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A Mother Feels the Pain of Her Mistakes

May 09, 1999|SANDY BANKS

She was standing there when I went into the market, clutching her plastic shopping bag, a metal walker at her side.

And when I came out she was still there, still surveying the parking lot expectantly.

I unloaded my cart and headed next door to finish my shopping. When I came out, she was still there . . . waiting.

For more than an hour, I reckoned, she'd been standing there--a matronly woman in a stylish pantsuit and a floppy denim hat, the kind my 8-year-old daughter likes to wear.

On impulse, I headed over.

"Excuse me," I ventured. "You've been here for a while. Are you waiting for someone?"

She turned to face me, her blue eyes moist behind her glasses.

"A cab," she said wanly. "I called a cab. He said 20 minutes, but . . . " Her voice trailed off.

"Well, I can give you a ride," I offered. Her eyes brightened.

"Thank you, dear," she murmured. "I'm in such pain, you can't imagine." She took my arm to steady herself as I maneuvered her walker off the curb.

I cleared a space on the car seat for her walker, shoving aside the juice boxes and soccer shoes my kids had left behind. She fumbled with the seat belt buckle, and I had to lean across to fasten her in, just as I had when my children were small.


She had cancer, she told me as I drove. And she was in constant pain. She lived alone and had trouble cooking, dressing, combing her hair. Her hands shook, so she couldn't drive anymore, not even to her cancer treatments at UCLA.

"Sometimes I don't think I can face another day," she said, her voice catching in a sob.

I flashed back to my own mother, who had been hobbled in her last days by cancer's debilitating pain. But she had never been reduced to relying on strangers for rides. Her husband, four children and four sisters tended to her night and day.

"You don't have anyone to help you?" I asked gently. "No family living nearby?"

"Oh, yes," she said, and her voice turned bitter. Three children, grown now. And five grandchildren. "But I never see them. They don't live more than 30 miles away. But I never see them."

The tears flowed then, along with stories of how she'd struggled to raise them when their father ran off. How she'd helped with homework, baked cupcakes, made Halloween costumes . . . had done everything she could to make them happy and shield them from pain.

"I never dreamed that when I needed them, they'd want nothing to do with me."

I know there are two sides to every story . . . that there is much to this pleasant and gracious woman I encountered during our ride.

Her children might tell a different story. Perhaps they avoid her because all she does is carp and complain. Or perhaps they come by whenever they can, but it's never enough to avoid her harangues.

Maybe when they were young, she was cold and indifferent. Maybe she drank and abused them or was neglectful or unkind.

Or maybe she was just imperfect . . . like every mother. Maybe she yelled too much, made them eat liver, tossed in the trash the art project one of them made in first grade.

Maybe she did the best she could and was still found wanting by her children, who continue to judge her job performance through the prism of their own expectations and needs.

And I can't help but wonder what her Mother's Day will bring. An obligatory phone call, a grudging visit, the conscience-salve of candy or flowers? Or silence . . . and an old woman's solitary accounting of all the ways a mother can wound her child.

It is no easy job, mothering. It requires--borrowing from one of my favorite books, "American Mom" by Mary Kay Blakely--"some 20 years of nonstop thinking, nurturing, teaching, coaxing, rewarding, forgiving, warning, punishing, sympathizing, apologizing, reminding and repeating . . . not to mention deciding which to do when."

And we do it blindly, guided only by love, never fully realizing that "one wrong move is invariably followed by hundreds of opportunities to be wrong again."


I am searching, with my daughter's help, for a wayward set of missing keys . . . again.

"I'm so forgetful," I mutter, "I wonder sometimes if I'm losing my mind."

"I hope not," my daughter says, eyes twinkling as she dangles the keys in front of me. "If you do, I'll have to put you in a home!"

We laugh, but I am undone by the image . . . my three daughters grown up, abandoning me.

I wonder what it would take to divide us, what mistakes I have yet to make that might leave me stranded on the street outside a market, depending on strangers to ferry me home.

I know what today will bring--burnt toast in bed, hand-lettered cards that say "I love Mommy," bath salts and scented candles, a handmade plate or picture frame. . . .

Gifts laden with all the love a small child can muster, delivered to a mother with hundreds of wrong moves in her history, and hundreds more yet to be made.


Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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