Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
My Sisters, My Daughters
Martha Sonntag Bradley
[p.80]I always wanted a sister, but I got three brothers, one with blond hair, one with black, and one I liked to pretend was my twin. So the fact that I gave birth to four daughters and two sons was a particular joy. I was bitterly disappointed when my grandmother told me that my third brother was in fact a boy and not a girl. We were sleeping together in my parents’ four-poster bed, snuggled beneath heavy patchwork quilts, moonlight dancing in through the window over our shoulders, when the phone rang. I knew it was the hospital. And I was just as sure that it was news of my sister’s coming.
When my grandmother returned to the bed, she turned to me, gathered me into her arms, and said, “You have another baby brother.” I cried noisily and sloppily, breathless, heaving sobs into her shoulder long into the night. I imagined that I would wander lonely and misunderstood my whole life without a sister in whom to confide. My unfortunate beautiful black curly headed brother Peter appeared as often as not in frilly dresses in photos taken long into his third year. In all his baby pictures he looks like my baby sister. But his sweaty little boy smells and scabbed up knees belied my efforts at re-creation.
I have always looked at families of sisters with envy, tracking their bonding and shared lives as proof of what I’ve missed. So when I had daughters, four of them, I knew the value of what I had been given—a female circle of my own, in my home, that I could watch and experience firsthand as it defined and re-defined itself. The circle I experienced began with my grandmother, wove through my mother to me, through me to my daughters, a flower wreath woven together with vines, leaves, petals of different hues and textures.
I have a photograph of my grandmother, my mother, and me that I keep in my desk. My grandmother was a big woman who stood tall and [p.81]true. Her character is painted on her face with the strength of Utah and the hope of the Mormon pioneers. Still, she was a common woman, a woman who worked her entire life. I was crazy about her.
My mother stands in front of her, a far more diminutive figure. She has a tentative, hopeful look on her pretty face, and she is holding her daughter, me, up for all to see. This was her hope for future good. The stubborn, spoiled look on my two-year-old face tells you also where I fit into this threesome. I have searched our faces endlessly for meaning, what bound us together, what threads through us still.
My grandfather was a sheepherder who lived most of the year in southern Utah in the desert. When my grandmother married him, he had three older children. They needed a mother, she was a good woman. It was not a marriage based on love and affection but a practical accommodation to both of their needs. My grandmother had never had her own baby, and when she was forty-five years old she traveled to Salt Lake City, visited an orphanage, and picked out two babies—my uncle Howard and my mother. That night she went to a Hawaiian vaudeville show and took the name of the heroine of the vaudeville show for her daughter—Luonna.
My grandmother was a good mother, kind and broad-hearted, but because they were poor, she was not always able to stay at home with my mother. When my mother was eight years old, she had rheumatic fever and for two years stayed in bed at home alone while my grandmother worked in someone else’s home. Mother spent her second and third grade years in a four-poster bed filling a scrapbook with cut-out figures and creating a complicated make-believe world. For a period of time, my grandmother worked as a housekeeper for the home of a prominent senator five days of the week and only came home on weekends. My mother and her brother lived alone in her absence, cooking and cleaning the house themselves.
During that time my uncle and his friends started to abuse my mother, beating her in their mother’s absence, mercilessly torturing her, terrorizing her with tales of thieves, robbers, and murder, threats of what they would do if she ever told anyone. Because she was a little girl, mother took this, perhaps believing she deserved it. No one stopped it. No one even knew. Furthermore, whenever my grandfather [p.82]came into town he would introduce my mother as his bastard daughter, the daughter that wasn’t really his, as if she were some toy or animal my grandmother had taken on. I have imagined her crestfallen face at such moments, watching the family from the periphery, wondering where she fit in.
This cycle of abuse filled my mother with demons that she eventually mastered. The fact that my mother broke out of that cycle of abuse, found peace, and became the good kind-hearted woman she is, is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. I most admire her for her strength in freeing herself from her past. She is a small woman but heroic in stature in my eyes. My mother’s life will be remembered for the good she has done. In fact, I have always thought that my mother’s funeral will be something like a circus, stray dogs (which I do not mean in an insulting way), but people she brought into our circle because they had none of their own, whom she gave her clothes to, or her furniture, her money, whatever she had so generously and selflessly to help them feel better about themselves, to get a start, to succeed.
When my mother speaks of my own birth or my childhood, she is somewhat or somehow detached or separated from the events, from the experiencing of me. “We were so rigid then, so bound by Dr. Spock’s rules.” She says. “I never enjoyed you.” So I have a limited sense of connectedness to my mother through my birth.
Nevertheless, I acknowledge what I carry from her. The poet Chungmi Kim wrote a dialogue in which she tells her mother, who lies dying in her bed, of the importance she had played in her life. The Mother says: “I prayed God, I prayed Buddha, to take my life away instead of my children. God and Buddha they left me long ago when the war broke. But nothing matters, nothing.” The daughter says: “It matters, Mother. It matters that you are my mother. Through you I had a vision of life different from yours. Through you I learned the wisdom to seek for freedom. You paved the way for my journey into the world unknown. Through you I gained the courage to survive. It matters that I am your daughter. Mirror to mirror through myself I see you. You see me.” Like my mother and grandmother, I have not always had a particularly easy life, but from them I inherited strength, intelligence, wit, competence, the ability to stand up again and again after being beaten [p.83]down. In short, the tools with which to face life with dignity. It matters that my mother was my mother. It matters that my grandmother was her mother. Their journeys are in me, are a part of me.
My grandmother, Vinnie Mae, told me stories, which expressed her philosophy of life, though I often did not recognize them as that. She told me about her relatives, about the skies above southern Utah. Vinnie told me stories about herself, about her mother, about her father, about the midwife twins Martha and Elizabeth from whom I inherited my names. Slipping one day she told me the story of her first husband, the dark and handsome gentile—Berl, the love of her life who had been killed in the youth of their marriage. In this she taught me that life is a circle and everything has a place in it. And that life is what we make of it.
In all of our stories, my daughters, my mother, her mother, and me, we vacillate between being dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and hopelessly insecure. Actors and victims. Paradox runs through our lives like a ribbon. We live with a variety of conflicting feelings and suppressed desires. We resolve this dilemma in various ways, but this paradoxical nature plagues every move we make.
Besides recognizing and acknowledging the significance of each moment in the search for understanding, we must also search for meaning in the connections we have to those who have moved before us and those who follow us, regardless of the shape they take on. Mothering is modeled for us by those who raise us. And much of who we are runs in the blood. I appreciate the connection that runs back through time to my mother and grandmother, and forward to my daughters and their daughters. In Anne Sexton’s words:
I stand in the ring
in the dead city
and tie on the red shoes …
They are not mine,
they are my mother’s
her mother’s before,
handed down like an heirloom
but hidden like shameful letters.
[p.84]My mother and grandmother were each women who lived marginalized lives yet they triumphed. I remember in Terry Tempest Williams’s book, Refuge, a letter from Terry’s mother to a dying friend where she said, “He [speaking of God] gave me the gifts of faith, hope, strength, love, and a joy and peace I had never felt before. These gifts were my miracle. I know that it is not the trials we are given but how we react to these trials that matters.” And so in a very real sense they provided me with a model for confronting life.
There is a scene at the beginning of the play Angels in America when Rabbi Usudir Cgenekwutz, of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews, pays his respects at the passing of Sarah lronson, a member of his flock; devoted wife of Benjamin lronson; loving and caring mother of her sons, Morris, Abraham, and Samuel, and her daughters, Esther and Rachel; beloved grandmother.
As he speaks, he says that although he did not know this specific woman even still he knows her. In some ways she was the metaphor for the American experience. She was all of us. He says: she was not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shetetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.
You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.
In the same way my mother’s and grandmother’s journeys are in me, they form my decisions, my attitude about problems, how to work through them. My delight at the sunrise is in part shaped by their [p.85]responses to the world.
When I grew up, my sense of self reflected membership in a tribe. Being a Sonntag meant something very specific. We were strong-minded and willful, often funny, always loyal, and fiercely devoted to one another. Because my father had eleven brothers and sisters, there were a lot of us. Everyone I met, it seemed, knew one or another of my Sonntag uncles or aunts or cousins, and that was always a relief because that meant they knew who I was.
My self-identity also reflected my position in my family. The oldest child and only daughter meant I had a privileged position, I was treated differently. Much was expected of me. It was assumed that I would be successful, always try hard, and do my best. And I think I very early on began in perhaps a warped way to think I was the center of the universe. Of my universe that was true. While outwardly I was loud and silly, gregarious and bright, inwardly I was intensely private and melancholy. My interior world became easily the most interesting and comfortable place to reside. The only place I truly felt safe.
I vividly remember the births of my own children. I never felt so connected to my body or as relevant as when I was pregnant, involved in the creation of another. My early attitude toward mothering, when I was twenty years old and preparing for my first son, was identifying a certain body of information, knowledge about what I would do. I had had limited experience babysitting, was unparalleled in my lack of patience with my own brothers, and did not have what I considered the requisite skills at diaper changing, bathing, and so forth. Now I know that adaptability, the ability to bend, and good humor are far more important than technique. Patience is easy with children who so delight and amuse you, inspire you with their bright minds and hearts. I had no sense at twenty of the long haul, that mothering did not have an ending point. These people will always be ours, ours to worry and care about, share our pain and joy with.
I also at twenty had no idea that the rewards were boundless, that the opportunities for service would refine me. That these babies would become my best friends and companions; that quickly they would become smart and funny and that I would crave their company more than anything else.
I didn’t know they would be all so different. You sort of assume when [p.86]you marry and create a combined gene pool that the combinations are limited, that a certain sameness will run through your house. But that is so far from how it plays out. I learned from my children the miracle of variety through the shades of changing moods, hair color and hands, varied gifts and talents, interests and energy.
In some ways the most important memories I have as a mother are of moments so fleeting they are like sunshine moving across the water. There are some moments so potent, so filled with joy, that they sweep you away, bump you off your feet. Some of these things were absolutely ordinary events or patterns repeated daily for a period of days, or weeks, or years. Yet those times are also the reasons mothering is worth all the sacrifice and sorrow it costs.
Each time you birth a child, you set yourself up for incredible loss and perhaps pain. If you’re lucky, your experience will be joyful. But it is not a given. Rather, because our children are like us, truly human, we experience with them the complexity of life in all its varieties. With each child it seems we have to learn the rules all over again, to make sense of things. Each time we are faced with different forces and challenges, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.
It is interesting to me how many of my most acute memories of my children are of them in motion—the way Katelyn looked running across the field after a morning of kindergarten, yellow hair flying around her head like a dandelion crown, filled me with absolute perceptible joy. Emily learning to ride a bike. Surprisingly I remember best watching her ride off, pigtails flopping horizontally from the sides of her head, her little legs pumping vigorously to move her away, around and around the block. Again Emily, at five, stubbornly riding the ski lift all by herself, hugging tightly to the bar but convinced absolutely she could do anything better by herself.
I have learned new things about mothering from my adult children, about how much it defines me. The enormous relief I feel when my daughter Rachael comes home from college in Boston, when she gets off the plane and I can finally see her is always startling to me. I am sure it is in part because of her stability, her quiet calm presence so contrasting my own. But it is also because I never entirely feel whole when they are away. It is as if when they come back and our orbits converge, it is my moment of equilibrium, however brief.
[p.87]When my children were young, I frequently had dreams of losing them, forgetting them in stores or in parks, and scrambling to find them, of them drowning in swimming pools. Panic was never as deep or biting as that.
When my children were little, I always knew where they were moving through the room around me. Interestingly, this same sort of shadow dance goes on now between my oldest daughter and me. I am aware of her movement around me like shadows moving on the canyon wall. I am conscious of her as she walks around the room, bouncing her baby against her chest, her pulse, her heartbeat a comfort to Aspen in strange settings. As she becomes a mother, I have reverted to sensing her as a child.
When Liffy first called me from college to tell me she was pregnant, I already knew. I had been thinking about it for weeks during the night. Even so when she called me late and we first talked about what it meant for us, one of the first thoughts that raced through my head was, “But I haven’t taught her yet everything she needs to know. It’s too soon.” That night those thoughts ran through my head—how to be patient when you’re bone tired, the importance of quiet in your life, of tasting the world outside this place, not to be afraid of anything.
During a Relief Society lesson on ancestry, my friend Nancy Miller showed a scrapbook of her family that included portraits of her and her husband, her parents, her grandparents, and their parents standing together as couples. It was stunning that hers was a legacy of couples, strong, loyal, and enduring. What made it stunning was my realization that what I handed my daughter was a legacy of single mothers, of women who often stand alone.
It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to share my granddaughter Aspen’s birth. We spent the first six hours of Liffy’s twenty-four-hour labor watching videos at home, soap operas, doing our first stage breathing in the comfort of a familiar place-my bedroom, the same bed where she had watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, the same bed we sat on as we talked about boys and difficult friends, her hopes and dreams. So it was a fitting place to begin this great adventure. By the time we went to the delivery ward of the University of Utah hospital, Liffy was in real pain (good pain as our birthing instructor told us). Nevertheless, the clerk at the desk asked us why we were there. [p.88]We looked at each other in exasperation at the absurdity of the question, and I said quietly, “My daughter is going to have a baby.” Because all their rooms were full, they located us out in the lobby with a group of about twenty of the most obnoxious, loud-speaking, joking relatives of some woman in pain about twenty feet away. We laughed at the absurdity of our roommates in the hospital waiting room, the fact that we were stuck watching the Munsters with them until a delivery room was vacated.
Besides having an uncontrollable urge to eat Snickers bars, my head spun with reflections on birthing a baby, the striking remembrance that “labor,” or travail as Laurel Ulrich reminds us in Good Wives, is work, remarkably difficult and painful work, that tries heavy muscles and threatens to leave us unable to breath or move. As Liffy moved through her labor and particularly the last most intense four hours, we worked together. I have few times in my life felt so connected to another human being. When she moved through a contraction, my own muscles tensed and I massaged her back, her legs and arms, neck and shoulders, and I whispered in her ear, “You’re wonderful. You’re almost there. You’re doing great. Aspen is almost here.”
This supportive work was incredibly difficult, complicated because what I really felt like doing was yelling out to anyone walking down the hall, particularly the young nurses and residents who were out there joking around, flirting, and passing time, “Come in here and stop my daughter’s pain!” But I was also very aware she needed me to be calm, to be consistent and supportive, not to dissolve in anger, frustration, or tears.
I gave birth to six children, so I am no stranger to childbirth. But nevertheless, when I sat on the edge of her bed and held her bent-up left leg with my arm, her nurse holding the other, and watched the head of my first grandchild ease its way out, I was speechless. I have never seen anything so exquisitely beautiful or miraculous or amazing. Committed to letting the baby squeeze out without an episiotomy, the student doctor who delivered her (who looked as though he were about fifteen years old) let Aspen’s head ooze out, and I remembered the birth of puppies, of kittens that I had observed as a girl, and had the same sweeping awe that the miracle of birth inspires. Despite all the mess of blood and fluids, the sterile equipment and gear, it all cleared [p.89]away as this most amazing girl baby joined Liffy and me in our circle.
I had the most remarkable experience during those ten minutes that her head squeezed through. I felt the tangible, palpable presence of a woman I study, Zina Diantha Young, herself a midwife, present at the birth of her granddaughter, another Zina. Important to me was the warmth of the feeling, that I am sure came from her, that this was the most important miracle I might ever witness and that everything would be okay. That my daughter would be able to handle what this baby would bring to her and that their lives, and my own, would be better for the experience. I needed that comfort. And I believe that Zina brought it to me.
This was a remarkable opportunity to watch my daughter change from a girl into a mother, a woman. I marked her strength of character, her limitless joy and enthusiasm. The connection between them that is primal, physiological, social. Aspen lights up when Liffy enters the room, leans towards her as though pulled by some magnetic force. Here I remember the connection that we forget as they age and that begins sometimes to annoy us, challenge us.
It was little more than a month after Aspen’s birth that my sixteen-year-old daughter, Emily, flew into the family room and plopped herself down on a chair across from me. It was her way to come to me like this, full of the day’s events, stories about the crazy things that happened at school or how tired she was of work or whatever filled her head. This day, as she threw herself down, it was with genuine fatigue. It was written on her face, pale and blotchy. And I knew immediately that it was likely she too was pregnant.
My initial reaction was disbelief. How could she be so stupid? I had been thorough, even pushy, informing her on birth control, providing endless advice on how to avoid this type of trouble. How could this happen to me? (Again!) I was angry that she would do this to our family, to her sister Katelyn already strained by the difficulties of the year’s changes. I saw this pain written on her dear face as a problem, one too many, that threatened to knock me to my knees.
Instead, one week now after the birth of yet another granddaughter, my perception has changed. I see this experience not as a problem (narcissistically my problem) but as a great teacher, a refiner, my daughter not as a problem child but my new hero.
[p.90]It is perhaps ironic that for years we opened our home to unwed mothers. We were lucky enough to have a large, suburban home with far too many rooms for us to use, and we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. A series of these girls stayed with us for about ten years, for periods that ranged between six and eighteen months. We also cared for a few foster babies who were waiting for adoptive homes.
Although I don’t necessarily buy notions about predestination, these relationships prepared me for what needed to be done with my own daughters. I toyed briefly (perhaps one black day) with sending Emily away for the duration of her pregnancy, perhaps to save face for her—for Katelyn—for me? But the idea appalled me. I had seen how those girls suffered through their pregnancies, their childbirths without their mothers and families. I had always said, never believing it would, “If this ever happened to me, I would keep my daughter home with me.” And that is what we did.
In some ways Emily was better suited for pregnancy than her older sister, who moaned and groaned her way through months of nausea and bloat. Emily flourished. Her face regained the healthy glow it had when she was younger. Her golden hair shined and grew healthy and long. She took the earrings out of her nose, her eyebrow, and became obsessive about eating healthy foods, existing only in air free of pollutants, developing good habits. She laughed herself through those months, holding her chin up high when her friends, our neighbors, strangers gave her funny looks. She taught me about courage, self-respect.
It is astonishing how cruel adults can be to teenagers who struggle. Emily was, for example, lectured by a woman at the one-hour photo booth who thought Em’s pregnant profile shots were disgusting. Regardless, determined to make her baby proud, Emily graduated from high school a year early, got terrific grades all year. It was so interesting to watch our middle child, hopelessly branded through life as difficult, challenging, spirited, jump rank and become a model of strength that her three older siblings looked to and admired for her courage.
It seemed she had reclaimed her life. She matured before our eyes. Even so, it was Emily’s very difficult decision to place the baby up for adoption, knowing in her heart it would be the best gift she could give her. She read probably fifty different family portfolios before she se-[p.91]lected a family who would do an open adoption with her.
Her birth, long anticipated as a potentially tragic occasion, was joyous; again the mood, the spirit, was set by Emily. This time Liffy and I stood on each side of Emily, holding her bent legs as she pushed Siera Jane out and into life. The tears rolled down our cheeks, but we laughed and cheered her on. A very different mood, it felt like a party really, a birthday party. A reminder once again that birth, regardless of the circumstances, is not a problem but a part of life to be cherished and learned from.
The ceremony when Emily gave her baby, her great gift to the adoptive parents—Wes and Carol Beckham—was, in my mind, brutal, a painful ripping away of the one thing that had brought my daughter, my own baby, her greatest joy. The expression of grief on her face haunts me and will always represent to me the greatest suffering I have personally witnessed. She knew she had her sisters, her brothers, me, and her father with her, but even still it was her decision, her sorrow, her future. Thirteen-year-old Katelyn wrote her a sweet expression of caring that night. “I used to think you were the most selfish person in our family, but now I know you are not. You loved your baby more than you loved yourself. You would rather she be happy than you. I love you.” We all learned about love from the birth of this baby. And now our family circle includes the Beckhams, Wes and Carol, who waited fifteen years for their baby daughter, now Kristen Siera, people like all of us who had benefitted from Emily’s graceful efforts at mothering.
Perhaps twenty years ago I had an epiphany of sorts. I was a diligent student at the university and very serious about understanding the significance of my life. I went to our family cabin in Midway for a week away. I took my sketch books, my Jose Feliciano and John Denver records, my scriptures, and other books. I spent the week in blissful solitary sketching, hiking, and listening to music in the beautiful woods. My last day Iwas restless because it seemed I hadn’t found any particular answers. I had spent much of the week meditating, trying to see clearly where I needed to go next. I was very consciously asking God for these answers. I went on a hike late that final afternoon, higher on the mountain than before in the rich autumn colors.
On my descent I was quite tired but so excited by the day that I started to run down the path. I ran past a flock of sheep grazing in a [p.92]quiet grove of aspen trees. I felt as though I was dancing down the hill when I tripped coming around a curve and literally sailed through the air down a sharp decline about forty feet before I landed. I was dazed, bruised, and bloody, and immediately scared. The fact that no one knew where I was, whether I had been hiking or where, flashed through my head. My independence, which had moments before been exhilarating, seemed to make me most vulnerable. I remember crying out a prayer, “Help me!” Looking up the sharp rocky hill I would have to climb to get back on the path, I was terrified, and again and again I said, “Please help me. I will do anything when I get back. Please just help me.” And when I tried to stand, it seemed my ankle had been sprained or something, it certainly hurt. And I literally had to pull myself up that hill, inch by inch, smearing mud and leaves and rocks all over my chest and legs. It seemed like hours before I reached the top, and I got there purely by will power. When I finally pulled myself over the rocky edge, brilliant sunlight beamed through the aspen leaves above me and it seemed (and this is my epiphany) that everything would be all right, that I would be safe. As I stood up and brushed the debris off my legs, feeling that sunlight on my back and thinking nothing had ever felt so good, I was flooded with the feeling (and maybe it was God who put this feeling in me) that it was me who pulled me out of that mess, that it was my strength and determination that had pulled me up that hill. That realization of personal power was perhaps the most important thing I learned that year, and finally, after almost twenty-five years, I have felt it again.
The experiences of life that threaten to destroy us become our greatest teachers. Sometimes we are faced with decisions that have the potential of breaking us. But we must face them with courage rather than fear. With hope rather than dread. We must trust in ourselves and our futures. We must live as if our dreams have been fulfilled.
Aspen, Kristen Siera, Liffy, Rachael, Emily, Katelyn, my sons Jason and Patrick, all have taught me about the miracle of life in all its richness. The circle forged by love and experiences—good and bad—that have formed our days have provided me with the greatest opportunity for growth. Being a mother is how I define myself. It has been the greatest gift. I carry that model into my classrooms, into my relationships with others, into my exploration for a greater understanding of myself. [p.93]For mothering is above all else about caring and respect.
My grandmother once told me, “Never forget who you are.” I have tried to remember. I had forgotten the lesson I learned in the sunshine on that mountainside. I have found that there is a spiritual basis to attention, to self-reflection, a humility required of us in waiting upon the emergence of pattern from experience. In any experience other moments are present, and so they are with me. When I write about my life at forty-five years old, I am accompanied by a teenager and a girl of ten who stared out the window wondering how she could shape her life. I am accompanied by a strong-boned woman raised by pioneers, Mormon born and bred, belief and devotion in her blood. I am accompanied by a small woman, whose heart opens to every weak person who comes along, who gives them what she should have gotten from others. I am privileged to stand next to a new mother, still a child herself who has shown the greatest love and maturity, my teacher. I stand in the circle with four strong golden young women, with my mother, her mother.
It is as if I move in the experiences of the past year through a dusty Mormon town in southern Utah to a suburban neighborhood at the base of Mt. Olympus. We stand on a plateau looking out on the red rock of a canyon, we join in my office bedroom, in my daughters’ birthing room. We are together, my mother, my grandmother, and me, Aspen, Kristen Siera, and my four daughters—Elizabeth, Rachael, Emily, and Katelyn. Their story is my story. My story is their story. Our lives form a circle.
Insight comes from setting our experiences side by side, learning to let them speak to one another. This, then, is how I have gone about remembering, so that my children will remember too. I like best an explanation of mothering as one standing by with a safety net spread beneath the feet of my children who play in the air above me. I hope they will not view my presence with dismay, but will let it help them rise as high as they choose, secure in the knowledge of my support. It is frightening to consider that pulling the net too tightly might send them bouncing off into space or, leaving the grip too loose, letting them crash to the ground.
What I really want most is for my children to be able to soar confidently in their own sky, wherever that might be, to be the pilots of their [p.94]own plane, agents in their own lives. And if there is space for me alongside them, then I will have, indeed, reaped what I have attempted to sow.
As women, the lines, the threads of strength, pride, courage, and beauty run through us, not around us. Tangible as rope but fine as silk, these connections are magnified by the experience of mothering. I didn’t need to worry about teaching my daughter how to mother, it runs through her blood. It is a part of her memory. As I write this, I am recovering from a hysterectomy and mourn the loss of my uterus, my ability to give birth. I remember, at my granddaughter’s birth, they asked my daughter if she wanted to see the placenta and we both were a little disgusted by the prospect. But I wish that I could have seen my uterus. It was the source of the greatest joy I have felt, the incubator of the finest human beings I have been privileged to know. And as I move into a new part of my life, I mark its passing, one of the best parts of me is gone.
Once again, as I lie in my four-poster bed, this time sunshine dancing in the window warming my arms and face, I wish for a sister with whom I could share this change. She would rub my back or perhaps brush my hair, and remind me that she understands and that we will share new things that will surprise us with their richness. Instead I have daughters. Emily who makes me a special dinner (oriental chicken salad, my favorite); Rachael who calls after a long day at work the distance from Boston in the middle of the night to get a recipe for tortillas and to chat; Katelyn who stills bursts through the door after a day of school with all the energy and happiness imaginable; and Lilly my dreamer, another mother, daughter still, friend and partner in joy and sorrow. My sisters, my daughters.