On December 15, 2000, fifteen years ago today, my mother, Jane Conrad First, died. She was one month short of her 83rd birthday. I’ve had an incredible post-mother journey. When Jane left this world, I was still holding anger and resentment towards her.
I didn’t show this side of myself to the outside world because, like many people, who have a private and public self, Mother’s public self was charming, interesting and generous. In private I experienced her as demanding, narcissistic and maddening with her non-stop chatter. I would cringe when close friends, who knew my mother, would recall her as “lovely.” I was angry with them for not recognizing the woman who drove me crazy.
As a former family therapist I recognized the unhealthiness of my stuffed maternal rage. In an attempt to work through my anger, I settled upon a writing exercise, hoping for an essay that would lead to a resolution. Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. Within a few months I had 100 pages of a mother-daughter memoir. This early draft didn’t shift my anger but there were glimmers of a tender mother-daughter relationship.
If I hadn’t been for my brilliant editor, Clare Mead Rosen, I doubt that I would have ever produced an objective, loving account of Jane and Pat. Clare read my first draft. In so many words she said, ‘OK, you got your anger out, now let’s get to work on the real Jane-Pat relationship.’ (A few years later the memoir, “The Mother of My Invention” was published.)
The more I wrote about my mother and me, the more I came to appreciate her life through her eyes. I no longer dismissed her sexual abuse from her father, but saw it as an explanation for her physical reserve, general anxiety and worry for me, her daughter. I saw my mother as brave for living in an era when psychological supports for victims of sexual abuse were practically non-existent.
I came to value the gifts my mother gave me. Among these were compassion for the less fortunate, evidenced in our trips to the local farmer’s market where Mother would point out those families she bought meat and produce from who struggled to make ends meet. She would ask about their children and frequently slip them a little money for medical bills.
Jane was an artist whose dreams to attend the Philadelphia School of Art were thwarted when the money that was to go towards art school disappeared in a bad financial decision of her father’s. She channeled her artistic talents into forming a partnership in a small local art gallery, offering decorating advice for friends and creating spectacular floral arrangements. She introduced me to great art at the National Gallery when we lived in Washington and later at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on visits to New York City.
Mother had an amazing eye, teaching me not only how to appreciate the details in a masterpiece but pointing out the beauty in the everyday, like commenting on a rather plain shopkeeper’s beautiful eyes.
The grandchildren were amused by her vast knowledge of football and basketball and her reputation as the “Short-cut Queen” for the way she’d zip in and out of alleys to avoid traffic lights. She never forgot a birthday. She was funny and liked to laugh. She loved Frank Sinatra, Hershey’s kisses, martinis, the Antique Road Show, overseas travels with my father, Christmas, the Jersey shore, eccentric people, live theater and much more.
Now that my anger towards Mother is a thing of the past, I miss her terribly. I see sparks of my mother in her granddaughter and namesake, Jane, whose singular artistic bent is already evident. I’m grateful for the impetus, that feels divine, that caused me to write about Jane Conrad First and discover a new love for her in the process.