Tag Archives: mother-daughter relationships

With Gratitude: Seeing Red


All summer and fall, I’ve been trying to write about my mother, who died in 1999. I thought I was at peace with her when she died. I had been one of her hospice caregivers during the months she struggled for breath, and I was with her at the moment of her passing. At one point, she even made a speech in which she said everything I ever hoped she would say to me. My mother and I had no unfinished business, or so I thought.

But every time I went to write about her, I remembered a particular instance in which she threw underhanded, called me a name, apologized later. It became my personal whack-a-mole. No matter what I was writing about — my childhood, my father, my husband, my own children up the incident popped. Yes, her comment was mean. But why skewer her? If she were alive, we could have a good fight about it, a fair fight. That one scene did not a relationship make. There were hundreds of other scenes — thousands — I could have brought to mind, but I was stuck. The words would not come.  Until I opened the box with the Chinese brocade.

I don’t know what possessed me to go spelunking in my attic last week, but I felt compelled to pull out some of the stuff I have squirreled away in nooks and crannies. I’ve inherited some stuff, and collected other bits when my father moved out of his house in 2003. On this particular day I went looking for the bins I stored among dusty luggage, abandoned briefcases and boxes of seldom-used holiday decorations. The last time I opened one, I think, was when one of my children mined it for show-and-tell. Both of my children are out of college now, so that had to be long ago, at least a dozen years back.

Through the translucent side of the top bin, the contents looked like layers, vanilla except for a ribbon of red. What could possibly be so unabashedly red? I removed the packing tape, so old it it cracked rather than peeled, to discover what was on top. Oh, it’s you, I thought, as I extracted the remnant of silk. Left over from the cheongsam my mother had made when we lived in Hawaii, I greeted it like a long lost friend. It’s red without the pop of orange, red without a calming hint of blue: red for blood, red for lust, red for love. It’s red as in red-white-and-blue for the nation’s birthday, which my mother conscripted into a celebration of her own every July 3rd.

When I touched the fabric, still as vibrant as it was 50 years ago, I could see my mother laughing, regaling the family with the story of how she had pointed to where the slit should end, mid-thigh, and how the seamstress kept gesturing to a spot a foot lower and shaking her head: “not Chinese lady.” I remembered my mother showing off the finished product, her curves straining against the thick brocade, her thigh peeking forth a full three inches above the knee. My mother had movie star legs and feet so lovely they landed her a college job modeling shoes at I. Magnin, the nicest store in Seattle. Did the shoe models parade down a runway curtained like a puppet stage, I used to wonder, so that only the calves and ankles showed? My grandfather, who knew more than he should have about a nicely turned leg, reportedly told my father upon meeting her, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.” She was never traditionally pretty — exotic, yes, with the olive skin of the Black Irish, cheekbones like Mt. Rushmore, pillowy lips and dark brown eyes that snapped beneath lids that almost lacked folds. An interesting face, a strong face, but not one that could precisely be called pretty.  Her hair, in the last ten years before her death, was more gray than brown but what she lamented was the increase in shoe size that followed the birth of five children. The beautiful shoes she’d received in exchange for modeling — the pumps and the sling backs and the snappy navy Spectators — all had to be given away.

I wrote, “Oh, it’s you,” because my mother felt more fully present than she had in years. Seeing the silk made me want to laugh and yell red, red, red, red, red! God, my mother loved red, and red loved her back. My father had a bouquet of Shakespearian sonnets he would offer up to her — or use to extol her after her death — but my favorite was Sonnet 130 with its dripping irony: “…I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks.” I can see him at the dining room table, looking at my mother, smiling a half smile as his baritone voice marked off the meter, ending with, “…I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.”

Once I had touched the silk, she seemed to be woven into everything. Below the red silk was a pink bed jacket that had been my grandmother’s but it was my mother who told me about it. Now that I think about it, that brief exchange was just so my mother. I know she missed her mother, who lived with us for many years — she was a big help with the children — but I don’t think she kept the old lingerie for its utility. So far as I know, she never used it. I think she kept it for its sentimental value, for the same reason that I cannot purge it. I thought of her again when, at the bottom of the bin, I saw a little christening robe with an embroidered wooly kitten. I’m almost certain it was made for my sister.

My sister, Madeline Elizabeth, was born in 1950 and died on October 22, 1953, two days before my father’s birthday. They called her Midge. She was my parents’ third child, planned to be their last. At thirty-two, my mother had her daughter.

Sometime around Midge’s first birthday, my parents noticed that she was tired and listless, not the energetic little girl she’d been. My father’s brother, a doctor who specialized in blood cancers, came down from Boston to examine her. He took a sample of bone marrow from her hip and diagnosed leukemia. For almost three years, my uncle treated her with an experimental drug. During Midge’s last remission, the family vacationed on the Northeastern shore. In one picture, she held my father’s hand, looking shy. Even though she was not yet four, she wore size 6 clothing due to the weight gain that was a side effect of medication. It embarrassed her, my mother told me.

Then the remission ended. The leukemia advanced rapidly, and after she was taken to the hospital, my brothers never saw her again. They weren’t allowed to say goodbye, or attend her memorial service, or visit her grave; in 1953, that’s what experts recommended. Midge’s death must have brought my parents to their knees, but my mother muscled through it. She would have done well in ancient Sparta. She had two other children to care for, then six and ten, and she had recently learned that she was expecting. Again, the experts weighed in, advising an abortion since the stress might be too much for her or the baby. This time, my parents ignored the counsel. My brother Dean was born in April 1954. I followed three years later.

I remember seeing my mother cry only once. She was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes and looking at me, looking at me but not really seeing me. I asked her why she was sad and she told me she was thinking about my sister.

After my mother died, I found a book in my mother’s bedside table that contained 24 spiritual exercises “for healing life’s hurts.” I stumbled across it again yesterday, in a cupboard, forgotten. The first thing that struck me, besides its red cover (now that she is on my mind, I see red everywhere) was her name written in pen. There is her name in her careful right-leaning cursive, the top and bottom of the “E” of Eileen curling back upon itself, the “n” swooping east in a long, straight stroke. The book’s pages are a little water logged, as if she read it in the bathroom and accidentally dropped it in water. Other than the cover, only one page of the book bears her handwriting, the third lesson, entitled “The Healing Power of Gratitude.” Here is my clue, perhaps, as to how my mother handled the losses in her life. She underlined this passage: “(S)ometimes just letting ourselves be loved can solve so many problems. When we let go and just soak up love from the Lord and others who care for us, we have a whole new power to go on again.” Next to this, in a slightly shaky hand, she wrote, “God doesn’t walk out on me — I walk out on him.”

Is this how she muscled through? By putting her faith in God? By practicing gratitude? Gratitude was a common theme in the letters we exchanged over the years. When we spoke by phone, living 800 miles apart, we often struck sparks off one another, but on paper we were forced to listen. (I say “we,” but more likely it was me who had the interrupting habit.) She almost always began with news of her church “doings,” good Episcopalian churchwoman that she was. A letter I received when I was single and working in Los Angeles was written in her classic vein. She began by noting that she was “piddling around” getting some things done, including publicity about the United Thank Offering, which she lamented was rarely used as it was intended. One was supposed to put coins in the Blue Box as a personal spiritual discipline for acknowledging the good little things that happen every day. “I admit that I frequently forget to use it but I do remember a lot of the time to say thank you, God, when I get a lovely letter such as yours which came yesterday, or Dad shows his appreciation for something — or maybe because I didn’t have a flat tire when I was in a hurry and late — this past week I have been grateful when there may have been a whole 24 hours this puppy of your brother’s didn’t dig something up in the yard — or managed to hit the papers during the night.” She ended that long train of thought paragraph by saying she just wished the timing of babysitting my brother’s dog was different so that she could get on with gardening.

Even that last bit is true to form. On the page, she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The dog digs. The garden will suffer. We shall overcome. I can think of dozens of examples when she seemed to take far bigger challenges in stride. When my middle brother came home from his sophomore year of college to announce that his girlfriend was pregnant, there were no recriminations. My mother just rolled with it. In my brother moved with his new wife and baby. Her anger worked the same way. She yelled, said her peace, gave as good as she got. But when the argument was over, she didn’t resurrect it. Her emotional lexicon seemed nearly devoid of those negative emotions that take their time to grow and then fester: blame, guilt, spite. She wasn’t one to let things marinate.

I inherited my mother’s ability to compartmentalize, although I’m a journeyman in comparison. I could use more of her joy, her appreciativeness, her unbridled passion. (I’m passionate, mind you, but more given to a more bridled variety.) I could do with more of her ability to forgive — obviously, if I had a hard time letting go of the one time that she threw a slur in my direction.

After she died, I typed out a list of words to describe her: proud, opinionated, funny, bold, independent, nurturing, dedicated, faithful, feminine but never frail, organized, a leader, passionate, fiery, loving.

There was nothing pastel about her.


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Happy Birthday, Mom

Eileen D. Campbell and Henry S. Campbell, 1941

My mother would have been 97 today. I’m sitting at the laptop in my office in front of a wall cluttered with pictures, my son’s and daughter’s art projects, and Mary Oliver’s poem that ends, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” I’m here because I need to start working on my writing assignment to “follow the image”: see something or remember something and trace its association back to wherever memory takes me.

My mother’s clothes float into my mind. (Why my mother’s clothes?) She was partial to wool and crisp cotton, blouses paired with pleated skirts and sharp jackets. Her style was tailored, classic, unfussy. Chanel style without the Chanel. Her favorite color, red, was emblematic of her personality. Red, the color of berries and lipstick and blood.

In my parents’ courtship story, her attire is a factor in my father’s first impression, “Then this vision entered the room dressed to the nines.” She was never a woman to be taken lightly, and her clothes said as much. So did her shoes. Though she never talked about clothes (other than the trouble she got in for intentionally ruining a classmate’s leather coat by slipping Limburger cheese in its pocket), her selection as an I. Magnin shoe model in college was offered as evidence of her superior calves and ankles. When my grandfather met my mother, he reportedly said, “Son, a pretty face will fade away but a good pair of legs is a joy forever.”

Two “nevers” as I describe her. Funny that I find it easier to describe my mother in terms of what she wasn’t rather than what she was: not the slightest bit kittenish, not shy, not retiring, not patient, not passive.

I know a lot about what drove my mother: only child of older parents, self-described Tomboy, hero worshipper of her pugnacious attorney father whom she lost in her 20s, treasured lap child of a grandmother she adored (whose one-size-fits-all medical remedy was to “make up your mind and throw it off by morning”). I know what made her mad (almost everything I did). I know what she believed (in God but not virgin birth). I know what she thought (she told me). But I know almost nothing about her longings, fears, worries, hurts, regrets. Her vulnerabilities.

Why are my mother’s clothes on my mind, today? Clothes make the woman. Though she adapted to fashion trends throughout the years (hostess dresses being among the least attractive on a short full-figured woman), she knew what suited her hourglass shape. Having been told by her father that there would be no “female barrister” in the family, she focused on the domestic front, becoming the best officer’s wife and mother that she could imagine, performing her duties with ferocious commitment. Image came with the territory. She may not have stopped conversation when she arrived for P.E.O., the Altar Guild, or a bridge luncheon but her outfits always elicited appreciative murmurings.

I remember surreptitiously inspecting her closet during the later years of her life, looking for signs of stains.

I first noticed that something was wrong with her in 1991, when my daughter was four and I was pregnant. We had gathered my husband’s family and my parents for Thanksgiving. I had planned to have Maddie sit by my mother at the makeshift long table, but Maddie refused. Maddie was adamant about sitting next to me. My mother was so hurt by the rejection that she cried. She cried. A snit, a retort, or a cold shoulder: these were reactions I would have recognized. For my mother to feel snubbed by a child was inconceivable as she approached her fiftieth year of marriage and nearly as many years of child-rearing. By that spring, when I came home from the hospital less than twenty-four hours after childbirth, I knew something was seriously amiss. Mom had arrived at my home and promised to take care of the house and me so that I could take care of my newborn. As her mother had done for her. When I entered the house around 6 p.m. and laid down on the couch, Tommy sleeping on my chest, she appeared over the couch and asked, “What did you have planned for dinner?” I was stunned.

I hurt for my mother, my proud mother, when her clothes fell short of her meticulous standard. This was the woman my father found crying, trying to sew a button back on, aware that she had forgotten how, she, the woman who knew not only how to sew but to tailor. So I took to sneaking into her room while she stood at the kitchen counter smoking and staring into space. “I’ll just throw a few of your things in with mine,” I told her.

If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. She invented stories to explain the new routines in the household. “Your father seems to have developed an interest in cooking,” she told me. Dad, like me, had slipped in.

That was awful, Mom, worse than the lung cancer I feared would kill you, did kill you. You saved the letter I wrote in third grade imploring you to quit smoking. It read, “If you die my spirit and soul will die.” Watching you slip away – proud, funny, bold, hot-tempered, outspoken, opinionated, organized, independent, competitive, dedicated, passionate you – was torture. You, the real you, the you before dementia stole your mind, did not just visit this world. You made of your life “something particular, and real.”

For the complete text of Mary Oliver’s poem, click here:


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Loss and Its Companions: Love and Forgiveness

Eileen Driscoll Campbell

In grieving Dad, my mind has turned to my mother, who died in 1999. I love her for who she was and her many gifts to me, and I have long since forgiven her for the things that I once ached to receive from her.

If I want to, I can call to mind the feel of resting my head on her bosom, dozing on a long car trip, comfortably settled between Mom and Dad on the plastic-covered bench seat. I can’t exactly say that it’s a recollection. It’s more like a muscle memory, as if the tissues of my face can reconstruct the very feeling of her. She is soft and warm, a little damp with perspiration, and smells faintly of Shalimar talcum powder.

But I also remember Mom being perfunctory when I expressed feelings of hurt or sadness. Which seemed to happen often. “Stop crying like a fire engine,” she would tell me, exasperated. Her lips would compress above her strong jaw line.

A few years into my marriage, she bluntly told me that I would lose my husband if I continued my commitment to career. Prohibited from pursuing the career she had imagined in law, she found success in her role as wife. She believed I would succeed only by doing the same. Implied in her warning, I thought, was a threat that she would be on my husband’s side if I screwed things up.

This doesn’t seem like much of a homily to my mother. But I couldn’t have felt for her what I did by the time that she died if I hadn’t spent time pulling apart the threads of our relationship and reassembling them with the advantage of time, distance and age.

Several years before Mom passed away, when she slid more deeply into dementia, a blanket of sadness settled on my shoulders. I felt immobilized and I had no idea why.

This fits my pattern: having been well trained to ignore feelings of sadness, I don’t recognize them. They rise up. They demand my attention. When they are persistent enough, I attend to them.

Realizing that I was losing Mom made me examine our complicated relationship. I knew she loved me, sometimes with terms, but ultimately unconditionally, with fierceness and loyalty. I wasn’t like her. I would never be like her. But I knew she loved me.

By the time she developed lung cancer, I was at peace with my relationship with her. I forgave her for not always being able to give what I wanted from her. As cancer ate away at her personality and memory, love glowed in the gaze of her fading brown eyes.

Loss and forgiveness. They go together.

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Saying goodbye

While my “other mother” was lying in her hospital bed at St. Joseph’s Medical Center 10 days ago, in between periods of stark awareness, my mind kept rewinding and fast forwarding. I rewound to a night thirteen years ago when my mother was in a different bed in St. Joseph’s, fading in and out of lucidity following procedures that first discovered her late stage lung cancer and then sought to repair a hole in her lung so that she could go home with hospice. But I was also fast forwarding, imagining the day that I will hold my father’s hand while he struggles to leave this earth. I think that’s how it is for many people: when we lose someone we love, we also think about the others we have lost, and those who we cherish and are losing.

I almost published this journal entry from February 16, 1999 just before I headed up to Washington state. When I returned Monday night, it was the first thing I saw on my desk:

Last night, I spent the night with Mom at St. Joseph’s Medical Center. Two-and-a-half weeks into her stay, following her diagnosis of lung cancer, she was for the first time completely lucid.

At about 9:45 p.m., Mom was looking at the ceiling. I asked her if she was thinking or looking at something. She replied that she was thinking.

Over the next hour, in quiet and measured tones, she said goodbye to me. She began by saying, ‘You’ve been a wonderful daughter.’ After a few minutes, she added, ‘You’re a very competent woman.’

I realized that she was beginning to say goodbye. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to me but the words seemed so inadequate. I told her she was a wonderful mother — strong, loving and nurturing. I remember once, when I was quite old, that she had responded to my sadness by pulling me on to her lap in my Nana’s rocking chair.

I hugged her and apologized for crying. She said, ‘Why not?’ Then she said, ‘You are a beautiful daughter; now get some Kleenex and blow your nose.’

After a few minutes she said, ‘We’ve had a wonderful life together. Sons are special but there is something very important about a daughter.’  She tried to express her thoughts about what makes daughters different and struggled a bit with the right words. She said, ‘Daughters are more emotional.’ It seem to me that what she meant was that daughters are close to one’s heart in a different way.

I said to her that my brothers had been wonderful throughout her stay. I told her they had comforted her and been loving and compassionate. I told her that we had not left her in the entire 2 1/2 weeks. This seemed to surprise her. I added, ‘We didn’t think you would want to be left alone.’ She said, ‘You were right,’ and smiled softly.

She said that her grandmother was in her late 90s when she died and that she couldn’t remember how old her mother was when she died. Implicit in her remark was her consideration of the age she would be when she died.

‘It’s one of the hardest things you ever do to say goodbye to people you love,’ she said, ‘but it’s important.’

I asked her if she was worried. She said, ‘Not exactly.’ I said we loved her and would be with her every step of the way and that God was with her.

She asked, ‘How is your Dad handling all of this,’ glancing at her hospital bed and surroundings. I said that he was sad because she is so precious but that he was okay and taking care of himself. I said I would take good care of Dad.

She said, ‘I’m going to outlive your Dad,’ and then she added, ‘at least I think so.’ Then she reflected for a while.

I commented on her strength and said that we were raising another strong woman in Maddie. She agreed and added, ‘And Tommy is wonderful, too.’ I reminded her what she had said emphatically to Maddie that morning: ‘You know what? I like you.’

Finally I asked if there was anything I could do to make this easier. She said, ‘Well, one thing you can do is continue to be the marvelous woman that you are — competent, with a high level of activity, a very high level of activity. The world needs you.’

She drifted off to sleep. Not long after this was written, she did make it home with hospice. She passed away the day after Mother’s Day, on May 10, 1999. I miss her.


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