November 21, 2016, is a day I have been dreading for quite some time. My mom died twenty years ago on that day. I was ten at the time, so I have now lived without my mother for twice as long as I did with her. When I was a teenager I remember trying to explain to my friends the feeling that my life could be bisected into two eras, like if B.C. and A.D. stood for “Before (Mom’s) Cancer” and “After (Mom’s) Death.”
At fifteen I dreaded the tenth anniversary, when the dead-mom years would begin to surpass the living ones. But that anniversary came and went without too much fanfare. At the time, I soothed myself with reminders that no memories are more valuable than your earliest ones, none more fundamental to your character. No matter how much time passes, no matter how much more I am influenced by the life experiences I have had in her absence, my childhood memories of my mother will always carry the most weight.
And yet, this year, that’s sort of hard to believe. Sure, my childhood memories are substantial, but the sheer volume of motherless life experience I have since accumulated makes the brief time I had with her feel that much farther away. It is hard to imagine her as a living, breathing woman when for two full decades she has functioned more as the abstract concept toward which I direct all my longing and grief. I recently came across a candid photo of her and thought to myself “That woman is a complete stranger. She can’t have ever been real.”
That’s how she feels now. Surreal. Far away. She is at once the person I think about most in the world, and the one I fear I know the least. As an adult woman, I have actively modeled myself in her image, and yet she has no tangible role in my adult life. My mother died with a dial-up internet connection and without ever owning a cell phone. How can I possibly place her in today’s context?
I can’t, of course, but I can keep her close. The best way I know how to do that is by indulging in one of my favorite activities: talking about my mom. And so, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of her death, here is a list of things I know to be true about my mother. It’s likely that she was more complicated than this, and there are surely important events in her life that I have missed because I simply don’t know about them. But this is my mother as I knew and know her. This is the woman I miss. This is the woman I cry for.
(If it’s in bold it’s something she told me or I witnessed. If it’s italicized it’s something I learned after her death.)
My mother grew up in the small Texas town of Brady, where her father’s side of the family had ranched for generations. She always felt a bit out of place there. She was a hippie child, a city girl at heart.
Mom would visit her maternal grandparents in Dallas at the start of every school year so she could buy fancy new clothes at Neiman Marcus (my mother was a bit of a princess). Mom always had an eccentric personal style, and she once wore a dress made of paper to her conservative high school. Several people have told me this story, so it must have made an impression.
Mom was perennially barefoot; she only wore shoes when she absolutely had to. When she was a child her father invented a game to keep her feet protected. Between Halloween and Easter, if anyone was caught without shoes in his home, my grandfather reserved the right to stomp on their feet. I doubt he ever followed through, but chasing his shoe-less daughter around their house was a running gag.
Every Texan woman must own a pair of cowboy boots, and my mother had red Ropers.
My mother had one tattoo, a yellow rose on her left hip for the Yellow Rose of Texas (in a spot she knew her mother would never have a reason to see). I have a yellow rose tattoo on my right thigh. I was nineteen and drunk when I got it, and had already forgotten where hers had been.
My grandmother (on my dad’s side) taught at a high school in a town with a sizable Baptist population. She once complained to my mom about some co-workers asking if she was “saved.” My mother replied, “Tell them you’re Episcopalian. You can’t be saved.”
My mother moved from Brady to Austin in 1969 to go to the University of Texas. After graduation she lived for a time in Washington, D.C.
At some point after that (but before she met my father) she dated a lobster man from Nantucket.
My mother didn’t meet my father until she was thirty. Apparently, in her twenties, she often joked that she would never find a husband.
When my mother died my father wrote that his only regret was that he did not meet her sooner.
My mother didn’t change her name when she married my father. She was Emily Katherine Wulff until the day she died.
My mother wasn’t an ambitious career woman. She went to journalism school at UT, but was a manager at a temp agency when she met my father. She stopped working when she became pregnant with my brother.
My dad is a hunter, and at the end of one dove season he was complaining about how little room there was left in the freezer. He asked my mother if she could clean it out and she said, “Yeah, I’ll clean it on our anniversary.”
My mother always sent a thank you note.
Mom was a legendary letter writer. Nearly every one of her friends has told me so. One even called her “the best correspondent I have ever known.”
My mother was a fantastic cook. She made everything from scratch. My favorite meals were pesto pizza, and a pasta with asparagus, chicken and gorgonzola cream sauce that came from a New York Times cookbook.
She made the best oatmeal raisin cookies. Oatmeal raisin is my favorite cookie.
My mother made up a dish that she called Hippie Hot Dogs. You take a hot dog, cut it lengthwise and fill it with yellow mustard, mashed potatoes and top it with cheddar cheese before baking. Must be eaten with a fork. I swear it’s delicious.
A true Texan, my mother loved Big Red.
My mom’s boss at the temp agency could not stand her for some reason. One day she said to my mother, “I know why you drink Big Red. It’s what the junkies drink when they can’t get their drugs.” Mom thought this was hilarious.
My mother hardly drank. She could nurse a beer for hours.
My mother had an extensive record collection. Combing through it after her death was how I learned about Townes Van Zandt, Astral Weeks, Pearl, Cat Stevens, Taj Mahal, and many more. I was still grieving. It made me feel close to her. She taught me about good music even after she was gone.
She liked the Eagles. If she were alive, I would make fun of her for this.
My mother had cassette tapes strewn all over her car. I remember there were several from Dwight Yoakam. When I could read, I commented on what a strange name that was.
My mother drove not one, not two, but three Volvo station wagons in her lifetime.
She also drove a VW bug in high school.
My mother was organized in spirit, but not in practice. Her desk, car and purse were perpetually cluttered, as are mine.
Mom was a cat lady. Growing up, we had five. Their names were Eliot, Mew Mew, Kiddiddily, Fire and Whitethroat. (My dad named Eliot, but my mom is responsible for the latter four.)
When she was a child she named more than one cat Burnt Milk Toast (Burnt Milk Toast #1, Burnt Milk Toast #2, and so on.)
My mother’s nicknames for my brother and me: Woollyboogus, and Pokey Joe or Pokey Josephine when we were moving too slow. Mom was a fast walker.
My mother went by Katherine, and absolutely hated it if anyone tried to call her Kathy.
In the nineties, my mother’s winter coat was a floor-length denim duster with a corduroy collar from London Fog. What a woman.
My mother loved going to the movies. She took the whole family to see Fargo in theaters. I was nine. I spent the second half of the movie crying, telling her she was a bad mother for bringing a child to a movie in which a man’s body is stuffed in a tree shredder. I cherish this memory.
I didn’t see Pulp Fiction in theaters (I was eight) but my parents and older brother did. Afterward the soundtrack became a staple in our home. My mother taught me how to do the twist to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.” She told me to imagine I was putting a cigarette out with my foot and wiping my butt off with a towel.
The last vacation we ever took as a family was to New Orleans. My mother had one leg in an aircast (she had broken it tripping down some steps in our den — her bones were fragile then) but she walked around the French Quarter without complaint. She introduced us to crawfish, alligator and boudin. We drove there from Austin and listened to Sam Cooke and Zydecko the whole way, at her request.
My parents bought and renovated a house about a year before my mother died. One afternoon my mom, dad and I stopped by to check on its progress. I ran around on my own as I always did. By the time I came back to my parents I had green paint all over my arms and legs. My mother asked me what in God’s name I had gotten into, then laughed, and told me I must’ve been a cat in a past life.
Mom didn’t lose any hair during her first bout with cancer but she did lose a boob. She decided to have an implant put in after her mastectomy, but they had to reconstruct it with skin from her back so her new boob was two-toned.
When the cancer came back, this time in her liver, she required much more aggressive chemo treatments and anticipated losing her hair. She found wigs to be itchy, so we went hat shopping at Highland Mall. She bought a blue hat and several vibrant silk scarves. She let me get a hat too, a red number with a brim that looked like it was lifted right off the Blossom set. I kept that hat until I left for college, though I don’t think I ever wore it after she died.
My mother picked me up from school wearing one of her new hats, but I could still see that her hair was hitting her shoulders where it always did. I asked her why she had a hat on when she obviously didn’t need it yet. She removed the hat and showed me the bald spot at the back of her scalp.
My mother was in charge of my elementary school’s annual International Food Fair, in which parents would make dishes from countries around the world that the students would get to sample. My mother made Swedish meatballs and did a presentation for every class visiting the fair.
I was told later that she had actually started the event. My school put a plaque up in her honor after her death.
A few months after my mother’s cancer returned, I was diagnosed with a cholesteatoma in the mastoid cavity behind my right ear, an infection that was dangerously close to my brain. I had no idea how serious it was at the time (side note: my poor father), but when we first met with the specialist I was promised I would not have to have surgery. At least I thought I was promised. Later, my mother sat me down on the navy blue couch in our new living room and told me the course of action had changed. I would have to have surgery after all. I screamed. I cried. “But you promised,” I said. My mother let me cry all over her shirt. I remember seeing the dark puddle where my head had been.
My mother always regretted that she never learned how to play the piano. She bought a piano in the last year of her life and wanted her kids to learn. I took lessons but gave it up after a bit.
My mother was in the band in high school. She played the cymbals.
Mom’s favorite game when she was a kid: to put on a pioneer bonnet, pull out all her toys, place them behind a chair, sit in the chair, and pretend to be a “Wagon Train Lady.”
My mom had several rings that had been passed down from her mother and grandmother that she intended to pass down to me. She was only alive to give me one, which I wore to my first communion. By the time we made it home from church the ring was nowhere to be found. I had lost it within hours. She was furious and she spanked me.
My mother put on some weight after her college graduation, when she was living in D.C. Apparently, her father was mildly concerned and approached her about it. It stuck with her enough that she mentioned it to someone, and that person later told me. Everyone tells me how beautiful my mother was, but I wish I could know if she was comfortable in her own skin.
Shortly before meeting my father, my mother had gum surgery and couldn’t eat solid food for a couple of weeks. She very skinny when they met.
My mother was not an exerciser. Try as he might, my father could never get her to go running with him.
She did however take up swimming after cancer.
The treatment had somehow affected her thyroid, and it had become harder for her to naturally keep weight off.
I’ve been told my mother regularly drank cranberry juice, but I don’t know why. Something to do with her health. I often wonder if I should regularly drink cranberry juice.
My mother had horrible posture. She was forever slouching.
My mother could really relax, and had the habit of sinking into whatever surface she was currently on. If she was on a couch, she would be practically flat with her legs doing most of the work to hold the lower half of her body up (my favorite picture of my mother is of her in this position at her wedding reception). If she was in a chair, her legs were draped over the arms or pulled up under her body. Many years ago, I was an intern at a company where an old family friend also happened to work (spoiler alert: I work there now). I was intensely focused on some project, and had my legs up in the chair, squeezed between my body and the desk in front of me. The family friend walked by my cubicle, poked his head in and said “You know, your mother could never sit like a normal person either.” Best compliment I have ever been paid.
In 4th grade, I dressed up as Lucille Ball for Halloween. It was mom’s idea, but we both loved Lucy, so I didn’t need much convincing.
My mother would not let me stay up past nine to watch E.R. with her. We fought about it.
When I was assigned to do a biography report in the fourth grade, my mother suggested I write about Diana Ross. We had a lot of fun with it.
My mother loved the British royal family, and stayed up late to see Princess Diana marry Prince Charles.
When she knew she was having her photo taken, my mother would look at the camera with her chin down and eyes up, Princess Diana style.
The last time I ever saw my mother lucid in our home was a year later, on Halloween night of 1996. I left to go trick or treating with my friends, but she stayed home. When I came back to the house, our family friend Anne was waiting for me. My mother had been rushed to the hospital while I was out. She came home after that stay, but she was pretty out of it. She wouldn’t die for another three weeks, but I don’t remember really talking to her after that night.
My mother never told me she was dying.
She asked my father to do it. She couldn’t look her kids in the eye and say those words.
She was optimistic until the very end.