The First Time My Mother Saw the Ocean (About my Mother)

It wasn’t till she died. I found out that she was the kind of woman who hid cash between her mattresses. $120. My uncle found it. She was the kind of woman whose most remarkable jewelry came from the Salvation Army. And that was her splurging. My mother.

After her funeral, my relatives and I drove to my mother’s downtown apartment to pack it up. The government subsidized apartment held the stink of her many-smoked Winston cigarettes. That sour ashy odor had been sucked into the drapes, couch, and carpet. The kitchen/living room was dim because there was only one window. The bedroom had the other window. Though dank, the apartment was tidy. We five—me, my mother’s two sisters, one of their daughters, and my half-sister—exchanged words only when they didn’t know what to do with an object. Amy, do you think you might want this? Amy, do you think we should just throw this away? My mother didn’t own nice things, which made it harder to throw her few possessions away.

I got the sense from my aunts that I had the emotional seniority, the most authority over my mother’s possessions, as my mother’s oldest daughter. In this way, with their deferring to me, they denied their own attachment to my mother, and they also denied my un-attachment to her. They knew that my mother fell apart more than she lived, that she dropped me off at her parents house when I was four or five and never returned, that my father came for me when I was six, that he fell apart, too, but he did the job. (He didn’t do the job well. Alcoholics, they come first. They are the center of the world—theirs and, by the force of their natures, those around them. But he did the job by the fact of showing up.)

My mother didn’t show up. She just couldn’t manage to do her job—not that of a mother, nor could she hold down a paid one. A number of years ago, she called me at work. It was the only time she ever called me at work. She called me rarely and irregularly, and she wouldn’t do so during the day—she’d make most of her calls when I was asleep and she couldn’t sleep, sometimes at 2 a.m. She wanted me to return a second-hand engagement ring she’d sent to me many months back. The ring was still in its packaging—what was I going to do with a stranger’s engagement ring? She’d mailed it to me stuffed in a manila envelope, the ring wrapped in Kleenex and bound with Scotch tape. I realize now she must have needed money, wanted to pawn the ring. I said, “Yep. No problem. I’ll send it this weekend,” agreeably hoping to end the call. But she wanted to talk. I listened, mumbling, “Sure. Yeah. Uh-huh,” throughout. At one point she said something that startled me and that I have since turned over many times in my mind. “I set you free. Both you and Rosie. I set my daughters free.” Rose is my mother’s other daughter, whom she had with her third husband (of four). It was the first time my mother had mentioned the fact that she didn’t raise me, that she’d allowed my stepmother to adopt me. I was seven then. Here it was, twenty years later. We were having The Conversation, clumsily, as I sat at my exposed desk at the magazine, my executive editor staring at me from across his desk that faced mine. I was getting on just fine in this life that was my own, thousands of miles from my mother, father, and stepmother—that big, independent life I’d been set free into. I set you free. She was taking credit for my life and in the same breath excusing herself from it.

During her memorial service, I sat numb, unable to cry. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I had been smiling to myself; whatever expression was on my face was as inappropriate as any child’s in church.

The service and the reception both took place at the funeral home. The reception was a sit-down lunch: cafeteria-style tables parallel across the room and a side-table filled with food—potato salad, coleslaw, beans, chicken, and cake. It shocked me that people would eat. My grandfather, who had readily cried during the memorial service while the reverend spoke of my mother (though the reverend had never met my mother), remarked that the food was part of the funeral service fee and we ought not to let it go to waste. I pretended to eat. It was never clearer to me how emotions governed my ability to eat.

After the luncheon, I walked back into the memorial room. A question was pushing into my mind. I sat in one of the pews and stared at my mother’s paintings and the photo collages that we’d set on display easels, surrounded by flower arrangements. No body. They’d had her cremated. How do I mourn someone who’d exited my life when I was just four? She was my mother. I couldn’t not love her even if I willed myself to. How, then, was I supposed to reconcile her exit, her existence, her death? I needed an answer. I needed an answer that I could meet then depart from within the atmosphere of the funeral home.

I asked the minister if I could talk to him. He was in his late thirties, a gentle, blue-eyed ex-hippie. To ask to speak with him was defiant of me, and typically so. I don’t go to church. No one taught me to believe in God. (We never blamed God for what happened in our lives; we never took responsibility either.) Where I come from, a minister was one of the untouchables, like doctors—you kept your distance. It’s us and them, members of separate social strata. It was eccentric of me to disappear with the minister—lofty of me to assert my individuality, to need to grieve in that accompanied seclusion.

And how I cried. Spouting. Choking. At last. I don’t remember hearing his answer to my question. Once my tears erupted, my question was the answer and the reverend dutifully handed me a couple plastic-wrapped packages of Nelson’s Funeral Home tissues. He may have said, Sometimes we have to accept what is. Sometimes we don’t get to forgive someone to their face, but we must trust that they know.

On my mother’s coffee table there were several slips of paper—torn squares, set out like playing cards. Each was a note my mother had written for herself, written large on account of her glaucoma. TAKE PILLS AT 11 AM AND 2 AM. CHECK PACE MAKER ON MARCH 25. A couple had first names and telephone numbers: CAROL 233-9034. I don’t know who they were. Maybe AA buddies.

There were two leather-bound books on her coffee table. Each was the length of my hand and the width of both hands when opened: the Holy Bible and the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Book. The latter was the most worn. I opened the 12 Step book and saw fireworks: yellow, orange, green, pink, and blue lit up each page. My mother had highlighted nearly every paragraph. Each page was saturated with color. She’d underlined particular lines on the pages—already highlighted lines—with ball point pen and marker. Even single words were circled. And circled in red at the top of each page was the Daily Prayer—circled not as if having been read and checked off day-by-day, but all at once, all in one sitting. Every prayer. I imagine my mother spent an afternoon, not a desperate one but a determined one, circling and circling page by page, prayer by prayer, with every intention to save herself, stay anchored—to stay sober.

On her kitchen table, next to a large but unfinished pen sketch of a bouquet of chrysanthemums, I found an eviction notice from the Board of Housing of the City of Duluth, Minnesota. She was being evicted from the one bedroom apartment she paid roughly $250 a month for, and for which she’d been on a waiting list over one year. We don’t know why she was being evicted. Had she been classified as too capable to live in the assisted-living facility? Was it possible that her bad behavior was getting her kicked out? One story I’d heard from my grandfather. He drove the half hour down from Cloquet to Duluth once a week to visit my mother. Once a month, he paid her telephone bill. Apparently my mother intercepted—stole—a package that had been delivered to another tenant. My mother had opened the package, rifled through the contents, taken some, then threw the box down the building’s garbage chute. Was it an isolated incident? Or was she a troublemaker?

Next to the eviction notice were tax forms, showing her income of $9,000 for the year, reflecting the $600 she got from the government each month. There was also a letter from her doctor, confirming her bipolar disorder and listing her current medications: something for her heart, something for her seizures, her manic-depression, her glaucoma, her migraines.

The eviction notice is something I come back to when I wonder about the cause of her death, which we only know was “sudden.” Sudden, since they discount the progression, the first drink, the first joint, first bottle of pills, first trick, the night in jail for possession, the years off-and-on pills, off-and-on booze. Don’t symptoms offer a chance for realignment? In practice, symptoms move us to repress and deny and the window of opportunity closes. The diagnosis comes only when symptoms and the illness are indistinguishable. They discount the two daughters, four divorces, and how seized my mother was, daily, with terrible, unfocused fear. They count only the day she couldn’t get back up.

On a Saturday, the 29th of December 2001, two months before she died, my mother wrote me this letter written, arbitrarily, on bright blue, red yellow birthday stationery.

My dearest Amy Eden,
Thank you for calling last nite, it makes me feel so wonderful & loved when one of my “girls” “women-child” etc., etc., etc. calls or writes (ha!)
I am doing so good. Feeling so sane & competent that I thank God every day. Very busy, very social, lots of friends & HAPPIER than I can recall. (like in childhood I was so happy & loved).
Must be getting old!!
All for now – thank you for the X-mas extravaganza & all the best of my love.

The signature—Kathy/Mom—was standard. She and my dad raised me to call them by their first names. They say it was a hippie-equality value. I came to see it as rhetoric, anarchic, a rejection of parenting.

My mother was found on the floor of her boyfriend’s apartment. She was over for dinner, they’d stayed up late, she was an insomniac, and he went to bed before her. They had been drinking. My uncle said her boyfriend discovered her the next morning—lying on the carpet between the coffee table and couch—dead.

There was no autopsy. Paying for one would probably have been expensive and, also, it would have been an accusation. An autopsy was too vain, expensive, bourgeois. She was dead, that was the only fact we needed to know. We didn’t need an expert to tell us that.

Most of her clothing was from the Salvation Army. So we gave it back. Same thing with her jewelry. Though, I did take a few pieces. A daughter wants her mother’s jewelry. Even if it’s pre-owned.

Ten finished paintings were arranged around her living room in a low semi-circle, resting against her coffee table, TV, and couch—ready for the show she would have had at the rehab center across the street. Every painting was of flowers: amaryllis, irises, and daisies. Desperate for canvases, she’d painted her flowers over paintings she’d bought from the Salvation Army. Her palate was made up of light colors—mauve, lavender, celery-green, and yellow—not unlike the inside of her 12 Step book.

My mother painted me, once. I have the painting—a watercolor—framed above my writing desk. It contains green, burgundy, yellow, orange, and brown and depicts a little girl painting with watercolors: I’m in a flowered sundress, up on my knees on a dining room chair, small, leaning over a heavy wood table, to reach my painting—my brush poised, my watercolor set close by at my elbow. It’s a vivid picture, its colors are strong even now, despite the rudimentaryness of the medium she used—just dry cakes of pigment that my mother applied with water.

I don’t remember that afternoon like you think. I wasn’t even five years old. But I know it viscerally. When I really look at the painting—the one artifact that proves I had timeless, sun-filled mother-daughter afternoons—my oldest cells relax, remember her light touch and comfortable lap, her breath mingling with mine, my small hand reaching for her warm forearm on an afternoon when neither of us could imagine being apart or—left behind.

I don’t know if I think of it as a watercolor, but I do think it was fitting that my mother wanted her ashes scattered in the ocean. Pigment. Water.


  1. Darlene says:

    Oh, my. Thank you for sharing such a personal and poignant story. You are a truly gifted writer, and this moved me beyond words.

  2. Darlene says:

    Oh, my. Thank you for sharing such a personal and poignant story. You are a truly gifted writer, and this moved me beyond words.

  3. JohnS says:

    This is the most powerful of any thoughts or any words I’ve ever read from an ACA person.
    I’m just too moved to say more.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am in shock… I can relate in so many ways to your story.

  5. Teek says:

    Superbly written. Made me cry. Love the last paragraph. Poetry.

  6. AnnDi57 says:

    Amy, I want to say as a fellow writer and ACA that I’m greatly moved by both your talent and the poignant story.
    I had this ‘moment’ when I read these lines you wrote: “No body. They’d had her cremated.” My mind read the words as “Nobody”, which reflected how your mother probably felt about herself and how it made you feel about yourself as a child.
    I had a aunt who died in a dark, dank apartment in South Carolina after too many meds. The funeral was small and quick and sad, almost ike she’d just been erased from the world with no signs left behind that she’d ever been here.
    It’s strange how if you write a lot, you always see words in interesting ways. At least, that’s the case for me.

  7. [...] essay originally appeared on guesswhatnormalis and was written by Amy [...]

  8. Denise says:

    Amy this is a great piece. I’m not an ACA, but certainly grew up in a chaotic home. Dad’s father was an alcoholic. Dad is actively dying as I write this and I’ve got all sorts of emotions running through my mind. I’m one of 11, (9 surviving), I’m hoping I can keep my mouth shut and get through the services.

    Mom is still with us, if she wasn’t I honestly don’t think I bother going. Not out of spite, because I don’t feel the need to go through a ceremony and listen to someone who doesn’t know him talk him up. He was very involved in the Catholic Church in his retirement. But I will go and sit politely and deal with it.

    I’m thinking I will reconnect with my counselor and work through my emotions in a safe and healthy environment. Thanks for the honest story it helped.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this, Denise. That is a BIG family! :-) There are so many raw feelings around death and losing a parent. As I write this (it’s morning) I realize I had a very rare dream about my mother last night. Maybe once a decade she shows up in my dreams. So – in any case, the relationship I have with her didn’t end when she died, it just changed. She came to life, actually, once she died.
      So you’re right to know that you can go quietly through the funeral process and then do your own version of mourning, and dealing with all of it on your own terms.

      I didn’t mention it in this piece, but after she died I joined a grief group that was offered through a counseling group in Boston. I went once a week for maybe six or eight weeks. It was very important that I did that — instrumental. People stop asking about how you’re doing, how you’re dealing with the death of your parent, after a couple weeks. And yet you’re going through the grieving process for…much, much longer. It’s easy to take the social cues and “stuff” it, and just try to carry on. But grief has a will and timeline of its own. So, for me, the grief group was a time and place I could morn and grieve and honor the process. There was a woman in the group who’d lost her twin sister (in their 30s) and a mother who’d lost her son. I’ll never forget them.

      Thanks for sharing where you’re at, Denise.

Leave a Reply