Empty Reels

My father recently sent me a videotape he had made from a decade's worth of old family movies. The occasion was my fortieth birthday, and after our three children were in bed that night, I settled in to watch and remember.

I was not prepared for, nor do I fully understand, the overwhelming feelings of sadness that came over me as I watched the tape. The movies began in 1956, a year before I was born, and continued through the next ten years, a sometimes blurry rendition of times I could not remember and people who have long since died. There were three of my four grandparents, a very close family friend (who left behind a wife and six children) and my own mother. It is this last death, this most devastating loss in my life, that still, after four years, is hard for me to bear.

I sat, now a mother of three children, and watched my own mother, then a twenty-three-year old mother of me: a one-year-old girl. She was a young woman I never really knew--only from pictures and family remembrances could I ever have an inkling of a connection with her. I felt so much sadness at this that I was unable to continue watching the tape; I put it away for a time when its viewing will perhaps be easier. I do not know when that time will come. Four years after her death, I still sometimes feel an almost all-consuming grief when I talk of her.

Now, here she was in the slightly hazy images that sometimes ran smoothly, but more often jerkily, across the screen. This was the mother I was too young to remember, the tall, slim girl with dark hair and eyes shining bright behind cat-eyed glasses. I do not know how she felt about motherhood at such an early age, because she most likely did not consider it "early." Everyone, for the most part, married young, and were done with babies and bottles long before they reached their third decade. But, in her wide face, I could see the same pride and amazement that I felt, and feel, when looking at our children.

Twenty-two months after me, my sister arrived. My mother often told me of the overwhelming frustrations of having two children so close in age, how my very active sister exhausted her, but, at the same time, how happy she was with us. Maybe she had the same hopes and dreams for us that we have for our children now. With her gone, that's something I can only imagine.

We were so alike, yet the differences were hard to miss. When she was the age I am now, she was the mother of seventeen- and fifteen-year old girls. Her years of worrying about little children were over. She no longer had to fret about them running into the path of an oncoming car--she was confronted with what lay ahead; she had to consider the day they would leave her, make homes of their own, and place her in the position of starting over without little children. She once told me she tried to put together our baby books, with photographs starting at our births, but it was too hard for her. It made her too sad. I didn't understand then, but I do now: the sadness came in realizing those days were gone, those times lived, and the sweetness of small children had been replaced. She now had daughters who loved her, but no longer thought she had hung the stars in the sky. That is a feeling I will realize one day, too, and for that I will miss her all the more. There will be no one who will laugh with me and say, "Oh, I remember that!" I will make memories without her.

Losing my mother when I was just thirty-seven years old left me with such a feeling of aimless drifting that only now am I starting to feel anchored again. I had finally reached the point where I could continue my life without having to work around the void in my heart.

Then, I sat and watched the tape. And the same feelings and longings nearly drowned me. I turned off the tape and cried like I had not cried since those early days of her illness and eventual death. The loss was so real again as I watched her hold the hand of a toddling girl and push her in the swings at a park. The realization that she would not do these things again came back against the stark knowledge of my life as it is today.

I believe a woman's loss of her mother is one of the hardest times she will experience. When my mother died so suddenly, I felt a tangible part of my past had vanished. Of course, my father was always there in our growing-up years, but it was my mother who remembered all of the firsts in our lives; the first step, the first word, the first lost tooth. When she died, that history, in large part, went with her. Now, as I experience so many of the same things with my own children, my mother is not here to share them. While I know other family members love our boys, no one loves them quite as much as my mother did. And she did not live to see the granddaughter she so longed to have. The little girl who looks so much like her.

I watched the tape, full of her, and felt the spaces in my heart widen. When does the letting go in life become a matter of course? When does the time come when you can remember without the feelings of sadness? At night, when it's quiet, I long for the knowledge to find the way back home without losing the part of myself I see now in the fuzzy pictures of a mother those many years ago. But I also hope to see the future, which, although it will be lived without her, can be lived in a manner that would have made her proud. Then I think I can watch the tape and laugh and remember as those memories take their rightful place in my heart.

Joanna Backman is a freelance writer living in Bloomington. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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