Thursday, August 5, 2010


My mother was a counter.  A life-long champion at it, as far as I can tell.  Perhaps it was because when she was a little girl and moved so many times with her mother that anyone else would have lost track of all the homes, all the school districts, all the zip-codes.  And she was an only child and spent her childhood counting the siblings she didn't have in all those moves as she and her mother were following the navy's equivalent to 'the drum'.  Counting the miscarriages, tubal pregnancies that could have/ should have been instant playmates for her.  Instead she was always the new girl, the towering, smarter new girl, with a 'bull in a china shop' way of entering into conversations.  In any case, something made her a counter and by the time she was our mother, it was marrow-deep and blood-running to her core.

One of the things Mom counted was gifts.  Both those given and those received.  Part of every Christmas morning, along with the stockings, breakfast and pile under the tree, were pens and paper so she could--and later, we could--write lists of what gifts we'd received.  And, on every gift tag, she also wrote what the gift was.  When the pile under the tree had disappeared, the floor strewn with paper and the fire in the fireplace burning with wrapping paper, Mom always counted her tags and doubled-checked them against her list. Dad learned VERY early in their marriage that quantity counted with Mom because Mom counted.  I wasn't around before he learned that lesson, but I can imagine the snide comment or two, the hurt feelings possible if she gave him more gifts than he gave her.  Dad, thankfully, was a very quick study.  Of course she also counted gifts she gave as well, and was known to send Dad down to the nearest grocery store on Christmas Eve because someone's list was short a gift.  "Just get anything, it doesn't matter what!" she'd tell him. As I say, with her it was about quantity.

But what Mom perpetually counted was people.  Mostly her kids.  In fact, we've often speculated that she wanted a large family for two reasons: to have the siblings she'd missed as a child, and so there'd be more to count.  I don't think we noticed the counting of us too often when we were young, but once we all left home, it became more and more evident, then more and more eschewed as her brain deteriorated.  No matter when I  called her on her birthday or Mother's Day, she'd tell me which number I was in the counting of her kids. "You're the first one to say that to me," she'd say with obvious delight.  Or, "Now all my kids have finally called me today," she'd respond if we happened to be last.  This latter somehow made me feel I needed to apologize for calling so late in the day, even if it was only 10 AM. 

And the older she got, the more important this counting seemed to become.  Sometimes when I called her, she'd tell me, "You're the first person I've talked to in a week" (which wasn't true--she called my sister a dozen times a day, at least).  Or she'd say, "Not one of you has told me you love me/hugged me in ____" (whatever her latest timeline was). And once her grandchildren were old enough to be part of this equation, she began counting them exactly the same way. It wasn't until we cleaned out her house that we realized how she knew all this, when she could turn on water in the kitchen, walk away and leave it running for hours.  She kept a daily calendar, which she wrote in when we called. "Talked to R today, he didn't say 'I love you.'" would be a notation.  Or, talked to every one but C.'  I can well imagine her keeping that notebook by the phone, then checking it before she went to bed, just so she could count us...and therefore, decide how important or worthy or valuable she was.

See, Mom's counting was her way of reassuring herself of her own value.  Always. Value as a mother, a grandmother, a human being. She didn't feel any inherent only reflected value.  Once Dad died, it was up to us, whether we actually understood this or not, to make her feel important.  It's hard to imagine someone who achieved as much as she did professionally, with as happy as marriage as she had, and as many bright and amazing children and grandchildren as she has, needing to be perpetually reassured that she means something, but it's the case.

In a few days, all of Mom's living children will be gathered under one roof for the first time since Dad died.  Well, we were together when BB got married two years ago, but we weren't under one roof and Mom wasn't there, and it wasn't about her, so it doesn't count.  Get it? Count?  But this time counts.  It absolutely, totally, FINALLY, counts.  And I'm wondering if she'll know. Those who work with the dying believe that the dying have more control than we tend to imagine over their home-going, and mothers most of all. When LD heard about Mom saying 'Andrew' last week to our sister, her comment was, "She's still counting."  So maybe Mom will know.  Maybe what Mom is holding out for, why she's still clutching her blankets and clinging to life is that she wants to count her five living children in the same room one more time.  Maybe she'll open her eyes and we won't see life in them, maybe those small eyes will seem as dull and dying as they've been for weeks, but deep down, she'll be somewhere looking out from her soul, and will count her kids one last time before she takes her leave of this body and earth.

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