Me and Mom

Me and Mom

Of course, I told the bees. Told them that my mother had died. It is an old custom, for beekeepers to let the bees know of events that touch the family, and so I walked out to the bee yard and told them that my mother was dead, and that I was now an adult orphan.

The bees enfolded me in the sweet honey air and even sweeter hum-sound that is a constant, comforting presence dwelling amidst the wooden hives…

Inside the house, my mother lay beneath a pale blue comforter pulled up up to her chin, surrounded by bouquets of herbs and flowers from the yard. She had died only a short time before, leaving quietly on an out breath.

As soon as I realized that there would be no inhale, I walked to the living room and told Carter, “Minnie is gone.” Then, I cried in that keening howl that only death can ignite. I don’t remember gathering the flowers or tying them up with purple ribbon. But I remember telling the bees.

The last guard.

The last guard.

One of my hives—Pele—had lost her mother, as well. In a few short weeks, the hive had dwindled to nothing. When I sorted through the honeycombs to see what had happened, I found no queen bee in residence.  When a queen dies, usually the hive dies with her unless the circumstances are right and a new, emergency queen can be created by the nurse bees. Or unless beekeepers intervene and give the hive a new queen.

There is no re-queening when your mother dies. When she leaves the family, there is much that is  irretrievably lost. Memories, history, and the very skeleton of family culture crumble in the wake of her death.

In our family, my mother, Hermine Chernak, was a force to be reckoned with. She had created our family culture for good or ill, and we were all subject to that culture. Hermine crafted our family out of the broken bits of her own history. Left behind when she and her twin brother were only nine-months old by parents seeking a better life for the family in America, abandonment was always a huge specter in her life.

Hermine and her brother, Herman, were raised in pre-war Germany by her grandparents. Her childhood was idyllic. She grew up in a charming, historic cobblestone town a stone’s throw away from the Wagner Opera House in Bayreuth. She skied down snow-covered street on wooden slats tied to her feet, grew vegetables alongside her grandmother in a community garden that still stands today, and wandered the forest with her “woodsman” grandfather, learning from him the tea leaf plants and edible mushrooms.

I have startling old photographs of my mother in swastika armbands, with swastikas on her textbook covers. All German school children were automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth, a program stressing physical and academic excellence. So strong was the imperative to be physically able and healthy, that my mother continued to do calisthenics at her bedside each morning for most of her life. Some things you just never forget.

At the opera house across the street from their small apartment, my mother listened to the impassioned speeches of Adolf Hitler, whom she brushed arms with many times. I gave her German copy of Mein Kompf to my nephew. Even after my father returned from the war with his stories of liberating concentration camps, Hermine never believed in the holocaust. She could not imagine such evil existing in her beloved childhood home, so she chose to believe the photos and stories were faked.

My mother has been gone three weeks now, and I am only beginning to unpack her legacy in my life. I’m certain the process will take years, and what I see looking back will undulate and shift as I live with these old family stories and events.

In this early stage of initial loss, what I have first noticed is this troubling awareness: I do not miss my mother at all. Of course, this observation sets off a host of others: I must be a terrible daughter. I must be heartless, dead inside, and uncaring.

Truthfully, my relationship with my mother was a conflicted one. Yet my attachment to her was strong. I believe this is often the case in difficult, ambiguous relationships: we are bound by sticky threads of toxic connection that we are ever trying to heal, to mend, to reconcile. And so most of my adult life has been an attempt to define myself outside of the bounds of my mother’s judgements of me.

It is the human condition to try and make make meaning of the events and circumstances of our lives, and so I have crafted a story of my mother to try and help me mitigate her influence on my life. I tell myself that Hermine used judgement and guilt to control her family, and that she did this because she never overcame that initial wound of her abandonment, and was—understandably—consumed by fear and anxiety. In such a life, the need to control anything and everything becomes paramount, and Hermine sought control with dramatic outbursts, criticism, and fretting. It was the best she could do in a world where mental health problems were stygmatized and antidepressants had yet to be invented.

Especially after my father died, and she was alone and terrified, Hermine turned to her children to fill the great void left in his wake by becoming both demanding and dissatisfied with us, with life, with the world in general. We would never be enough to fill up that empty crater, and in nearly every conflict we had with my mother, the central theme would be about what my brother and I were not: Not sensitive enough, not kind enough, not helpful enough, not “close” enough, not…enough.

I expected that when Hermine died, I would be struggling with guilt over my very mixed feelings about her: I loved my mother and was close to my mother. And I dreaded my mother and prayed for the conflicts and complaints to end. Now death had brought the dread and the complaints to a swift end, and I was suddenly left feeling nothing but relief and a kind of spaciousness in my chest.

Viewed through my mother’s eyes, I was always the child who had come up a bit short in most respects. Barring my stint as an author, which my mother saw as “awesome,” I spent too much time in conversations over the years with Hermine trying to defend who and what I was.

Suddenly, I had no one to defend myself to anymore.

Unnerved and unsettled, I scheduled an appointment with a hospice bereavement counselor to explore why the death of the most influential figure in my life had left me feeling nothing. Perhaps, I told Colleen, the counselor, I was just numb.

“I don’t think so,” Colleen said. “Susan, grief is pretty much commensurate with the love and affection we experienced in a particular relationship. That is why people can sometimes find themselves grieving more for the loss of a pet than for a parent or grandparent: The pet was a reservoir of loving connection. Sometimes, our relationships with our human loved ones are more conflict than joy. There is something inside of us urging us to move forward and away from the conflicted past, and it is a healthy response.”

“None of this feels healthy,” I replied.

“No, it won’t for awhile,” she said. “But this can be a crossroad for healing in your life, if you chose it. You can carry Hermine’s portrait of you inside yourself and continue to own it, or you can let it die with her.  No one will be reflecting the guilt and disappointment back to you except yourself.”

We talked more about Hermine’s last days, and how—I’ll admit it—beautifully I had cared for her. Every word from my mouth those last few months had been comforting, loving, reassuring.

“On a scale of one to ten,” my mother asked me two days before her death, “what kind of a mother have I been?”

“You’ve been—I’d say—a nine Mom,” I answered her. “You’ve been the best.” Because I realized in the light of compassion that she HAD been her best. She had done the best she could. She had done a lot, and it was—in the end—enough. More than enough. She had given me the opportunity to gift her with the greatest gift I could give: A perfect and peaceful passing. In that generous act, I was not less than, nor disappointment to her.

“What and who will you be now?” asked Colleen. “What will you make of the space your mother has left? Will you continue to tell yourself about your failings, or will you bury all those imaginings along with her?”

Comb temple

Comb temple

When I left the counselor that day, I went up to my bee yard and sat by Pele, my queenless hive. I unlatched the wooden cover over the viewing window that makes the inner hive visible. Wax combs hung in perfect symmetry, like the pages of a book. On those “pages,” a very few bees wandered, directionless. In a few short weeks, all the bees would be dead and gone, the hive left standing like a deserted temple.

Yet even in the death of the queen mother, something tantalizing remained: The hive itself was filled with fresh, young comb. The combs were filled with capped, beautiful honey and colorful pellets of fermented pollen—bee bread—in orange, blue, and bright yellow.

The bees were going, gone, but the entire pure body of work they had created remained. Come spring, I will re-mother the empty hive with a swarm of bees searching for a new home. And what a home it will be! Already lovingly prepared, the table spread, the feast still fresh and waiting.

I put my nose to the entrance of the hive and inhaled deeply, the smell of honey and propolis and wax and summer flowers filling my lungs with sweetness and my heart with stillness.

I am making a temple inside myself. It is hung with sheets of golden comb and sweet amber honey. Along the walls of my temple, a resin-scented wash of propolis glistens, keeping the temple safe and inviolate.

When my mom was young, photos of the dead were taken and made into postcards that were sent to relatives. Here is Hermine, in final rest, with Dinky her cat looking on.

When my mom was young, photos of the dead were taken and made into postcards that were sent to relatives. Here is Hermine, in final rest, with Dinky her cat looking on.

My queen has died and taken the whole with her, the good and the bad.

It is my winter task now to become the queen, to learn to mother myself in the ways all of us would wish to be mothered: With loving kindness, forgiveness, comfort, reconciliation, and encouragement.

The queen is dead. Long live the queen.


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16 Responses to MY MOTHER

  1. marita lajs says:

    Thank you Susan. I lost my mother 5 months ago. Your words resonate. Death of a complicated personality, of someone whom we love deeply yet know and understand their darker side…well, the grief is complicated. Intoo felt relif. The burden of care, of enormous stress and the witnessing if Mum’s intense pain over. Little sadness till 3 months later. Having lost Mum, Dad and my only sibling and sister, I realise all death and grieving is different. I too am making sense of life without…I have a lot to learn and honour. I am seekingva path of wholeness through the animals I encounter in my life.
    Again, huge thanks, Marita
    PS how has your Mum’s cat adapted? I have my Mum’s cat and she’s done well thanks to Reiki

    • says:

      Thank you, Marita: I’ve sat brewing with so much this past few weeks. So much to say, and I had no idea of where to start, so I started with what was most in my face: The absence of feeling. There is much to be learned from what my mother taught me in the end, and in all the years of being her daughter. Meanwhile, Dinky is settling in FAR better than I ever could have expected. He is an entirely new cat, happy, gentle, and funny. Who knew??!

  2. Jennifer Stadum says:

    What a journey, my friend. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Oh, My! Such a glorious and potent expression of an almost “language-less” experience! Girlfriend… YOU CAN WRITE!
    I’m saving a copy of “My Mother” for the time when my own complex 91-yr. old mother crosses. You have unwound the wound so exquisitely well, and I know your wisdom-words will help my younger sister come to terms with her deeply conflicted emotions about our own “Queen Bee.”
    I’m so delighted Christine Davis introduced us! — and I will thoroughly enjoy pondering your future offerings to the world.
    Warm Blessings,
    Teryl “T” Johansson, author of Silver Talons, Sacred Prey

    • says:

      T, thank you. I wrote this because I sensed that it would be helpful to other conflicted daughters out here, and I know we are legion! And…I knew it would help me to organize my own feelings and thoughts. So much to ponder…

  4. Claire Melde says:

    The words “The Long Goodbye” could explain that the feelings, emotions, etc have been spread over time thus the grieving has been dealt with a little at a time and the “Goodbye” as well. Also “Knowing” of the After Life can bring the Peace that is hard to understand.
    Much, Much, Love and Light my Friend,

    • says:

      Thank you, Claire, my old friend. Certainly, you of all people I know understand this process of helping the old ones on their final journey. Thank you for all of your support over the years.

  5. Susan Bush says:

    Dear Susan,
    My mother passed four years ago at this time and I’m struck by the resemblances in our mothers’ stories. My mother was raised by her grandmother while her twin brother was raised at home. There was never any explanation given and it left her with the same sense of abandonment and set of coping skills you describe your mother using. My mother and father also grew up in Nazi Germany, and I too have photos of them in Hitler Youth uniforms. When I found out about the holocaust I insisted they must have known at the time. It is my understanding now that many Germans did not. At least my parents did not deny it happened.

    My mother declined over a number of years with Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia. I wanted her suffering and the drama to end for so many years. To my surprise when mom actually died I was utterly devastated. During her final months the conflicts all slipped away and our relationship was raw, powerful and I finally felt accepted by her. I had longed to feel this way all my life, and I missed it terribly when it was gone. I was also furious that she held such power over me even in death. Such a complex deep set of feelings!

    My father is still alive, so I’m not an orphan child yet, and I’m grateful his health is good enough that it appears I’ll have more time to rebuild myself before he too passes away. Every year at this time I see I’ve made some progress since the last anniversary of mom’s death, which was so unexpectedly deeply traumatic. Sending love and blessings to you and your loved ones, especially the bees. Xx

    • says:

      Susan, what a powerful story! I am so glad that you were able to find that acceptance from and for your mother at the end. My last few days with my mother were very intimate and profound. AND…my mom also had a similar connection with her own mother in her last few days. This halo of reconciliation that death can wear—quite something, huh?

  6. Lynne Herlacher says:

    Thank you for the words. When my mother passed I grieved with a depth I did not know I possessed. But what I could not understand was why. When the truth came to me I was lifted up by the sense of it. I was not grieving just for the woman who passed, but for the relationship that never was. I needed what she was not capable of giving. She was never satisfied with what I had done in life. She did not accept my friends or life style. I was not wild or unlawful. I married had children went to collage, but it was never right or enough. For me, I look back on my life and find what I am grateful for: This is how I have relieved the guilt feelings of not missing the woman called my mother. I learned a lot from her on how I did not want to be remembered. I learned how to live with not being what others wanted me to be, and learned to enjoy who I really am today. May you find all the joy you can from your relationship with your mother. Blessing..

    • says:

      Lynne, what a spot-on insight you share! Grieving for what was never there. Yes, I can relate to this, and I’m certain other readers are having an “aha!” moment as well. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Thank you for gifting us with these words, Susan. I’m deeply moved by how your journey, and that of your bees, have come together. The world overflows with people who feel they were never “enough” for their parents. That you could give her a peaceful passing will hopefully help with your healing. Sending love, my friend. xoxo Chris

    • says:

      Thank you, Chris. I also helped my father transition many years ago. I am proud that I was able to repay my parents gift of life, by helping usher them peacefully and painlessly onto their next journey.

  8. Bett Weston says:

    The bond between mother and daughter is strong, no matter the quality or dynamic of the relationship. I was not close with my mother, especially after leaving her house after high school and college graduation. However, when she died I was surprisingly taken to my knees with grief’ which lasted a couple years or more. I do thank her for being who she was, but also recognize that she must have been deeply unhappy. I would have wanted her to have a more fulfilled life. I very much appreciate the sharing here.

    • says:

      Bett, I expected to be just collapsed with grief after Mom died. While many of my years with her were unpleasant, I knew we were melded together in unhealthy ways, and I was afraid that would follow me. Blessedly, it didn’t.

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