It has taken the death of my father for the fact that I didn't really know my mom to slap me in the face.
My youngest sister and I took the trip to Louisville to see what we could find out about her. I can't say it better than I said it to her friend, Lucy, in my thank you note to her:
August 28, 2012
When I talked to Nan [another sister] the Wednesday before we left for Louisville, she said, “Ask Lucy what Mom was like.” I laughed—it seemed so vague—but that was really what we all wanted to know. What was our mother like?
You told us this weekend. She was kind and fun and everyone loved her. She and my dad had their problems, but she never wanted to hurt him. She looked after you when you moved to Carolina Beach and needed a friend. And you returned the favor when she needed a friend: you checked on her often and finally paved the way for her to go to Fellowship Hall. She suffered when her sister and mother died. She thought my dad was a good catch. She was vibrant and had a great personality. She was there when people needed her.
I feel as though I am mourning her loss a second time. I didn’t understand her at all, and wasn’t always very kind to her. Kids act like that, I know, but it must have been very painful for her. I wish I had known her as you knew her, had had more time with her, had seen her as I see you with your grandchildren, spending time at the holidays and in the summers.
I wish I could tell her I’m sorry, that now I understand. I understand not just because I’m a mother too, a wife with an imperfect marriage, a person who has suffered loss and knows that grief lasts a long time. I wish I could say I understand the kind of pain that drives a person to the bottom of a liquor bottle, and the same pain that you can’t avoid once you give up the booze. I would love to say I’m sorry I ganged up on her with my siblings and with my dad and regret that we teased her, that I could tell her that I loved her laugh and her ready smile. I wish I could say “thank you” like I mean it.
I know that had she lived to be eighty-something, she would have been an elegant woman, just like you are, that she would still welcome Melissa [Lucy's daughter] to her home as you welcomed us into yours, that she would have lived every day of her life just as you do. She would have been a doting grandmother.
Thank you for your graciousness, your honesty, your friendship with my mom through all those years, for sharing your knowledge of Louisville with us. I know we will see each other again before thirty years have passed! I’m so glad we made the trip. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
We asked Lucy some hard questions and she honestly answered them. It was nice to look at the answers with adult eyes; we felt totally non-judgmental. We learned a lot about her relationship with my dad--not from his perspective, which was rose-colored to say the least--but from someone in whom my mom confided her deepest secrets.
I know my mother better today than I did the day she died. And as I said, along with understanding comes regret. But it also comes with a whole lot of gratitude.