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My Mother's Secrets

The author's mother, out for ice cream on Mother's Day, in 2010.  (Courtesy)
The author's mother, out for ice cream on Mother's Day, in 2010. (Courtesy)

When my mother was alive, she didn’t want to be found. She kept her address and phone number private, with the exception of my brother and me, a few friends and her doctor.

She didn’t want anyone knowing where she lived or what was going on in her life. She never joined Facebook and she never had the internet at home (she called it “an invasion of privacy”), though she did have an email account, which she accessed when she was at work or the library.

Eight years ago, at 65, while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery for an aggressive form of ovarian cancer, she gave me her username and password. She asked me to log in to see if she had any work-related emails, so that she could respond without anyone finding out that she was so sick.

The author and her mother in Davis Square in 2002. (Courtesy)
The author and her mother in Davis Square in 2002. (Courtesy)

“Did you sign out and close the browser?” she asked afterward, worried someone might otherwise hack into her account. I assured her I did.

For a year, she passed off her work absences as “a stomach issue.” To her coworkers, she introduced her cancer wig as “a new hairstyle,” continuing to wear it even after the chemo ended and her thick curly hair regrew.

My mother kept up appearances. Her worst fear was to be seen.

A week before she died, she told me she didn’t want an obituary printed in the newspaper. Although it had been over a decade since her divorce from my father, she didn’t want him to find out — her eyes welled — as if it would mean he’d “won.” As if he could still hurt her, even after death.

On her final day, she called a friend to drive her to the hospital, because the sound of an ambulance would alert the neighbors. She checked herself into the emergency room and told the nurse she knew it was “the end,” then went into respiratory failure.

My mother kept up appearances. Her worst fear was to be seen.

For a while after she died, I searched for my mother on the internet, as if the cyber world held the realm of the dead. As if Google could reveal my mother’s location and I’d find her — and I'd reconcile with her — though I knew my attempts would be futile. All I ever found were her words: two opinion pieces she published in The New York Times when I was a girl, including one about her own ailing mother and their difficult relationship.

My mother and I became estranged several years before she passed away, when I was 29 years old, had recently been diagnosed with PTSD and first disclosed to her the sexual abuse I’d suffered as a girl. We talked by phone weekly, but our conversations were riddled with conflict. She was angry with me for confronting a past she was unable to face. I was writing and publishing essays about my work to overcome the obstacles my trauma had put in my path; she was upset that I was “airing dirty laundry.”

The author and her mother at Boston University in 1998. (Courtesy)
The author and her mother at Boston University in 1998. (Courtesy)

She said nobody would like us if they knew. She told me she was unable to hear or know about what had happened, because doing so would render her incapable of getting out of bed, going to work or living her life.

I still spoke with her by phone, but I stopped visiting for many months. The distance between us grew.

After her death, I prepared her condo for sale. I emptied her closet of checkbook records dating back to 1975; her medicine cabinet of Coumadin, packages of syringes and Crest white strips; her sock drawer, where I found an envelope filled with a handful of her hair, which she'd saved after it fell out during the chemo; and her underwear drawer where, under a pile of neatly stacked briefs, I uncovered a folded Wonder bra with the tags still attached. My mother’s personal effects were in pristine order, but the more I sifted through the items of her intimate life — these things she kept so close to the vest — the more I learned about my mother.

My aunt suggested I keep my mother’s belongings, especially her clothes, for my own use, but the idea didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t think holding on to such items would resolve the unresolvable; instead, I chose to let go of the burden.

On these pages, I found my mother, alive and unencumbered, speaking to me, telling me things she’d never disclosed.

I did keep a few items, including notebooks of prose and poetry my mother had written when I was a girl, where she shared (privately) her perspective as my parent, as an abused wife and as an emotionally abandoned child. On these pages, I found my mother, alive and unencumbered, speaking to me, telling me things she’d never disclosed.

I found a Hallmark card written to me, expressing her love. I also discovered yellow legal pads full of notes from books and articles about perpetrators, family systems theory and ideas on how to help your adult daughter heal from sexual violence.

My mother had wanted to reconcile with me. She’d tried, but failed.

Years after my mother’s death, I sometimes have dreams about her: she’s dying and I can’t save her. When I wake, in the morning, I hear the black cap chickadee outside, singing its signature tune and I remember how, when I was a girl, my mother used to stand beside me at the school bus stop, saying, “That bird’s calling your name.” She’d smile and sing, “Tracy, Tracy.”

Whenever I hear that bird’s song in the air, I hear my mother’s voice somewhere out there, up there, calling to me, saying: I’m here.

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Related:

Tracy Strauss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Tracy Strauss is a trauma literature scholar and writing professor. Her book, "I Just Haven't Met You Yet: Finding Empowerment in Dating, Love, and Life" was published in May 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing.

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