Excerpt from: A Celebration of Motherhood, Storey Publishing
4. The Community of Mothers
Mothers hold their children’s hands for only a little while… their hearts forever.
My daughters’ visits home are less frequent now that they are settled into their adult lives. But we’ve agreed, they’ll always come home for Christmas. It wasn’t all that long ago when the holidays weren’t a time of eager preparation and anticipation for me but a series of crises set off by adolescent mood swings and miscommunication. The little girls who tip-toed downstairs to open their stockings before the sun rose on Christmas morning became teenagers who would have slept until noon if they didn’t have to go to their grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner. Back then, I would have cheerfully bought my off-spring tickets to somewhere else for the holidays.
The best solution to avoiding lethal confrontation during their high school years was to spend less rather than more time in each other’s company. My daughters therefore spent a lot of time at the homes of their best friends, Jenny and Julie.
According to my daughters, Jenny’s mother and Julie’s mother always served dinner on time and the nourishment included large portions of praise and affection. Those mothers didn’t worry and scold the way I did. Where I was rigid, they were not. Where I was uncertain, they were seasoned. When I reached the end of my rope, they held out a new, unfrayed piece. My daughters and I survived those tumultuous years because of the haven their friends’ mothers provided. When my children went to their best friends’ houses, I knew they were safe. Another mother was listening and looking out for them.
Julie’s mom was perfect in my younger daughter’s eyes. She had raised eight children and seen just about everything. She knew the right responses before the questions were asked. What she did best was treat my younger daughter like one of the tribe. And she could make my daughter realize in a way that I couldn’t– the extravagantly expensive dress she wanted for the prom wouldn’t guarantee a good time no matter what the price tag read.
Jenny’s mother kept house casually. A single mom, she and Jenny and my daughter would spend an evening painting their toenails and talking about dating. At our house, I painted walls and talked about curfews.
My daughter and Jenny decided they were mature enough to travel through Europe during the summer after their sophomore year in high school. Maturity aside, I knew two sixteen-year-olds lacked experience about the world. A mother’s worst fears and a daughter’s burgeoning self-assurance can ignite the most volatile conflicts. My daughter didn’t go to Europe that summer. She also didn’t talk to me for days. I knew Jenny’s mother supported the idea of the trip to Europe. She was a freer spirit, a greater advocate of letting teenagers be independent than I would ever be. But we respected each other’s different modes of mothering and she respected my decision.
Several years ago, a few days before she was due to arrive for the holidays, my younger daughter called to tell me Julie’s mother had died of the cancer that had been in remission for years. A few days later, my other daughter called with equally sad news. Jenny had phoned to say that her mother had died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. The coincidence of these two women dying within days of each other the week before Christmas was almost too much to comprehend.
My sympathy extended not just to my daughters’ friends and their families but to the community of motherhood. Both Jenny’s and Julie’s mothers played vital roles in my children’s lives. I am not solely responsible for the independent, intelligent, thoughtful young women who arrive home each Christmas or for the closeness we share. I have other mothers to thank.
Michelle Gillett is the author of three books of poetry: Rock &Spindle (Mad River Press, 1998), Blinding the Goldfinches, selected by Hayden Carruth as winner of the Backwaters Poetry Prize and published in 2005, and The Green Cottage, winner of The Ledge 2010 Poetry Chapbook Competition. She has won poetry awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and published work in literary magazines and poetry journals. She received an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College. A collection of her essays, Celebrating Motherhood, was published by Storey Press in 2002, and her cookbook, a collection of recipes and essays, The Kitchen Gardener’s Cookbook was published by Country Roads Press.
A regular op ed columnist for The Berkshire Eagle, she also teaches writing workshops and is co-partner of g & r, an editing, writing and book development company. She and her husband have two grown daughters and live in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.