May 6, 2011

I am my mother’s daughter. I have grown up to her height, with her broad shoulders and long limbs. My hands are her hands, down to the lines around my knuckles. I, too, grin wide and laugh loud. I share her tendency to be late.

Last month marked 13 years since she died. In a few years, I will have lived more of my life without her than with her. There is a term for women like me: motherless daughters. It feels like an ill-fitting sweater, at times binding me into a person I rarely reflect consciously on being — my mother’s daughter.

I don’t know when her tastes became my tastes. I now favor big purses, into which I also stuff more things than I need to carry. I wear the suede sweater jacket that as a child I begged her to throw away because it was so, so ’70s. Being me simply happens to be being like her.

Growing up as an only child, I did not realize how spoiled I was to have so much of my single mother’s attention. Or what a gift it was that she, the middle child of seven, was determined to have a closer relationship with me than she had had with her own mother. It was normal to me that we were friends. I took it for granted that every time we spoke she told me she loved me.

Recognizing how much she sheltered me, my mother insisted that I go away to college. I thought nothing of calling her long-distance to solicit advice on shoes or to tell her about class lectures. We talked most days my freshman year, but rarely about the cancer that had recurred or the severity of her condition.

When she died that spring, I could not imagine a world without her.

For several weeks the following school year, I would go back to my apartment after classes and reflexively pick up the phone. Some days I was dialing before I remembered that she was no longer there to answer.

Eventually, the hole in my chest began to fill. Memories started to come with laughter instead of only sadness. Signs for Mother’s Day were no longer an affront. I began learning to navigate life without her.

So much time has passed since she died that I no longer think about her every day. The carefully arranged mementos in my apartment and office are background on which I don’t focus. I have become accustomed to referring more to “my mother,” as an example in a story, than saying Mom, in direct address.

This sometimes makes it sting all the more when I am reminded that I am a motherless daughter. I know to expect sadness around holidays and to think of my mother on anniversaries. I can plan to keep busy on certain dates, to let in my grief a bit at a time. I do not know to expect the pangs of envy that arise when a friend complains about her mother overstaying her welcome, or the jealousy that’s stirred when a co-worker takes her daughter shopping.

When we process loss after death, we tend to want it to be neat: There are five stages of grief; milestones to be mourned, those experienced and ones that will be missed. We can know that grieving never really ends, even after the “I’m sorry’s” taper off. We cannot know when the ache of loss will flare, when a passerby’s perfume might evoke tears.

Some days it is hard to grasp all of the things that she has missed, the firsts that I have accomplished without her, the adventures I have had, the crises she didn’t help resolve. When I hurt, I think back to when I was upset as a child, how she would hug me and tell me that everything would be okay. Then, I heard only the words she said at those times: that my inability to grasp geometry was not the end of the world, that the boy who declined to go to a dance with me because I didn’t go to his church was not worth crying over. It was much later that I focused on the implicit message: that I was going to be okay.

Some days it can feel lonely to hold on to that reminder of her presence. I hope that holding on keeps her with me.

The writer is editor of The Post’s op-ed page.