05/10/2013 12:38 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

The Women Who Came Before Us

Perhaps it was the haircut or the makeup applied for the backyard photo shoot (a new profile picture for Facebook). Or perhaps it was the smile in my eyes as I looked at my son, the photographer. But when the digital image opened on my computer screen, I saw a face I hadn't seen for half my life -- my mother's.

Our features are not identical (I always coveted her nose), but the resemblance was unmistakable for me, as it is for both my sisters. Looking more deeply, I could see another face as well -- the wide eyes and curly hair of my maternal grandmother, whose hand-colored photograph, taken before she left France as a bride after World War I, hangs on my home-office wall.

Beyond facial shape and expression, there is a more powerful link among us, a connection that runs even deeper than mitochondrial DNA -- that genetic code, inherited only from the mother, which traces the very origins of our species. There are emotional genes and societal chromosomes as well, the building blocks of who we are and how and what we came to be. To understand this legacy of inheritance, both positive and negative, we need to shift our perspective on our maternal ancestors, to see them not as only "mother" or "grandmother" but in a powerful new light. They are the women who came before us.

This understanding, I have found, is powerful for all adult children, whether their mothers are living or deceased. Indeed, as someone whose mother died half her life ago, getting to know this "woman who came before me" has helped heal and deepen our relationship many years after the fact. (This journey became my first book, published 14 years ago: Remembering Mother, Finding Myself: A Journey of Love and Self-Acceptance under my then-married name Patricia Commins.)

Death, you see, does not end a relationship. Although my mother died 27 years ago, when I was 26, she is still present in my life. I seek her counsel, emulate her, argue with her, reject her and try to understand her. Through stories and reflections shared by others and my own memories contemplated anew I see her in a broader light cast through a prism of complexity. She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend and a woman in historical context. A child of the Great Depression, hers was a world of scarcity. Yet, she could be generous especially when it came to hospitality.

My mother also lived in what she saw as "a man's world," a place of limitations imposed on her culturally, in her own family of origin, and within the context of how she interpreted her religious beliefs. My disagreement or disapproval aside, knowing her worldview helped unlock the mystery of her motivations and her mothering (or at least as I reinterpret them now). I can, for instance, replay our conversation from many years ago when I declared my desire to be a writer and her reply was, "Whatever you do, you better learn to type." I can choose to stop hearing it as a putdown or denial of my talent, and embrace instead the caution of a woman who knew few choices for women to support themselves, for whom a such a dream was dangerous. "Learning to type" was code for "being able to take care of yourself." With this perspective, I can hear the love in the words, and not just the admonishment.

My mother was not perfect -- she was a human, living in the context of time and place. And so am I. When I stop seeing her only through the "mother" lens, she becomes real, multi-faceted, and much more interesting. I want to engage with her, to learn more about this woman who came before me and who--with all her faults, fears, judgments, love, and good intentions -- tried her imperfect best to get me ready for the world.