I have two big tins of photos from when you were young. I treasure those photos. But I don’t know anything about them.
So many times I wished, when I was younger and newer at this family thing, that you were still around to talk to. I so needed your advice.
I remember the first Thanksgiving without you. Barely 18, I decided I needed to cook Thanksgiving dinner like you always had. The whole thing. All the trimmings. Never mind that you never actually taught me to cook. Probably a good thing since, let’s be real, you weren’t all that good at it. Whatever Swedish farm cooking you learned from your mother never translated very well into modern suburban tastes.
But I tried. I wanted to ask you how to make gravy (that did not go well), how to time the beans with the potatoes, how to set one less place and pretend nothing had changed.
But I couldn’t. So I figured it out, more or less.
I remember the day I got married, without you. Brent was escorted down the aisle by both parents, but the bride had only one. I should have wanted to ask all about how to love someone well for the rest of your life. But yours wasn’t all that long, and besides, I thought I knew. I was young and in love and all.
Thirty years later, I’m still figuring it out, more or less.
I definitely remember wishing you could see the grandbabies and tell me how on earth a mother managed to keep three under five fed, clothed, and non-life-threateningly occupied for more than ten minutes.
But you couldn’t, so I figured it out, more or less.
Let’s be real.
See Mom, you died just at the time a young woman/girl starts to realize she does not know everything and simultaneously begins to realize her mother knows quite a lot. Just at that moment she begins to amass questions she really needs answers to about how to traverse this whole girl to woman bridge. That was lousy timing.
I’ve had to piece together the patterns instead. As I’ve put together your history, I’ve learned more about you from the things you never said and never did more than those you did. Most of all, I’ve learned to have those conversations with my girls. I’ve learned to tell them about my life. To talk honestly, really, no-hold-barred about how life is unfair, and hope is beautiful, and nothing is certain but everything important is.
I’ve learned all the old photos in all the tins mean nothing if they never know the stories behind the faces.
I’ve learned to kick that stoic Swedish heritage to the curb. Well, as best I can given who I am.
There are so many things I know now that I didn’t know about you then. I knew you spent your fourteenth year in a tuberculosis sanitarium fighting for your life rather than getting your first job and eyeing your first high school boys, like I did. I didn’t know you returned home to a new mom. That death and remarriage all happened while you were not even home and not even well. And your brother killed in the war just a few months later. No words.
I wish you had told me those things. I think we could have understood one another better. I wish we had talked about how that felt and how it changed you. I would have liked to know not just that it happened but what it meant to who you were.
But we didn’t, and I didn’t know. I think I know now it caused you to live with the assumption, more than the fear, that those you loved you would lose. I think I understand now that you never let yourself become too attached to anyone after that. I think I know now that’s why we baked cookies together and weeded cucumbers side by side and sewed pillows in tandem, but we never really talked. I knew without a doubt you loved me. I knew you would sacrifice anything for me. But it was assumed, not spoken.
This talking to my kids thing, it didn’t go well for a long time. I, too, followed the patterns I had learned of being together but not knowing one another. But as I thought about what I would have wanted you to tell me, I began to tell it to my children. I began to speak it. I decided to be a real woman for them rather than a mom who had to survive and get everything right and never show her broken spaces.
I told the stories behind the photos.
I loved you, too, mom. I didn’t speak it either. I so wish we had, but I’m glad we both knew it. I guess it’s a funny reverse thank you, to write you a letter to say I’m grateful that is not the heritage I’m passing down anymore. Oh we all have it in our blood, make no mistake. But we four women, your three granddaughters and I, are learning to tell the truth. We’re learning to be free and to be known.
We’re figuring it out. More or less.
Jill Richardson is a writer, speaker, pastor, mom, wife–all on a big, messy adventure of whatever God says comes next. She is a chocolate marzipan and Earl Grey lover, author of five books, Cubs fan, and sort-of empty nester, who writes about grace, courage, and freedom at Brave: Taking on the Life you were Meant to Live. You can follow Jill on Facebook or Twitter.