- I struggled to understand this new woman who looked exactly like my mother, yet lived so differently and distantly. Tweet This
- Without warning, both my mother and the woman that she was seemed to disappear before my eyes, stolen from us by the grip of dementia that took hold in her 64th year and lay siege for another 22 years. Tweet This
- What bothers me most is that my mother disappeared before I had a chance—or took the opportunity—to really get to know the woman underneath. Tweet This
I want to return to Wilton Junction, Iowa, where my mother grew up. I would love to make that arduous journey, the near seven-hour drive, to this quiet town in the eastern bulge of the state that is situated smack dab in the middle of the country. Cornfields will surround my car, and the ribbon of highway will stretch uninterrupted between rest stops or gas stations. Yet I long to go back to this enchanting enclave of storybook homes with their wide front porches, tree-laden lawns, and well-maintained streets that were once enlivened by my ancestors.
What I’ll find there are memories and reminders of a mother that loved well—of a mother who celebrated birthdays and holidays and gathered on Sundays, or most any of the week, simply to gather, because she loved. It’s a legacy I cherish, one I don’t take for granted, and one I surely want to pass along to my sons.
It was in Wilton Junction that I became “Gertie’s Girl” and took on the celebratory cloak of my mother. For when we arrived in Wilton Junction, she was the star. I stood proudly at her side, wide-eyed, jaw agape, and watched as she dropped the only persona of her I knew—that of my mother—and assumed an outright aspirational model of Gertie the woman.
It’s not that I didn’t see glimpses of that Gertie when she moved daily through our farmhouse, tending to the childhood whims of her three children; it’s just that Gertie, the woman, seemed only to eclipse the one I knew intimately when we landed on her home turf.
I knew the Mom-Gertie well. She could throw together a mean stroganoff for 20 at a moment’s notice, reupholster a neighbor’s chair in an hour, craft a 4-H speech in minutes, and whip up one of many pleated skirts for me, spur of the moment, before a forgotten piano recital that evening. She knew Scripture front to back, which she parsed out freely from morning till night buried within her parental directives—and seemingly without effort, taught us by example, showing us how to live, squeezing love and joy and purpose into every waking moment.
With a constant smile on her red-outlined lips, she welcomed all to our home, a haven void of strife or conflict, laced with love and laughter. That’s the way it was.
Fragments of her previous life could be found in our home growing up as well as in Wilton Junction. As a child, I admired the finely tailored suits she’d preserved from her career days before motherhood, stored carefully in the back of our upper hall closet. I pored over scrapbooks where neatly aligned black and white glossies revealed her more youthful days celebrating the aforementioned birthdays, holidays and simple Sundays; and I watched in awe when several times each month, she waltzed down our staircase, dressed to the nines with matching heels and jewelry, to venture out with my father or friends to functions in town. I especially loved when her girlfriends picked her up, their chatter and laugher fading as they drove down the gravel road, their hair billowing through the open car windows.
Then, everything stopped—the flurry of activities, the flow of words, her interactions, and any evidence of capabilities or interests. Suddenly and without warning, both my mother and the woman that she was seemed to disappear before my eyes, stolen from us by the grip of dementia that took hold in her 64th year and lay siege for another 22 years. When her memories stopped, those I had of her seemed to stop, too. I could no longer hear her laughter, or feel her gentle embrace, or grasp the warmth or wisdom of her words. She became a different woman—no longer the mother I knew or the woman she’d been, but simply a Gertie unlike any I’d known before.
I struggled to understand this new woman who looked exactly like my mother, yet lived so differently and distantly. It was only upon her passing in her late 80s, when I gazed at her near-flawless complexion unmarked by disease, that I was once again reunited with both the women I had known and loved, when she was finally at peace and “whole.”
As I reflect on this Mother’s Day, what bothers me most is that my mother disappeared before I had a chance—or took the opportunity—to really get to know the woman underneath. And what perhaps bothers me even more is the realization that I, too, might someday disappear before my children have the chance to know the woman I am. I don’t want that to happen to anyone.
I want my sons to know me; to know what’s important in my life, the experiences I’ve lived, my perspectives, the defining moments as well regrets, and the painful life lessons I have learned. I want them to know my faith. And someday, when I have disappeared—for whatever reason—I want them to not only remember my voice, but the words I spoke and the actions that assure them, without a doubt, that being their mother was one of the greatest privileges of my life. Most of all, I want them to know how very much I have loved being their mother and that I will continue to be their greatest cheerleader ever—mark my words—until the day I disappear. That’s what mothers do.
Rhonda Kruse Nordin researches and writes on family issues and is a senior fellow with the Center of the American Experiment.