It has been an ongoing bit of light humor in my life that I have three mothers (and Molly has three mothers-in-law) - that, when someone asks me about my mother, I first have to clarify, "Which one?" There is the mother who bore me and gave me birth, the mother who adopted me, and formed the first nine years of my life, and the mother in whose family I lived and thrived from the age of ten to the present day.
But now, as of last night at 10:10 PM, that number is one smaller. At least in terms of those living in this world. My 'first mother' - my dad's first wife, who adopted me (and my brother, a year-and-a-half later), and raised me through the fourth grade - died last night. She had only recently moved back up to Michigan, having lived in Florida for the past 30+ years. Last Friday, she was hospitalized with a blood infection, with some related complications. It didn't seem like anything major at the time, but she just kept sliding downhill (there are no 'minor' illnesses when you're 88 years old), and the end came last night. I am so glad we got to visit her on Sunday.
Her death provokes an odd, and somewhat conflicted, set of responses in me. First, and most fundamentally, I am sadddened. She was, obviously enough, a major player in my life, in forming me into the person I am today. She pushed me into my earliest musical training, and such joy as I am able to take today from playing various instruments, and singing, can be largely credited to her early influence on my life. In fact, I first pursued searching for her when our eldest daughter showed precocious musical aptitude, and we started her on piano lessons. And I remembered the woman who had given that to me. . .
I was glad to have her back in my life, and in the life of our family. It enriched the lives of our children to know her, and hear her stories of growing up in Germany (under the Nazis from the age of 12). We went to visit her and her (second) husband in Florida twice, and they visited us on several other occasions. Her husband died in 1998, and after that, she didn't travel much.
But there was always the background 'irritant' that she had left us. She spoke with me a couple times about my dad, and how stubborn he was, and how hard he was to live with. And I, by that time having lived with him longer than she had, could acknowledge the justice of everything she said.
But she never really acknowledged that, in leaving our dad, she was leaving my brother and me in the process. Or that, however justified she might have been in leaving dad, she might still have wronged my brother and me. I didn't hold a grudge over it - please be very clear, I was unambiguously happy to have her back in my life - but a simple apology would have been very healing, probably for both of us.
But, in the ensuing years since she left, I've come to understand that adoptive motherhood comes with a whole set of baggage relating to the mothers' own infertility, and she seems to have had it gilt-edged and embroidered. Some years ago, in the course of documenting something for my family history, I got hold of the paperwork from when we enrolled in our new school when we moved Up North. She had taken us to the school, and all the signatures on the papers were hers. And on the line labeled 'Relationship to Student', she put 'stepmother'. And, even 30 years later, that just floored me. Even having had me in her family for seven years, she didn't think of herself as my 'mother'; just someone filling in, in lieu of the 'real thing'.
She was a very sensitive person, sometimes spilling over into 'insecure'. And, combined with my dad's farm-boy bluntness, I can easily understand how they were a bit of a mismatch. But, even having long since 'moved on', I can't quite bring myself to 'accept' their divorce. It still seems to me to be a tragedy that, at bottom, didn't have to happen. It happened, and it is what it is, and my life has been what it's been, and I'm OK. But, if between the two of them, they could have mustered up a bit more love and determination, it didn't have to happen. In my mind, I have tended to lay more resonsibility on her for having been the one who left, but I am well aware that my dad could've pursued reconciliation with a bit more interest than what he did. . .
When she left, she effectively walked out of our lives completely. Dad remarried within a year (basically as soon as the divorce was final), and we immediately moved on to life with our new family. I remember getting a few phone calls from her, which always felt awkward, sort of like one of those 'what doesn't belong?' panels from the kids' magazines. She sent my brother and me birthday cards for a few years afterwards - I remember the last one I got was when I was 13.
And then nothing, until we got back in touch 20-some years later.
When we got back together (fall of '88; we first visited them in spring '89), we had a warm - if somewhat nervous - reunion. Her new husband was a great guy, and welcomed us warmly himself. She was his second wife, his first having died after 17 years of marriage, with no children. They met each other, funnily enough, in the swirl of the celebration after the Tigers won the '68 World Series, and married within six months.
And we learned that, until I got in contact with her, she had never told her new husband that she'd had kids - when I showed up, she had some 'splainin' to do. And it occurred to me that they were married shortly after my 13th birthday, after which I didn't hear from her.
We discussed what to have our kids call her husband; we thought of having them call him 'uncle', after the fashion of those 'friend-of-the-family uncles' that many families have, who are 'uncle', even if they aren't really 'related'. But he nixed that - having had no children from either of his wives, he was very close to his brother's sons, and 'uncle' was, for him, far more than a mere 'term of endearment'. Not something he was prepared to hear from kids who'd only just showed up on his doorstep. So, we ended up at 'Mister', which seemed way too 'formal' and 'arms-length', especially in light of the warm relationship we eventually built with him. 3M, especially, seemed to have a special 'resonance' with him. He fell and broke his hip in '96, and his health steadily declined until his death in '98.
As I said, she and her husband were very close with their nephews, and for their part, the nephews embraced her as their own. Especially after their own mother died, they looked after her as if she was their own mother. When she started having some difficulty last fall, it was her nephews who looked after getting her the care she needed, and oversaw bringing her back to Michigan, where they could be in immediate touch with her.
It was a little nervous for us to contact them. Their uncle, after all, had been a bit slow to 'bring us in', and who were we to insinuate ourselves into their family matters? But I needn't have worried - we could not have gotten a more gracious welcome. It's funny - we aren't really 'family' to each other, but we are most definitely 'connected' through the person of my mother, their aunt. And, between the five of them, and my brother and me, we are the sum total of her family left to mourn her passing. We'll have the funeral this weekend, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, we'll sit down and get to know each other better. Something that probably should have happened long ago, but sometimes the obvious things can elude our attention. . .
So, my 'first mother' is dead. Not, I am given to hope, in the 'eternal' sense, but she's not here for me to speak to anymore. The phone calls that were never as frequent as they should have been, won't be happening any more. And the joys and conflicts that bubbled around inside me, relative to her, and our relationship, will be left to bubble around without any further input from her.
I was glad to know her. I am sorry that she's gone. I will miss her.
Requiescat In Pace, Mutter.