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Missing Mom

What my mother's death taught me about her — and myself


Published May 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

Eight years have passed since my mom died. She was truly knit into the fabric of my life, and I often feel unraveled by the loss.

My mom, Ellie Bilodeau, was full of fascinating contradictions. She could be intense, and yet also quiet and calming. She ate hamburgers for breakfast. She loved to read. She gardened and did crossword puzzles. She smoked while we were young and cursed inventively. She never learned to drive.

Mom touched a lot of lives, but in a quietly powerful way that is rare. She and my dad raised seven kids, and had 10 grandchildren and five great-grands, and she worked for 18 years as a reading paraprofessional at Georgia Elementary and Middle School. She needed no limelight — when the school gave her an award, she refused to go to work that day. And yet people were drawn to the light that she herself threw off.

Of course, she wasn't always sunny and cheerful. She had a terrible temper and struggled with demons I'll never understand.

I tried, though, before she died.

We found out she had cancer just before Thanksgiving. She died the next August. She was 62. Moments from that year are burned indelibly in my mind: doctors, hospitals, chemotherapy, radiation, a last home-coming, bathing, soothing, watching, feeding, praying, talking and, most of all long, sleepless nighttime vigils, listening and waiting.

Mom's coping with her onrushing mortality was inspiring in her typical no-nonsense way. We sat on the bed one afternoon and she said to me, "Can you do this?" gesturing at the sick room her bedroom had become. And I, crying, also began to laugh. "If I say no," I said, "what will you do?" She laughed, too, then, and we lay down on the bed together laughing. And crying. She had some really good gallows humor, my mom.

During this terrible time, I interviewed her on a few occasions, taping the sessions on my mini-recorder. I'm endlessly grateful that I have her voice preserved. Hearing it brings her back to me. And, I learned things about my mom in those quiet hours that I never knew.

Mom's parents separated at a time when that was unusual. Her mom ended up leaving her with her father, even more unusual. My grandfather's drinking meant my mom and Uncle Bud went into foster care, and eventually landed at the Warner Home for Little Wanderers in St. Albans. There they lived as orphans, having as good a life as you could have with only sporadic family contact.

My mom spoke fondly of the Warner Home — roller skating on the big porch, trips to the Welden Theater, dance lessons she ducked. She didn't enjoy the hard work, the endless cleaning, polishing, and the washing of laundry, but this explained to me her fanatacism for a clean house.

When she grew too old to stay, the Warner Home helped my mom find a local nanny job. Thus she began taking care of young children and families as a teenager, working her way through high school at BFA St. Albans, where she met my charismatic and ambitious father. They married early and had kids soon after. She started a nursing career, but stopped to have her family.

Listening to her recount her early life, I wondered why these stories weren't familiar to me. But, it was my mom's way: to listen intently, and not take over a conversation with her point of view. She'd nod, pour another cup of coffee and maybe remark on something to make me think. She asked me once, "Are you happy?" I wandered through days, maybe weeks, thinking about the answer. I still think about it.

So, now that I've got my own son to raise, of course I miss sharing with her the things you'd expect: my husband, my wedding, Oliver's birth, our new house. I expected to grieve, but why do I often feel so undone by her absence? I've spent years trying to figure out why I long so much for those conversations, and why I can't visit her grave.

What I've come to realize is that it's not answers I want, because mom wasn't an answer machine. She rarely told me what to do. I don't think she had many answers. What she had was a lifetime of working her way through raising a family as best she could, and an ability to listen and let me figure stuff out on my own. In fact, she left me with some lessons that I'm still working through, like seeds you plant on property you're selling. Let the next owners harvest or prune as they will.

These are things she showed me without words, letters or recorded remembrances: Our past shapes us, but doesn't control us. I'm not a good or bad parent, I'm just working at being a parent.

I learned from her that I don't need her here, guiding me. I merely want her here. Terribly. But I can do this.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I'm listening.

Kate Laddison is the associate editor of Kids VT. She lives in St. Albans with her husband and their son. "Use Your Words" is a monthly essay in which writers reflect on parenting and childhood.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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