May 2019

The Last Call: A reminder to call yo’ mama while you can

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

“Behind all your stories is always your mother’s story. Because hers is where yours began.”
— Mitch Albom

i have very few regrets in life, but the one that I find most difficult to put behind me is one that can’t be rectified. It was nothing I said or didn’t say. It was nothing I did wrong. But the memory stirs in the corner of my consciousness as a vivid reminder of the uncertainty each day brings.

I remember clearly the Tuesday night in June of 1987 when Mama called. She wasn’t feeling well, but nothing she said indicated any real need for concern. In retrospect, she may have hinted, but she didn’t ask me to come for a visit or make any melodramatic statements that would lead me to believe I needed to rush to her bedside. She was home and seemingly “fine.”

Two days went by; the next call I got was from my aunt—my mother’s sister: Mama was in the hospital and I should come. While packing a bag and making arrangements to head to Atlanta where she lived, the last call came. My mother was gone—with less than 15 minutes’ notice. The phone now dead in my hand, a dark reality set in that I would never hear her voice again, never again get to go home. Her sudden demise at age 57 was the single most devastating blow I had ever sustained at that point in life. What hurt most was that I didn’t get to say goodbye … or thank you, I’m sorry, I forgive you, I love you.

I tell you this not to gain sympathy or jerk tears. It’s been a long time ago, and I’m not in a maudlin mood. I tell you this to remind you that you only get one mother in this life. And when she’s gone, you will miss her—even if you don’t have a perfect relationship, even if you don’t think her absence will impact your life. I believe this because of the somewhat tumultuous relationship I had with mine and how very much I have missed her over the past 30 years … since the last call.

I don’t have a Mommy Dearest story. My mother never abused me. She disciplined me, and sometimes that meant a trip to the “switch tree.” But her intent was never to inflict harm, only to teach me to bear the consequences of my actions. She taught me well.

She baked cakes, and I licked the beaters. She worked to put food on the table and clothes on my back and to pay for my education. She took care of me when I was sick and tried to provide the basics. (She made a mean bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup.) She gave me my first sex education lesson with hand-drawn pictures. She taught me to shave my legs and bought me my first pair of stockings. She did all the things moms are technically supposed to do for their daughters except one: notice me.

I craved her approval, her praise, her attention, but it seemed she had none left over to give. I spent most of my childhood and early teen years with a house key in my pocket, making my way on my own. With a sick and often missing father and a worn out, frazzled, distraught mother, I searched for my place in the sun—my spotlight, which frequently appeared in the eyes of men as I came of age. I made mistakes as all young people do. I made choices, some of which I am proud and some I regret. And I forgive myself for needing what I needed and finding a way to get that.

When Mama did turn her attention to me, it was usually with a critical eye: my lipstick was too bright, my skirt wrinkled, my hair stringy, my nails too long… Looking back as an adult, it’s clear to me that our differences were rooted in mixed messages and unmet needs—nothing intentional but evident in the rearview. She wanted a better life for me than what she had, but in her attempt to push me, she only drove me to rebel. While she meant well, her vision for me did not match my own, hence, a level of tension lived between us: the bitter taste of my self-appointed guilt and need to jump ever higher, mingled with a vague sense of her growing disappointment as I missed the mark.

There was never any doubt in my mind that my mother loved me, just that she had difficulty accepting me without wanting to wave some magic wand and change me into her dream daughter—the one with a more relaxed, less sensitive temperament, the one with a career or perhaps the one who lived in a house around the corner with babies on her hip. I’m so sorry, Mom, but none of that is who I am—not then and not now. Still, for years after my mother’s death, every time something important happened in my life or I felt the need for advice, I would reach for the phone and begin dialing her number before remembering the line had long ago been disconnected.

As I reflect on my story, I realize now that Mama had her own story to tell, and hers unquestionably became part of mine. It helps to remember that she was once a young woman like I was then—a daughter with her own set of insecurities and measuring sticks, dashed hopes and dreams shaping her worldview, hardening her soft spots, casting a cloud over her sunny outlook, diluting her humor, testing her strength. Yet she had the fortitude to go on—to put one foot in front of the other, to show up, to live courageously and be who she was and who she was called upon to be. If I could speak to her one last time, I would tell her, “I see you now, and I hope you can finally see me. Our stories are one and the same.”

If you have a living mother, whatever your relationship might be, consider giving her a call. Set your differences aside if you can … before it’s too late … before you, too, get the last call.

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