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The Witching Ball

My mother died a year ago, in early June. While she had been noticeably weakened since a stroke some years before, her death was unexpected; flying east on an airplane, another blood vessel burst its bounds and bloomed into her brain. The captain made an emergency landing, and she was rushed to a nearby medical center, but somewhere up there above the clouds she had slipped into a coma from which she never awoke.

Two and a half months later, I bore my first child, a boy. For 41 years, I had lived fairly reflexively as a daughter and not at all as a mother; now that I had finally assumed my mother's role, she had slipped offstage. This made me wonder, what does it mean to be a daughter looking back at her mother's mothering, not so much for what it meant to me as what it might have meant to her? I had made some journal entries at the time of my mother's death, but they were mostly about me, less about her. Right here surely is one of the things it means to be a mother, that your children will make your stories theirs, that they will adopt your instinctive habit of putting their lives first. And this is also what it means to be a daughter: it is hard to distinguish your mother from the contrasting background in the photo that is your own life.

Some of the most vivid early memories that come to me concern our evening routines. Each night, once I was ready for bed, my mother would help me to choose and lay out my clothes for the next day. After she'd tucked me in and said goodnight, I would stare at the shadow of the chair through the gloom. I think now that making out the shape of a dress or skirt and blouse hanging on the back of the rocking chair would remind me of where and who I was, reassure me that I lived in an ordered, regular world.

Now I know that part of the motivation for this ritual was that my mother was never a morning person, and she wanted to be able to sleep in as late as possible. But there was another, deeper reason, too. Regularity and ordinariness, if often bane to the adult life, are a touchstone for a child, for whom the world is still so unknown as to overwhelm with possibilities, a good many of them frightening. This my mother knew. To this day, I try to gather what I will need in the morning the night before, so I can move into the day with minimal fuss and distraction.

Reading aloud at night before bed was another ritual. This was never a chore for my mother, but something she looked forward to as much as I did. I remember settling into bed, making sure that the book we were reading was in a prominent place, so she wouldn't have to rummage around searching for it. Once she held the book in her hands and started reading, though, we both relaxed. We read a number of lengthy books in this fashion, consuming hundreds of pages over periods of months, a chapter or half or two a night.

This ritual was only abandoned long after I was reading books for myself. And even then, its seed was buried in us by only the lightest covering of soil. The Christmas I was pregnant, when I got a headache strong enough to send me to the toilet and then to bed, she not only followed me into the bathroom and held my sweaty forehead as I emptied my stomach, but then back to my room, asking "Would you like me to read to you?" When I nodded yes, she perched on the edge of the bed and started in on a New Yorker article about restoring artwork, until I fell asleep. After her death, it occurred how emblematic this scene was. No one else in my life has ever held my head when I am sick. Only my mother would have asked her pregnant 40-year-old daughter if she wanted to be read to; and only my mother would have chosen to read an article from The New Yorker in such a case.

After being read to, tucked in, the big light turned off and the nightlight turned on, I would lie in the darkness studying the shape of my clothes on the chair for what seemed to me a time too vastly large to quantify. Finally, I would pull back the covers, rise from my bed, pad into my parents' room, approach the foot of their bed and announce, using the word my father had taught me to describe my condition, "I have insomnia." I performed this ritual nightly for a time, until my mother said to me, "Next time you can't sleep, try telling yourself a story." The idea had never occurred to me, but in the nights that followed, I took her advice. The habit stuck, and I date my desire to write stories from that suggestion, which did also teach me to find sleep on my own.

Through much of my life, I saw my mother as a kind of force to hurl myself against. I didn't worry about hurting her, because I didn't believe that was possible. One of her gifts to me was a willingness to be that force that I could believe always stronger than myself. When we fought, we did so passionately. A typical argument ended an hour or more later, with us both in tears, a release from which resolution could and did always spring. My mother never shamed me for crying, insisting that tears were completely natural, and that more harm was done trying to hold them back than from letting them flow.

After observing a more casual style of argument in other families, I once wondered out loud why we always had to "get into some big thing." But my mother was not casual about much of anything, and incapable of being so where emotions were involved. A few short angry words to clear the air were simply not possible for her, or ultimately, for me. By my later teens, I began to suspect that I started fights with her at those times I needed to cry; and I wouldn’t put it past her that she did the same with me.

My closeness to my parents was somewhat of an embarrassment to me in my teens; after all, this was the early 70's, when you weren't supposed to trust anyone over 30 and kids were running off to California to hang out on the streets. I thought it indicated something wrong with me, that many of even my closest friends were more distant and guarded with their parents. Now I know it was something right, if rare.

After her first stroke, I was initially shocked at the way in which my previously strong, intrepid mother now seemed more fearful, more cautious, less daring, as well as sadder, quieter, this previously articulate woman searching for small, familiar words. I was angry to lose so much of the person who'd always seemed so clear and decisive, impatient, even, an authority I might go to with any question. But I also knew that for a while now I hadn't needed her advice that way I used to—I had others to ask, and more important, I had her voice inside me, like a compass needle, pointing me to my truest self.

In the immediate aftermath of her death I felt it important to retain impressions of her as she actually was, to guard against creating some idealized portrait. But as time goes on I understand more and more how hagiography happens. Death puts petty annoyances in perspective, loss fades faults into irrelevancy, and you want to protect the one who protected you, now that she's completely beyond your protection. Her frailty used to remind me that she was no longer my protector, that I'd grown beyond that. Who ever wants to grow up in that way? But death scrapes that tender spot into a raw wound, and you think you'd be happy to cradle her in your arms, stroke her hair, sing to her, just to have her back again.

Last year in late April, my husband Charlie and I made a trip out to a local garden center. As we wandered through the outdoor displays, a glint caught my eye and I looked up to see a collection of glass balls hanging in a window. Right away I thought of a set of three glass fisherman’s floats, two blue and one green, that I remembered again from our second-floor apartment when I was a little girl. They were hand-blown glass, with bubbles and distortions swirling across their surfaces. These were the types of objects my mother collected: textured, quirky, never precious or self-conscious. Objects that drew in your wonder.

"Maybe I should get one of those for Mom for mother's day?" I said to Charlie. But we continued with our shopping, and only after we'd gone through the line outside and paid for our plants and shrubs did I think again about the glass ball. Now it would require another trip inside, another wait at a register. I almost decided to forget it. But something propelled me.

I chose a light green-colored ball with the same bubbled surface as the fisherman’s floats. This one, however, had ribbons of glass dripping down through the inside. The attached tag called it a "witching ball," meant to frighten evil spirits away by mesmerizing them with their reflections and then trapping them in the web of strands inside.

At home, I packaged the ball up and sent it off, proud of myself for coming up with a mother's day present in advance. I didn't know it was the last gift I’d have the chance to give her. And it occurs to me now that if there's a figure for the mother-daughter relationship, this might be it, at once transparent and opaque, offering the promise of protection even as it inspires fright, distorted yet beautiful, practical and yet other-worldly, strong to the touch and more fragile than you'd ever think, destined, like our mortal hearts, to break.

{The Witching Ball appeared in slightly different form under the title “Eulogy for My Mother” in Psychoanalytic Inquiry, Vol. 24, #5, 2004}