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Jeryl Brunner

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How a Motherless Daughter Gets Through Mother's Day

Posted: 05/ 1/2012 3:00 pm

I have nothing against Hope Edelman or her beautiful, life-affirming book, Motherless Daughters. In fact, I'm grateful that she and those who have contributed to her groundbreaking work have comforted countless people. It's just that when my mother died and I was ceremoniously handed the thing, the best I could do was crack open the spine, read a couple sentences and fling it across the room.

My mother was 54 years old when she passed away. Cell by cell, leukemia had ravaged her body. Chemotherapy and a punishing bone marrow transplant nearly destroyed her. And just one year post-transplant when it finally seemed that it was all behind her and at last she made it out of the woods, my mother contracted a fatal infection.

And she was gone.

I was 30. I did not want to be a motherless daughter. I was not ready for any kind of initiation into this club. I mean, is one ever ready to lose a mother? To those who lost mothers as young children, I was lucky to have her that long. Conversely, I've seen people with moms who make it to the high-90s and they're just as bereft.

But I could not bear to accept this loss, which seemed too surreal, too scary. Crazy as it sounds, reading Motherless Daughters would only confirm what I could not accept. Not yet. So the book remained unopened. (But curiously, I always kept it within reach on my bookshelf.)

Even as many years have passed, I can't say I've gotten over the loss. But I have learned to live with it. Instead of focusing on my lack, I try, TRY, to embrace those pieces that bonded us: my mother's extreme lust for learning, books, movies, travel, experiences. I try to focus on our joyful moments -- our long walks together, our deep unspoken connection. It's easier now.

But somehow, this time of year, when I see one of those "celebrate the mom in your life" ads, I feel that same icky jolt that I first did with Motherless Daughters when my mother's death was just too new, too raw. Those ads are a harsh reminder that I'm pressed against the candy store window -- watching, longing, still wondering why. How? How could my mother, so full of life, with so much left to do and give, have perished?

It's interesting. I ultimately learned to treat the actual day, Mother's Day, as a day of celebration for my mother. I return to the spots in Central Park in New York City where we spent her last one. I try to eat her favorite mocha almond fudge ice cream. I follow the footsteps of our walks and I conjure all I loved about her: her velvety-smooth voice, the way she laughed with every last inch of her body. I imagine what she would love to do most, and then I combine the day with things I adore (theater, dancing). Last Mother's Day, I had a picnic with friends (one who had also lost her mother), in Central Park. We swapped photos, stories and treasured mementos.

As this Mother's Day looms, I think about how other motherless daughters cope. How can we feel included and feel better? Author Susan Marc Lawley, Ph.D., finds solace and meaning by writing poetry. In her touching new book, Hieroglyphics of the Heart, Lawley uses words to clarify her feelings about pivotal moments in her life. "When I document my emotions on the page, I can dig deeper to discover other layers of meaning," says Lawley, who lost her 56-year-old mother when she was also 30. I asked her to tell me more.

Q: What inspired you to write Hieroglyphics of the Heart?

SUSAN MARC LAWLEY: It is often hard to express authentic emotions in our society. We push them down rather than release them. We talk in code or jargon to one another. The book is about being real and saying what is true. It is about transforming our conversations from undecipherable hieroglyphics to meaningful connections.

So, for example, when I lament the loss of the neighborhood bowling alley (Farewell to Belle-Aire) and it puzzles me because I do not bowl, I write about it and learn that the loss of a neighborhood icon is really about the loss of my own untapped potential. Poetry allows me to make connections that I would otherwise not make.

Q: How does your book help you connect with your past?

SUSAN MARC LAWLEY: I grew up in Greenwich Village when it truly was a neighborhood at a time when families still lived near each other -- a time when mothers sat on the stoop together in late afternoon. When the local butcher, baker and pushcart peddler knew all the neighborhood women by name. I felt very lucky growing up in that place at that particular time, and I wanted to share the imagery with future generations. And I also wanted to preserve family stories. Certain stories, like the clam eating contest, were repeated every holiday season and often carried an important message that I felt was worth passing on. In this case, the message of the simple, but profound, act of kindness, a theme which shows up in several of my poems.

Q: In what ways does Hieroglyphics of the Heart honor your mother?

SUSAN MARC LAWLEY: This book is about family dynamics, about mothers and daughters, siblings and their parents. It is about an ordinary family doing ordinary things It is about learning to love yourself and others in spite of the imperfections. My mother was so good at that -- she knew people were imperfect, sometimes she even pointed it out to them, but she loved them anyway. In this way, they learned to love themselves.

Q: How do you connect with your mother through words?

SUSAN MARC LAWLEY: I have tried to document what my mother and women of her era stood for. They created and protected the family rituals. They crafted the family's values and imbued those values into their children. They sacrificed their needs for the needs of other. On the pages of this book you will find a woman in the kitchen who nurtures her family both literally and figuratively ("How to Love a Mom"). You see a mother who comes back from the dead when she is worried about her daughter ("Dialogue with a Photograph"). You discover a woman who finds room in her home and her heart for a baby chick ("The Rooster in the Claw Foot Tub") because it was a gift to her from her kindhearted son.

Q: What is one of your favorite poems about your mother in the book?

SUSAN MARC LAWLEY: "One Day Older," which captures the day I turned one day older than my mother when she passed away. The last two stanzas in the poem are my favorite:

But February 15th turns out
to be an ordinary day,
a day of simple actions
and fleeting thoughts,
a day when the dog still
needed to be walked,
the mail retrieved and sorted,
the dished washed and put away.

The kind of day my mother
would have recognized.
and rejoiced in.

Q: What can people do who wish to write poetry but have no idea how to go about it?

SUSAN MARC LAWLEY: Explore your emotions. I think anger can be a great doorway to poetry. When something upsets you, don't fight with the other person, don't say something you'll later regret. Just squirrel yourself away for an hour and write about it. You can weave the brittle straw of anger into the glowing golden threads of understanding (of both yourself and others) through poetry.

For more information about Hieroglyphics of the Heart, visit: http://www.sistersinscript.org/featured_book.htm.

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