My mother was born on June 6, 1922, nearly 100 years ago, to parents who immigrated as children from Canada and into a world not really so different and yet entirely foreign to ours today. She was less than 3 pounds at birth, and the doctors didn’t believe my grandmother was even pregnant when she went into labor. She’d been concerned for her figure.
Antoinette and Sam and their daughter Rachel Marie Augustine Laflamme – years later joined by Marjory, my mother’s much younger sister – made their life together on the west side of Manchester, NH, where business was conducted in French, mass was said in Latin, and tenement houses lined the street, three stories high, narrow and deep, connecting street to alley. Dubuque Street, even by the time I came along in 1962, was an enclave of French Canadian culture. And we spent many of our days there as children – dark wood fixtures, heavy textiles, a piano as a centerpiece, one bathroom, mattresses piled high with featherbeds, a large stain on the first floor ceiling as a reminder of an earlier house fire and an open and airy kitchen, looking out over the back alley, that smelled of sugar and chicken noodle soup, glowing white in the morning sun and producing the best cakes a grandchild could imagine, baked lovingly by my blue-haired Deenie whom I loved more than life itself.
Snippets of memory reveal my Uncle Ed lifting himself single-handedly over the whitewashed fence in the front yard. A large man, broad shouldered with light hair and an easy smile, Ed was a wrestler turned priest who once saved a group of children in an orphanage in France by shielding them with his body during a bombing in World War II. His handshakes to us as children were feared and highly anticipated, the strongman with a priest’s collar. Ed was a favorite of ours and of my mother’s, the uncle who gave her away in the absence of her beloved but deceased father. He said goodbye to us during his last visit in the mid 70s, en route to Hampton Beach, a final trip before he died of cancer. Even on that trip, his grip was to be feared, his hugs revered.
My mother told stories all the time as we were growing up. Her family was close and large, full of characters. Maybe she knew her time was limited.
Though she had passed by the time I was in my early 20s, my mother’s memory has loomed large my entire adult life, her absence greater than all the attendees at our wedding, my graduation and, perhaps most glaringly, at the adoption and birth of our children. On each occasion, I’d spend time in silent contemplation, imagining her with me, imagining her joy, her guidance, her smile, her embrace, her love. I never imagined her angst or her fear during these occasions, and long ago I lost the ability to conjure her voice in my head, though I still clearly remember the age spots on her forearms, the curl of her toes as arthritis twisted them and her mirthful laugh, especially as her children got older.
Raising our young children, I’d sometimes glimpse my mother in the extraordinary compassion of my son, or the joyful abandon of my daughter. An expression, fleeting but there. I wished often, and continue to do so, for her advice, particularly as my children face challenges not so different from my own and those of my siblings as young people. I’ve learned to forgive her failings and appreciate all that she was, both strong and vulnerable, brave and insecure, religiously devout and unapologetically human.
Last week, as we watched our daughter walk across the stage at Unitas Stadium to receive her teaching degree, I saw my mother walking with the graduates, her distinct walk – toes and hands both pointed outward and forward as though embracing the future and what it might bring – embodied in my daughter. Confidence disguising insecurity. This was my mother’s walk, her stride as soon as she went out in public. I had forgotten the walk until I watched my daughter. And I don’t think our gait is inherited. After all these years missing my mother and wishing she were here, I’ve discovered that, as it turns out, she’s been with us all along, right there inside my children. And inside myself.