This year, I celebrate my 24th Mother’s Day without my Mom. She passed away in January of 1987, and I miss her. I miss her most on occasions like this, when I celebrate her for what she did best, and never expected to do at all. She openly doubted whether she served me well, and I emphatically told her I was the luckiest person on earth to have her as a mother. Without her, I have no idea what my life would have been like, or who I would be today.
You see, I was adopted. As the story goes, my birth father was killed in the Korean War before I was born, and my birth mother did not get adequate pre-natal care. I was born by c-section and there were complications resulting in a serious infection. As she was dying, my birth mother contacted the woman who would become my Mom. They knew each other. She told her she could not die in peace unless she knew that my Mom would agree to raise me.
My Mom had some reservations about this. She was 47 years old, and had only been married to my Dad for 2 years, but already she could see he had a drinking problem. She did not have any children and at this point in her life, she’d thought she never would. She talked it over with my Dad, and an attorney, and my birth mother signed the papers before she died.
As a result of my parents’ age, and my Dad’s alcoholism, I grew up an only child. Although I missed having siblings, I had a wonderful life – despite my Dad’s drinking. The reason I had such a wonderful life was because I had an extraordinary mother.
Mom was Canadian of British and Prussian extraction – and she carried her “stiff upper lip” everywhere. She did not tolerate fools, hysteria, or laziness. When I fell down and scraped my knees and cried, I was told “Now Bonnie, pull yourself together.” When I didn’t pick up after myself, I was told “Laziness will get you nowhere – discipline yourself.” When I wasted my time on nonsense or struggled with studies, I was told “There are 3 kinds of people in this world – the ones who talk about things, the ones who talk about people, and the ones who discuss ideas – be an idea person.”
This may sound harsh, but it served me well as an adult, particularly when I had children of my own – more on that below! And there were very warm moments I remember well.
When I contracted croup, my Mom was the one was sat under a sheet with me getting steam from a humidifier, letting her new perm turn into a ball of frizz. She fought with our pediatrician until he hospitalized me because she knew I needed to have my tonsils out – and she was right! I had a series of nasty staph infections and she treated them with home remedies that were more effective than drugs.
No one read stories better than my Mom. She loved books and taught me to read at age 3. She read to me and she read with voices, in character. It was magical. She taught me life lessons through parables and I remember most of them to this day, in her voice. Her greatest gift to me has been my love of books and reading.
She was a working mother in an age when that was highly unusual. She had a man’s job – production manager in a medical advertising agency. Being one of the Mom’s who car-pooled me and my friends to Brownies or dance lessons or athletic events was just not something she could manage most of the time – but it was a treat when she could.
My Mom also had a powerful sense of right and wrong, and she was a great example of living a righteous life. She quietly helped people in need – whether she knew them or not – never drawing attention to her actions. Every year at tax time, she had a long list of charitable organizations whose missions she believed in and to whom she contributed money. She would not tolerate unkindness – when I once made fun of a friend because of the way she was holding her knife, my mother kindly showed her the correct way – and later gave me quite a dressing down for my behavior. To hear “Bonnie, I was very disappointed in you” was so painful to hear I would rather have been spanked!
She was also an activist when something called for action. One year, our neighborhood had an infestation of caterpillars. They were killing all the trees. The only way to save the trees was for every tree to be sprayed. My mother went door to door (and our neighborhood had 200 homes if it had 10) and got a commitment from every single homeowner that they would contribute to paying a tree surgeon to come in and spray all the trees. And they did!
My parents commuted to New York City from our home in Westchester County 5 days a week. The area they lived in was growing and many more people were commuting. The train station parking lot overflowed into the street. My parents came home every day to a parking ticket on their windshield. A lot of other people had them too. My mother started a petition and got all those drivers being ticketed to sign it, took it to the appropriate people, and got a brand new parking lot built at that train station. Today, I lovingly refer to it as the Jean Preston Memorial Parking Lot.
When my Dad’s drinking became too much to handle, my parents separated and my mother became a single Mom. I was only 11, but I was mature and willing to take on added responsibility and we managed quite well. My Dad was not great at visitation, and I balked several times at spending time with him. When I expressed a desire not to visit with Dad, she told me “He is your Father, and he is entitled to time with you, and you will spend time with him.” Despite everything he’d done, mostly to her, her sense of justice would not allow her to curtail his right to spend time with his child. I disagreed, but I did what she said because I respected her moral authority.
My Mom’s father was a dental surgeon, and she had trained to be a nurse. I had many illnesses as a child, and my Mom’s knowledge and wisdom was indispensible. She taught me how to recognize a good doctor, and that came in very handy later when I became a mother myself.
As I became a young adult, I gave my Mom some challenging times. But regardless of what I did, or didn’t do, my mother was there for me in good times and bad. We were as close as any mother and daughter. I knew I was special to her because she never expected to have the experience of motherhood.
But I also knew because of something I overheard one Thanksgiving.
I had an “aunt” – a distant cousin of my Mom’s, but to me she was always Aunt Blanche. Aunt Blanche was vivacious, glamorous (not beautiful but always made up and always wearing interesting jewelry) and full of life. She was as gregarious as her husband, my Uncle Gil, was introverted. They had no children and traveled the world together. They were a love match and I loved to visit them at their home in Pennsylvania. But I also loved it when they visited us, because they always had a slide show of their latest trip. My Aunt Blanche narrated those shows with such detail and enthusiasm; she was like an animated “National Geographic” magazine.
One Thanksgiving, I overheard my Aunt Blanche talking to my Mom. She said “You know, Jean, if you had never adopted Bonnie, you would be travelling the world with Gil and me.”
I’ve never forgotten my Mother’s response.
“Blanche, Bonnie has taken me places that you will never see.”
I am crying as I write this. Not just because I know how much my Mother loved me, but because as a Mother myself, I now recognize the truth of this on a whole other level. For some things, “you’ve just got to be there.” Motherhood is something that gives you experiences you can’t have any other way – and it doesn’t matter if your child came from your womb or not.
My Mom had a stroke in 2002. She remained aphasic for the rest of her life, an experience that frustrated her constantly. We were so close, and I knew her so well, I was often the only person who could understand what she was trying to say. But her life was never the same after the stroke.
Shortly before her stroke, in a quiet moment, she asked me – in all seriousness – if she had done a good job as a mother. I was shocked. But I told her “I have always felt like the luckiest woman on earth because I have the best Mom ever. I could not have had a better mother.” She cried. I could not believe she had such doubts – but it showed me there were cracks in her armor after all.
My first child, my son, was born 7 months before my Mom died. She was never able to do with him the things I know she looked forward to – especially reading him stories.
But I will never forget her face the first time she saw him. Her face was beatific as she took him from my arms and walked away with him, just to sit and look at him. I knew she was seeing me because my son has many of my features. My Mom was still bossy at age 80, even with impaired speech – admonishing me for using commercial infant formulas (“I made yours from scratch!”) and disposable diapers. I just smiled at her and let her enjoy herself.
Five months later, cancer -which had visited her once before and cost her a breast -made another appearance and quickly took over inside her body. At Thanksgiving, I knew something was wrong, but by Christmas, I knew it was serious. The woman sitting silently in a chair, wrapped in a blanket, was not my Mom – not the Mom who complained all her life about the heat in my Aunt’s house – my Mom was NEVER cold, even at age 80.
Just a month before her 81st birthday, in January of 2007, my Mom passed away. I saw her 2 hours before she died. I brought my son so she could see him. I told her I was fine, all’s well. I wanted her not to worry about me so she could rest in peace.
She never got to meet her granddaughter. She never got to see her grandchildren grow up, achieve milestones. And with each significant step in their lives, I have missed her. I have missed her wise counsel, her humor (a wicked, British sense of humor) and her incredible strength. But I am SO lucky that she was able to pass so much of who she was on to me. It has served me well in my role as a mother.
God knew what he was doing when he arranged things so that Jean Preston would be my Mom. My daughter was born with a single kidney. We did not know this until she needed valve reimplantation surgery at age 5. We thought our troubles were over then.
But we chased migraine headaches for another 6 years before getting a diagnosis of malignant hypertension – something I know would never have happened if my mother had been alive. She would have called someone in her army of medical professionals and solved the riddle in much less time.
My daughter will take medication for the rest of her life to control chronic hypertension. There have been many trips to the ER since her initial diagnosis at age 11 – she will turn 21 this year. Lately she has developed an issue with seizures, and we are in the process of getting tests done for diagnostic purposes. It’s at times like these when I miss my Mom’s presence the most. But I am able to navigate these challenges because of the knowledge and resolve she passed on to me.
I regret that my mother did not live long enough for my children to know her. She would have adored them in the way that only a grandmother can – and they would have learned so much from her. I have tried to make their lives rich in the way I believe my mother would have done, but honestly, I know I have come up short.
I miss my Mom every day, but I feel her spirit in my moments of joy and sorrow. And I still feel like the luckiest woman on earth because I had the best mother in the world!
Happy Mother’s Day Mom! I Love You!