Just as Much a Mom
She was probably a neighbor, a friend of your mother, or the mother of one of your friends. She could stand in, when necessary, for any maternal exercise: tending a boo-boo, offering up an afternoon snack, tucking you in during a sleepover. Occasionally she reprimanded you – and she had the right – you may have spent as much time at her house under her supervision as you did at your own. It’s hard to describe everyone’s childhood, and it’s tricky territory because not all of us had a pleasant one. But I’d wager that most of us have at least one memory that includes this formidable female role, one that deserves its own archetype: the woman who is just as much as a mom to you as your own mother.
Mine lived across the road. Mary was a mother to five handsome, thoughtful boys (who’ve grown into handsome, thoughtful men) and, by default, just as much as a mom to my brother, sister and me while we were growing up. It was on her cement porch that I fell chin first, and I’m not sure who took me to the hospital for stitches, my mother or Mary. It was in her kitchen that her youngest boys and I removed all the bowls and dishes from the corner cupboard with the lazy-susan inside so we could spin around until we were dizzy. It was in the old boat-building workshop behind her house that I learned to ride a 2-wheel bicycle without training wheels, and it was in the abandoned chicken coop within her view that I stole my first kiss.
It was the aroma of her brownies that drew us in from the fields beyond her yard to wash and rest a moment, the only thing worthy of interrupting the hours of imaginary battles we fought and the stories we played out. When I decided to experiment as a coiffeur – unfortunately on one of her sons – Mary threatened, in the nicest way, to chop off my hair, too. When I called him nicknames that displeased her, she knew exactly which diminutive of my name to call out to cease the teasing.
In high school, when I hosted unapproved parties while my parents were away, she said nothing. But on every other occasion, she had the perfect words to offer: I still have the card she mailed to me as a freshman in college, the letter she sent when I moved abroad, the note from her when my father died. I’ve saved her poignant emails, usually a short message of only a few lines but every single word well used. She wrote to me just after my mother’s memorial service: “Sometimes when the tasks fall away, grief increases.” One short sentence that drew from me a stream of tears pent-up, her words apparently the exact key to fit that lock.
I learned last week that Mary has passed away. A memorial service held for her over the weekend, which I could not attend, was described as original and beautiful. She had chosen passages for each of her sons and their wives to read, and selected the music that should pace the event. I wept that I could not organize my schedule to be there.
There was another woman who was as much a mom to me as my mother, during my high school years. We called her by her first name, Kitty, and we called her husband Mr. Hunk (he was salt-n-pepper handsome). She deftly guided our teenaged souls through the travails of adolescence, permitting enough wildness so that we could test our mettle, but reeling us in before we embarrassed ourselves. She knew things about me that my mom didn’t, and made it her business to help me rather than tell on me – all of this, somehow, enacted without any disrespect for my mother. That’s the trick, what makes this role so important: the woman who’s as much as a mom to you is a quiet, wise advisor, a guide on the side who relates to you in ways your own mom cannot. She’s a mother without baggage. I can still picture Kitty: salt-n-pepper classy and sharper than nails. She’d hold court at her kitchen table, letting us know that she knew exactly what mischief we were up to. Her memorial service was years ago; I regret that I missed it, too.
In February when my mother died, I walked across the road to share the news with Mary. Her house was like something out of a fairy tale, cozy with crocheted blankets, elegantly cluttered with handcrafted objects d’art and pictures of grandchildren. We sat at her table. The sun streamed in the window highlighting the distinctive line of her jaw. She must have known the purpose of the visit, but waited to let me spill the words. “Well there it is,” she said, when I told her.
It meant everything to us that all five of her boys and their families came home last May to attend my mother’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen them all together in one place at one time in nearly thirty years. After the service, I stood on our porch and looked across the road at their familiar lawn, alive with people: not only the boys, as we called them, but their wives and their children – Mary’s grandchildren – running about, engaged in every kind of game. The occasion that collected them was sad, but I remember thinking how lovely for Mary to have her entire family around her. Maybe that was my mother’s last gift to her, to bring them all home together for her, one last time.
How stunning is a lifelong friendship? Mary lived across the road for all of the fifty-plus years that my mother lived in our old Victorian farmhouse on the hill overlooking the lake you can’t see anymore because the trees have grown tall and broad. She and my mother were pregnant together, they reared toddlers at the same time, they readied children for school, standing across the street with their youngsters, pushing them on to the bus with metal lunch boxes and kisses. They took turns keeping an eye on eight children running amok in the fields beyond our two homesteads, or jumping on rooftops or playing spy-ring in a dank basement. Each with her distinctive call beckoning her own children home, together a duet of discipline and encouragement that crossed the road back and forth – unlike the rest of us – without having to look both ways.
Two women raised their children together, sent them off to college at the same time, buried their husbands but kept on living; worked, retired, became grandmothers, wizened women and family matriarchs. That they died within months of each other makes perfect sense, and yet the reality of it is still a shock.
The recent process of clearing out memories of my mother produces questions, and I was hoping, on my next trip home, to cross the road, walk up the long lawn to knock on Mary’s door and sit at her table with the sun streaming in and ask her those questions that now must be answered in my imagination. Instead I’ll walk up to the tree where her ashes are resting to place a stone there to thank her for her tenderness toward our whole family, to thank her for the caring eye she kept on my mother during the last year of her life, and mostly to thank her for being just as much a mom to me.