Mothers and Daughters


Every mother-daughter relationship is unique. Complex. Some of these relationships evolve over time, if there is enough time to evolve.

My mom in Bermuda, around 1938

I looked up to her, then I didn’t. I resented that she was so strict – my friends’ moms seemed so much cooler. More permissive, certainly. By the time I got to college, I distanced myself – I could do what I wanted without her constantly looking over my shoulder. I was free to screw up as much as I wanted.

My parents on their wedding day, 1955

I asked if I could spend my junior year at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. It was a program offered by my college, and many of my friends, all of us liberal arts majors, were going. Surprisingly, my parents said okay, and off I went.

On the day after Easter that year, my father died of a massive heart attack. My mother was a widow at 50. Three daughters – my older sister just out of college, me overseas and unreachable, and my younger sister still in high school. A widow at 50. Her parents were still alive. She had two brothers, but they both had their own issues. She was forced into doing all the things her husband had always done. Lawyers, accountants. Who will mow the lawn, service the car, pay the bills?

Mom around 1987, age 58

She learned to live on her own. Eventually her daughters moved out, she moved to a condo, and loved quilting. Her membership in the Narragansett Bay Quilters’ Association gave her purpose in her newly-single life. But she missed Jack every day.

Mom doing what she loved

It was around 20 years ago that my sisters and I noticed some changes in her behavior. She had no recollection of an event that we had participated in just a couple of years earlier. My sisters and I finally got her to agree to a test, and the diagnosis was fronto-temporal dementia. How cruel! This brilliant woman, who did crossword puzzles in pen, who taught me to love language and words, who majored in mathematics at Pembroke, was slowly losing her memory and cognitive abilities. I’m grateful that we, and my husband and brother-in-law, were able to surround her with love as she passed.

I think one of the reasons our relationship was a challenge (before I grew up and it wasn’t) was that we were more alike than either of us could admit. As she became more childlike with her disease, it fell to her daughters to be the caregivers, to mother the mother. We did, all three of us. We are Joyce’s girls, always.