• Maggie Wheeler

On Mothers in absentia

My mother with me, circa 1961

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I emailed my daughter who is on her way back from a naval deployment in the Pacific Ocean, and then headed to Ottawa to spend the afternoon with my other two children. Hence a late blog.

Not surprisingly, my thoughts remain with mothers—mothers of all kinds. Posts on social media include stepmothers, adoptive mothers, supportive aunts and grandmothers, and those who mother even though childless. All need to be acknowledged on Mother’s Day, for mothering and its importance for humanity is not confined to biological relationships.

But there is another mother that does get mention but as one who is missed only. The mother in absentia. The mother who has passed and was lost. She continues to be missed, but also—which is not often mentioned or explored—continues to mother long after her earthly time is over.

As you know from my earlier entry, one of the struggles I currently face is having outlived my personal markers. I am 58, and my mother died at that age when I was only 24 years old. Touching bases with a friend yesterday about Mother’s Day, he noted that his mother was gone now 10 years. Mine, I responded, gone 35 years this fall. But, I added, you never really get used to it.

In my fifth novel, All My Worldly Goods, Farran Mackenzie says about her own in absentia mother Leslie:

I often wonder if our mothers have more influence in our lives when we are without them, rather than while they still live. Being a motherless daughter means trying to navigate with a compass that has no true north on which to base your computations. It is hardwired within our need to survive that we replace what is necessary to continue. And so we collect, we remember, we rebuild as best we can the mother who is both the greatest presence in our lives and the greatest empty space. The only working material we have to do this with is our own souls.

When my mother first died, the greatest pain was to have so much love to give and no one to give it to. Now I have my children, and they received the extra from me often in ways that Mom would have treated them. I felt her absence all the more keenly when I had my babies, but also her presence in my new role as a mother. She was, of course, my role model and guide in this new and sometimes overwhelming territory. But as my children grew, she returned within me, mothering with me in ways that might not have been possible had she still been with us.

Now at the age of 58, I am revisiting how young my mother was when she died. She was cheated of years of living, I was cheated of her presence, and my children were cheated of knowing a grandmother who would have cherished them and loved them absolutely.

But my children have her spirit, her values, her strength and her capacity for love. That is legacy, and I will be content with that.

It may be 35 years since I have heard your voice or touched your hand, Anne Wheeler, but you are not and have never been in absentia to me.

Talk next week,


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