May 14, 1979
Beth was sitting in bed on the morning of Mother’s Day. Benny had taken their daughter downstairs so she could go back to sleep. But after nearly 3 years of getting up early with a baby and toddler she was used to being awake. Still, she was enjoying the morning quiet for a change. She reached in her nightstand drawer to find her journal and instead pulled out her copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. She remembered Dee giving it to her just before the third anniversary of Alma’s death. There had been a long explanation about how it had helped him get over his grandparent’s deaths. At the time she was still hurting and missing Alma too much to appreciate the highlighted passages about understanding sadness. But over the ten years since then she had come to appreciate them more and more. She still read them often in the month between the last week of June when Alma had died and the last week of July when Alice killed herself. For everyone else Mother’s Day was in May but for her the end of June and into July was when she was thinking most about both of her mothers and what it had meant to lose each of them. She flipped through the book to where she had some of her favorite passages marked.
You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed. And you say that even this passing was hard for you and put you out of sorts. But, please, consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? … Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
Rilke came nowhere near capturing how she felt when Alma died; he didn’t say anything about the rawness and intensity of losing a mother who was her whole family when she wasn’t even grown up enough to know how be on her own. Those first 3 years had been so hard. Hard not to follow Alma’s example and lose herself in drinking. (And the parts of those years that she remembered—well, she was lucky she had survived those years at all. There had been more near misses than she wanted to count or contemplate later.) And sometimes it was even hard not to follow Alice’s example and give up in despair. But eventually time, therapy, and having people in her life who loved her had turned the tide. Looking back that shift had probably started the year after she had first gone to Russia or even earlier. Her therapist would say it started when she first got sober—and probably she was right, she almost always was. But it had taken a little while longer for her to notice it was happening. But she had felt it strongly by 24 when she had started searching for more information about her birth parents. She understood Alice better now but their relationship would always be complicated and painful. She thought so far she had mostly avoided being the kind of mother Alice was. But she was never completely sure. If she was honest with herself, she had never consciously wanted to be a mother. She had spent most of her pregnancy and the first few months of her daughter’s life worrying if she would be terrible at motherhood. But somehow it seemed to be working out so far.
Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.
She almost laughed at how much Rilke, being a man, had no understanding of how pregnancy felt but still described it perfectly. “How an alien thing had entered into our self” was practically a literal description of pregnancy. And “a house changes into which a guest has entered.” She had the stretch marks to prove that too. She had not planned to get pregnant. As best any of them could tell a week long stomach bug had made a whole month birth control pills ineffective. And then her little Daisy grew like a weed between the cracks in the birth control. She named her daughter Alma June—Alma after her mother, of course, and June because she had been born on the last day of that month and brought joy, finally, back into a month that had been full of the sadness of her mother’s passing. But then Dee saw the pale blond hair she was born with and nicknamed her Daisy. And now she was Daisy or sometimes June Bug but hardly ever Alma.
Pregnancy wasn’t exactly a sadness like Rilke had meant but it was unexpected and not as happy for her as it seemed to be for most women. But then when Jolene asked with her usual directness if she wanted to keep it she found that both abortion and especially putting a baby up for adoption were unbearable choices for her. She didn’t regret her daughter’s presence in her life exactly. Still, she had come to motherhood reluctantly and it had taken her a while to get used to it. Other women talked about falling in love with their baby the moment they first laid eyes on them. That was not her experience at all. She had spent the early months of her daughter’s life mostly feeling exhausted and hopelessly inadequate. She spent sleepless nights wondering if having a baby would somehow make Alice’s craziness manifest in her. Then two things happened which changed that pattern. The first was that Daisy learned to smile. One of her favorite baby pictures was of her holding Daisy and Daisy smiling radiantly up at her. And the other thing was going back to therapy. Her doctor assured her repeatedly that struggling with motherhood or even depression didn’t turn her into Alice. And she certainly trusted Dr. R’s understanding of unconventional motherhood far more than anything Rilke had to say about parenthood. (After all Dr. R. had adopted 3 siblings who were WWII refugees and Rilke, she had heard somewhere, had skipped his only daughter’s wedding to write poetry.) But she did still find some comfort from reading Rilke. She flipped to one of the most famous passages.
If only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened … if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?
She had just finished reading when she heard footsteps on the stairs—one child's, one adult's. Daisy burst into the room and jumped on the bed to hug her. Dee prompted her about what she was supposed to say, “Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy!”
“I couldn’t distract her any longer. But I brought you coffee.” He set it carefully on the nightstand, a safe distance from the wiggly toddler. “Roger has some kind of fancy soufflé in the oven so I’d estimate you have 20, maybe 30 minutes at most before you’ll need to make an appearance. Since you are the guest of honor and all.”
Daisy interrupted the conversation shouting, “Sammich, Mommy!” Both adults hugged her with Daisy squeezed in the middle.
Beth followed their usual ritual and asked, “What kind of sandwich are you today? Cheese? Peanut butter and honey?”
“She really is your daughter.” They all laughed and she could feel the laughter resonating between them.
Beth thought, on reflection, she really was happy being a mother now. It hadn’t been her plan and it hadn’t come easily to her. But she wouldn’t trade it for anything now. Maybe Rilke was a little bit right—that sometimes deep sadness prepared you for the next great transformation in your life. And Dr. R. was a little bit right too—sometimes the only way to get through the hard parts was to keep going straight through to the other side. In order to be ready to become a mother she had to both grieve and understand her own 2 mothers. They had each shaped her and they had both had great flaws that had ultimately killed them. She hoped she could pass on the best parts from each of them and from herself and not make their mistakes. She had been a mother long enough to realize she would surely make new mistakes of her own.
She remembered a particular day sometime in her mid-twenties, years before her daughter was born. She had been looking out the back window in her kitchen, staring into the distance and thinking about Alice and all the ways she was or wasn’t like her. So much of her early life was just surviving the chaos, losses, and traumas. And then the low point after losing Alma and almost losing herself. She had her refuge and her successes with chess of course, but so much else in her life had just felt like an endless struggle for so long. She hadn’t quite known what anything else would feel like. And then, almost like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, she could start to see there was a path forward. That there were still things she had left to struggle with but that she might someday get to a place where she was happy. At the time she hadn’t known what it would look like or feel like to be happy. But today she thought she might recognize it better: it looked a lot like a home full of people who loved her and whom she loved back. It felt like hugging Daisy and making sure her daughter felt safe and loved every day, in a way she rarely ever had as a child.