There is another Sara in my life, and she was my mother. The fact that I named my only child after her probably says a lot, but maybe not what you think. Certainly not what I thought.
The story of my mother’s life is not completely known by me, and sometimes I suspect it was never fully known by anyone, even by my father. What I think I know is that it wasn’t always very happy and it was often times very hard. Her father died when she was just two or three. When I look at the few scattered photographs that we have of them together I like to imagine that it was the happiest of times, when they were all young and the world had not yet gone to war. My mother had an older sister, too, the beloved first child who I recognize as the girl with the sweet smile and finger curls that I’ve seen in pictures.
Mom’s sister died of polio when she was only 14. I think I learned this when I was in elementary school and I was given an assignment to do a report on a famous scientist. I came home and told my mother, and she said I should do it on Jonas Salk. I had no idea who Jonas Salk was, or why Mom cared who invented the vaccine for polio, a disease I hadn’t even heard of. But now I do; now I know that the regret and grief and loss you feel when someone you love dies never goes away. It doesn’t suffocate you or render you numb forever but it does play constantly in the background, shaping your thoughts and beliefs, always subtly sculpting you into the person you are perpetually reinventing.
With so much loss so early in life, during an era when there was so little certainty in the world, I can only imagine that happiness was a sweet but fleeting thing. We work so hard to build happy lives for ourselves today, and as I get older I wonder what it is doing to us. It’s certainly not natural, but why would we opt for pain when we can manufacture glee? But isn’t that what we’ve been doing since the dawn of time? Always finding new ways to make life easier, safer, happier? But maybe there is something to be said for making room for a little pain. Maybe pain hardens the stone so grief can’t reduce us to a broken pile of rocks.
Though she lost her own little family she gained another, and this new family brought a brother and a sister, a pair whose own mother had died too soon, and eventually a new baby brother as well. These relationships were frequently tenuous, and while I know that Mom had great love and affection for her new-found siblings, and they for her, the circumstances of their lives didn’t allow for the kinds of alliances and confidences that one might hope to have in a brother or sister.
I sometimes wonder if my mother felt rather alone in the world.
I didn’t grow up hearing very much about Mom’s childhood. War stories, mostly: helping to refurbish the big house at 43rd and Illinois, most memorably how the kids’ small hands were enlisted to reach the narrow spaces under and around the radiators where the floors had to be stripped and sanded and varnished. How the house was filled with borders to help pay the bills, and so she and my aunt had to share a room on the sun porch. Peeling potatoes for hours on end (or so she said) and the stacks and stacks of dishes they had to do each night. How she got histoplasmosis when she was in high school and missed weeks of school because of it – and blind spots in her vision for the rest of her life. How they would eat baked bean sandwiches on Sunday nights, because that is what they had.
But there were good times, too. She found joy in what to me were the oddest things: taking in hockey players as borders while the teams passed through town; having pear fights with her brothers, and always looking for the hardest, greenest pears to launch at them; and even still to my amazement, playing semi-professional softball (much to her own mother’s chagrin).
Mom, as it turns out, was a tomboy. She loved to be outside, hitting a ball with the boys, walking the mile to the pool so she could swim away her summer days. My uncle has said that, if she had just been born 50 years later, she would have most certainly earned an athletic scholarship. She had a good arm, a good eye, and a natural talent that made it easy for her to pick up most any sport and succeed – often times outplaying the boys in her neighborhood.
As a kid I would have short bursts of interest in sports, mostly softball. I wanted to be able to toss the ball up into the air and then swing the bat, sailing the ball across the yard and out into the gravel alley at the other end. Mom made it look effortless. Even with blind spots in her eyes she could chuck the ball up, pull her arms back and take a smooth, easy swing, lightly connecting with the ball so it would skid gently across the lawn. Over and over, never missing, telling me to just keep my eye on the ball. And then she would hand me the ball and bat and let me have at it, but inevitably the ball would land with a thud at my feet, or lob off to the side forcing her to duck to avoid a hit. Eventually she would just smile and shake her head and say “Amy, I just don’t know what to tell you.”
My mother, the tomboy whose athletic talents came easy, was always very comfortable in her own skin, even when she was the middle-aged mother so different from the others that I knew, the ones with painted nails and long, braided hair, the ones who wore high heels and earrings. She wasn’t apologetic about it – and shouldn’t have been. She didn’t know any other way to be, and I wouldn’t have wanted her to be anyone else.
Mom was entirely herself, in her quiet and easy way. She was honest about who she was and who she wasn’t, and though we weren’t alike in many ways I like to believe we are a very much alike in that.