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.

She’s Always Your Mom

Joyce Handy, six years old
Joyce Handy, schoolgirl

Do you know the origins of Mother’s Day? For a moment, forget the Teleflora bouquets, the special price for brunch, the Hallmark cards. Mother’s Day originated with women’s peace groups, made up of mothers whose sons had fought and/or died in the Civil War. After the end of the Civil War, in the late 1860’s, a woman named Ann Jarvis sought to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day,” to reunite families that had been divided during the war. She died before the annual holiday was enacted, but her daughter Anna continued the effort on her mother’s behalf, campaigning to establish Mother’s Day as a national holiday. The holiday was declared officially by the state of West Virginia in 1910, and the rest of the states followed quickly. On May 8, 1914, Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day and requesting a proclamation, and on May 9, 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared the first national Mother’s Day as a day for American citizens to show the flag in honor of those mothers whose sons had died in war.

Joyce Handy, around eighteen years old
Joyce Handy, young woman

My mother was intelligent, modest, strict (oh boy, was she strict!). I don’t think she ever regretted being a stay-at-home mom, but she was a woman who witnessed the role of women in society change dramatically during her lifetime. She attended college (Pembroke) but didn’t finish. She married at the old age of 27, to a Catholic man nearly ten years older than she, and she told me once that she’d have been happy with a house full of babies. She’d forego housework in favor of sitting on the floor with her little girls, making paper dolls or playing ‘Go Fish.’

She was a widow at 50, with one daughter still in college and one still in high school, and she missed Jack Reynolds every single day for the rest of her life. She finally traveled to Europe (twice), to Florida, and to her beloved quilt shows around New England and in Paducah, Kentucky. Her amazing talent at knitting, needlepoint, and finally quilting was unmatched.

Joyce Handy Reynolds
Joyce Handy Reynolds

The early stages of dementia attacked over ten years ago, and the disease progressed, as it does so cruelly. It finally released her in 2007. As a teenager, I wanted to be as different from my mother as I could be. Today, it’s an honor to carry her traits.

Every day should be mother’s day (and father’s day, spouse’s day, child’s day – you get it). For some women, today is difficult: through loss, misfortune, or the hand dealt them, some women find this day almost unbearable. For them, I offer a prayer of hope and peace.

A Few Things I Learned from my Mother

Wedding Day, October 22, 1955

When we first knew about my mother’s illness, I remember sitting in the car with my husband one day.  We were parked in the driveway, and he was about to back up.  I said, “I wish she would just die.”  He stopped backing up and looked at me.  “You don’t really mean it,” he said.  “Yes, I do mean it.  I wish she would die now, rather than have to go through this.”  I hesitated. “I don’t want to go through it either,” I whispered.

My mom was so intelligent.  She was precise.  Very precise.

When I was ten: “If someone asks, ‘Who is it?’ you should answer ‘It is I,’ not ‘It’s me.'”  I thought to myself, that just sounds weird.  But I remembered.

When I was a teenager, she hooked me on crossword puzzles, and I added “epee,” “aerie,” and “alee” to my vocabulary.

When I was a young adult, we’d play marathon Scrabble games, and she decided we should use nine letters instead of seven, because we could make better words with nine letters.

In Switzerland

When I was newly married, I researched her genealogy, tracing her mother’s line back to King Alfred the Great.  This prompted us to start spending Saturdays traipsing around old cemeteries in Kent County, finding Stones and Wightmans and matching them to the names in the family tree.

Joyce, Carter, and John

A few years before dementia invaded her mind and robbed her of reason and memory, she stated, “It’s not correct to say ‘I feel nauseous.’  You should say ‘I feel nauseated.’  Did you know that?”  My husband just shook his head and smiled.  Joyce strikes again.

Years after she lost the ability to speak, or to recognize my sisters and me, my mother died at a quarter to eleven on a Saturday morning.  My wristwatch stopped ticking at the same time.

The day after we laid her to rest, my husband took me to Newport.  We ate lunch at the Red Parrot and sat by the water, watching the endless cycle of waves: rush in, hurry back out.  She’d been lost to us for years; still, the finality of losing both parents was inescapable.

On the drive home, my husband turned on the radio.  We were hoping to catch the news on the hour, but had to listen to a few minutes of a talk show first.  The caller on the air was upset about whatever situation was the topic of the show, I guess.  “You know, Dan, I’m just nauseated over it.”

I turned to my husband, who was grinning, too.  “Joyce!” we cried in unison.  She’d have been pleased to hear he got it right.