Today would have been my mother’s 74th birthday. I never meant to make her birthday an annual event on this blog but she is always on my mind on May 10th, just as she was for her 71st, 72nd, and 73rd birthdays. All three of the photos above are of my mother and my grandmother, the first one taken in 1937, the second one ten years later when my mom was the age my daughter is now, and the third ten years after that in the late 1950s. My grandmother died in 1990 and my mom in 1999.
I’m feeling particularly sad today and part of me is quick to judge those feelings as somehow dysfunctional, that it must mean I’m living in the past and refusing to move on. Can I please give myself a break? Especially since tomorrow is also Mother’s Day? Not to blame my mom, but I do believe this tendency towards self-criticism and especially my reluctance to accept my feelings is part of the legacy I inherited from Judy Miller. Though extremely beloved by her family and friends (and my mom had more close friends than anyone I know), she was terribly self-critical and very uncomfortable openly expressing any “negative” emotions. When my mother was feeling sad or scared or in pain, she didn’t like to show those feelings, even to her loved ones. As I write that I suddenly wonder if maybe this was more true with her family than her friends, maybe she was more comfortable expressing those parts of herself with other people in her life.
It was only in the last few weeks of her life that my mother and I broached topics that she never wanted to discuss such as what was going on for her in the early 1970s when her marriage ended and we ended up living with my dad. Throughout most of her life, we all colluded in the steadfast avoidance of this topic. I, for one, never wanted to acknowledge my own feelings back then, partly because of my strong desire to “protect” my mom from her own sadness and guilt about a really difficult period in our lives. I mistakenly thought, as I think she often did, that acknowledging the existence of certain feelings was tantamount to a condemnation of others, that I didn’t have a “right” to my actual feelings and just needed to suck it up. “Everyone did the best they could” was my whitewashing mantra, and while that was certainly true in the bigger picture, it was a convenient way to erase all of my feelings like a magnet being held up to my internal hard drive.
Even as I write this psychobabble, I can see how my thoughts about my mom travel through the careening twists and turns of my own screens and lenses before they are able to make their way into print. I’m aware that nothing I say about my mom or my family or my childhood on this blog could ever be considered any kind of expository “truth.” If I were reading such ruminations by other family members I’m sure I’d be fascinated but I know I’d also be horrified by the “inaccuracies” or assumptions they make as they interpret past events. So be it.
Still, there’s one bit of expository truth that I have no trouble imparting and I know I’d get no arguments from anyone on the planet. And that is how much my mother loved all of the people in her life and how much she was loved by us. No interpretations necessary on that front, thank God. A big part of my sadness about my mom’s absence is the lost opportunity to get to know her in a deeper way. As I see my thoughts about her changing over time, I find myself wondering what it would have been like to have other frank conversations with her, I find myself longing for the opportunity to more fully understand her. But maybe that concept is just as illusory. Maybe if my mother had lived to be 100 years old we still never would have been able to cross certain emotional chasms.
There are so many questions I’d like to ask my mother if she were still here, so many things I’m curious about. Being an archivist at heart, I pore over every image and document that pertains to my mother’s life looking for clues about what made her tick. They are of limited use, of course, and without her here many of them are dead ends because no one else remembers anything about the photos. I’ve shared many of the choicest pearls of the finite Judy Miller Collection on this blog, but every once in a while a new document appears that provides a tantalizing glimpse into another part of her life and brings up many more questions that I long to ask her.
After my computer was stolen last month (containing a big chunk of my family archives), I did a firewire transfer from my sister’s MacBook of many of the photos and documents we scanned last summer. Included in that cache was a letter from the early 1950s that I don’t remember seeing, a letter that my mother sent to her sister, my Aunt Bobby, during my mother’s brief stint as a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It’s pretty benign as far as such letters go, but to me it’s like a Holy Grail in its banal depiction of a day in the life of 18-year-old Judy Karoll. I made a vow last year that I’d never again print a letter from one family member to another without permission but I’m breaking that vow since I can’t imagine that my aunt or mom would object (slippery slope alert!).
What a thrill it is to see my mother’s distinctive handwriting. I’m also struck by her use of green fountain pen ink, an affectation I adopted as a kid without realizing where I got it from. My grandmother, no OCD hoarder like the rest of my clan, threw out most of her children’s papers decades ago. I have no idea how this letter survived and I am riveted by every word:
You don’t know how glad I was to hear from you. I never realized how much I could miss you.
Doll, I’ve got so much to tell you I don’t know where to begin. Here goes—
Even tho I’m homesick I still think C.U. is wonderful, the kids around here are just the greatest. I’ve never seen such friendly people in my life. Of course, sometimes they can be a little bit too friendly! I’m still recovering from a dose of campus friendliness (?) I experienced yesterday. My girlfriend Diane (more about her later) and I were calming walking down “Frat Row”—the block where most of the Fraternity houses are located—when all of a sudden we were grabbed from behind by six boys screaming “Moat Party” at the top of their lungs. Before I relate the rest of this sad story I’ll have explain the lovely moat system at C.U. As you well know, Colorado is very dry country and they’ve got these little irrigation ditches running through the ground to keep everything moist. In some places the ditches are very wide and these deals are called moats. Unfortunately, most of them are located near the frat houses and the boys have a simply peachy keen time with them. To continue, these six boys grabbed us and threw us face first into the moat. We were just drenched and both of us had on white blouses you could see right through. Before long there were about 50 boys just standing there laughing at us!! That was enough for one day but no—as we walked past the Zeta house a whole bunch of Zetas grabbed us, sat on us, and painted big “Z.B.T’s” on our Levis. (I’ve already got one pair with ZN, Sigma Nu, on them.) We found out later that all this roughhousing is only allowed during the first month of school—cute!
Why is it so thrilling for me to get this funny glimpse into a typical day in the life of my 18-year-old mother? I wonder if she’d remember this incident today. How weird is it to imagine my own mom being “attacked” by these obnoxious Frat boys (and obviously enjoying it!) with the knowledge that all of those raucous boys are now in the mid to late-70s if they’re alive at all. What would my mother’s life have been like if she had stayed at the University of Colorado (which, true to this description, was voted the country’s #1 Party School in 2003)? Instead, when she went to Chicago for spring break that year she met my dad, fell instantly in love, and never went back to Boulder. My parents were married that summer and had my brother Bruce nine months later, all before my mom turned 20. And so it goes.
What am I hoping to extract from all these documents and photos? Do I view them as talismans that will help me reach into the portals of time and touch a world that no longer exists? It doesn’t work, of course, and yet I remain grateful for every morsel I can find. I wish I could ask my mother about her past experiences but what’s way more painful to realize is the fact that we are no longer creating new memories together, that she is not able to have a physical presence in our current-day lives and the lives of our children. Maybe we can never really understand our own parents, especially while they’re alive and we’re still interacting with them in the physical world, but I know I will continue my quest to know myself a little better through my evolving understanding of my mother.
I miss you, Mom. Happy Birthday and Happy Mother’s Day.