About My Mother on Mother’s Day: Both Here and Gone

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I love this out of focus photo of my mother, taken perhaps fifteen years before I was born. A life-long Chicago Girl who cherished her summers at the family’s cottage up north in Eagle River, Wisconsin. A classical music concert pianist who liked pranks and egg salad sandwiches, not necessarily together, at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. She died in a car accident in 1983 and what’s interesting is that even though there are moments when I have to struggle to remember her voice, her laughter comes back to me as if I just heard her moments ago. Maybe that’s why the photo pulls me in. It looks like she’s laughing.

It would take a series of flow charts to detail my mother’s life. In brief, she was adopted with her twin brother in Chicago in 1925 by Louis and Ada Kane, who were attentive, loving parents to them. From an early age, my mother had exceptional talent as a pianist and eventually performed in concerts along with Arthur Rubenstein and Van Cliburn. In her late twenties, she was named Dean of Women at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Then life took a twist.

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Looking back, she entered into what we’d call an arranged marriage with the son of neighbors. The union was a disaster and as she was filing to end the marriage, she discovered she was pregnant. This was the 1950’s and the word “scandal” was used more freely. My grandparents were already retired and living at their expanded home in northern Wisconsin. Somehow, it was decided that Mom would quit her position at the Music Conservatory, move in with her parents, give birth to my older sister, and then work as a music teacher at the local grade school. Which she did.

It was there that she met my father, who had his first teaching assignment after college at Eagle River Union High School. They fell in love and married less than six months after meeting. And then Mom moved again as Dad’s career evolved…first to Madison, where I was born, then to Buffalo, New York for eight years, and then to Washington, D.C. It was there that everything changed on a deeper level.

The marriage between my parents ended. There’s never blame on only one side, but my mother seemed to fall apart before my eyes. She let herself go physically. I’m sure she was suffering from depression and found small decisions impossibly difficult. Eventually, she moved my sister and me to our grandparents home in Eagle River. It had always been her safe haven, her place to heal and restore herself.

After about a year, my sister left for college and it was Mom and me. What happened is that we became the best of friends. She was my daily confidante, she encouraged me, she supported me in every way she could. But, what I most remember is how much we could make each other laugh. When I wasn’t working there, we’d stop by Colonial House for an ice cream sundae, usually wiping our eyes from laughing about some incident we’d just told the other. We’d see matinees and insist that the popcorn wasn’t being shared fairly. I’d try to teach her how to cook…she only seemed to catch on to that after I’d moved away. And, looking back, she had to endure so much teen drama I don’t know where she found the patience.

And then, it seemed to all happen so fast. I was beginning my adult life in Philadelphia when I received a phone call at work on a sunny November morning, telling me my mother had died hours earlier in a car accident. An unexpected, horrifically violent death.The night before, we’d had a long conversation, laughing as usual. We’d ended the call by telling each other, “I love you.” And I never heard her voice again.

Thirty-two years have passed. Mom never got to meet the man I would marry. She never saw or held my son, her grandson. She doesn’t know that I uncovered half of her birth family and that I’ve actually met those wonderful people she would have loved. Yet, every now and then, I have a feeling she’s beside me…that if I turned my head quickly enough, I might catch a glimpse of her.

I just finished my third father-daughter road trip, a very special time that’s invaluable to me. It was funny, though. At one point as we walked through the woods, with Mother’s Day coming up, Mom crossed my mind. I was wondering what her opinion would be on several things as I walked through the region that she’d loved so much. And then I saw this beside me:

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I have no idea, obviously, who had carved that, when, or what its original purpose was. But it served a new purpose at that moment. In that second, I felt I actually did catch one of those elusive glimpses I’ve hoped for. That Mom is closer than I can possibly realize. She’s right there, even when I can’t see her.

The Real Journey My Father and I Share

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I was always a Daddy’s Girl. When my mother and sister would work on complex jigsaw puzzles, Dad and I would go for walks in the woods. When they’d spend Saturdays shopping, Dad and I would go to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. He’d discuss individual works with me, from Andy Warhol’s 100 Cans,┬áto Alexander Calder’s The Cone, to Marisol’s The Generals (which I still don’t like). In fact, on more than one occasion, Dad’s talks to me about the works became so animated that crowds gathered around us. They thought he was a gallery guide.

When I was thirteen, we lived in Washington, D.C. It was there that, unexpectedly to me, my parents divorced. And I learned early that when someone is hurt by someone they love, they strike back in any way they can. My mother abruptly moved my sister and me to Wisconsin, where we’d always spent our summers, to be near the love and support of her parents. And just like that, this Daddy’s Girl now had a total of one week a year–just seven days–to be with her father.

My mother and I bonded. She’s the one who endured the drama of my junior high and high school years with love and patience. She became my confidante and gave me daily encouragement. In that time before smart phones and personal computers, Dad and I would talk on the phone when we could. I know he wrote many letters to me and, while I would write back from time to time, I’m sure they were as lacking in depth as they were in frequency. We kept each other informed about the highlights in our separate lives…he remarried, I left for college.

And then, as sometimes happens, I hit a rough patch. It was Dad who reached out to me, gave me his hand, and pulled me back on track. He had me move to Philadelphia, to initially live with him, his wife, and their daughter, Sarah, who was not yet a year old. Odd how in hindsight, some of the temporarily dark times yield wonderful, lasting treasures. I continue to have a close relationship with my younger sister, whom I otherwise would have barely known. And Dad and I reconnected. He knew who I was again and I was reacquainted with him. Our lives went in different directions as I got married and he remarried, but what had been damaged had been healed.

A few years ago, a cousin who had recently lost her father told me that what she especially cherished were the trips she and her father had taken, just the two of them. Which made me wonder, what if Dad and I went on road trips together? One week a year, as had been our routine so long ago, but this time, we’d have the opportunity to truly connect and have the kind of meaningful conversations that only happen when you’re in a car with someone for several hours a day.

So it began two years ago. On the road and over meals in restaurants, we talk and confide in each other. Instead of exchanging reports about our lives, we talk about the mystery of life, the things we are grateful for, and the questions we have that don’t really demand answers. We stay in Wisconsin for the most part, Dad’s home state and where I now live…where so many formative memories for both of us lie. And we create new memories. This Thursday, we’ll begin our third Father-Daughter road trip. It feels very new, yet in some ways, like a tradition already.

We don’t know how many of these trips are in the future. But, through this long and winding road, we’ve learned to cherish the present and this Daddy’s Girl couldn’t be happier for her father to be her traveling companion.