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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn Kay Hagar

"Do you live on the sunny side of life," she asked? Remembering Mom.

Updated: Aug 4, 2019

Mom at 100 years old.

May is the time of year to remember our mothers but in my family that was doubly so. My mother's birthday was just days before Mother's Day so every year we had two celebrations in early May rather than just one. Mom died at almost 102 a little over a year ago. She is often in my thoughts. On occasion, it still pops into my mind that I need to call her. Of course, I realize immediately that she is not here to call. I dream of her often.

This year as May 5th rolled around I wanted to mark her birthday in a special way. Mom loved going out to breakfast so I drove down the coast to the little town of Elk and treated myself to breakfast at Queenies Roadhouse Cafe a favorite breakfast place of mine. After I ate I walked across the road and started down the trail to Greenwood State Beach. I didn't see a soul as I hiked along the trail that gently wound its way down the cliff to the beach below. Winter rains have brought a profusion of wildflowers on the coastal headlands this year. As I hiked there was color everywhere. Mom loved all flowers but growing up in Nevada, where its hard for anything to grow without effort, she had a special place in her heart for the wildflowers that just sprout up all on their own. She would have loved to see all of this. As I walked along I started to realize that now that mom is gone, I was enjoying this for myself but I was seeing it for her as well.

I've had that thought before when dear ones have died. When they leave this world, they have in a sense, left the world to us. I love to eat my father's favorite foods, grow my grandmother's favorite flowers, catch the fish my grandfather loved to catch. I'm still here in my body with all its joys and pleasures, why not indulge myself in the things they loved. It makes me feel closer to them. But on mom's birthday I realized it was more than just that. I was actually seeing all this beauty the way my mom would have looked at it. I was was noticing all of the tiniest flowers and marveling at their beauty. I wondered how so much joy could be wrapped in such tiny packages.

When we used to walk together at the Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg, I was enamored with the big showy blooms of the rhododendrons. I'd turn around and see mom in her electric cart looking down at the ground at the tiniest little blooms the eye could see. "Look at that!" she would say, pointing with her finger now bent with arthritis.

I'd marvel at the beauty she saw in the microcosm she was witnessing but inside, I'd be thinking, "Mom you are so moderate. Look at this explosion of color!" She went small on so many of life pleasures, like the quarter of a cookie she enjoyed with her tea after lunch each day while I worked to stop myself from eating two or three! Mom and I were as different as could be. I always wanted her to live larger but that isn't how she looked at life. Looking back, maybe I was just wanting validation for my own exuberance.

But there is more, to my changes since my mom died. I'm not just finding myself looking through my mother's eyes, I'm actually finding her thoughts inside my own head. Take her optimism for instance. It used to drive me crazy. I'd regularly accuse her of being a Pollyanna. My dad was the opposite, a pessimist to the core. I used to call him Eeyore. Mom so wanted everyone to join her in her sunny ways. I had explained again and again that I was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, I wanted off that coin entirely. Instead, I wanted to be with my feelings in the moment as they arose. I wanted to see the light side of things and their shadow. I wanted to be able to hold it all. But if the truth were to be told, I probably tipped toward dark reflections more than the light.

In my book, Finding the Wild Inside: Exploring Our Inner Landscape Through the Arts, Dreams and Inution, I tell the story of my last visit with my mom. I was sitting with her while she slept in the middle of the afternoon on a clear, sunny day in February. She awoke suddenly from a sound sleep. Out of nowhere, she looked at me and said, "Marilyn, you live on the sunny side of life, don't you?" I sat there contemplating what I wanted to say. In that moment I couldn't bring myself to have the conversation about my optimism or the lack of it, all over again. We had covered that ground so thoroughly over so many years, so I answered simply, “Yes, mom, I do.” Mom died that night.

In the days that followed, I couldn't help but wonder if my mom had worried all of her life about my inability to join her in her optimistic ways. Did she just need to hear me say that I live on the sunny side of life before she could let let herself go into that final darkness? Was that question, one final teaching from my mom, a teaching close to the core of of just why she was my mother and why I was her daughter. I heard the gravitas in my words "Yes, mom, I do,"and I felt as if perhaps they were some kind of final surrender in the game of life my mom and I had been playing.

It has been a little over a year now since my mom died and those words I uttered have echoed inside me in moments when in troubled times, I have heard the most optimistic words popping out of my mouth. "Where did that come from?, I ask myself. When I've checked inside, I find that I'm 100% behind what I've just spoken. I feel like maybe mom had cornered the market on optimism in our mother/daughter relationship and that I learned to call forth darker reflections just to balance her out. I would have never guessed that those unconscious bargains we make with our parents still live inside of us, only revealing themselves when our loved one dies.

When I think about it now, I wonder if mom's question on what turned out to be her death bed was a final gift she was trying to give me. She had certainly relied on her optimism through all the troubled times in her own life. Was she saying, "Game over. Take this before I die. Use it well!" What I have come to see is that underneath all that Pollyanna stuff in my mom's personality, she did have an earthy, grounded trust in life, astoundingly so. That is the part of my mother that I hope to carry forward.

Now I'm off to a walk in the Botanical Gardens, a special time to be with memories of my mom on this Mother's Day.

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