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I've Forgotten the Sound of My Mother's Voice
But I'll never forget what she gave me.
I woke up this morning thinking about my mother. She would have been 104 today. She was born in 1918, in the midst of the flu pandemic, but her birthplace was far into the remote northern reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where that terrible influenza didn’t reach. She was a skinny little thing and might not have made it if it had.
I wrote a version of this piece last year, but I wanted to honor her on her day, and this seems to say it all.
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My mother was 19 when she had me. I was an only child until my brother Michael came along when I was nine years old, but by that time I was firmly ensconced as my mother’s daughter. She influenced my taste in music, in art, and helped me develop my own love of words.
She came from Finnish parents who barely spoke English, from a community where English was not their first language, and she struggled, with just an eighth grade education, to make sure she spoke well. She took delicious pleasure in finding the meanings of new words. We had encyclopedias and dictionaries in our house and we used them. For a time, she and her sisters made a game of finding a word they didn’t know before, then having to use it for a week in often silly sentences. I remember one word—’crucial’. They cracked themselves up: “It’s crucial to cook chicken before you eat it.”
We shared a need to look at things as if we were looking at them through a magnifier. We studied everything when I was little, from trees to rocks to signs on the sides of streetcars—the colors, the designs, the words—everything enchanted us.
We had a bond that wouldn’t end until she passed too soon at the age of 68. I lost her when I was 49 and it felt as if I’d lost my anchor. I was a grandmother who felt like a little girl again. Vulnerable and lost, reeling from the unfairness of losing her to a vicious, unrelenting lung cancer that literally took her breath away. I heard my mother say many times that she would most hate to die of suffocation. The idea of spending her last minutes struggling for breaths that wouldn’t come terrified her. And that is how I had to watch her die.
When I turned 68 I had no reason to worry that I would die at the same age, but it crossed my mind many times during that year. When I hit that 69th milestone, I felt safe. I felt guilty. I did it and she didn’t.
My mother loved to sing and had a lovely voice. For years I could conjure up her singing voice, and that seemed to be enough. Now that’s fading, too. I can’t pull up her speaking voice, but I thought I would never not hear her singing.
I can still hear my father’s voice, and he’s been gone for more than 30 years. Gruff and gravely, with a distinct Canadian/Italian undertone. He sometimes grunted — his idea of a response — and I can even hear that grunt. I smile when I think of some of the things he said, in such funny ways. I was my father’s little girl, but when I grew into adulthood it was my mom and me. So how is it possible that I can no longer hear her?
Could I conjure up an image of her if I had no pictures? I don’t know. Thankfully, I don’t have to guess. I have a box of pictures ranging from her childhood until just months before her death.
Why is this important now? Why did it come to me one day, out of the blue, that I could no longer remember what my mother’s voice sounded like? It’s been almost 35 years since we talked. Would I expect that I could remember? She died long before we were video-recording with sound, so there’s no chance I’ll ever hear her again. But I can ‘hear’ my father. I want to hear them both.
I will never live so long that I won’t think about wanting them both back, but I’ll never grow so old, either, that I won’t want my mother more. She died while I was still foolishly thinking I was wiser than she was. I didn’t go to her for counsel, I went to her for comfort. Now it seems I need both.
There are younger women in my life who look to me to be their guide, as if my having lived this long gives me certain wisdom or powers they haven’t yet achieved. I want to tell them about my mom. I want to tell them about her mother, my grandmother, who survived poverty, who divorced her violent husband when divorce wasn’t done, who steered us in her broken English with love and kindness and a spirit tough as nails.
I want to tell them that we come from a long line of women who endured in such quiet ways we often couldn’t hear them. But they left their mark and we’re the living proof. Now we can speak for them.