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Illustrations by Ery Burns for The Lily.
There is perhaps no relationship as primal, potent and consequential as the mother-daughter bond. In theory, it’s simple: Someone gives birth. In practice, it’s complex. Mothers run the gamut — kind, cold, witty, withdrawn, cautious, ambitious, modest, unafraid — but ultimately, they’re human, with merits and frailties alike. The same goes for their daughters.
Some mother-daughter connections are solid as rock; others are strained, difficult to explain. Some women never know their biological mother, while others may spend years under the same roof as their mom, without ever understanding her wants, wounds or ways. Over a lifetime, parent-child relationships shift, deepen and, sometimes, dissolve. So much goes unsaid. Ahead of Mother’s Day, we asked readers whose mothers are deceased, estranged or otherwise out of reach to tell us what they wish they could say to the women who gave them life. Here are their words.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “My mother died when I was 13 — the worst time to lose your mother if you ever knew her.”
What she’d say: “I would ask her questions to learn more about who she was as a woman, particularly before she married my dad and had three kids. I would ask her what her childhood was like. I want to know more about her relationship with her older sister, whom none of us ever knew. I’d pick Mom’s brain about the roots of her family tree, since that side is completely closed off to my siblings and me. I want to know more about what made her tick as a young person. Was she a feminist, like I am? I assume that she would recognize me as her daughter now, but I wonder if she would like what she sees. I just really wish I could get to know my mom, woman to woman.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “My mother is deceased.”
What she’d say: “Thank you for teaching me that I am responsible for my own happiness.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “I left the church my parents raised me in over five years ago, and our relationship has been strained since then.”
What she’d say: “If I could tell my mother anything, it would be that I wish she could see me for who I am, not who she thinks I should be. I’m pretty proud of the person I’ve become, including the values I have and the relationships I foster. Just because we don’t have the same religious values anymore doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. In fact, since making the difficult choice to leave the church I was raised in, I have become a more empathetic person because I don’t just see things through a lens of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ I am a better person now, and I wish she could see that.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “She passed away.”
What she’d say: “I would thank her for the many hours she spent practicing the organ for church and the impact that the music had on me then and now. I would thank her for the endless hours she spent making my clothes when I couldn’t find clothes to fit because of my 6-foot height. She gave so much to so many out of kindness, and I would want her to know that I recognized it but may not have mentioned to her how proud I was to have her as my mother.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “She’s deceased.”
What she’d say: “Taking care of you when you succumbed to Alzheimer’s was the hardest and most beautiful thing I’ll ever do. I didn’t know love until I held your ashes in my hands. You gave me life, and I helped you die. And in between all those years, in this dance of skin and bones, we caught glimpses of infinity. You are everywhere now. You live through me.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “She passed away.”
What she’d say: “I would ask her so many questions about life when I was young. My dad worked constantly when I was a kid and he doesn’t remember any of the details that I wish I knew — the name of a park we went to, what we planted in our garden, a game we played. I can’t believe that knowledge is just lost forever.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “She died when I was 8 years old.”
What she’d say: “Mom, I will never understand why you decided to leave me. My life went on a downhill slide after that. I want you to know I survived. After a rough 46 years, I am finally happy. I have two beautiful daughters (one of whom is named after you) and three grandsons. I will never forget what you taught me as a young child. However, the best lesson I learned from your death is that I will never do what you did. Even after some very difficult times, my will to live never left me. I hope you are proud of me, and that I am a good legacy. Know that I will never stop loving you.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “My mother has dementia. I can speak to her but she doesn’t get the meaning of my words or remember them for more than a millisecond.”
What she’d say: “I never got the chance to tell you how much your acceptance of me when I came out as a lesbian meant to me. Also, your acceptance of my partner and your openness to her different race showed your beautiful, generous nature. Thanks so much. I’m so blessed that you raised me to be myself.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “My mom is in hospice and has been living with me since August. There are things one doesn’t say when your mom is in her final days.”
What she’d say: “Dear Mom, you were a good mom and a not-so-good mom. I know I wasn’t your favorite, but I didn’t know that you were proud of me. I thought when you came to live with me that it would be a nightmare, but I felt obligated to grit my teeth and do what one should. Instead, it has become my blessing. When you saw my ex-husband and told him not to be a jerk to your daughter, former disappointment was like water under the bridge. You stood up for me! Such a silly little moment at which everyone laughed at the little old lady and continued on with the conversation, but for me it meant the world. I love you.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “My mom passed away in July 2013.”
What she’d say: “If I could’ve told my mother anything right around the time she passed away, I would say, ‘It’s okay. I’ll be okay and you don’t have to worry about us.’”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “I was adopted from China as a baby and do not know my birth mother.”
What she’d say: “When you knew you had no choices and nothing more to give, you chose nonetheless to give me life. You brought into this world a young woman who will never forget that she owes her wonderful life to hardship, sacrifice and the luck of the draw, who will spend her wonderful life serving those who have no choices and even less luck. Though I know that I will never know you, I dream of making waves that you will feel from half a world away. May you recognize their cadence and know that they began within you.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “She passed away 15 1/2 years ago.”
What she’d say: “Thank you for showing up in my dreams to chat, dine and shop with me at least twice a month since you died in 2006 — it’s like you never left, and I feel your love.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “My mom passed away in 1995, just after I turned 19, after a 10-year battle with cancer. I was a freshman in college.”
What she’d say: “It is not as much about what I would tell her as it would be about who I would want her to meet: her granddaughter. I miss my mom terribly, but what I miss most is being able to be a mother with her and share with her the trials, tribulations and joys of motherhood.”
Why she can’t connect with her mother: “She died 20 years ago.”
What she’d say: “As one of the first divorced parents of her era, my mom would often rail against the inequities that women faced in our society. At the time, this made me deeply uncomfortable, since as a young person I did not share her passion or her understanding about women’s rights and the hurdles we face on a day-to-day basis. However, as a mother of two teenage daughters in the #MeToo era, her prescience has crystallized and I find myself having the same conversations with my own girls. The miraculous difference, though, between my generation and theirs is that my daughters can see these macro- and micro-aggressions in real time, and they actively speak out and fight against these ingrained biases whenever possible. So, if I had an opportunity, I would tell my mother thank you for passing along her passion and her belief in the power of women. I would tell her how grateful and proud I am to see this strength of hers reflected in my own children and how they hold and share this wisdom widely. I believe she would consider this to be one of her finest legacies. It is certainly mine.”