By: Jacqueline Johnson, M.A.
My back is stiff. Old age annoys me. I don’t like watching my body consciously protest movements that it once did without thinking….. like bending over.
The first time, I realized that my mother was getting old was when I watched her get into the sailboat and use her right hand to lift her right foot up onto the gangway. I remember turning my head away as if not being able to see would make the vision go away.
I don’t really know how my mother faced old age. There’s a lot I don’t know about how she faced things. In therapy, I saw her as not seeing me. With Constellation Work, I realized that this not seeing went both ways.
I thought my mother was somehow frozen. I remember a vision I had of her giving me a frozen teardrop as if my job in life was to somehow thaw it.
My Mom and I were not close in life. It makes me cry to think of that now. Me, who never cried, who spent years in therapy learning how to hug and cry, I cry easily now.
I don’t know what the tears are about. They aren’t really about my mom. In many ways, I’m closer to her now, now that she’s dead than I ever was when she was alive. I did my exercises this morning, the ones I do so my back doesn’t tighten to the point where it spasms and I find myself unable to move. One of the exercises is to grab my leg and hoist it to my bum. I do this, and I know that today there will be points when I use my right hand to lift my right foot high enough to gain footing. I feel as if I’m walking the gangplank into old age.
My mother today seems to inhabit my body. I tell her, I’m not much interested in following too far in her footsteps. “ Really, Mom, You didn’t need to check out with colon cancer at 75.” This is more intimidating because I just turned 73.
Still, the tears do seem to be rolling down my cheeks. It’s this regret, that I never knew her. I knew her as my Mom. I knew her as the woman who didn’t have what I thought it took to be a good Mom- the stuff they tell you in parenting books. Be a good listener, spend quality time with your kids, use empathy for discipline, let your child explore, be supportive. Oh yes, and validate them. “You are feeling sad, It makes sense that you would feel sad. “
A therapist told me once, that she wondered sometimes what people would be like if they had had the backgrounds to develop their potential to the fullest.
I wonder what my Mom would have been like if she had had that too. She probably wouldn’t have married my Dad… not because there was anything wrong with my Dad, but she would have insisted on enough space, that she’d find him stifling, as opposed to liberating. She’d have been dynamic, probably become some kind of executive, or at the very least would have maintained enough discipline in her classroom to earn her respect. She’d have season tickets to hockey games, and be a painter, maybe of nudes.
That makes me smile a little. My Mom painted china, and the pieces were exquisite.
I look at my children and I see the gifts of her potential in them. My mother’s grandmother was going to take her because she was good at cheering. My mom would have been so happy that my boys went to play Ireland to play rugby. My youngest daughter just finished her third Boston Marathon and lives a five-minute walk from the Rogers Centre. My eldest daughter is a recognized and celebrated art critic.
My Mom appreciated life, not hers particularly, but that of others. Her stepmother was paranoid schizophrenic, in and out of mental hospitals for the last 20-30 years of her life. I don’t recall the details, but I do remember thinking that my Grandmother’s life was a waste. My mother, whom I saw through my hard eyes as shy, retiring, passive, almost pathologically unassertive became this voice of steel. It was soft, as if encased in velvet. I knew I was to get her message and remember it. I don’t remember her words exactly, but she made it very clear that her stepmother, my grandmother had taught her the meaning of compassion, first when she had taken on two motherless children, and second when through her illness. She eyeballed me, her eyes narrowing and flashing vehemently.
She didn’t have to say the words. “How dare you diminish your grandmother.”
It was my mother, the woman who rarely looked at me, who made me choose to take on compassion as the biggest and most worthwhile challenge in my life.
There is power in tears. My mother realized that tears get frozen, that they need to be thawed, that tears wash and clear our vision
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with frozen rain. Eventually, the raindrops thaw and are absorbed in the earth
I miss my mother. I wish I’d known her better. I swear a little at my back. I remember her grimace, her impatience at having to lift her leg with her hand. It’s not a sweet memory, but it’s real, and somehow as I put the hot water bottle on my back, I find her presence in my body comforting. She didn’t swear, but I swear as the #$@*words leave my mouth, she is cheering me on into old age.
About Jacqueline Johnson, M.A.
Jacqueline Johnson M.A. is a nationally recognized writer, editor. As an adult educator in language and life skills training, she has developed a reputation for innovative curriculum design which often incorporates writing as a means of exploring personal issues. Her interest in trauma began when she was charged with developing a life skills program for women fraud offenders in the Canadian penal system. Over a twelve year period, the program increasingly focused on the commonality that all fraud offenders shared: severe trauma, much of it intergenerational. In searching for viable interventions, Jacqueline consulted extensively with Rosalba Stocco who was exploring Systemic Family Constellations. These consultations grew into collaborative writing projects about trauma, family history and the