The barren branches of a mature lilac bush shiver as winter’s breath exhales on them. From the warm and peaceful place inside our new home where I sip my coffee I see them.
Fragile leaves and blooms gone. Awaiting spring.
Thick branches crossing over one another. Roots unseen stand through the bitter cold.
I used to believe my mom was a weak woman.
Physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse by many different men in my young years ripped through my innocence like rain on tissue paper. She was supposed to be my umbrella. Big and obvious. Shielding and protecting, not folded up in the corner.
I didn’t want to be a girl. I wanted to play football and tackle. Play Army and shoot. In fourth grade, I shoved my knee hard into the boys because I knew where to hurt them so I could watch them fold over, cower, and cry. I wanted to be a truck driver. I refused to wear dresses, and she knew why.
When I watched the 1985 Chicago Bears Superbowl, she said to me, “Girls don’t watch sports.” I never did figure out who she wanted me to be. I just knew it was never who I was, so I stopped trying to please her and everyone else, and I took the sopping wet and torn tissue paper life and recycled it into something more like a cardboard shipping tube.
And I ran.
Away from that life and dysfunction. I met a gorgeous cowboy driving a semi in a traffic jam. I became a truck driver. A couple months later I ran away with him to a new life, a new state, a new family. I learned to stop hurting boys.
Mom called regularly. We made fun of her for always asking what we were making for dinner. I taught my husband Slovak cuisine handed down from my mother, the only part of my heritage I wanted anything to do with.
She visited often. Then I had a boy. She stayed with me after his birth because my husband was still over the road, only home only one out of every twenty-nine days. She hated pictures of herself, and except for a few of my newborn photos, I don’t have a single image of the two of us. She let me take a few of her with my boy, though.
We fell on hard financial times soon after, and mom welcomed us back into her home. I hated being there. Failure washed over me. I did nothing but work to get out of there. Just like before. And I did. I got as far away as I could.
She visited often. And called to ask what we were making for dinner.
Then doctors found a five-centimeter brain tumor on Dad’s birthday. She had brain surgery on their thirty-ninth wedding anniversary, and she could no longer talk, and she tried to write notes but strung all her words together into one big long word, then just letters and numbers and then she was dead in eight weeks.
It wasn’t until then that I realized how constant, consistent, and predictable she was.
The deep roots of her love are like the veins and arteries of my heart pumping, beating, giving life. The branches of her love, even when exposed and bloomless in winter’s grasp, still reached out and survived. The lilac blooms of her love, the ones that happen quick and fade fast but are full of fragrance–that was her laughter.
I started to see how fiercely she loved. How her protection wasn’t in the fight, but the hearty nature through harsh climate, the slow and steady growth of downward roots and outstretched branches, the expected budding, the hopeful blooms.
I don’t have her to run away from anymore and I find myself running toward things. I make art now to speak the words my soul can’t bear saying. I take pictures of expecting mothers who are full of joy and full of baby. I take picture of moms who smiling lovingly at newborn wrinkles because my mom’s frown in all the photos I possess hurts my heart. I take pictures of families and of moms and daughters so that the daughter will have at least one photo of her and her mom to cling to because I don’t. I try to fix things for people who don’t even know and will one day silently thank God for it.
She didn’t physically visit my last house. And she won’t physically visit this new one. But this old lilac bush will soon be full with lush greenness and spotted with purple cascades that have waited out the harshest winter and it will inhale the warmth of a new season.