it would be easy to say my mother never really knew her mother.

she was an only child, my mom, born to parents in their hardscrabble thirties in a postwar town that never quite boomed. her folks had long before given up on babies, but she came anyway, a surprise, a little black-haired come-by-chance with her father’s square brow, one of a thousand Barbaras born the same year. in the few pictures that exist of her first years, she gazes out from the stark b&w image under crooked bangs, an imp with curious eyes and a Mona-Lisa half-smile.

her father was a landscaper, a seasonal worker in years before there was employment insurance to carry families like theirs through winter. they lived in the old family home with its coal furnace, and even into my childhood lost pebbles of decades-old coal littered the gravel driveway, relics of a dirtier, smokier time. all i know of her mother is that the Doris Day fifties passed her by: she worked, this woman who was my unknown grandmother, in a time when it was a little bit shameful for a married mother to have to work. she had no education, she smoked cigarettes, and was the only female ancestor of mine who ever towered above 5’3. she was raised Catholic, my mother’s father Protestant; when they married, her family disowned her.

they had a rocky, loud marriage, apparently. disappointment on both sides, stress, conflicting temperments. my mother shared a room with her mother; her father had his own lair in the house. he was a packrat, and had once been a scholar…in the winters, off work, i suppose he would have been his daughter’s caregiver, so that unkempt, book-laden room is the only one my mother describes with any clarity from that era. mostly, she remembers going outside a lot, roaming. but even today, strangely acontextual quotes from Shakespeare leap from her mouth at odd times, chants five decades and more old, offered up like proverbs or incantations. the ironies of quoting Polonius have never troubled my mother’s self-image excessively. the lines are family jewels, and when she unwraps them her eyes shine and the little girl in them looks on her father again, lord of the book pile.

when my mother was six, a month after she started school, she got pneumonia. in those days it was a serious thing, taking months in the recovery and still claiming lives every season. but her mother could not stay home with her; her father, presumably, was not equipped to play nursemaid. the little girl was trundled across the street to the home of her aunt and uncle, a childless couple in their mid-forties. the uncle had a stable, middle-class job at the phone company. the aunt did not work. my mother, little Barbara, stayed with them until almost summer, losing a year of school, but recovering her health. she had her own room for the first time in her life. she was carried across the street to her own house only once, at Christmas. there are more pictures of her from this year of convalescence than from all the other previous six together.

she went home, then, my mother, to a mother and father who struggled. i do not know what the homecoming was like. i do know that less than three years later she crossed the street again to take up residence in that little back room of her own, and that she never moved home again. i know that her mother was sick, by then, and that she knew her mother was sick, that her mother had collapsed one day on the sidewalk taking little Barbara downtown on some rare excursion and had been doubled over in pain, unable to get up. i know now that it was cancer, colitis gone untreated by a family too poor to pay doctors and turned deadly. i know that my mother’s mother died three days before Christmas the year my mother turned eleven, and was buried Christmas Eve. i know that the woman who i called my grandmother all my life was actually my mother’s aunt, who raised that child who came across the street with pneumonia and gave her the first safe haven she’d ever had, and loved her…and eventually me, in my turn.

but i know so little about the woman who was my mother’s mother, absent and mysterious. i wonder at the disappearance of a mother. i can see the imprint of my mother’s father on her yet, but of her mother…not even shadows. for six or more years, this woman slept beside her child…breathed beside her, must have held her, brushed her black hair. for eleven years, she watched her daughter grow. i wonder how she felt about that move across the street…the first time, and the last. i wondered if she was relieved, unburdened…or if she was ashamed of having to turn her child over to her prim older sister-in-law for care. i wonder if she ached and raged at the unfairness of it all, if in the throes of a slow and cruel death she wondered what would happen to the girl child she’d borne, or if she knew all along that somewhere she’d lost her, maybe even abandoned her herself. i wonder if she had any peace.

i wonder what remains of her, unspoken and perhaps unacknowledged, inside my mother’s skin. i wonder if my mother misses her, thinks of her today, on Mother’s Day.

i don’t know. i don’t know if it is fair to ask. and yet i think of her, and i wonder, at this strange and terrible power of motherhood to render us so vital and so helpless all at once, so indelible and yet so utterly erasable.  her name was Thisbe, my grandmother.  and loyal child that a part of me is, i do not know if i am supposed to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, or not.

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to my mother, who has, to her credit, shaped every corner of who i am…and loved me in ways i know she never knew.