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Dear Girls: On Half a Lifetime Without My Mother

Dear Girls,

This week marks 18 years since my mother died. Exactly half my life ago. Every day after January 24th, 2014 will mean that I have been alive longer without her, than with her.

My mother, my beautiful, glowing mother. It seems impossible that she’s been gone for so long.

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Almost two decades later, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.

For a long time I didn’t understand how I could feel that way. I chastised myself for continuing to miss her so much, for knowing that I would never not long for her.

And then I had you, Vera, and you, Jules. And I became a mother myself. I wrapped my arms around you, your little breaths hot and quick on my neck. I learned how to rock you to sleep, how to pick you up when you fell, how to make you giggle, how to make your eyes light up with wonder. I held you closer than I’ve ever held anyone and I vowed that I would never, ever let you go.

I knew then, how it could be that I would never not long for my own mother.

This bond between us — the one between she and I, and the ones between you and me — are something utterly intangible, unbreakable, and unstoppable. Nothing, not distance or silence or chaos or death, could ever undo this connection we have.

Mothers are mysterious creatures. For us women, they at once anchor us and support us. They hold us back and teach us how to go forth. We rebel against the women they are, and we desperately try to become the women they are. I know that throughout your lifetimes you will push and pull against me as only daughters can do.

There will be times when you loathe me, when you question every decision I have ever made, when you frown upon all the things that I am. And there will be other times in which you try to fit your very shadow to match mine, times in which you wish with everything you are that you could be me. These swifts kicks and tugs will overlap so many times that you may never be quite sure what it is you want from me.

I’ve had a lot of time to review the woman my mother was. A lot of time in which to feel angry with her, or in awe of her. I’ve adored her and despised her, even in death. Such is the nature of a daughter’s love.

Even now, 18 years after her death, I can feel her all around me, her existence inextricably linked to mine. The thing is that I couldn’t shake her even if I tried. That she lived and loved me at all, is more than enough to make her a part of my world every day. I hope the same is true of me to you.

I’ll tell you though, as I’ll probably tell you at other points in life, that it hasn’t been easy to find my way as a person, a woman, or a mother, without my own mother there to shepherd me. I have made so very many mistakes. I have had to figure out so much on my own, make things up, do things my way, because there was no one there to guide me.

My wish is that I am here to guide you for as long as I can. I hope so much that I will be here to see you enter into adulthood, to become mothers yourselves, to find yourselves in work and love and the world. There is so much future that I want with you. The good and the bad, the times you hate me and the times you unexpectedly curl up next to me years from now, long after you’ve stopped doing that.

I want the days when don’t want to talk to me, and the days when you won’t stop calling. I want the tears and the rage, the inside jokes that no one will get but us, and the secrets you tell only me. I want a million trips to crazy places, and I want mornings where we never leave the house. I want to see you fail and also succeed. I want to see you frustrated and bursting with pride. I want to see you reinvent yourself a thousand times over, twirling before me each time with renewed pride.

I want to be here every time you ever need me. I want to hear you when you most need to be heard, and even when you don’t. I want to see you even when you think I’m not looking. I want to be the force that makes you feel safe enough to propel yourself out into the world as far as you can, the tether that unspools as far as you need to go, knowing you can always return.

I want to love you for you who you want to be, not who I want you to be.

I want to always be strong enough to allow you to be even stronger.

I want you to live your grand and glorious lives knowing that you are loved every second of every day.

These are the things that my mother gave to me. These are the things I want to give to you.

Love,

Mom

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23 Comments

  1. Wow…I share the same feelings and hopes. I lost my mom unexpectedly when I was eight and even after 31 years I still grieve and miss her so much. I not only miss her but I also miss the years and experiences we were not able to share. I used to get frustrated with myself because I didn’t understand why I still felt such sadness and grief after all of these years. Finding your site and reading your book helped me realize that I am not the only one who struggles with these feelings and I am normal. I have learned to embrace the sadness because it means that I truly loved and felt loved.

    I also have two young daughters and I hope that I am able to see them grow up and I am able to experience the years with them that my mom missed with me. At times, I feel I appreciate my time with my kids more than other mothers because I understand how lucky I am to be alive. I learned very early in life that life is short and you have to enjoy and be grateful for every minute. Thank you for sharing!

    Comment by Michelle on January 23, 2014 at 12:01 pm

  2. Tears. What a beautiful letter and testament to your mother, and her grandchildren. I bet it broke her heart that she knew she wasn’t going to get to see you be a mother, but from reading your book, it seems that she probably was very confident in you and of the job she did raising you and knew you’d be fabulous. I find your authentic experiences and ability to capture them in words deeply moving; I’m so thankful you share.

    Comment by Sarah on January 23, 2014 at 12:37 pm

  3. Wow and wow and wow. Standing here at the airport crying and wanting to share this letter with everyone in this airport. Lovely and heartbreaking and beautiful. Thank you, Claire. Your words are a gift; as you and your girls are for each other, and you and your mother were/are for each other.

    Comment by Melissa on January 23, 2014 at 2:59 pm

  4. Wow…this, just this it’s beautiful and so true!!!

    Comment by ashlyn ferguson on January 23, 2014 at 4:42 pm

  5. Really lovely, reminds me what a remarkable gift it is to be a mother!

    Comment by jenny mack on January 23, 2014 at 7:18 pm

  6. Such a moving letter to your girls. The relationship between a mother and her daughter(s) is an indescribable, indestructible bond. Thank you for highlighting that.

    Comment by Aimee on January 23, 2014 at 8:05 pm

  7. I have been following you long enough to see you come from lost and lonely, to joyful and fulfilled. Everything you say in the post is a beautiful affirmation of the mother/daughter bond which you have demonstrated as well as declaimed. I am really happy for you.
    But you do tend to think in terms of the idealized relationships. A proclivity of Americans. What do you have to say to those girls and women who did not enjoy such wonderful relationships with their mothers? As a writer, do you consider it your duty to delve into the dark depths of failed relationships and the resultant fallout, to bring some light and healing? What happens when thinks go badly wrong between mother and daughter? As usual, I give you a poke and a challenge.

    Comment by Paul Tredgett on January 23, 2014 at 10:31 pm

  8. Crying. Hard. This is so, so wonderful, a love letter to the women on either side of you, the generations that flank you. xoxo

    Comment by Lindsey on January 24, 2014 at 6:28 am

  9. Claire,

    As a first time expectant Mother, I hope to be as wonderful of a Mother as you are. Your letters to your daughters are so beautiful and inspiring. Someday when they are preparing to start their own famililies they will be so grateful to have your notes to look back on. Thank you for sharing your words with us.

    ~Allison

    Comment by Allison on January 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm

  10. Add me to the list of those left in tears by your beautiful words.
    Yes.
    I remember exactly when I had lived more years without my sister than with her and for some reason it felt like another loss. Just as when the calendar turned to a new year, the first one she would NOT be a part of was devastating for me.

    But time does march on, and I’m grateful to be here and I’m grateful I was lucky to spend the time that I did with my sister. Now, with three children of my own I absolutely cherish all of the things – even the hard stuff.

    Thanks, again, for sharing your love story.
    xo

    Comment by Michelle on January 24, 2014 at 5:50 pm

  11. As always a beautiful and moving work of yours Claire. There is not a day I don’t ask myself “what would Mom do/say/think” about something in my daily life. She is of course in my heart always but what I wouldn’t trade for the one request God cannot grant, the gift of more time, the gift of having them back right here beside us.
    Thank you so much for sharing your healing and heartfelt words.

    Comment by Eva on January 24, 2014 at 7:01 pm

  12. Loved this. My mom passed away 2 1/2 years ago when my son was only 6 months old and I’ve struggled every day since. She was my best friend.

    I have a blog that I wrote just after she died. I stopped writing for a while because it was too hard, but now am finding myself more and more able.

    http://Www.2mymom.wordpress.com

    Comment by Jenny on January 25, 2014 at 3:31 am

  13. Beautiful letter. Grief is forever, but so is love and all we learned . . . Thanks for a great post. Will definitely be sharing.

    Comment by Litsa on January 25, 2014 at 10:33 am

  14. Beautiful letter. So perfectly captures that grief is forever, but so is love and all we learned from those we lost. Thanks for a great post- will definitely be sharing!

    Comment by Litsa on January 25, 2014 at 10:37 am

  15. I lost my mother when I was 22 months old. She was 24. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I asked my husband “will she love me?” I didn’t feel confident that I could understand the beauty and intensity of a mother and daughter’s love, but upon reflection I guess I did, because every day of my life I think about my mother. I miss her, I imagine with all my heart and with a deep knowing we are and have always been as close as my daughter and I. I have lived 46 years without her touch, but her heart and soul are alive in my darling Caylie and me.Thank you Claire for your memoir, you spoke directly to me and it made some of my hurt, less painful.

    Comment by Heidi braaksma on January 29, 2014 at 7:38 pm

  16. Well today I came across an interesting full page article in my city Metro paper about Claire Bidwell Smith and her book/work. Very apt for me and it seems for many other people also. I lost my dear dad when he was only 50, to cancer and my mam three years later when she was 52 to a brain tumor, that was more sudden, dad’s illness was longer. I was 25 years old when I lost my dad and 28 when I lost mam. It was horrific to lose my lovely dad but devastating to lose mam just when she was starting to come to terms with the loss of her beloved husband and move forward with her life. That was back in 1998.
    We hadn’t aways had a good relationship as there was a lot of dysfunction in our family, my own mam’s childhood had been full of poverty and abuse but she coped incredibly well. It was only in the last few remaining years we had started to get on with each other. Following their deaths I threw myself into work (I was mid University studies the other end of the country to my home town) and I also threw myself into alcohol and innapropriate relationships, for many years. Recovery, therapy and writing I believe are the things that saved me, those and the realization that I never allowed myself to grieve, at all. It has only really been in the last two years that I have actually properly started my grieving process and it has been very painful as I have finally realized how much I loved them both so much. I had previously blamed them for many things and for leaving me. Through a recent embarking on a writing project where I am gathering material from their own young lives before they married and us kids came along, I am taking myself through what seems to be a cathartic but also painful journey. I’m not sure where it will take me. I wanted to say that it is really refreshing to see people write about grief and to allow us to accept that we may always feel the loss of truly loved ones. I once had a boyfriend who after my mam had only been gone 6 months said, ‘Is’nt it time you started to get over this’….this is a good day to find likeminded folk. take care all and blessings of love and support.

    Comment by julie on March 18, 2014 at 4:53 am

  17. Having my daughter Grace back in 2007/2008 not only brought my roller coaster of a life to a new crossroads,it also took me into emotional recovery and taught me that what I had been ignoring for many years was that I needed to allow myself to love. That it was ok to love and be loved. I do still struggle with this. My mom was only 52 when she died suddenly of a brain tumor, I was 28. She died three years after my dad who was only 50 years old. I didn’t allow myself to grieve for them but instead threw myself into many distractions or addictions including alcohol, people/relationships and work. It’s been a long road since 1998 when my mam died and the last couple of years in therapy and recovery have been and are still painful for me. I have been especially reminded of this since having my little girl as I don’t live anywhere near my home town but in a city far away from where I grew up though still get home sick! I’m slowly learning to be gentle and forgiving to myself but have for a long time felt I have had to be very tough just to simply survive. The retreats of Claire’s in the States sound amazing and it is so good to hear people talk about how it is ok to experience such strong feelings about loved ones; my own family has been really fractured and much of the family don’t acknowledge their feelings. Love and wellbeing.

    Comment by julie on March 18, 2014 at 5:15 am

  18. A spine-tinglingly beautiful piece of writing and a wonderful tribute to your mum. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Comment by Helene on March 18, 2014 at 7:24 am

  19. I lost my mom at age 26. On January 24, 2004. I now have two girls and one boy (first one born 2 years after my mom died). Lots of people have opinions on my grief – it is too much, it is not enough, etc. This letter really hits home.

    Comment by Kim on May 14, 2014 at 9:07 am

  20. Hey Claire, your last post was in January. Hope it’s because you are terribly busy doing things that make you happy and not because of any crisis. Do post something when you find time.

    Comment by Kavita on May 31, 2014 at 10:22 pm

  21. Hi Claire,

    I wanted you to know that I’ve just finished reading your amazing memoir. I finished the book and mailed it to my friend who lost both parents before the age of 25.

    If it makes any difference, I’m a Syrian (yes, the Syria you hear about in the news) married to an Egyptian and we live in Egypt. I asked my sister who lives in the US to buy me your book and she managed to send it to me a few months ago. I have no words to describe it, the journey of reading this memoir was more than wonderful.

    The book left Alexandria (a beautiful city on the southern coast of the Mediterranean sea) and reached Cairo, the capital. Hoping that you yourself will one day come visit these cities in Egypt with your family, I wish I could take you to Syria too, you can add to your travel adventures a memorable trip to Damascus, my city, the oldest continuously inhabited capital in the WORLD. One day when this ugly war is over…

    You can read a few blog posts about life in the Middle East, the way I see it and write about it, here:
    http://www.rihamiat.blogspot.com

    Waiting for your next book, please tell me you ARE writing another book…
    Much love from Egypt

    Riham

    Comment by Riham on July 1, 2014 at 8:35 am

  22. Ms. Smith,

    I just finished your book. I lost my dad when I was 16. I am now almost 38 which means I have officially lived more of my life without him than with him.

    My three boys know him as “Grandpa Carl” and have known about death since they were probably two years old because of him. I couldn’t live a life without them knowing him. My second born son is named after him so I say his name every day now. “Daddy” is now my husband and not my dad. I am expecting our fourth, but our first daughter. She will be named after my grandmother who died in November. My brother asked my Nana for a “sign” when she died and I asked her for a baby (we had been trying unsuccessfully for 2 years!). 6 weeks after she died I became pregnant with her namesake. When they told me she was a girl I just knew…We are all connected. I am excited to have a daughter and also excited to see the father/daughter relationship emerge between my husband and her..Also afraid that it will make me miss my dad even more!

    After I read your book I marveled at how we all handle grief differently. For me, I couldn’t date anyone. I fell only for guys who were attached to someone. It was easier to love men from afar. I am sure most guys thought I was a prude, but honestly I was hurting and I couldn’t bear to have another man I loved leave me. When I met my husband at 21 there was a voice in my ear who said “you need to stay in touch with this man..” He was moving to Alaska, but I just knew I needed to communicate with him. We will be married 12 years this summer.

    I feel such a great connection with my dad. I hear his music play on the radio during the strangest times. Just last week we were visiting my hometown and my husband and I went to a new restaurant there and the music was all Paul McCartney and Wings which he loved. My sons and I visited his grave site while we were there and all I felt was nothing. That’s
    because he is in music, my boys, my friends, and my dreams and not at a cemetery.

    Anyway of course I am unloading all of this on the heels of reading your story. Much like the way you felt connected to the other author you mentioned in the book I feel connected to you too.

    My family never went to counseling when my dad died and because of it my three younger brothers, mother, and I all suffered. We all grieved alone instead of together as a family. Please continue to help others not to make that same mistake.

    Thanks for your book and thanks for reading this emotional download of a comment. I am looking forward to reading your book on the afterlife because I feel such a connection to it. I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Kind regards,
    Therese

    Comment by Therese on July 13, 2014 at 8:59 pm

  23. PS…Here is an article I wrote about teaching my kids about my dad. It was published in Mamalode in January. http://mamalode.com/story/detail/the-legend-of-grandpa-carl

    Comment by Therese on July 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm

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