To Mama, With Love

The author writes a letter to the devoted mother who left her too soon.

BY May 7, 2019
Photography by Craig Hildebrand.

Dear Mama, 

It was that cake. The one you spent the morning baking and decorating while I was at school giving my campaign speech for vice president of the elementary school student body. I’m sure you’d have preferred a nap, after listening to me practice that speech about 20 times the night before, and, for a whole week before that, picking scores of deadly straight pins out of the living room rug from my homemade campaign badge project: rocket-shaped cutouts with the slogan, “Be Darin’—Vote for Karen.” I knew it was a good speech, because you told me so. Actually, you told me this every time I brought you something that I wrote, probably starting with crayon scribbling at age 2. You believed in me, so I believed in me.

I delivered that speech with lots of expression, sprinkled with the funny lines that you had laughed at every single time I practiced it. Unfortunately, nobody beyond the front row could hear a word of it. I could fault the acoustics, or my inability to project. It’s more satisfying to blame my fifth-grade boyfriend, Jimmy Dykes, whose super-fun twin brother was my opponent and whose campaign badge Jimmy was honor-bound to wear. Bottom line: When all the shoeboxes of handwritten votes were dumped out and counted, it was a landslide for Jimmy’s brother. I felt really bad. Not so much because I lost, but because I’d have to go home and disappoint my biggest fan. You.

I know you were disappointed “for” me, Mama, but here’s the thing: Not a flicker of disappointment “in” me crossed your face. In your eyes, I was still the same funny, smart, excellent all-around person that I ever was. And then, after supper, out came that big chocolate cake with my name in big letters. Beneath it: “Win or lose, we’re so proud of you.” Back then, the word “lose” didn’t pack the life-shattering psychological punch that it does today. School elections, like softball and Monopoly games, were won or lost. There was always next time.

Anyway, Mama, I wish I could tell you now how I treasure the memory of that day, when you stirred all that wisdom and love, along with two eggs, half a cup of oil, and Betty Crocker cake mix into your big white bowl, and later spread the cooled layers thick with real homemade frosting. Most likely for you it was just another moment of mothering, scrunched into the background of the next 13 years when there were three more kids to parent, comfort and celebrate. When you died so unexpectedly and so young, you and I were just stepping across that sweet, invisible threshold that merges the parent-child relationship into the deeper, more intimate place shared by adult women who are also mother and daughter.

As a grownup-in-training, newly married and not yet a mother, I wasn’t finished needing you. I didn’t get to talk through every new fork in the road and earth-shattering crisis, or share my small triumphs and heart-bursting joys. I didn’t get to present you with the grandchildren who would have adored you. You would have strummed your guitar and taught them silly songs like you did for the neighborhood kids when I was growing up. You would have taken them on hikes like you did with our scout troop when you were the leader. Maybe, like all those years ago, you’d have been the most popular substitute teacher in their fourth-grade class. (“Oh, boy! We’re getting Mrs. L!”). And you definitely would have shown up for their every ceremony, award and performance.

You didn’t get to meet the granddaughter who shares not just many of your physical characteristics, but other qualities, like her connection to the mountains you loved so much, her kindness and—it seems to me—a spiritual connection with the wisdom of the ages. They say things like this skip a generation, and I guess it’s true. Now she’s close to the age you were when you baked that cake of love, and she’s the wisest woman I know. And isn’t it interesting? For my last birthday, she made—from scratch—a magazine cover-worthy, melt-in-the-mouth chocolate cake. No, wait. To be specific, it was a magazine cover-worthy, melt-in-the-mouth, raw vegan chocolate ganache torte, garnished with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.

And you know the big white bowl? It was part of a Sunbeam Mixmaster that I think your mother gave you as a wedding gift. You used it for 23 years of birthday and celebration cakes. The Mixmaster is long gone, Mama, but this simple milk glass bowl, infused with all those memories, is deeply woven into the mosaic of my children’s lives. You should see the beautiful things this granddaughter of yours makes with it. You would be glowing with pride. In fact, I know you are.

P.S. Thanks for the Angels

Mary was a scientist, a philosopher and a seeker. Roberta danced, painted, sang, mothered and grandmothered her way through 99 years (and counting). These two women had nothing in common, except for one thing: They mysteriously showed up in my life when you couldn’t be here.


It’s the first day in my first home, a cute bungalow with light-filled rooms and a fireplace. I’m curled up in front of the hearth, watching the flames and wishing you could have shared this moment, when the doorbell rings. On the threshold stands a tiny woman at least a decade older than you’d have been, with a bouquet of freshly cut roses. “I’m Mary Watson, from next door,” she says shyly. “Doc (that’s my husband) grows roses. Please come anytime you like and pick more. I just wanted to say we’re glad you’re our new neighbors. I don’t have children of my own, so it’s lovely to have young people right next door.”

And just like that, Mama, you were kind of there after all.

For the next few years, Mary mothered me, with pots of herbal tea and homemade soup when I had a cold, and deep conversations about life and love and purpose and joy. She listened as I sorted out the pain of a divorce, and later, she wore the corsage you’d have worn at my subsequent wedding. A year after she died, my first child, your grandson, was born. Coincidentally, or not, he turned out to be, like Mary, a scientist, a philosopher and a seeker.


Last Saturday, Roberta Lynch and I had lunch at the beach to celebrate her 99th birthday. We could have chosen a low table on the restaurant deck, but Roberta wanted to feel the beach air and watch for dolphins, so she hopped up onto one of those high bar stools at the railing. That’s what I said: hopped. Sometimes I think she forgets that she can’t do stuff like that at 99, so she does. She also goes to exercise classes, paints in the art studio and sings in a choral group. She also juggles an impressive social schedule, so I must book a date with her well in advance. Why do I crave these dates? It’s her eyes, Mama. When she looks at me, I see that she knows me. I know I can tell her anything. She hears without judgment and advises when asked. She hurts when I hurt and celebrates my successes, and she worries when I work too many hours. But here’s the thing: She wants to read every single word I write, and when I bring her the latest bit of writing, she couldn’t beam any brighter if it were wrapped in a turquoise Tiffany & Co. box with a white satin ribbon. She loves me, and through her love I feel your presence. And I realize that you’ve never really left at all.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama, Mary and Roberta. Love you always,


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