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When you stop needing your mom and she starts needing you

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Everyone knows grandparents have a limited shelf life. That’s why, anticipating my paternal grandmother’s imminent demise, I began saving her letters when I was 10.

Given that I am now 40 and she’s 100, you can imagine I’ve amassed quite the stash of pressed pansies.

Mothers, on the other hand, are built to last. They’re like the Six Million Dollar Man, hardwired to be better, stronger and faster than the rest of us, with the proverbial eyes in the back of their heads and that mysterious sixth – nay, 16th – sense.

Mine was especially bionic, I thought, growing up in Northern Ontario. In her 40s, Mum would finish a 12-hour night shift as a nurse at Sudbury General hospital and drive 200 kilometres through moonlit forests to meet her parents in Thessalon for an all-day outing. In her 60s, when she lived in Iowa, Mum liked to do the 16-hour drive to Canada straight through. “It relaxes me,” she’d shrug, sipping a giant McDonald’s mocha.

Given my mother’s seeming invincibility, I’m not sure why I began saving her letters the year she turned 69. Maybe it was my own 16th sense.

God knows Mum’s letters were never short in supply. Like a magician’s hat, my mailbox would yield one colourful missive after another, each covered in shiny stickers and filled with glittering sequins. “Shoot!” I’d yelp when the plastic hearts, stars and shamrocks would tumble from the envelope like shards of a shattered rainbow, embedding themselves in the carpet. No matter how much I vacuumed, I’d find sequins everywhere – glinting in dust bunnies, sticking to my sheets, winking at me from an apple in the fruit bowl.

When she wasn’t writing, Mum was phoning. Typically at 5 in the morning. “Oooh hi, Honey!!!!” she’d chirp into my answering machine, the loudest robin on the block, “I just wanna run something important by you, give me a call when you get up, oh my what a beautiful day, I just had a nice cuppa coffee and wait till I tell you what Dara said … BEEP!” Cut off again.

Inevitably, when I’d call back, the great emergency would be something that seemed fairly inconsequential to me. “Oh hi, Honey, I just wanted to hear your voice. It’s been forever.” Didn’t we talk two days ago?

(Celia Krampen for the Globe and Mail)

It’s funny when the shift happens: You stop needing your mum and she starts needing you. But whereas new mothers are flooded with love hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine to help them through those long nights, nature doesn’t engineer a rush of feel-good chemicals to make us gracious toward our aging parents, who are often isolated. Fortunately, there’s always good, old-fashioned gratitude. And love.

So, for the woman who had sewed endless costumes for my dance recitals (albeit with a few erroneous stitches) after working nights in the hospital, I would blearily return Mum’s crack-of-dawn phone calls. And when her daily e-mails came in, oh God, those massive blocks of stream-of-consciousness text devoid of paragraph breaks and proper punctuation, I did my best to reply the same day, even though I worked all day as a writer. Surely I could squeeze out just a few more words.

I often marvelled at my mother’s energy level. At the health clinic that employed her in Iowa, she worked circles around younger colleagues, going in early and leaving late. In her garden, she coaxed chard, zucchinis, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, okra, cucumbers, peppers and basil from the earth. Her morning glories climbed a fence and hitched a ride on an oak tree, heading skyward.

Despite all that unbounded vigour, my mother died of a heart attack just shy of her 70th birthday. By coincidence, I’d saved exactly a year’s worth of her cards, from Easter through St. Patrick’s Day.

“It’s Valentine’s Day!” says the Hallmark card from February, with a smiling pug on the cover. On the inside: “Thought you could use a nice, warm pug.”

“Why should that rabbit have all the fun?” reads the greeting card from April, showing a squirrel dressed as a rabbit.

On the inside of both, Mum’s warm, loopy script: “Ha ha haaaaa, who loves ya, baby?!”

In the absence of her warm hugs and bubbly laughter, these letters remain a comfort. As I reread them, I notice her buoyant script grew a little hurried during that final year, as though she were running out of time but still had so much to say. Did she know, on some level, that she might be dying? On the last birthday card she sent me, she wrote: “My darling daughter, this is a card for all seasons and all reasons …”

Thankfully, the agonizing arguments we used to have never made it into those cards. The times I walked out on her, the times she hung up on me, the nights we both cried ourselves to sleep – poof! They’re gone. What remains is these greeting cards; the sweetness of our relationship distilled, all the bitterness filtered out.

Mum probably didn’t realize it, but in her final year she sent me two different versions of the same card. Both picture wildflowers dancing in the wind, and beneath them the words: “You are one of my nicest thoughts.”

You are, too, Mum. You are, too.

Christine Schrum lives in Victoria.

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