This past Thursday would have been my mother’s 72nd birthday. I’m no numerologist, but “72” doesn’t appear in any popular theory of milestone birthdays I’ve ever encountered. Yet, milestone or not, would-be-72 was a momentous one for me if only because this year, I was prepared.
Most years on September 30, I’m caught off-guard sometime in the early afternoon. The vague fog of complex sentiment descends. Do I feel guilty for not remembering, or relieved at whatever degree of “over it” forgetting implies? Is it too late to cook up some kind of celebration or observance? And how would one do that, exactly? There’s really no good way to celebrate a dead person’s birthday unless they’re an early US President or Dr. King. Maybe not even then.
This year, though, I saw the date coming. I hadn’t cracked the code on how to observe; there was still no real plan beyond “keep her in mind.” I wouldn’t take the day off, but I’d try to spend it in a way she might have wanted me to — a little bit of writing at an unusual coffee shop, a too-decadent lunch from a restaurant I’d been meaning to try.
Getting dressed with my mother in mind, I found my closet entirely lacking in the broomstick skirts she favored. I settled for a gauzy top in one of her signature colors — turquoise — and turned to an easier sartorial category for mom-conjuring: jewelry. I donned a liquid silver necklace of hers that I absolutely never wear. I’ve always held this necklace in high esteem, as its preciousness was made very clear to me when I first laid eyes on it. It had been an extremely well-received gift for some other birthday or holiday, from my father who (it must be said) has remarkable taste in accessories. But I’m not sure its extravagance translates to my own neck, over 20 years later. Maybe I’m just not a necklace person.
I am, however, an earrings person. I’ve claimed them as my signature finishing-touch for years1, and I keep my vast collection hanging on my wall for easy perusal. On Thursday, I searched my hoard for a pair that had belonged to my mom, scanning for likely candidates, meaning New Mexican stuff, Native-made, silver and stone (and the stone is likely turquoise). Even then, I found it hard to differentiate which were whose. This one is my grandmother’s, I think these were always mine. This is old but I think I’ve had them since childhood. These are the right style but I know they’re new.
That’s metaphor enough, but let us press on.
There’s a small, blue, china-patterened tin that houses a special subset of my mom’s jewelry which I’ve never commingled with the rest. I turned to it on Thursday, like I’ve turned to it so many times, forgetting again exactly why these had been kept separate.
All the earrings in this tin are defunct. Some of them could possibly be fixed, but most of them are just singletons, earrings with no match. This tin was filled with unmatched earrings when my mom died and remains that way 23 years later.
Many of the ways that I’m like my mom are on the surface. I look a lot like her. I sound like her when I talk. I have been told , and by people who should know, that I move around and roll my eyes just like her. But the truth is, I’ve lived more of my life without my mother than I lived with her. When I “keep her in mind,” it is, in part, to conjure her. I attempt to consult her by finding her inside myself. But I only have so much to draw from. So I hope for new information. I hope to uncover some object she left behind, a scrap of handwriting2, a voice recording. And occasionally, even all these years later, I find new clues about who she was in the stuff of hers I already have.
This clue came as a question I’d never considered: why did she keep those unmatched earrings?
I can’t ask her why she held on to them. But I know why I hold on to my own unmatched pairs of earrings, socks, gloves. It’s an act of hope. I hope that I might find the missing earring. Sometimes that hope is misplaced, but often I find what I was looking for. When that happens, I’m grateful for my hopeful nature. What if I’d given up, only to find out I’d just needed to hold out a bit longer?
When my mother died, she’d been diagnosed only briefly, and to say I was unprepared for her death would be a monumental understatement. I was shocked into another dimension. The doctor might as well have told me she’d turned into a spacedragon and flown to Mars. Her death was an impossibility to me.
Some time after my mom’s death, my aunt made a passing, tender comment about a conversation they’d had. Apparently, my mom had said that she’d hoped to live to see my senior prom (a goal missed by almost three years, cue sad trombone). The intention of the story was to offer a supportive glimpse into my mom’s abiding love for me, but catching wind of this conversation left me outraged. I’d thought everyone was as blindsided by the fact of my mother’s passing as I had been. It hadn’t been shocking merely because it was quick; I hadn’t known that death talk was even on the table. Why had I never been party to this kind of death-timeframe strategy session?
It took me many more years to broach this question with my father. And what he told me revealed the same part of my mom to me that I rediscovered on Thursday in that china-patterned tin. She’d been, fundamentally, a hopeful person. She’d wanted to live what remained of her life not as if it were ending, but in the hope that it would go on.
This year, on her birthday, I kept my mother on my mind. And finally, the dots connected. I didn’t uncover a new object that she left behind, but I found an affinity between the two of us that I’d never before appreciated. That is the greater inheritance. A whispered piece of advice that’s not just in my head, or in my memory, but in my blood:
You can’t live your life as if all hope is lost.
Or rather, you can, but better not to.
I know for sure, at this point, that I am not going to find my mother’s missing earrings. But who knows, I might start wearing them as unmatched sets. It’ll be a little reminder that sometimes the pieces fit together in ways we don’t expect.
Here’s some bizarre kismet for you: I also ended up watching a movie my mom loved (?!) on her birthday, to prepare to be the first guest on Andy Greene’s October Webseries, Horror Movies with Friends (click to watch!).
The film? Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Yeah.
If you want to read more by me on the topic of my mom:
Still No Word From the Quantum Realm (Medium, 2018)
On Breast Cancer Awareness and the Color Pink (Hello Giggles, 2014)
Second Sunday in May (Metaforia, 2021)
…yet, never making the connection: my mother ALWAYS wore earrings. And my grandmother. Huh.
I recently found the most amazing postcard she wrote to a friend in her 20s, and a short story she wrote for a science fiction class. I’ll have to write about that someday. Really excellent stuff.