aging in place, Caring for a parent, conversations, Death & Dying, family caregiver, in-home care, Love letters from World War II, mother daughter relationship

Past Present Future

There is a blog I enjoy, written by a man who pulled himself from homelessness writing and knitting teddy bears. In his blog two weeks ago (a particularly lovely one about coming spring, read it here), he writes:

“Should you seek peace, look to the trees. They hold the records of everything we never see, the truth that all seasons come back round again, back to rebirth, back to spring.” —Gregory Patrick, Mad Man Knitting

I thought of that last week, as I beat back the salal and blackberry vines to the big leaf maple that once held the tree house my father built for his grandchildren. It still holds ash from Mt. St. Helens in its bark. The barnyard I’ve been clearing has one bent post from the barbed wire fence that kept the horse from going off into the forest. I once found the mouse-chewed thumb from one of my father’s gloves buried in the dirt floor of the barn. There are bits of the old wooden fence that surrounded the meadow, falling down into what is now woods but wasn’t then. Even the “new” fence my father and my son were building when he went to the hospital and never came home, is becoming old and worn.


The new heat pump purrs next to the house, and the vegetable garden I created will soon be replanted for its third season. The hostas I planted in the side yard where nothing has ever grown before, have pushed their way through the moss for their rebirth. If I squint my eyes, I can imagine the tiny house I want to build for myself at the edge of the field, and visualize the big house with less stuff in it. Well, that last is difficult.


The seasons come and go on this property, with its reminders of the past and its promise of the future, and the reality of what is right now.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading and transcribing the 100s of letters my father and my mother wrote to each other during the war. My mother has hung onto these journals of a life interrupted for 70 years, buried in a trunk like the ash in the bark. I deeply regret not reading them before now. I ask her questions and she doesn’t remember. I deeply regret not reading them when my father was alive, so I could have asked him questions. But I didn’t know they existed then. “He wouldn’t have told you anyway,” my mother has told me.

I asked her again last night about her insistence that they never talked about what wasn’t allowed to be written in letters, even though he writes that he’ll tell her when he comes home.

“You weren’t even curious?” I ask incredulously.
“We just wanted to put it behind us and look forward,” she says.
“Like four years of your life never happened?” I want to scream, snatch my father back from the grave, shake them both, tell them, for God’s sake, to talk it out before you let it go! Tell me before you leave!

I understand living in the moment; I don’t believe that means obliterating the past, even when it’s unpleasant. And judging from the letters, it was not unpleasant for either of them, though I know they were putting on happy faces, and not because they were sunny, optimistic people—at least my mother isn’t, she’s a stuffer. So I don’t know, won’t ever know, what it was really like.

As I wrote last week, my mother is a most curious person, and asks me and my sister questions about things we don’t know the answers to. She listens to recorded books and regurgitates what she has learned and asks me to look up things on the internet. To be honest, I am not curious about the same things she is curious about, so maybe I can appreciate that she isn’t, and wasn’t, curious about what I want to know. She wants to know about plants, and disease—particularly if it’s a malady she could possibly have. I want to know about relationships and human nature. And emotions—which she and my father believed have no place in the scheme of things. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. (Reference sunny letters from the war.)


A friend’s elderly mother unexpectedly died this month. She is the only other person I know who lived in her mother’s house. It was a bond, a commonality, that is broken now; and I feel that loss. She died well, two days after making marmalade, with time to say goodbye. I want that for my mother, but it’s already too late.

I woke to that news one morning last week, then fell apart in the shower. The water rained over me, mingling with my tears. I can’t imagine this house without my mother in it. I don’t know if it will be an exaltation of space or a vault of emptiness. I can’t imagine that it will ever come to pass. She will always and forever be here. And that may be true, even after she’s physically gone. Sometimes my body remembers having my own home—being a grown-up—and it feels so different here in my mother’s home. When she’s gone, will I have that feeling of “this is mine, I made this happen” again? Or will it always be my parents’ house and I a squatter?


And what, I wonder, is it like to be at the end of life? Waiting. My mother tells me I don’t understand—when it seems I don’t care—about her physical issues. You don’t know what it’s like to be blind, she says. You don’t know what it’s like to have to be careful of what you eat. No, I don’t know what it’s like, I say, tell me. I can’t see to cook my egg. Yes, but how does it feel? Are you afraid? Do you want to collapse in tears? Do you wish you could just die? Do you long for the past? I just want my egg cooked soft, she says. She’s right, I don’t understand, because she won’t tell me what I want to know.

When someone close to us dies, especially a parent—or, as I have experienced, when a marriage ends—we don’t only mourn for what we have lost, we grieve for what we never found and wished we had. People say, “and now it’s too late.” But what we grieve is often something that was never available, in my case a different relationship with my mother. I have been here long enough now to know that.

Rather than wishing for what will not be, I am going to notice what is here that I will miss: my mother’s curiosity, her love for the natural world, her courage, her independence, how hard she tries, how she took care of this property. Her love—in spite of it all—for me.

Sometimes it’s hard to see those qualities under the blackberry vines—but I am going to be watching and storing them in my heart for later.


22 thoughts on “Past Present Future”

  1. This was a really beautiful post. I’m mentioning it here because I know you will reread your own words. There is love here: For what you have right now, what you hope for the future and love for all that will remain even as time marches on. Thank you for this one this morning. I like to think of all that you will store in your heart for later. She does love you, even in those moments that look and feel like something else.


    1. That is a good look back, especially the second half. And like the part about what it’s like to be blind. And why she frustrates me by what she can’t tell me. I might try to access the emotions again when she is moved. Thank you.


  2. This is beautiful, Gretchen. Sometimes I feel as though I’m right there with you. I had an experience last week that made me think of you. My daughter-in-law, Susan, lost her mother after a two year battle with cancer – these past two years have been hell for the patient and her family, and we are all glad that her suffering has ended. Gloria left a husband and three daughters. On the evening of the Rosary, Susan and her sisters gave wonderful talks about their mother – Gloria as a mother, Gloria as a “best friend,” and Gloria as a woman. These young women were in deep grief over losing their mother. She was loving and supportive. As I listened to her daughters, I was saddened for their grief. I also sat wondering what I would say about my own mother when she dies. I’ve pretty much stopped trying to connect emotionally and stay in a protective mode so that I’m not hurt. But trying to deliver her eulogy sounds daunting. I congratulate your ability to appreciate your mother’s good qualities, even though she doesn’t give you what you want and need. This is a difficult task, I’m sure. Peace be with you. Mary


    1. Thank you for this story, Mary. I often think about my mother’s eulogy, and imagine my sisters (they know nothing of my “plan” haha), dividing it up: early years, family years, post-family years. I want the early years, before we disappointed each other. I like the way your DIL and her sisters delivered their mother’s story. Like you, I wish it were our story. But it’s not. We sail on the ship we got a ticket for, and enjoy the cruise. There’s always something if we get out of our way. And pull out the binoculars. My mother is a wonderful person and has done brave and amazing things. I’m sure I’m not the daughter she longs for either. I’m HER daughter! One of the amazing things she did was improve on her own upbringing. And I improved on mine, and my daughter will on hers. That was a gift from my mother. You are in my thoughts, dear one.


  3. This is so beautiful, Gretchen. The most moving part, for me, is your description of falling apart in the shower after hearing about the death of your friend’s mother, unable to imagine the house without your own mother. Grief surfaces in unexpected ways, spilling the truth we have hidden away. I think it’s a form of love, grieving what what never was available. There are so many layers to your experience, and I love how you let them unfurl with your questions and wonderings and honesty. And nature, always nature, the seasons, life, death, renewal, hope.


    1. You are such a beautiful person. My grief about the end of my marriage is nearly entirely about what will never be. I wonder if those losses are even more deeply than the loss of great love. Not to minimize the loss of great love, but, well, maybe it’s just different. It’s something I think about–and feel–often. Thank you for being here.


  4. Beautiful piece, Gretchen. I lost my mother far too early (she was 51), and I grieved the loss deeply. One day shortly after she was gone, I picked up the phone to ask her a question about one of her recipes I was about to cook, had half dialed the number, anticipating hearing her voice, when suddenly, it hit me that she was not there. Yet, the thought of her was so strong, I was filled with the memory of her so distinct, it brought about a whole new wave of grief about a future without her. I wish sometimes she could’ve seen her grandchildren, and that my children could have met their grandmother. Ah well, whether too old or too young, relationships easy or difficult, our parents make up part of who we are, whether it’s what we admire and emulate about them, or what presents itself as our negative example of what we vow never to be.


    1. That is so way too soon. That’s a beautifully sad memory, and speaks to how great the loss. My father died probably exactly when he should have, and yet it seemed too soon to me. I’m grateful he knew his grandchildren, and they him; but I grieve that he didn’t see who they became as adults. Thank you for telling me this story.


  5. When my mother died I felt absolutely orphaned, but not because we were close. Not physically close either, she in New York where our family still lives, except for me. I say, not close, but from childhood on I heard comments that acknowledged my likeness to her. Now
    I look in the mirror and I see my mother, her generous european physique typical of austrian, but mostly her face, her eyes, her smile. It’s easy to talk to her…I do the talking! When I visited and stayed with her in the house of my youth, I was the recipient of the way she was in the morning, afternoon and evening…ways my siblings didn’t receive, as they took care of doctor visits, home details, and such. Close? I wonder about that.


    1. Lovely, Mary Lou. I think children who live far away are able to have a different relationship with their mother than those who are caregivers. I wonder if it’s because, in mom’s eyes, the parent/child relationship can stay intact. I did not feel any closer to my mother from a distance than I do now, but I wonder how it felt to her. Close up, though, the parent can see, and rebel against, the role reversal. Thank you for sharing this.


  6. This is a beautifully written post, Gretchen. I read it here in my room in Melbourne, Australia. I also have a somewhat difficult relationship with my mother (perhaps we all do), loving but frustrated, supportive yet critical. I hope I will be there for her in the December of her life too. Your photos are beautiful too, especially the letter: ‘Idle Gossip Sinks Ships’. Thank you for writing about your unique experience x Isabel


  7. I lost my mother 4 years ago and thought I was doing well till a cousin emailed that the church was bulldozing her house. Since it was on a prominent street and over 90 years old, it was on the 10 0’clock news. I have been mourning since all over again. I don’t think it ever goes away.


    1. Oh, that would be so sad. Yes, I can see how it would bring mourning. We occasionally drove by the house where I was born and my memory began–in another town–the first house my parents owned. Nostalgic. But the last time my mom and I went, it had been torn down and a McMansion built in its place. We’ve never been back and probably never will. I’m so sorry we saw it. My father has been gone 20 years; I still miss him.


  8. you make me realize: I have said for years that when my mother dies, I will feel freed, that I grieved the loss years ago, as I learned how to not perpetuate the cycle. But I will grieve again, I think now. I will grieve, as you will, what has never been possible. And I will grieve the young woman she must have been once, arms linked with my father, her sailor, both of them so young, so hopeful, in spite of the horrible 4 years they had lived through.


    1. I think that grieving what never was, or what never will be, is a huge part of grief. I will tell you sometime how I came to realize that, as regards the end of a marriage. And, yes, reading these war letters, I find myself grieving their lost youth and the dreams that–like many of our dreams–never came to pass. It makes me grieve my own youth, too. Thank you for writing here, my friend!


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