keeping mother's memory alive killed me

Grief takes a lot of forms when someone you love dies.  Not all of them are pretty. This year, I finally realized how ugly and all-encompassing my grief had become.

My Mother Died When I Was 11

This is a fact I prefer not to share with acquaintances.  It’s something I keep close to the chest and only my close friends and family are aware of.  

The thing is that fact used to rule my life.  Soon after my mother died, my grandma decided it was a good thing to add in during introductions.  Every time she introduced me to someone, she followed up with “her mother died ____ days/weeks/months/years ago.”  That was how I started off many relationships.

I went to a small school.  There were less than 300 children in the entire Kindergarten – eighth-grade population.  So, when my mom died, it was big news. The school granted a half-day to anyone wanting to pay their respects at the funeral.  They even brought in a grief counselor to my class the Monday after she died when I was home sick with the flu.  

I hated being the kid without a mom.  Adults who knew my mother were sympathetic.  When they looked at me, I’d see the tears form in their eyes.  They’d go on about how I looked so much like her, how much I reminded them of her.  Then they would seem a little happier.

Throughout the years, I sought those comments.  Every time someone said I was like her, I stood a little taller.  I felt like I’d come a little closer to accomplishing something.  

My mom was a wonderful lady.  She was an artist, an entrepreneur, an award-winning gardener, a troop leader, a knitter, and my best friend for those first 11 years.  Over time, she grew into a legend.  

I Made Myself in Her Image

That legend hypnotized me.  I spent years taking on the hobbies she left behind.  I spent time with the friends she left. I worked hard to keep that shadow of her alive any way that I could.

One of the things I noticed about my mom early on was that she never stopped.  It was a running joke that when the weather was warm enough to start gardening, she wouldn’t be back inside until November.

Many nights, I looked through the picture window of our living room to see her bent over a bed of irises or roses in the fading light.

So, I never stopped working.  I’ve written before about how I developed an addiction to being productive through hobbies.  The scary part is, my resemblance to my mother didn’t stop there.

I even strove to make my physical appearance match hers.  My hair, my makeup, even my wardrobe were all things you would’ve seen on her.  Even my ear piercings matched the nontraditional ones she had. One ear pierced all the way up, fewer on the other side.

I was a walking ghost.

Summer 2019 I Hit My Breaking Point

My whole life, I thought that I had to preserve her and her memory in any way I could.  I kept all her artwork on my walls, my home became a museum. Her furniture filled my rooms and her hobbies filled my time.

I was nowhere to be found.

In the past, I read self-help books.  I thought I knew what I wanted in life.  If you asked me a year or two ago what my goals were, I would’ve rattled off a list a page long.

Then I went on vacation with my family.  It was the first vacation I’d taken in 3 years.  My husband and I rented a little cabin in the middle of nowhere to spend a quiet week with our son.  In the quiet of the woods, I started thinking. Is this what I want?

Later that summer, we took a short trip.  When we returned, those wandering thoughts of goals and desires turned into something solid.  I wasn’t living the life I wanted. It wasn’t even close.

I was a living representation of my mother.  Gina was long forgotten.

I Cut off All My Hair

When we returned from that short trip, I had this itch.  Something had changed. I didn’t want what I used to. And now I knew it.

Less than a week later, I cut off all my long golden hair (exactly like my mother’s) and dyed it turquoise.

For the first time that I could remember, I felt free!  I had no idea that simply cutting my hair could make such a difference and yet I realized something.  My hair was holding me back.  

When I was young, my hair was one of the things my mother loved most.  I didn’t get my first haircut until I was 9 years old. My mom played with it and even did impressions like Princess Leia or Pippi Longstocking when friends came over.  I loved my mom and welcomed the attention.

But I never grew out of that.  I always longed for that attention.

Until one day I realized something.  I was afraid to do what I wanted because I might not resemble her anymore.  That’s when I cut my hair, dyed it turquoise and gave up the “shoulds” I’d adopted.

Pursuing My Dreams

For the first time in over a decade, I’m listening to what I want.

I’ve changed my appearance several times since then.  Currently, I’m rocking a mohawk. Beyond that, I finally started to pursue the life I always wanted.  The life of a writer.  

In the past, I dabbled with writing in many forms.  I blogged, wrote books I never showed to anyone, short stories, not to mention all the writing I did in college.  But, I never took it seriously. I never allowed myself to tell anyone I was a writer.

Until now.

Now, when anyone asks I tell them.  “I’m a writer.” Sometimes they give me a weird look and they ask where they might see my work.  Occasionally I tell them the long list of publications. Usually, I just say some short blanket statement about the kind of writing I do and change the subject.

I don’t need their approval.  I’m not the validation-obsessed girl I used to be.  I’m me.

In The End

Ultimately, I decided that I had to either let my mom finally die or me.  I chose to get to know Gina before it was too late. I’ll always have the memories of my mom.  Those hot afternoons I brought her lemonade while she bent over weeding in the garden, covered in mud.  The stories she read me and her cackling laugh (which I do still have). I watch home movies with my son to show him who his grandma was and I talk about her.  But, I’m done living in her shadow.