Mother Always Said

 

By Gun Brooke

 

All Alice can think of during the funeral, is she, as a child, was never allowed to use the word mom. The tall, elegant woman who now is so still and unmoving in an expensive oak casket by the altar, raised her only child to never call her anything else but mother.

“We are a family with a noble heritage,” Mother said and looked down her long, narrow nose at Alice. “I am your mother—nothing else.”

At eight years old, Alice wanted to argue that it sounded kinder and softer to say mom, like her best friend Karin did at her house. This would have made Mother more displeased, so, naturally Alice nodded and said, “Of course, Mother.” Mother looked satisfied and straightened Alice’s long ponytail.

Father used to laugh at mother when she repeated what she said about a noble heritage, and she did so, at least once a week. This gave Mother that tense expression around the mouth and the skin under her eyes seemed to grow thinner when she scowled at Father.

“It’s a fact,” Mother said, her voice cold, and snapped her back straighter so harshly, it made Alice think it had to hurt.  “Your parents are of old gentry and my mother comes from French nobility.”

“Oh, well. That’s pretty watered down.” Father shook his head but looked kindly at Mother. “But if it means that much to you, Marina.”

“Heritage is important,” Mother always replied. “Alice will grow up and know her worth. Or else she will throw herself away by prioritizing the first pretty fact that comes her way and not follow in our footsteps.”

About that point in the conversation, Alice usually lost track when she was little. As a teenager she understood more and realized that her mother’s attitude toward what she thought would make Alice happy and best for her, did not coincide with Alice view at all.

“We are gathered here today to say farewell to Marina Ryttarhielm,” the old priest droned by the later, and this yanks Alice back to the present. At most other funerals she has attended, the priest has talked about the deceased in a more casual and warmly familiar way, using just their first name. When Alice went through the hymns and other arrangements for Mother’s funeral, she advice this priest to not to be that frivolous. Mother would not have like to be addressed as merely Marina by a stranger, even a priest. The old man had looked surprised, but graciously accepted.

“Mrs. Ryttarhielm grew up at the family mansion in Bohuslän and moved to Gothenburg to study. There she met her future husband, a fellow student, and they soon welcomed their daughter, Alice.” The priest nodes toward Alice who sits in the first pew, alone, which is her choice. She doesn’t want anyone flanking her. No well-meaning cousins or aunts, and God forbid, any of the people mother worked with in all her charities she headed up. They all seem to flail now that mother is no longer ruling them with an iron fist, which hardly surprising. Mother took the reins in everything she was involved in.

“I didn’t know Mrs. Ryttarhielm well,” the priest continues and sorts his features in a patter that Alice surmises is supposed to convey sadness over this fact, “therefore, I will give the word to the person who knew her best.” Again, he nods encouragingly at Alice.

Alice gets up and goes ramrod straight to the dais where a microphone awaits her. She looks out over the many faces of the people that has come to say goodbye to Mother. Father would have said that there was not even standing room in church today. Many of the visitors have probably showed up for other reasons than mourning Marina. Mother was equal parts admired and feared. Perhaps there is someone among the visitors that harbors relief to not have to deal with Marina Ryttarhielm again.

“Thank you,” Alice says rigidly, directed toward the priest. She tries to recall his name, but it is impossible. He is in her contacts on her cell phones as “burial priest”. Directing her gaze at the visitors, she uses mother’s inner handbook and skips the niceties. “For more than twenty years ago, we held a funeral for my father in this church. Mother planned everything in detail and this funeral is no different. Everything you see and hear today is chosen by Mother—and she did that long before she became ill.” Alice hears how matter of fact she sounds; how together and succinct she expresses herself. Bordering on coolly. Mother would be pleased. She regarded being emotional as a character flaw. It didn’t matter what had happened, if Alice as a child had fallen or if anyone had been mean to her, she was expected to handle it with her chin held high and with all her emotions under control.

Alice gaze falls to one of the pews halfway down the aisle. Three women her own age sit there, and she recognizes them, which surprises her. They used to spend most days together in high school before Alice was enrolled in a boarding school by her insistent mother. Now they look up at her, all of them forty-two, like her, and even if they resemble the girls they used to be—they are strangers. Evelina sits to the far right and she nods and give a sad smile. What could she possible have to be sad about? She never liked Mother and often tried to get Alice to “put her foot down” at home. Alice never did tell her how badly her only attempt at that went. Mother stared at her as if she didn’t recognize her own daughter and then left the kitchen. Father and Alice stared at each other, Alice with dread and Father with a tormented look in his eyes.

“Does Mother hate me now?” Alice asked in a broken voice and walked up to the kitchen table”

Father put his arm around her waist. “Of course not.”

“But…you saw how she—she looked at me.” Alice felt panic replace the blood in all her arteries and veins. It was hard to think clearly.

“Why did you talk to her like that?” Father pulls her down onto his lap. “It’s not like you. At least not at home.”

Alice had only wanted Mother to understand that she was her own person and that she couldn’t live as a carbon copy of her mother. Or, rather, a version of how her mother would have liked her own youth to have been.

Alice flinches when she realizes that the faces before her change from sympathy to wondering. How long ahs she stood there with old memories shooting like fire lit arrows through her brain?

“My mother was strong, but also reserved. She walked the walk and was proud of her background the duties she had assumed.” Alice swallows hard. The words are clear and concise, but the meaning of them, the impersonal, tears at something that is firmly stuck in her chest. These are her mother’s words. Not in the sense that Marina has written them down word for word, but she might as well have. Alice’s words are cut from the stencils her mother created for reasoning, prioritizing, and expression. Was like this for Mother as well? Did it hurt her soul to talk like this?

Father spoke in a different way, especially when he and Alice were alone. Then he relaxed and took out his grid writing pad from his desk in the study. The two of them could sit entire evenings and play noughts and crosses. Father never stooped to let her win, and when she did win—that was huge. First time it happened, she was ten years old, she rushed toward Mother when she returned from one of her meetings, overjoyed at her achievement.

It only took Alice ten seconds to realize that not only weren’t Mother impressed, in fact she seemed annoyed. She was more interested in correcting Alice’s posture and talk about her homework. The much coveted noughts and crosses win, withered like old flakes of paint around Alice. Only when Father joined them in the hallway and folded his arms across his chest, did Mother manage a smile, but then it was too late. After that, Alice kept her triumphs to herself.

Too little, too late, Alice thinks now. She can’t remember that she ever approached Mother with such unbridled joy again, so certain Mother would understand. Grades, degrees, prestigious positions, all which she’d thought she could share with Mother, became milestones, rather than joys. Father died before she graduated from university and then there was no one left to balance Mother’s attitude.

Alice takes a deep breath and holds it for a few extra seconds. Her gaze goes to the expensive casket and she wishes she could have hold onto the last days in Mother’s life. The hospital bed had almost swallowed the frail body that vaguely resembled Mother. Alice had wanted to raise her voice in sheer frustration and ask the dying woman why she had kept her illness a secret for her only child. But instead, Alice had taken Mother’s hand in hers and held it tenderly, telling herself that the time for reproach was over a long time ago. She honestly knew why her mother didn’t tell her. Prosaic and matter of fact to the very last moment, mother thought that if Alice couldn’t do anything practical to stave off the cancer burning through her body like wildfire, hijacking one organ after another, her daughter should just go about business as usual. The geographical distance between Gothenburg and London wasn’t great. Ninety minutes from Heathrow to Landvetter airport and then half an hour in the car.

“Mother never complained,” Alice continues hoarsely. “She never wanted to be a burden and even to the very last…” The words disappear and the lump in her throat grows, making it harder to breath. Suddenly, all the carefully chosen, well thought-out words are erased. She, who rehearsed in front of Mother’s full-length mirror for two days to be able to give the type of eulogy that Mother would have expected, can’t continue. Panicked, she looks at the many faces among the guests and she can’t distinguish one single feature in any of them. “Mother…” Alice clears her throat and grips the mic stand with ice cold hands. Then she meets Evelina’s gaze again and now she’s not irritated. Instead she feels how her friend from high school gives her support. Unexpected, absolutely, and it starts and avalanche of emotions that floods her system. There’s no stopping what’s happening now.

The kind old priest takes one step closer to Alice and places a careful hand against her back. “My dear,” he said quietly, but his voice is still amplified by the microphone. Alice doesn’t care, she’s busy locking her knees and not falling to the floor. “Do you wish to sit down?”

“No,” Alice says hoarsely. “No, thank you.” She clings to the mic stand and blinks against the burning tears that threaten to fall. They balance precariously on her lashes, but she refuses to let them go. The priest lowers his hand but remains just behind her. That’s all right. Alice makes a new attempt. “Mother was not an easy person to understand, but…but I loved her. Her demands of me were high, every day, and I hardly ever objected to that as a child, but more so as an adult, which frustrated her. We had a complicated relationship and it is only now, standing here, that I realize…” Alice draws a trembling breath and her voice goes out again. That’s when Evelina stands up and enters the aisle. She walks up to the casket, places her hand against it, very briefly, and then stands next to Alice and wraps her arm around her waist.

Alice is shocked but she leans gratefully against the woman she spent all her free time with as a teenager. Evelina stands rock solid next to her.

“It is only now that I realize that I’ve shaped my life after Mother’s template even if I once swore never to do that. I don’t know if Mother saw it that way, but it’s true. She dreamed of me succeeding in life and reach professional heights that she felt were closed to her. Perhaps I have. Perhaps I haven’t let her down after all.” Alice is trembling so much now, it ought to be visible from the pews. She turns to Eveline. “I have to sit down,” she whispers.

Evelina merely nods and escorts Alice to the first pew to the right. She sits down next to Alice, unbidden, and pulls her arm free. Instead she takes Alice cold hand and squeezes it.

“To lose ones only remaining parent is hard. A generation is forever lost and then it is good to have friends who care. Trust in that friendship, trust in each other. And whether you believe in an almighty God or not, I know He is with you, and especially you, Alice, who now has to navigate life without your mother to turn to.” The priest continues her sermon and they sing hymns. Alice listens halfheartedly to the comforting words, since her heart beats so hard and drowns out some of what he says.

“Before we part,” the priest says and his tone changes, “I have a letter to read to you all. Marina Ryttarhielm’s lawyer gave this to me just before the sermon and it is according to Mrs. Ryttarhielm’s expressed wishes that I read it now.” It is obvious that the priest is surprised and somewhat concerned. He opens the email and Alice realizes that he hasn’t read it ahead of time. She is shaking now, and she doesn’t know if she wants to hear any last words from Mother like this, among all the guests.

The priest clears his throat and dons his reading glasses. “To my daughter, Alice, and the people who has come to bid me farewell. I understand this is an unconventional method and I ask you to be patient and just listen.”

Alice sits ramrod straight now, with her hand clasped around Evelina’s. Evelina puts her free arm around Alice Again and squeezes around her waist. “It’s okay.,” she said.” Alice doesn’t believe her but is grateful for the attempt of encouragement. Will Mother’s razor tongue cut through and leave her with never-healing scars?

“I’m proud over the work I’ve done through the years. Much of my time has been spent helping people in need, financially and socially. This has provided me with great professional satisfaction, and I have enjoyed a certain admiration. It paints me to realize, now toward the end of my life, and knowing that my remaining days are few, that I’ve let my pride and desire to be prominent in every way, to negatively affect my daughter.

I lost my husband, Carl, many years ago, but what was worse, was that my daughter Alice lost her only true ally in our home. It has taken me a great deal of soul searching, something I’m not known for, to realize this. Carl was always a buffer between my motherhood and Alice. He softened it, my ambitions for Alice, and I found it frustrating at the time, but I’m infinitely grateful for that now.

There is only one person who deserves all my love and attention, and it has taken me more than forty years to see this and I wish she was here so I could tell her in person, face to face. Perhaps it is wrong of me to have this letter read out loud at my funeral, but I’m honestly afraid that Alice will tear the letter up unread if I don’t do it this way. Forgive me, Alice, for putting you on the spot like this, even after death. You deserve so much more and so much better.

The most important thing is that you hear that I love you more than anything and anyone. Perhaps you don’t believe me, I will never know, but you know me well enough to realize that I never express something I don’t mean. You are a constant source of pride and joy, and I haven’t told you enough, something I must take with me, perhaps to my next existence, if there is such a thing.

Beloved Alice, live your life in the way you find being right for you. I know I have nagged you about our heritage and obligations to that, but what I never understood before is that your mark of nobility sits in your warm personality and wonderful soul. I love you and promise to watch over you, my girl.

For ever, your Mom.”

The church is so quiet, it seems everyone is holding their breath. Alice’s gears are freefalling down her cheeks. Evelina strokes her back and it doesn’t feel to familiar at all, which it no doubt would have done before.

The priest folds the exclusive paper the letter is written on and puts it back into the envelope. He walks over to Alice and hands it to her, smiling warmly. “There you go, Alice,” he says softly.

“Thank you,” she whispers and then leans against Evelina, something that also feels natural and right. The tears are flowing and distorting everything about her. She slowly gets up and walks up to the casket. Holding the letter in one hand, she places the other on the casket, next to the enormous creation of white roses and lilies.

“I love you too.” The casket feels somehow warm and Alice slides her hand back and forth. The oak wood is beautiful, but she’s caressing Mother. Within, she sees images of her mother the way she was when Alice was little. Tall, dark haired, with elegant clothes and makeup. Other images flicker by. Mother in a swimsuit, on vacation, Mother in a nightgown and robe on Christmas Day morning, Mother having baked a three-tiered cake for Father’s birthday, and Mother who cried at one Alice’s graduation. Where do all these memories been? Alice pats the casket over and over. Has her resentment blocked all these other memories of Marina?

“Forgive me too,” Alice whispers. “You did your best and I love you, Mom.”

Mom. Alice straightens and now finds it easier to breath. She tastes the word inside. Mom. She returns to the pew where Evelina is waiting. When she has sat down, she nods at the priest to continue the sermon.

Mom. Alice takes Evelina’s hand in her—and smiles.



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