The Stories That Bind Us

A Special Feature from Our Family Matters Department

Janine Roberts

Mom gleefully holds up two crossword books and says, “See, 111 puzzles in each. They’ll keep me here a long time. When I finish them, I can die.”

Mom, age 99, hasn’t talked about dying in a while. I remember with a shudder her plaintive calls last year in the hospital after her 10th fall, her head gashed and bleeding. “I want to die. Please . . . die,” she’d said. The words still careen back and forth in my mind. Now, I grab the opening Mom has presented and ask, “What are you feeling about dying?”

She replies with bravado, “I couldn’t care less if I die.” A slow swallow. “I can’t do anything about it.”

I stroke her back, something that she loves. “Are you afraid or scared?”

“I’m in great shape.” She says nothing about her emotions, and I feel a sear down the center of my breastbone—the old flagrant hope of getting a glimpse into Mom’s feelings, hope that first infiltrated my body when I was eight years old. Tottering in Mom’s high heels, I’d reached into her jewelry drawer for the silver wedding chain I loved to wear for dress-up. But what was this folded piece of paper under the box that held the chain? I opened it and read in Mom’s pointy handwriting: “I want to die here in the meadow. The lupine and Indian paintbrush around me.”

My young mind raced. Die? Kicking the heels aside, tripping over the long, beaded skirt, I ran with the note to my 12-year-old sister. She wanted nothing to do with it. After that, every week until I was 16 and we sold our house and moved to Kuwait, I snuck into Mom’s jewelry drawer, searching for clues to her inner world in her words written on the backs of drugstore receipts and paper torn from grocery bags.

I read her grief about Dad and “that other red-haired woman.” I read her anger toward her parents: “I did not love them after they hit me with my father’s razor strop.” I kept her secrets and never told that I was reading the notes. And yet she seemed to know. She always encouraged me to play with her earrings and necklaces.

Now, at Mom’s apartment, I try to rally. “For someone who’s almost 100, you are in good shape!”

A playful humor emerged in Mom a few years ago, when following threads of conversation became increasingly difficult for her. She connects now with banter and wordplay. Physical therapists, care assistants, and doctors all started calling her “adorable”—a new way for me to think about her. I try to catch her humor, play along, and appreciate these emerging aspects of her, so different from the anxious and depressed mother I grew up with.

Then something else happened that expanded our relationship even more: my daughter and her partner, somewhat unexpectedly, announced they were having a baby. Soon we knew it was a girl—my first and most likely only grandchild, and Mom’s only great-grandchild. My three siblings had all chosen not to have children.

After my granddaughter’s birth, Mom and I would hunch eagerly over photos of Cadence riding home from the hospital in her infant car seat. We’d giggle together watching videos of Cady laughing as she pulled her father’s hair, then dancing up and down in her hot-pink onesie to songs on the radio. Four generations of females alive at the same time—a first on my mother’s side of the family!

I found myself spending hours upon hours with my granddaughter curled into my left shoulder, feeling Cady’s beating heart against mine, her rhythms imprinting into my body. As I walked with her, I thought of Mom. Old, hard memories began to shift and move. Cady taught me anew how relationally wired we are, how we want to connect and be seen—something Mom needed from me.

In our home office, there were always scribs and scrabs of paper with Mom’s jottings. Unlike the secret ones hidden in her drawer, they were piled precariously on the side of the desk, out and available to all. On them, she wrote things my siblings and I said that she intended to turn into children’s books, like “Janine asked Brian [my older brother] ‘What kind of woman will you marry?’ Then she said, ‘Oh, I suppose you’d like somebody who’d play out in the woods with you all the time.’” I liked reading these story snippets. They told me Mom was paying attention to us.


Recently, when I’d moved Mom into yet another level of care, I opened her safe, expecting to find her will and bank information. Instead, there were those long-ago stacks of story fragments—ideas that never did get turned into books. I lifted a pile of them up out of the safe, and a small orange book, stuffed into the middle of them, fell out. On the inside cover Mom had written, “Please select a few of these memories to read at my memorial service.” Although the book had only seven entries scattered in its 100 pages, a few story snippets had been slipped into the back of it, as if Mom intended to do something in particular with them.

Now, I take Mom’s orange book home and leaf through it. Once again, I’m reading her notes, albeit ones she’s asked to be shared. I pull out the story fragments still tucked into the back of the book and spread them out: Mom’s remembrances of us children never elaborated upon, and yet she carried them with her through seven decades and moves to Kuwait, Argentina, and Mexico.

My mind wanders to the notes I’ve written about Cady on my own bits of paper. Suddenly, I know what I have do. I turn the orange book upside down and inscribe in the front, “Dearest Granddaughter, This memory book is for you.” I write in it how my daughter thought she became pregnant on my birthday, how she, dear Grandbaby, didn’t want to leave Hotel Womb, and our strategies to invite her out. I find myself intertwining stories about her parents’ and grandparents’ lives.

Slowly I become aware of how I’m amplifying some stories while ignoring and letting go of others. Perhaps, I realize, we can choose what stories to tell, when and where, and thus shape and change our lives. Then onto the center pages, I trim, fit, and glue the story ideas Mom had slipped into the orange book eons ago. I can imagine Cadence one day opening the orange book and reading it to her own child.


This blog is excerpted from, "Living Backward and Forward: In Search of the Stories That Bind Us," by Janine Roberts. The full version is available in the March/April 2018 issue, A Gift of Time?: Facing the Challenges and New Possibilities of Aging.

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Illustration © Adam Niklewicz

Topic: Families | Parenting

Tags: Couples & Family | death | death in the family | family | Family Matters | Janine Roberts | love | love and relationships | parents | Children | Children & Adolescents | mother | mother-daughter relationships | mothers | Parenting | relationships

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