My mother’s eyes are the palest of blue, just a hint of color now, where once the depths of the ocean could be found. I wonder where the color went. Was it the sun that stole her hue? Was it a natural effect of aging, a family trait, or the headwinds of fate that she has endured over the years? It may have been the wind and the waves, or the salty air — the elements that left her bleached like driftwood, white and clean, smooth and brittle. Could the same sun that surreptitiously wore away the delicate macula of her left eye, taking her vision, have also washed away so much of the blue? Once she was an avid sailor, quick to hoist a sail or throw a line. Now, at 86, her body is reluctant to do what her mind commands — her fingers fail to hold tight the rope, her legs balk at the thought of a leap, for fear of pain that shoots from heel to hip.
Today she chooses less hazardous activities and leaves the sea for her stories — stories of rough waters on a cruise around Cape Horn, or smooth sails to the Galapagos, the Isle of Capri, and twice through the Panama Canal. She tells us about old friends that sailed with her and new friends she met in places all over the world. She shares her tales at the dinner table with children and grandchildren and friends. She’s given up the galley of a 60 foot sloop, for her kitchen back at home in Connecticut — given up world travel to focus more intently on philanthropy and causes she cares deeply about, like supporting higher education, local libraries and hospitals — but she also focuses on more personal things, like that old box of yellowing index cards where the vestiges of graphite from handwritten recipes barely cling to the paper on which they were recorded. In the script of both my grandmothers, an aunt that passed early and my mother herself, these recipes are a treasure to her, a legacy she feels the responsibility to pass along to her children.
Before she ever sailed in anything bigger than the Sunfish we kept at the summer cottage of my childhood, before cancer came for the first of many visits to our family, before she ever thought of life without my dad, and before we kids ever grew up and moved away, she and my father took gourmet cooking classes together. It must have been during those years that the smile lines first appeared around her mouth and eyes. We laughed a lot back then, laughed at my parents, at each other, at ourselves. My father dubbed Sunday Family Day, when my brothers and sister and I, often with our grandparents, sat down to experience the latest gourmet recipe — things like roasted orange-herb game hens with buttered green beans and wild rice, roasted lamb with lemony potatoes and mint jelly, and my mother’s favorite (but my most dreaded), sautéed chicken livers with onions, bacon and sage. The aromas of their endeavors, enticing and mouth-watering, wafted through our kitchen with its orange Formica countertops and its green and gold rooster-patterned wallpaper — making its way up to our rooms, calling us down to check on the progress of dinner. We took turns setting the table, and with all of us in the kitchen, sometimes we’d witness our father take our mother in his arms and dance with her — twirling across the smooth sheet of linoleum — the melodious voice of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra or Lena Horne filling our ears, coming from a record player in the front hall. I felt the attraction between my parents like a warm embrace in the room and saw joy in my mother’s expression so deep that it twinkled in her sapphire eyes.
She was just mom to me then; a woman with bright blue eyes and wavy brown hair. I took for granted her game-for-any-adventure spirit that dragged us children up hiking trails, through river beds, onto ski slopes, basketball courts, tennis courts and into museums all across New England, often ending any given day with a bucket of hand picked blueberries or a fresh bass or two. I was yet to be impressed by her years of teaching math to junior high school kids in the town next to ours. I didn’t know, because I wasn’t one yet, that junior high people could be challenging. All I knew was that they loved her, and how anyone could feel that way about a math teacher was, at the time, a mystery to me. The fact that she had been a scientist before she was a teacher, that the white coat she wore to work every day would one day tell me so much about her as a woman — that she was driven by her thirst for knowledge, that she was confident and brave enough to prioritize her education — was still unappreciated by my young self. The effort it must have taken for her to be the first in her family to go to college and then to get her masters degree in teaching, while she wore that white coat, while she was a mother, and a wife, and always there, for all of us, would take years for me to value.
I knew she liked to cook and that Sundays were for family. Sundays were about food prep and clean up, grandparents, yard work, homework, football, the Wide World of Sports followed by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and depending on how much homework remained, The Wonderful World of Disney, and then my mother’s favorites, The Mystery movie: Colombo or McMillan and Wife. After the evening meal, my mother took to the family room where she sat with her feet up, covered in an afghan that she herself had crocheted — rows and rows of brown and turquoise blue, the same shade of blue found in the shag wall to wall carpeting, in the floor pillows, and in the specks of nubby fabric that covered my father’s recliner. In that place, for years of nights, she corrected piles of math homework and tests with a red felt tip pen, sipped her after-dinner decaf, and nibbled an Oreo or two. Sometimes I removed the pillows from the back of the couch so that I could snuggle in next to her as she worked. With my head on her chest, I could smell the coffee, strong and sweet as she tipped the cup to her lips. I listened to her swallow, to her heartbeat, to her breath, to the sounds of her stomach, to the world inside her that connected me to her like vines that grew between us and through us, knowing I was too big to be there, that she was probably uncomfortable, but also knowing that she allowed me to squeeze in those last sweet moments of being a little girl, before I would let go, before I finally sat far enough away from her, that I would from then on, see her as a woman, independent from her role as a mother and separate from myself.
This perspective was at its most critical point during my high school years, and especially so on one dark afternoon of winter, when we children were gathered together in that family room. Our mother stood in the threshold, unable or unwilling to enter the room where the four of us looked upon her with the cruel eyes of teenagers, her thin arms crossed, head down, brown hair, gray roots, words, barely audible, almost a sigh, dropped from her mouth as though they had been a heavy load to carry — your father and I didn’t know whether to tell you kids or not — the cancer has spread — he has only a few months to live. It was her demeanor more than her words that emptied the room of breathable air. Her eyes, that day, were wet and wounded, an expression that would become part of her. No future happiness would remove that moment from her face, from my memory.
My father’s struggle and release was hers as well, and after all, she was left with us, with all of the pieces, burdens and bounty of their life together. And when my siblings went off to college it was just the two of us, only she wasn’t really there at all — only her body — a shell whose inhabitant had gone off with the tide — and sometimes when I came in late at night I would hear her crying.
I never knocked on her door.
I didn’t know how to fix what had been broken in our family. I didn’t know how to put a smile on her face again and soon I left too — left my mother to figure it all out and eventually, she did. She went from married-mother-of-four, to widowed-mom, to dating-mom to married-again-mom, all in the time it took me to get through high school and college.
A tide change, one life washed away and another rolling out ahead of her.
She sailed then, with her new husband, and she danced, and sometimes she cooked for friends and family, and gracefully accepted each day as a gift. There were the joys of weddings and grandchildren and adventures, bittersweet blessings within a life she hadn’t planned. Her own frustrations were put aside for the trials of her children and grandchildren — my brother’s degenerative eye disease that left him blind, my own divorce, joblessness for each of her children from time to time, illnesses, broken hearts and broken bones of various sorts — all were manageable, until cancer came again.
It took my sister.
And it took all of us too, especially my mother, to places we had been before with our father. The ammonia infused hospital halls, the dreaded chemo, the humming dialysis centers, the driving and the praying, the brutally honest and yet often denial-laden conversations, the hopelessness and the heart wrenching goodbyes.
My mother took her new pain and tucked it away — to a place where no tide could wash it clean. It’s there inside her and I can see it.
It’s in her eyes.
With lids translucent and thin, like the petals of an orchid, strong and delicate all at once. She’s not aware that the world can read her like an open book. The thoughts that never dare leave her disciplined mouth, spill freely from the pools of her eyes — either rimmed with red, glistening with tears, sparkling with mischief, dark like the angry sea or worse yet, clouded with disappointment, I can navigate her emotions as though those eyes were buoys telling me which way to go.
We can’t make it to dinner tomorrow mom, are words that she might receive with a graceful expression on her face, mouth firm, head high, but with crushing sadness in her gaze. It’s enough to make you change your plans, and sometimes we must.
She’s not aware that even after all these years of change within our family structure she is still the mooring to which we are all tied.
She is why my brothers and I, along with our own families, gather on a Sunday afternoon even though our lives have scattered us to the wind. Today we meet at my house. We are reinventing a custom from our past, Family Day. She’s brought her spaghetti with the sweet cinnamon-infused sauce and her hand-rolled fat and delicious meatballs. I’ve tossed a salad and set a nice table. Her grandkids are adults now and they carry the day. Later we will text each other the videos we’ve taken of her during the day and everyone will agree that she looks terrific, she’s beautiful, she’s strong, are things we will say. And I will think about how she looked at me from over her readers, useless except for that one lens, and how I was once again reminded of how light her eyes have become, as if they were the eyes of someone else altogether now — some new version of herself.
At the end of the day, we will walk the wooded path between her house and mine, and she’ll tell me that she’s grateful for her sea legs — for the balance that is required in old age. She walks slower now than she used to, and she lifts each knee high to be sure not to catch her sneakered foot on anything. It’s a march, really. Her white hair will billow — wisps of fluff in the light afternoon wind — as though an angel or two swirl around her. Her smile will lift the corner of her eye, and the soft skin of her cheek will fold easily into the creases that her life has carved. I will be on her left side, so she won’t know that I’m watching her — she won’t see my hand ready to steady her if needed. She doesn’t need it, not today. This paler version of my mother marches on. Things have changed since her younger years, but all that my mother ever was, is still within her.
I can see it in her eyes.