Friday, May 8, 2009

I remember Mama

by Ellen Hill

Mother's Day arrives this Sunday surrounded by the usual blitz of advertising. As a mother, apparently, this observation of Mother's Day means I will be using my new Kitchen Aid while wearing my diamond bracelet but only after dabbing any number of expensive scents behind my ears.

As a family growing up we didn't even think those ads applied to us. My mother usually asked for and received a bouquet of flowers. The flowers were drawn in crayon, and as I grew older, in watercolor. The drawings tried, in my childish hand, to recreate all her favorite flowers. My mother was an incredible gardener. She had a rose garden that she had started from cuttings, bright beds of lilies and irises. And lilacs, the scent of lilacs in spring, that is my mother.

My mother would probably be called an abused child in today's vernacular. From what I learned from my father she was also an ignored child. After rheumatic fever left her with a damaged heart she was largely of no value to her family. A quiet child she tried to hold on to own sense of self in the face of unrelenting verbal abuse. Her one sole act of defiance was eloping with my father, who not only was not Irish Catholic, but worse still, a Protestant Englishman. My father loved and cherished her until he died suddenly of a heart attack. After his death, she became more reclusive and I became the parent.

When you are seventeen you can welcome responsibility. As the years passed I often felt weighed down with the role I had once happily assumed. So this is not the story of some strong, stoic mother who challenged the world. Not the happy, cake baking, fun mother that is portrayed on a Hallmark card.

It is the story of a person who faced down cruelty and never, never passed it on. A woman who loved her family above all else and allowed her children to be themselves. When she placed responsibilities on my shoulders it was accompanied by a firm belief that I would manage things and do a really good job. How many adolescents have someone who believes in them to that degree?

It has been years since her death, and in that time I have gotten the very best of her back. I remember her excitement when a rosebud opened, early mornings walks, and checking her flowers until her shoes were soaked with early morning dew. The exquisite embroidered tablecloths she made. I remember her abiding love. Her courage to accept each new illness. Her kindness to others. Her humor about herself. And ultimately the incredible gift of allowing me to be me. To which I can only say, thank you Mama.

Ellen Hill is a longtime member of St. Paul's.

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