My mother went to the tent cities of Albania in 1999 with a medical team to serve the Kosovo refugees. When she came back, she gave me a set of Russian nesting dolls or Matryoshka— meaning little mothers. Each doll opened up to reveal another smaller one inside her. As the dolls become smaller, their features become less and less distinct—like human memory does with age. Their eyes lose their lashes and eventually disintegrate into dots; their rosy, smiling mouths straighten into a single line. But the largest doll, the one that houses all the others inside her is the most intricate. If you look carefully, you can see a story unfold backwards as they give birth, one after another down to the smallest doll that sits at the center of them all like a seed.
This last move (into a house with an in-law apartment in the basement for my parents) I lost the dolls somewhere, or absentmindedly sent them to the Good Will.
I had forgotten about them completely until recently, when I was cleaning my daughter’s room and found the smallest one; my daughter used to call it the baby—the only one that doesn’t open up to reveal another identical one inside her. She laid whole and forgotten in the bottom of a purse next to a bottle of blue, glittery nail polish.
I showed my now 9-year-old daughter the baby and she remembered the dolls, wanting to know where the rest of the older sisters and mother were. She chattered about the games she used to play with them. I studied her face, half-listening; my eyes going over the familiar lines and slopes of her features which I know better than my own: her father’s nose, her full, curved mouth that never stops talking, the one tooth that came in a little crooked, the smooth roundness of her forehead. Only her eyes remained of the baby I once had—the same liquid brown ones that stared up at me as an infant while she nursed, or glared at me under furrowed, invisible eyebrows as a toddler whenever I had to tell her no. The rest of her face has all lengthened—adopting the same slopes and angles of her father and his mother before him.
She has my curly hair, my long piano hands, my gift with language but her father’s adolescent wildness and fierce independence. She is a collection of our combined DNA—shared genetic codes that spiral backwards to some forgotten, central ancestor. My son is made of the same shared DNA but with completely different results. He has my face and his father’s musicality, my sensitivity but his father’s affinity for the abstract.
We all as humans are made up of bits and pieces of genetic code. But the essence of who we are as people is formed by those we carry around inside us like Matryoshka—those who raise us. They shape our personalities, our sense of self worth. They teach us what a mother is, what a father does. They define our normality.
From the time they slit open my stomach and pulled them out, red-faced and screaming into the world, something shifted permanently inside me. I was no longer my own, but my children’s. When I brought my daughter home for the first time, my mother was there to help. I went to her for everything. Is she supposed to breathe like that? Is this crying normal? What do I do when she makes that noise? I was my daughter’s source of nourishment, love, of life itself.
As my children have gotten older and more independent of me, I find myself repeating familiar phrases from my childhood. I’m your mother, not one of your friends; so, don’t talk to me like that! I’m not your maid! Close the door; this is not a barn! Find something constructive to do! The phrases form in my mouth naturally, like a primitive reflex. As a mother, I fight for patience and try to truly listen when they talk about the little things, so some day they will tell me the big things—neither which come naturally to me. I do my best with the knowledge I have, like my own mother did; like I hope my daughter will do some day.
But, I am lucky. I come from a long line of good women. I carry around their values inside me and imprint them on my own children. But not everyone is as lucky. Many carry around pain and darkness, passed down by their own mothers. Hurt people hurt people, the cycle goes. Some, like my friend Libby, fight and break free from it; but she lives with the damage from abuse. The cracks and fissures became an intrinsic part of her makeup; something she will always carry with her. She fights by being a good mother, by never letting them feel alone or unloved, sometimes to the point of exhaustion and I remind her to take time for herself. But the under currents are strong and she spends all of herself pushing against them so her children will never have to.
Others walk around with missing parts. My friend, Lori, lost her mother when she was only 10. She does the best she can to fill in the gaps, but they are wide and deep. She grieves for the loving mother her ten-year-old self can’t quite remember. She found some old recordings of her mother singing in church. She plays them again and again, mourning a loss so deep she never feels fully whole.
I see this same loss in my daughter’s friends. But it is dark and bitter. Their mother was not taken from them by disease but she walked out on her own accord. They remain little girls lost, abandoned, constantly looking, grieving for somebody that doesn’t want to be found. Their grandparents and relatives dote on them, try to make up for the lack. I hug their lanky, pre-pubescent bodies close, so much like my own child’s. I call them my second and third daughters and they smile, but it is only as big a smile as a hug from a friend’s mom can give. It doesn’t fill the empty center inside them only she was made to fill.
So many of my college friends have lost their mothers recently to death. They say it’s like losing your self, losing your center. They keep picking up the phone to talk to them, like constantly flicking a switch and forgetting the light has burnt out. My friend Amy told me, I have yet to ever be loved by anyone like my Mom loved me. She tells me she feels more alone than before she was gone, although she knows one day they will see each other again.
Another good friend lost her mother recently. Her Dad died years earlier. Her mother had always been difficult and demanding. I’m an orphan now, my friend says. I feel how bereft she is. Her voice sounds small and hallow through the phone, like calling from a shipwrecked vessel lost at sea. She clings to guilt like a life-raft and asks me, Should I have moved closer? Should I have asked her to move in with me? Did I call her enough? All I can do is assure her that her Mom loved her, that she knew she loved her too. She goes to counseling, trying to find some sort of solid ground again.
My own mother had a recent brush with death. Only then could I begin to feel the taste of my friend’s loss in my mouth. I wasn’t ready to lose my Mom, to be rudderless at sea. The ocean was still too big and unpredictable. I’m not afraid to die, my Mom said. I told her I didn’t understand that. I wouldn’t want to leave my kids. She said, Grandma told me the same thing before she died—that she was not afraid. I didn’t understand it then either, but I do now. Only young people die feeling like things are unfinished.
Maybe she’s right. Maybe when your children are grown, at some point you realize you’ve done everything you can. You’ve lived out your faith, imprinted upon this life whatever you could that was good and right and your job is done. What will be, will be. Maybe only the young see their lives and the lives of their children as singular, unfinished events in history, disconnected from the people and forces behind the trajectory.
When we focus only on those that hurt us, we can end up hurting our own children without realizing it, and then they do the same to their children. We alter the future by living in the past and we dishonor the past by obsessing over the future. We over-compensate for bad cycles by creating new ones that cause a whole, new pain we didn’t realize existed until it’s already been imprinted and mirrored back to us in a new generation.
No mother is perfect. We are all just humans and often badly broken, doing the best we can with what we were given. We all fall far short. Forgiveness (of others and ourselves) is a gift we can pass down to our children.
We can start our own cycles by defining our own faith and values instead of letting the mistakes of those who came before do it for us. We can grow up fast when we need to, so our children don’t have to. We can reach out to the motherless—the grieving, orphaned children and adults all around us, because family is not just compromised of shared genetic material.
We can honor our pasts by spending time with our aging parents and staying connected to our relatives, because nothing lingers like regret. We can insure the future by investing in our children—because we define what is normal to them.
Then at the end of our lives, maybe we too won’t be afraid to die. Maybe, we can be at peace with our creator, knowing we did everything we could to be one of the long forgotten reasons our great-great-great grandchild can someday say–I came from a long line of good women.
I put the Matryoshka baby on top of my daughter’s dresser. She looks lonely sitting there, with her simple dot eyes and dash mouth. I wish I still had the others. I wonder if they are somewhere in a thrift store, staring unseeing through painted lashes from their shelf amongst other people’s forgotten kitsch—a chipped mug with “World’s Best Mom” printed on the side, a “Baby’s first Christmas” acrylic ornament in the shape of a bottle.
I bet they miss her, my daughter says. She takes the baby and puts it in a crib in her Barbie house and sits Malibu Barbie with shorn hair in a chair beside it. I bet they feel all empty inside.
Yes, I reply. You’re right. They probably do. In fact, they must.
Dedicated to my friends: Amy, Lori, Libby and Michele…and all the other motherless children out there this Mother’s Day.
The absent are never without fault, nor the present without excuse –Benjamin Franklin