I intend to add this moving piece by Katy Butler to “The Buzz,” but in the interest of getting it up on Mother’s Day, I’m posting it here first. Katy and I have covered similar subjects over the years, and I’ve always admired her writing. A former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, she is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, forthcoming from Scribner. This essay ran in the Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle on Mother’s Day, 2013.
Katy lost her mother four years ago; mine has been gone almost forty years. It’s an ache that never ends.
Mother’s Day, my mother would often say when I phoned her in Connecticut, was a sentimental holiday cooked up to sell greeting cards. Yet I called anyway, and I think she was secretly pleased by the loving notes I sent her. Ours was not a greeting card relationship.
When she was young, she’d wanted to be an artist. But middle-class women just after World War II mostly got married and stayed home. Her frustrated ambitions, artistry and anger were poured instead into making that home as perfect as she could. She reminded me of the Balinese saying, “We have no art: We do everything as well as we can.”
I was nothing like that. As a teenager, I felt like another woman’s daughter, incapable of meeting her high standards and frequent criticism. She wore her blonde-streaked hair swept up in an elegant French twist. I was awkward, with long dark hair, and lost in books.
She’d been raised in South Africa and served tea at 4 every afternoon — a family ritual I was prone to mar by knocking over the milk or burning the toast. She sewed her own clothes. I gave up on sewing forever after trying to make a simple shift one summer, only to have her rip out my wobbly seams and re-sew them perfectly herself.
When I graduated from college at the height of the feminist revolution, I fled west, free to pursue my dreams in a way she hadn’t, desperate to escape her critical eye and become a writer.
I made sure not to get trapped in a life that looked anything like hers. I worked as a reporter, bought a house, dated, married, divorced, dated some more, and paid the dry cleaner to hem my pants. When she visited, she could barely conceal her disgust at my messy house and refrigerator full of expensive goat cheese and wilting vegetables. And I, in turned, harbored secret contempt for what the poet Adrienne Rich? called “the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr?.”
When my mother was 77, my father had a major stroke, and my view of my mother — and hers of me — turned upside down. My father could no longer take a shower alone, and struggled to finish a sentence. The housewifery she’d honed over a lifetime — skills mostly lost to my generation — served her well. And she, in turn, was grateful for my reporterly skills when I used them to research medical alternatives and helped her hire caregivers.
“With my practical skills and your brains, we make a great team,” she said.
She kept my father at home, and out of a nursing home, for seven years, providing support that few Baby Boomers, given our history of divorce, will be able to rely on. When she was impatient, she got up two hours early to meditate and do yoga.
As a teenager, I’d had contempt for her rigid schedules. Now they formed the underpinnings of an increasingly difficult life. They carried her through my father’s death and the first months of her lonely and increasingly fragile widowhood. She developed congestive heart failure, and with my support, declined open-heart surgery because of the risks of stroke and dementia.
A year after my father’s death, I went to Book Passage, the bookstore in Corte Madera, to hear one of my former writing students read from his book about tea, and the rituals that surround it.
Throughout the reading, I couldn’t stop thinking of my mother. I remembered how she’d swirl boiling water in her beloved Japanese iron teapot, gracefully set out her thin china cups, and gather our family each day at the kitchen table. But I had been too defensive and clumsy, too afraid of her criticism, and too much of a feminist bookworm, to learn from her.
In an outpouring of love, I told her all this.
“Katy,” she said. Her voice was weak. “You’re good at other things. You are yourself.”
It was her final blessing to me. She died two days later, with my brother at her side. This is the fourth Mother’s Day since her death, and every year I admire her more deeply, accept myself more, and fear her less.
Note: If you live in the San Francisco area, mark your calendar. Katy will appear at Berkeley Arts and Lectures to talk about Knocking on Heaven’s Door, at the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar St., Berkeley, at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 12, 2013.