You don't usually think of someone who dies at the age of 77 as having been cruelly cut down in the prime of life, but that is how I felt about my mother. Widowed for less than a year after a long stretch of caring for my semi-invalided father, she'd been making plans for a different kind of life. It had been her turn. Finally. Among the papers left sitting on her desk were a treatise on clay-making techniques, because she'd taken up ceramics; brochures for cottages to rent in Wales, for a visit to relatives there; instructions for computer French lessons, in preparation for a trip to Provence.
Stunned by Mom's unexpected death, I greedily sifted through this evidence searching for answers to a persistent mystery: who was my mother when she wasn't being my mother? While my father was alive, alternately raging and joking and generally chewing the scenery, Mom devoted much of her energy to soothing his temper and serving as a buffer between him and his prickly daughters. By the terms of this unspoken family deal, she tended to keep her troubles to herself. I'd told myself there would be time later to forge a different kind of relationship; to come to know my mother outside the all-consuming aura of my father.
Now all I had to go on was her things, and I ransacked them with a detective's zeal. Desperate for clues, I pored over her final "To Do" list; I sorted out drawers and emptied closets. I checked pockets and rifled through purses. Prying into my mother's possessions had been a favorite childhood pastime, and now I was free to indulge it at will.
There were poignant surprises. Despite relentless family pressure, Mom had defiantly refused to quit smoking, so we'd thought. Yet tucked away in a bottom drawer I came across: a package of prescription nicotine gum and a book called The No-Nag, No-Guilt, Do-It-Your-Way Guide to Quitting Smoking. So she had tried, after all. Apparently, she'd found it easier to withstand our reproaches than to endure the shame of admitting failure.
Forgotten childhood artifacts surfaced as I dug. I was touched to discover that Mom had saved for several decades and through a dozen moves the plaid cocktail napkins I'd sewn and fringed. In the same drawer, I uncovered relics of another sewing project: a set of intricate felt appliques—each symbolizing a different holiday—that she had fashioned for my tenth birthday along with a red felt circle skirt.
On fancy dress occasions as the year progressed, the appropriate applique would be snapped onto the skirt. I wore it decorated according to the season with: a pink birthday cake sprouting white candles and frosting flowers; a Thanksgiving turkey; a green leprechaun hat with a white shamrock; a mortarboard with a real silk tassel; a bough of cherries; an Easter bunny with pink ears and string whiskers; or a valentine that said "I love you."
Overall, my mother's attentions to my wardrobe were spotty, and on many days I left the house wearing mismatched outfits with missing buttons. But there was no denying that my holiday skirt had been magnificent, and I was glad to come across the surviving evidence of it.
Discoveries like these made me feel closer to my mother. But I was in dangerous territory, and I knew it. Snoopers find whatever they find, after all, and it's generally thought to serve them right. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling of shock and betrayal: what was the framed 19th century etching of the Royal Treasury at Petra doing stashed in the back of a closet?
It had been my last present to my mother, intended to memorialize a dream fulfilled. On her 75th birthday, she had traveled by camel to the remote archaeological site in Jordan. She had sent my daughter a postcard saying, "I've longed to come here since I was your age and it's everything I'd hoped—and more." In my Wanderlust, I was my mother's daughter, and I'd been certain she would love the memento of her far-flung travels. So why had she banished it from sight?
Mom had been on the road the very day before her death, completing a solo 3,000 mile car trip across the south. Not knowing she was going to die, she'd failed to call me when she returned, and that missed conversation, that last silence, rippled through my life. As evidence of her elusiveness, this was more than I could bear, and what she couldn't give, I'd set out to steal. In the end, for all my rummaging, I came up empty-handed. Who was my mother when I wasn't watching? Why was my present face down on the shelf? The hardest thing of all was to accept that I would never know.