Like so many, I woke up on Mother’s Day thinking about my mom. Maybe it’s because of various changes in my life this past year and because of reading so many poignant posts from a Motherless Daughters Facebook group this week, I felt Mother’s Day even more than usual. Our mom, Susie DeMark, was a beautiful soul, the very meaning of the word gentle.
She gave us so much, especially after my dad died and she had four daughters under the age of 15 to raise. As years go on, I am blown away that she was able to raise us as beautifully and bravely as she did. I love both the big and the little things I remember, like how she knew and enjoyed how to keep score in a baseball scorebook or how she trusted us to be clerks in our sporting goods store when I was 12 years old. The sporting goods store, in a narrow storefront in our town of Wampum, Pa., was a part-time business that my father, Charley, and Uncle Luke, brothers and both millworkers, owned. My mom took over DeMark Bros. Sporting Goods when my dad died of cancer, at age 45, and I felt so responsible working there.
What mattered came across more in actions than words. My mother was the first to buy history books for me. She encouraged my sisters and me to learn and explore, something best captured in the trips she planned to Canada, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. She knew beauty, in the flowers she raised, the wonderful meals she prepared, the music she loved.
She knew struggle, but she didn’t dwell on it (except perhaps financially, yet she continually bettered our circumstances and saved and bought a newer, sweet ranch-style house). When my father died in 1959, she first got a job in a mattress factory and then earned a nursing degree, as a licensed practical nurse. One of the proudest days was attending her graduation ceremonies when she became an LPN. Mom lived the idea that education mattered so much, especially to a woman who had initially not had an opportunity to pursue a college degree – despite being valedictorian of her high school class.
I love those poems about feeling and seeing one’s mother in the signs around us, because I always do see her. I see my mom in roses and hyacinths, in home-baked bread, or the delicious comfort food that has become the rage (nothing was better than coming home from college to my mom’s beef stew or lasagna). I see her in the ways I appreciate country rides and road trips because she first took us on them – even if we ended up two hours north of where we were supposed to be, a metaphor for life’s journeys. I see her in the sky and the beautiful clouds.
Today I am more tearful, and I know I am also more filled with gratitude. This comes from seeing dear family members and friends who appreciate their own mothers so much as time goes on; who have lost their moms or are going through so much in taking care of them in their elder years; or who have been coming to terms with difficult memories with their mothers. For me, to cry more is to know life more tenderly, and to appreciate the gift of my mom’s love ever more each year…in the gifts she gave her children, the people she put in my life, and the love that lives on within me, my sisters, my nephew, and our family.
I feel so blessed that this beautiful young woman in the photo, at 26 years old – holding her first child, Charlene, the first of four daughters — was my mom. Though we lost her way too soon to cancer, at the age of 55 in 1974, I wouldn’t give up the gift that I had in our mom for anything. And I’m grateful for the many moms I’ve had throughout my life, especially my godmother Aunt Jean and my Aunt Emelene, and the rest of my aunts. What a blessing! In the area where we lived in Western Pennsylvania, we were surrounded by aunts and uncles who nurtured us, were so kind, and gave a strong sense of roots to my sisters, cousins, and me.
I sensed how my relationship with our mother progressed as I got older. As I matured, I got into fewer scrapes and more into making her proud of me. In my sophomore year of college, I began to see myself as a scholar and writer, the seeds coming to fruition that she had planted with books many years before. On the trips between home and college, we began to have adult-to-adult conversations, about people, life, and death. I so loved those moments. Her death after my college graduation cut short those conversations, as it did so many things. It has taken me a long time to fully acknowledge the depth of the hole created in my sisters’ and my lives when my mom died, though the pain was visible in my family immediately.
Today, I consider what it would have been like for my mother and father to have been here during all these years, to see my family’s accomplishments and continue sharing our lives, to experience the birth of a grandson and watch him grow to adulthood. I miss making my mother laugh and smile. She and my dad would have taken so much joy out of all of our endeavors and from witnessing the beautiful, wise women that my sisters have become. Yet, 1974 wasn’t the end of the story – she is here, and I feel some immediacy that our mom is present in ways that earthly existence doesn’t grasp.
Somehow my mother’s touch is still very much in our lives, and I marvel more than ever at motherhood.