mother’s pain, who turned into a stupid adult, unwilling to save herself.
It was because of Marmee that I became the way I am. She was insistent on my getting a good education, on going to college like my brothers. Daddy was against it though. “Women don’t need schooling past grade school- they need to marry, reproduce, and keep home. Mary Elizabeth doesn’t even want to go to college.”
Which was true. Because my mother was for it, I was against it. She was too controlling, always barging into my life. “What did you learn today Maye? Did you finish your homework?” She was too one sided, not giving thought to my social life or even my emotional health. Plus, by the time she left, I was a full-fledged teenager. It was my duty to stand against everything she believed in and support everything she hated.
Which was why I became her. I became her, I was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s wife… even someone’s mother. But in the process of being everyone I forgot to be one person. Mary Elizabeth Halligan Thompson. Maye. Me.
And I had stuck all these thoughts into my little psyche box, because they were too uncomfortable and painful to think about, just like how Dorothy Higgins said I was the scum of the earth who’d never amount to anything in 3rd grade, how I felt attracted to another man on my honeymoon, how I wished Crystal dead during labor. Or maybe I stored them away in my box because I was too scared to change them. Daddy always said it was hard to admit a mistake.
I entered the room where Marmee’s coffin was moved, carrying Crystal in my arms. Unlike I could do for myself, I tried to protect Crystal from scary things in the world, so I held her as we looked at my mother. The casket was opened now and I saw the woman my mother had become. She was shapely and professional looking with graying hair. She had changed since I was 16, and I realized that I expected her to look like me now. I laughed aloud, yes, I had turned into my mother.
Crystal gaped at me in horror. “Mommy, you can’t laugh at a funeral! It’s bad luck!”
Her seriousness struck me as funny. “Sorry sweetheart. So what do you think of your grandmommy?”
“She sounded like a very wonderful woman.” Crystal said solemnly.
I smiled and turned away from my daughter, tears rolling down my cheeks. Here’s my gift to you, Marmee. I thought. This wonderful grand daughter. I don’t know what else I’ve accomplished in these last 15 years. Well, marriage. And I have started doing some community service, you’d like that. Daddy never let me when I was living under his roof. “Why worry about people who are too stupid or lazy to take care of themselves when you’ve got dishes to clean in your own house?” Remember that Marmee? Looking at this dead body, this stranger who was my mother became too much to bear. Placing Crystal on the ground I glanced about at her belongings, surrounding her.
Band-Aid for the Battered: How to Get Out of an Abusive Relationship. Hell, she’d even written a book. I picked it up and leafed through, glancing about the room at the same time. Among other things was stuff that she’d packed with her 15 years ago, of Jack’s, Michael’s, and mine. Preschool drawings and term papers from the past gazed up at me with yellowing edges. But then my eyes rested upon something that struck me cold.
Little Women. The old battered copy that she’d read to me. I dropped Marmee’s book and picked up the other, opening it to the front page. Mary was written in my mother’s strange penmanship. Below, my curvy Maye was placed. I stared at our secret treasure, the gift passed on from mother to daughter, finally understanding its significance after all these years. Without even thinking, I groped around for a pen. “Crystal, could you write your name here for Mommy?” I stooped to her level and held out the book and pen.
My daughter nodded, confusion outlined on her young face. Already questioning the world. She’s yours, Marmee. She took care, placing her name on this book passed through generations.
Once through, I took her hand and led her out the door. “Crystal, do you want me to read you this book my mommy read me? It’s called Little Women.”