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“Forty Years” by Jeanna Mason Stay

The day before my mother died, I’d planned to call her, ask how she was doing, catch up in awkward, stilted conversation. But the day passed; I was busy. Would she even notice or care? Maybe it would serve her right if I didn’t call. Maybe I’d call her tomorrow.

By the time I decided to do it, it was too late.

***

Six months later, I met the man I wanted to marry. We would grow old together, I thought; I could see it in the way he looked at me when he left me on my doorstep. I went inside and reached for the phone to call her, then remembered. But I could hear the conversation in my head anyway. Too young, she would have said, and she’d tell me about her old loves and how they didn’t last, and my joy would have been lost, swallowed up in her.

So I took a breath and shook her out of my head. Yes, too young, I whispered in my mind, but too bad. You don’t get a say.

***

Just a few months before my mother died, she missed my high school graduation. She’d missed my final recital too, and the academic awards ceremony, and the fancy parent dinner. I didn’t expect her, I told myself, and I didn’t care—but I scanned the crowds just in case.

***

Nearly a year after I met him, we married. A year after that, the baby. I held that child in my arms and panic flooded through me. What was I doing? I looked to my husband then back to the baby. How could I be a mother when I’d never really had one? How could I give my own child this legacy?

Was this how my mother felt? Did this terror fill her heart as she looked down at me? Was I destined to fail my own daughter as my mother failed me?

And then she squirmed and cried out. I took her hand in mine, and her tiny fingers wrapped around mine.

It was going to be okay.

***

She learned to sit up, then to crawl. She took her first step exactly three years after my mother died.

Another year passed, then two, then three. Her first words, her first day of school, her first crush, her everyday in-and-out. I made her cry, sometimes, this inexplicable and mysterious child who bore within her my soul’s DNA—and my mother’s, try though I might to forget it. She made me cry too. We laughed, we fought, we made up.

We grew up.

I floundered and failed so many times.

But I kept coming back to try again.

***

Eighteen years before my mother died, I was born. Who was she before then? I couldn’t know.

Thirteen years before she died, I heard the adults talking about her in the other room. I wasn’t meant to hear it, and neither was she—they never once said it when we were around. I had sneaked into the room to eavesdrop on conversation that was far more interesting than dolls or blocks. “She never was the same,” they said, “not after she had that baby. Something broke in her. Maybe she just wasn’t meant to be a mother.”

It was another year before I realized “that baby” was me.

Three years after that, we sat together on the floor as I practiced for a spelling bee. She quizzed me, word by word, as I prepared. She had such patience correcting my mistakes. I felt her absolute confidence in me wash over and surround me. I could do it.

Years later, I held this memory close and careful, like a dandelion stem whose seeds might blow away in the wind of time. She wasn’t always gone, I reminded myself. Not always.

***

“I met someone,” my daughter said, twenty-one years after my mother died, and I could hear from her voice that this man was different from the others she’d dated. My heart stuttered. Too soon, I thought. Far too soon.

I swallowed down my fears and smiled widely. “Tell me about him.”

***

Twenty-three years after my mother died, my daughter called and begged me to come.

I came.

“I can’t do this,” she whispered, gazing down at the new baby in her arms. “She needs me too much. I’m so lost.” Then she looked up at me, eyes wide and worried and wet. “I’m gonna ruin everything.”

I wrapped my arms around her, enfolding both her and my beautiful grandchild in my arms. “You won’t,” I promised her.

“Tell me what to do,” she pleaded.

I looked into eyes so like my mother’s. “You’ll fail,” I told her. “Lots. You won’t be perfect. You’ll make mistakes and you’ll wonder what’s the point of it all. But you’ll also have days that feel perfect, where you know this was the job you were meant for. Hold on to those ones for the darker days.”

She laughed through her tears. “That wasn’t much of a pep talk, you know.”

I nodded. “I know. But it’s the best one I’ve got.”

***

The day after my mother died was the day I began to realize I needed her more than I’d thought. It was the day I realized that despite it all, all the ways she hadn’t been there for me, I still loved her. And she had tried to love me. For good or bad, I would carry her with me wherever I went.

Sometimes I think we are all just wandering in the wilderness.

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