I Never Sang for my Mother”: A short, Bitter-Sweet Memory

“I Never Sang for my Mother”: A short, Bitter-Sweet Memory

It is Mothers’ Day weekend, and I’ve been turning over in my head how I can honor my mother this year.  Immediately after my first memoir, I began writing pages of memories of my mother. The memories kept coming, and I kept putting them away, telling myself it wasn’t the right time to write about my mother.  I write a lot about my personal experiences – the people in my life, the place in which I grew up, the village that helped shape me into being.   It’s not the only things I write about, but it is what I know best, what I treasure most.

I happen to believe that our earliest relationships impact the rest of our lives more than any other later relationships. If we have the most amazing mother in the world, we spend an inordinate amount of our lives trying to live up to that image of who she was. If she was…human, for want of a better word; we spend most of our adult lives denying that there are any similarities between the two us. Good luck with that one, right?

So, yes, my personal relationship with my Mother was important. And, yes, my parents – most particularly – my mother, impacted my life far more than anyone else in my world.  Even after 32 years, it is still painful to recall the loss of this beautiful, complicated woman from my life.  I still pick up the phone some holidays, smile into it and begin to dial her number. I hang up, recalling the painful reality of her leaving us some three decades ago; too soon, and with so many questions still unanswered.

I hope you enjoy these few memories I chose to share with you. Even more, I sincerely hope that each of you treasure the woman you call Mama, or Mother, or Ma, as much as I treasured mine. And those of you who know the feeling of endless unconditional love for a child…Happy, Happy Mothers’ Day.


 At nine years old I was certain Mama would live forever…even the scantest hint that this wasn’t true turned my black and white world into something soft and gooey.  A few years later, like most teens old enough to “smell their own piss,” I was on the edge of placing a wedge between Mama and me. I wanted so badly to be that cool teenager who surely loved her mother, but was also bold enough to curse her under my breath, or give her the finger behind her back as I sniggered into my hands. And, it almost happened

Almost…until the unimaginable happened. I woke up one morning and Mama needed me. The Cancer had come, and I was the child she chose to care for her, to help her heal. I was just fifteen years old, but the fleeting thoughts of being a normal teen evaporated on that morning. My mother needed me, and I would be what she needed – not some flighty teenager with insubordinate thoughts or actions.

There was something redeeming in caring for my mother; something humbling, yet empowering on those mornings I tenderly, timidly touched her wounded body in a way that I would never have thought possible; cleaning, then dressing the scars left by the doctors’ knife. As my mother healed, my sense of the daughter I should be became clearer. I never again thought of forging a space between myself and this woman I loved and held in such awe. And, later I would believe that it was nothing short of a benevolent, but angry God that brought such an abrupt end to my desire to be a cool girl. It was Him, I’m guessing, who decided it was time I got on with my trudge toward adulthood.

Falling into adulthood is the best description of how I moved so quickly from childhood into adulthood – something more akin to a second baptism. I left my mothers’ home at 17, still evolving; conflicted by my freedom to become anyone I wanted to be. Just two years later, I returned during spring break, bringing with me a boy I introduced as my future husband – and the future father of the child I carried.

Mama never flinched, never asked how dare I bring shame upon our family. This staunch Christian and pillar of the community embraced this new me, this boy-husband and the child we were bringing into the world. This was yet another realization of the many dimensions to Ethel Virginia Kearney. My rediscovery of mama was an opportunity to forge a friendship I’d always yearned for.  I watched her just days before my wedding, sit at the sewing machine and magically create a beautiful sapphire blue dress out of the home-made patterns she’d cut just hours before. I blushed as she made me try it on to ensure it fell just right over my growing child.  I was entranced by her small, strong hands that even then, were replicas of mine. Her smile said everything I needed to hear. She loved me, in spite of everything.

I realized at that moment that our relationship was now more than mere mother and child. I was something beyond simply one of Miss Ethel’s daughters.  I imagined that with childhood behind me; mama and I could finally, truly share our selves…my future, her past. You see, my mother’s past, the whole unadulterated span of it is what I’d greedily craved for as long as I can remember. I was convinced that it was the looking glass that would foretell my own future, explain who I was, what I could expect to become.

On March 19, 1982, that looking glass shattered. I had only just begun to peek inside, beginning to learn my mother. I was married, a mother and wife, ready to learn all there was to learn about how Ethel came to be the person she was, and how much of her I had inside me.  Again, I had been so close… almost able to peer behind that beautiful, mysterious veil; to read the deep, edgeless eyes.  Until the uninvited guest arrived, unfashionably early; bearing gifts of rest, and tranquility; and my mother’s tired soul accepted.

What I remember most about my mother is her voice; not just her words, but her voice in song. She was not a singer for others. She never sang in a public arena, not even in church do I recall hearing her voice soar above the others.  She sang inside her own home, inside her one space that was truly hers – our kitchen. I never asked, but I am certain that singing gave her joy, and peace and expressed her love , her fears and sadness.  It is the singing that makes me know there are still shards of that mirror I thought had shattered in 1982.  There is nothing that gives expression to my highs and lows in life quite like singing.  Song, for me, is both self-expression and self-exploration. Most importantly, more than anything, singing is the mirror, the connection, that oneness with my mother that I now know, I never lost. Yet.  Oh, how I wish I had sang for my mother, and she to me.

Janis F. Kearney