My mom’s instructions to me were clear: no services, no obituary. As she once put it, she was invisible to too many people in life, so she damn well would remain invisible to them in death.
Yet I spoke to so many people—both shortly after her death and while she was still alive—who thought the world of her. People who thought she had a great sense of humour, appreciated her approach to life, admired her energy and creativity, envied her fashion sense—and genuinely liked her.
A tired cliché that all of us hear as children is ‘you’ll understand when you’re older.’ Because of my mother, I learned that this is true. There were many things I did not understand about my mom when I was a kid. Over time, though, I have come to understand many, if not all, of them.
But there was a lot she didn’t talk about. Any stories about her life skipped straight from moving to Olympia (the state capital) after high school to after I was born. So, I never heard about her two previous marriages until well into adulthood, when my dad revealed that her second husband, whom she married in 1958, was a Black man. That was incredibly brave in America at that time. At the very least, that marriage must certainly have caused friction between her and her parents.
My mom was smarter and more talented than she let on.
While going through my mom’s things, I learned that she’d had the wherewithal to initiate filing papers with the court in 1974 to establish separate property between my parents—the idea being to protect herself from liability for my dad’s business losses (he was not the best judge of business partners).
From the time I was a child, she was always working on hook rugs. At some point this turned into knitting, mostly afghans and caps. She often told me that she wished she could have been creative the way I am. I would then point to the afghans she had made and remind her that making them is creative. Her response was that she never learned to knit properly, that she was actually doing it backwards.
My mom also had a much stronger personality than she was ever allowed to exhibit. I already knew this to some extent because of her signature—on the business-sized checks she used to use, her signature swirled across the entire length of the check—but the contents of her closet confirmed it for me. Lots of vivid colours—red, pink, magenta, orange, yellow, teal, etc. In her choice of slacks, she may have stuck to blacks and browns—but when it came to tops, she was not going to blend into the woodwork.
When my mom was growing up, things were expected of girls. They were supposed to dress a certain way (or to not dress a certain way), conduct themselves a certain way, get married, and become mothers. She felt those expectations keenly.
For example, though I know my mom didn’t regret having me, had she felt she had more of a choice, she probably would not have had children at all. Maybe she would have skated, or played music, or fulfilled some secret ambition. But she didn’t have that option.
No wonder she suffered from anxiety, depression, and migraines for much of her life. The migraines were particularly bad, immobilizing her for days at a time.
But when her mother died in 1998, the migraines stopped completely. As she put it to me at the time: ‘I’m free.’ Whatever health problems my mom had in her later years, she never had another migraine.
When my mom did rebel against expectations, she largely did so within the constraints that had been imposed upon her. She was a working mother when that was still relatively rare. In 1972, she cast a write-in vote for congresswoman Barbara Jordan for president. As a divorced woman, she never bothered to date, and she worked until she ran up against the wall of age discrimination.
Later, she opted out of celebrating the holidays with people she didn’t want to be around just because it was expected of her—and she would not be budged on that score. (I got my stubborn streak from her.)
Fun fact: though she wasn’t able to continue in later years, she took up rollerblading in her sixties.
I wished my mom had shared more with me while she was still alive. I don’t know how many questions I would have had—but, as she often said about computers, sometimes you can’t ask the questions until you know what it is you’re asking about.
In any event, I now understand that she did the best she could in life given the circumstances she faced—which is really all that any of us can do. And I am very grateful that I was able to be there for her at the end, when she needed me most.
As I mentioned at the beginning, my mom made it clear that she did not want an obituary. Well, this is not that. This is an acknowledgement that the old cliché is true, and an appreciation of someone who wasn’t appreciated enough.
You were not as invisible as you thought.
—Kevin J. O’Conner, adapted from text written 13 September 2019