I wrote this many years ago as a new mother who was just beginning to understand the depth of my own mom’s love for me and my siblings. Happy Mother’s Day to all the sacrificial mothers out there—biological & spiritual! Today, look a mother in the eyes (even if via zoom) and tell her thank you!
My Mother’s Eyes
I remember my mother’s eyes. They were clear, light blue, deep-set with a faint perimeter of feathery skin that crinkled when she smiled. Those calm, translucent eyes managed to communicate so much. But her childhood snapshots were incongruent somehow. As a child myself, paging through tattered, old-fashioned, black paper photo albums, her youthful eyes seemed slanted and squinty, only faintly reminiscent of the woman I knew. I actually felt a little pity for my homely, little mommy. Her face must have needed to grow in order to accommodate such complex and interesting eyes. As she aged, the skin around the eyes became more delicate, thinner, and fainter, giving her penetrating eyes a whitish, oval frame. Now, when I look back at photos of her during her mothering years, I see so much light emanating from her face. I’ve heard it said those who are filled with goodness sometimes seem as if they are shrouded in light. Her goodness radiated from the eyes.
As a kid, if I got hurt she’d give me a quick, concerned once-over as if silently recounting all of my limbs. Once all were accounted for and intact, her gaze would fix on me, offering such comfort. When she was proud of one of my little accomplishments, her eyes would soften and seem to laugh. They would light up to cheer me on when I was struggling, like trying to get my first hit in softball. My stare would zero in on her eye line in the stands as I waited out the right pitch. But there were also times throughout my youth when her eyes betrayed the otherwise well-adjusted motherly exterior. I had a natural love for baking, one of only a few interests we did not share. My mom was usually exhausted after a long day of work. She was a school teacher who rushed home and did the lion’s share of the housework as well. Having the impeccable timing of a child, it was then that I would generally hit her up to help me bake cookies. Her eyes were incredulous and impatient. But soon, without much prodding, they would look up signaling resignation. In that glance, I could almost instantaneously smell the homemade chocolate chip cookies.
My mom was a voracious reader. She had taken a speed-reading course in college. She could tackle the biggest book in no time, as evidenced in her weekly towering stack of extra dense library books. From my earliest memories, she always had a book on her person. While my brothers and I would whine at the dinner table about the “Texas hash” she would sit peacefully and bore through her giant, hardback library book with laser focus, seemingly unaware of our complaints. I remember how dazed she would appear if I tried to get her attention. It was as if her mind required some type of passport to enter back into reality. The vacant stare would last a beat or two until our pleading and her brain got the green light from the sluggish border agent. Once the commotion settled, her eyes would quickly turn back to the book with renewed intensity.
I sometimes resented her seemingly omniscient eyes, especially throughout my teenage years. It was as if they could sear through the barbed wire fortress in which I had locked away all of my secrets and personal angst. At the time, I perceived her knowing looks to be somewhat patronizing, but as an adult, I’ve come to think of them more as signs of her understanding, commiseration, and the profound concern of a mother.
There was no mistaking the dark blue flash of anger directed at me after I dragged myself in past 3am one weekend. I hadn’t phoned to say I would be out past my 12 o’clock curfew. Her glare was firm and accusatory. My friends and I had “innocently TP’d a teacher’s house” then sat and gabbed at Denny’s. I had lost track of the time, or maybe, in all honesty, I didn’t care. I could be such a mouthy, self-centered teenager. But she did not let me off the hook. I realized immediately that I had mercilessly put her through hell as she waited for me or worse a call from the highway patrol. She didn’t need to say, “how dare you?” She needn’t remind me of how much she loved me and worried about my well-being. There was no lecture about the freedom and flexibility she had afforded me as a burgeoning young adult. I could see all of that in her eyes. I always remembered to call after that.
Although my mom has been deceased over twenty years now, her eyes continue to follow me. I am starting to see them in my own children. When my kids came along as fresh little newborns, I couldn’t pick out any familial resemblance, despite loads of trying. I would stare at them at long intervals trying to glean some link to my mom. Instead, they just looked like their own little elfish selves. I didn’t see myself and I certainly couldn’t point out my parents in their squished little faces, eyes squinting. As they grew I came to know them in their own individuality, not how they related to anyone else. So I will never forget the utter shock, and I mean literal jolt, of removing my son’s first-grade school photo from the large white envelope and seeing my mom looking right back at me! She never took a great picture. She was always the first one to admit it too. Her face never looked relaxed and sometimes her eyes took on a faraway expression as if she’d been caught daydreaming. My son had the exact look. It was that signature, deer-in-headlights, awkward stare that I treasured.
Imagine my surprise, when at around the age of 40, I began to see her gazing back at me in the mirror. After I put on mascara (it’s such a rare occurrence for me these days), my eyes take a few moments to adjust to the addition of the foreign goop on my lashes. It’s then I see her gaping at me, eyes heavily lidded, as if uncomfortable with the bright fluorescent lights. She had the same look when applying her makeup every single morning as she stared at the small hand mirror, delicately layering her Mary Kay cosmetics. I know because I used to watch her. Sadly, I also sought that gaze on her hospital deathbed. The sight of her dying eyes became seared into my memory. For a long time when I closed my eyes I would see those soundly shut slits, puffy and unnatural looking, in direct contrast with my formerly vibrant 51-year-old mother’s striking eyes.
Fortunately, the painful flashes of her pained expression are almost nonexistent now. I have time to thank for softening those stinging waves of memories. But occasionally they resurface out of nowhere, causing me to flinch. In those instances, I remind myself to look in the mirror or to seek out my children’s eyes. Then I am transported again to that limitless, calm sea of blue. I like it there. No matter how many incredible, useful lessons she taught me with her reserved, common-sense approach to life, it’s her eyes I will never forget… all that light. Most of my memories of her have faded, but her eyes persist. They always will.