“Congratulations on your promotion, darling,” Mom said.
“Are you proud of me?” Even as a divorced career woman, I couldn’t resist an opportunity for a little parental approval. It was early 1970s and I was off to make certain that career doors were as available to women as men. I was revving up and Mom was happily gearing down. She was newly retired from teaching.
“Yes, I am. I’m proud of all of you,” she said.
“Let loose, Mom. It’s okay to show a little favoritism – you’re my mom, not my teacher.” I caught her grin.
However, she was predictably fair. “I’m proud of all of you. At times I wonder how you kids ended up being such decent human beings. I never had enough time to be a decent mother.”
“Mom! I loved how you let me have a say about my life! You put aside the manual and raised me by heart. Whenever I tell you how thankful I am, you focus on what you couldn’t give. I got all the important stuff. I still get it. We all do!”
“I thought so many times that I made a mistake being a mother.”
“I’m glad you made the so-called mistake. Stop and think about it, Mom. There you were: ‘City-raised girl becomes a teacher, gets a job in a country school, falls in love with a farmer-cum-road foreman and has five children.’ Dad was away most of the time. When you weren’t planting the garden or unfreezing the well, you were helping the Public Health Nurse weave her way through a web of crisis running rampant throughout the countryside. You put on concerts and organized a mobile library so the country folk could have some culture as well as decent literature. And you did it with no electricity or running water for the first 23 years of marriage! I don’t know how you did it.”
“I certainly learned to relish every moment I had to myself. Time to myself was rare. No wonder I love being alone.”
“Do you get lonely?” I asked.
“Of course I miss Dad and you kids, but when I begin to feel lonely, I write or phone.” She sipped her coffee and chuckled, “I raised you kids to stand on your own two feet. I’ll be darned if you didn’t do just that!”
“Do we keep in touch enough?”
“I wouldn’t give up any opportunity to visit with you kids and the grandchildren. When we’re together, I revel in your company. But when I’m alone, I cherish that time as well.” She paused with a chuckle; a familiar sign of upcoming wisdom. “Time alone is terribly important, you know.”
“I’ll have lots of it in London. But I’ll make friends with people soon enough.”
“That’s one of the best parts of this promotion, Amy. You may be thrilled about having a new career, but I am thrilled that you will have the opportunity to learn to live WITH yourself. Anyone can live BY themselves.”
“What’s so important about living WITH myself?”
“It’s the opportunity to get to know who you are. It’s time to learn about the real you. Sit with yourself. Become friends with your feelings. Give yourself time to catch up to you.”
“You mean learn to like myself?”
“Like, love and trust. They’re all seeds inside you. You have to grow the garden. No one else can do it for you.”
“Isn’t that what relationships are supposed to be – helping each other grow the garden?”
“Oh, marriage helps you spot the weeds and supports your work. Although, for some, it’s more lonely being married than being alone.” I nodded in agreement.
She continued, “No, your garden is yours. People can waste a great deal of time waiting for the right person to come along to tend their garden. If they were busy tending it themselves, they may be amazed at the quality of help it would attract.”
When I arrived in London, Ontario, I settled into an apartment before beginning my new career. I bought all new furniture and set up my new home. Being pre-internet days, when I finished, I sat in silence – no television hooked up and no phone connection. It was the first time I had ever been without a friend, a roommate, a husband or a family member beside me. The apartment smelled like it had been furnished with new blocks of chemicals. I wanted the scent of someone’s perfume, aftershave, nail polish, cooked onions, or cigarette smoke. There was nothing to pick up, wash, clean, or re-do. No human voice interrupted my concentration. I was completely free to do whatever I wanted, whenever.
So why this claw of loneliness? It hooked my heart and held joy at bay. I sat paralyzed in my chair, frightened by the overwhelming unfamiliarity. I had no car, no decent food and no appetite. I tried smothering homesickness with denial.
Why was I getting angry? I felt pulled through cascading tunnels of negativity. Nothing soothed. Everything confirmed I was alone.
On my way to the shower, I began to sob. I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. I forced myself to look me in the eye – one of mom’s tricks for finding some steel for the backbone. “Is this who your mother raised? Are you one of those kids she talked about? Get in the shower. Get outside for a walk. Just do it.”
I finished my shower, fixed my hair, put on some walking clothes and ventured out. I had no idea where to go, but I had been told there was a park on the Thames River. I reached the spot where I expected to find park gates. Instead, I found a large, old cemetery. I decided it was the closest I would get to greenery. I entered.
Something happened in those gracious, old and well tended grounds.
Huge mausoleums bore family names and little gates that allowed a peek inside at plaques naming the departed. Some monuments represented position and status. Some plots were bare and some contained artificial flowers. There were sections for different cultures. Some families had photographs of the departed embedded in the headstone. Some were in a foreign language. Some had died many years before, yet the grave site was pristine. Some markers, cracked and repositioned, had become beds for sturdy weeds.
A tiny grave of a baby, having died thirty years before, displayed a clutch of fresh Forget-Me-Nots in a tiny vase built into the headstone. That’s when it happened. My heart was claw-free, bruised, but flooded with love. I dashed home. I had to write a letter.
You remember our talk about “alone” versus “lonely”? And you know how I always get frustrated when you talk about not being a good mom?
Well, I thought I was going to die of loneliness today. But I forced myself to face it and look after myself. I took a walk that showed me that you have placed a forever-bouquet of Forget-Me-Nots in my heart. Let me explain…