jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

My Mother’s Letters

Mom, me, Butchie, sister, sister, Dad, brother Two years before my father got sick 1977

Mom, me, Butchie, sister, sister, Dad, brother
Two years before my father got sick
1977

I remember we had at least one television on all day and night for Butchie and he would scream in his stinking chair in the corner while cartoons blared. I remember we ate food that came from the freezer unless it came from a can or was spaghetti. I remember the stress and the yelling before any holiday gathering as we vacuumed and scrubbed and hid things away for company. It always felt like company was a bad thing. At least that’s how I remember it.

I remember because these things formed me.

The stories I told in Butchie’s eulogy included the time he choked on a hotdog at the kitchen table and it didn’t pop out of his mouth until my mother threw him down onto the table, yelling, “Breathe, Goddammit!” At the rest of us, “Keep eating!”

The day he pulled his G-tube out of his abdomen, covering the vinyl couch with stomach juices, my mother yelled to my sister, “Plug the hole!” while she loaded the other three of us into the Volkswagen bus and sped us all off to the hospital. This was our life, my mother ruling total chaos with an unyielding voice.

I don’t know what more I’d hoped to know about us. We’d mapped our chromosomes, found who was most like my brother Butchie, what there was to know about my sister’s disabilities. I’d been witness to my parents’ marriage, or at least 9 healthy years and 18 sick years before my father died. None of us had ever been in for therapy, but it felt like I knew enough. We all knew enough.

And then my mother brought me the letters. It was not just the letters between my parents: sweet, heartfelt pages filled with innocuous daily observations and deep yearning during their three years of courting and early marriage. There were also letters written by my mother to my grandmother and vice versa. They wrote almost every day, sometimes twice a day, for three years. To read these letters is to meet my mother at age 22. To walk into their dingy, newlywed military house, 500 miles from home. To understand what it meant to wait until pay day to buy a stamp to send a letter.

When you flip through these letters you feel their hands, hear their voices, the concern, the love, the humdrum boredom of Mr. Ed, the profound longing they also felt for one another, my mother an only child, my grandmother who’d try to do all she could in the face of a sour husband and life-long poverty.

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Nov. 1 1960

Dear Mom and Dad,

Received your letter of the 26th today…

 

May 31, 1961

Dear Bobbie and Bruce,

Received your letter of the 28th today…

 

August 1, 1962

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well- not next month but the following month I will be home…

 

August 2, 1962

Dear Mom and Dad,

Rec. your letter of the 30th today…

 

August 7, 1962

Dear Mom and Dad,

Am at the laundromat so will start writing…

I can’t sort through these letters. I can’t bear to read more than a few in one sitting and I can’t touch one page of a five page letter without reading the whole thing. They keep me up at night.

My mother and her mother, driving from New Jersey to California Summer, 1960

My mother and her mother, driving from New Jersey to California
Summer, 1960

May 19, 1961

Dear Mom and Dad:

Will start this letter now, while I am at work…

Last night I went to see Kay in the hospital and I drove to Fresno for hoagies (real live eastern type)… Tonight we are going to Bruce’s prom at Fresno (if I am not too tired), so I won’t be able to write tonight.

Here is the news:

Kay has a 8 lb 11 ½ oz. baby boy 5-17-61 y 4:00 p.m. I didn’t know about it until yesterday afternoon when her Mom called me at work. He’s fine, but Kay isn’t doing so good. She looks awefull and feels the same. They say she had a rough time of it. Dr. Rowe cut and cut, but not enough and she ripped to pieces when the body was born…

I am feeling fine, super-duper fine today… Every night I feel whoozy but am not sick, so it isn’t bad at all…

My mother is pregnant having just seen a postpartum woman for the first time. Later, after my brother is born, after the doctor uses high forceps to deliver him only to find the cord wrapped around his neck, and my mother is torn up and hemorrhaging herself, when Butchie failed to thrive, failed to roll over, my grandmother wrote one of the letters that breaks my heart.

Feb. 22, 1962

Dear Bobbie:

No letter from you today so this will probably be a short letter.

In my phone conversation with Mom G last night she said she knew you were holding something back from her about Butch. She suspected it was more than a heart murmur and can’t understand why you didn’t tell her. I told her it was not your fault as you wanted to write to tell her but Bruce wouldn’t let you do it because it would worry her. But she can’t understand why you two kids are acting like you are and she also said G. is very peeved at you and Bruce for upsetting her so. She said she had a letter written to you and was going to send you money for you and Butch to come home and live with her. All you would have to do would be to take care of Butch. Also she was going to take you to the best pediatrician and spend every last cent of her money if necessary to make Butch better. When she told G. he made her tear that letter up.

Also S. is very peeved and can’t understand why you didn’t bring the baby to Los Angelos for treatment…

Oh, she also said you were too independent. I heard that remark a few times last night. Also she wanted to know why Bruce never helps you…

My mother and Butchie May, 1962

My mother and Butchie, 6 months old
May, 1962

It goes on and on.

And I think-

I am alone.

I am alone in California, on this god-forsaken military base in 1961 where I am neither liberated nor caged. I love my beautiful husband, this man I don’t wholly understand but who rescued me from the lonely soulless life I was born to. I love my firstborn son. This will be okay, this must all be okay. I am not Job. Look, see? He drank the milk. Look, see? He raised his arm. Look, there. His eyes went to the light. See now? I don’t know why they say he is slow.

Year after year.

Sure he doesn’t talk, but he’s walking. He’s seven and he’s walking!

See now? Your sister can hear that sound with the hearing aid. With that new hearing aid. Now with that better hearing aid. And these glasses, this magnifying glass, this Visualtech machine. She can see all she needs to!

Year after year.

And the youngest one, he just marches to the beat of his own drummer! He’s smart, brilliant maybe. It’s the teachers. He’s just so disorganized. Doesn’t know which way is up! Can’t get out of his own way! But so smart…

Year after year.

Sure, we’ll set up that tube-feeding for your father at night and he can go to work in the morning. We’ll just make up that insulin shot. I’ll blend that formula, just like the kind you buy at the hospital which is too expensive anyway. And look how he’s gained weight! He weighs 120 lb.! He’s doing so great!

And on and on.

I am inside that life, that miserable Job existence. I will raise the five children and they will be fine. I will make this all right. I will make this work if I have to rage against it with the most saccharine platitudes, vicious glares, unrelenting voice.

I gasp. It takes my breath away.

Then I am myself again, 2014, fighting my own battles, lifting my own four children up only to put them down. Yelling at them, apoplectic, only to whisper my adoration.

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Me and my mother
Fall, 2013

I am my mother, and she is me. Each word on the page, typed or scratched. From her mother to my mother to me and on and on and on.

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(This post was inspired by a prompt from the amazing Rarasaur, for the Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge. Check out Rara’s blog, and thanks for forgiving the loooong post.)
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181 comments on “My Mother’s Letters

  1. nelsonjcn
    February 2, 2014

    Reblogged this on nelsonjcn's Blog and commented:
    Nice

    • jgroeber
      February 2, 2014

      Thanks for reading and reblogging.

  2. paulibrams
    February 2, 2014

    Nice Piece, Thanks for sharing.

    • jgroeber
      February 2, 2014

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  3. Jan Moran
    February 2, 2014

    Having just returned from visiting my own mother, this was a heart-stopping post. Thanks for sharing, Jen.

  4. Jan Moran
    February 2, 2014

    Having just returned from visiting my own mother, this was a heart-stopping post. Thanks for sharing, Jen.

    • jgroeber
      February 2, 2014

      Thanks, Jan. It’s amazing the hold that family has over us.
      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  5. blastedgoat
    February 2, 2014

    Mothers and daughters are curious things. Sometimes it seems unclear who needs the other more. I have a complicated relationship with mine but we share so many characteristics and memories good and bad. I enjoyed reading about your family. We must all create our own “letters” as a tribute to the past, present and future! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • jgroeber
      February 2, 2014

      I can’t help but wonder if the blog is the modern day letter in some ways. For me it’s a way of looking both backwards and forwards. Although, it’s important to note that my kids make fun of me for blogging (and the oldest is six!)
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  6. tahoma108
    February 2, 2014

    Wonderful story, inspirationa. I have just discovered old letters forgotten in a box in the attic from my father’s side of the family. Off to Michaels. Keep up the good work.

    • jgroeber
      February 2, 2014

      Tuck those letters away in a nice archival water-proof box! I ended up with mine because of a flood in my mother’s basement. Ha!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  7. decaraamipared
    February 2, 2014

    Reblogged this on decaraamipared and commented:

    • jgroeber
      February 2, 2014

      Thank you for stopping by and reblogging.

  8. The Sewing Grove
    February 2, 2014

    I want to know hear more. Compassion, seeing your mother in her youth and alone, makes it possible to enjoy your story even though it strikes my heart. Your having tried to right the wrongs and shortcomings, to be more sane, to be more what your children need, to be the mother you wished you could have had, to avoid the mistakes that hurt you, to recreate the lessons that sustained you–I get them all. I envy your ability to write coherently about such a tangled subject. I also get the struggle to have compassion for you and me–mothers.

    • jgroeber
      February 3, 2014

      So glad you ‘get’ this. I checked out your blog and realize, it must be the sewing! It’s the untangling of threads, mending things, building something new out of something old. That’s what I think I’m trying to do in my writing and art. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  10. Wandering Voiceless
    February 3, 2014

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. This truly brought tears to my eyes. You show so much empathy. Peace be with you always. :>

    • jgroeber
      February 3, 2014

      Thanks for stopping by and reading. The connections to our mothers (and the struggle it engenders) seems universal for sure.
      And I don’t always show the empathy I should. Sometimes I think my Mom is a total nut. But she gets it most days. And no matter what, I think she and I are more alike than anything else.
      Hope to see you back here again!

      • Wandering Voiceless
        February 4, 2014

        I think it moved me so much because I’m nowhere near that space with my own mother… something to strive for as I continue to evolve though, and posts like this certainly give me hope. :>

  11. spattiselanno
    February 3, 2014

    What a moving post! Thank you for sharing, it gave me such renewed perspective on life!

    • jgroeber
      February 3, 2014

      Thank so much for stopping by and commenting!

  12. jdavi339
    February 3, 2014

    I can relate to her mothers letters though hers were much more harder My mother kept a journal more so diary for what was going on that day. My sister also did and may grandmother their were hard to read. I kept one myself and now I have another outlet this blog. I treasure all of these because like your mother they are apart of who they are but more important are the memories I keep inside my heart. all are gone now but life lives on.. Thanks for your blog, nicely done.:)

    • jgroeber
      February 3, 2014

      Thank you for reading and commenting. And I do think the blog might be the modern day letters, or at least the modern day journal. So strange that it’s a public thing, but wonderful too as it lets us connect one story to the next.

  13. Connie R. Johnson
    February 3, 2014

    Moving

    • jgroeber
      February 3, 2014

      Thanks for stopping by and for the kind comment.

  14. Desire
    February 4, 2014

    Wonderful post! I’m glad I came across your blog.

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thanks for visiting and for the kind comment! Hope to see you back soon.

  15. Alexis Samantha
    February 4, 2014

    I love this! Thankyou for sharing this! 🙂

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thanks for reading and for the kind words!

  16. whelverman
    February 4, 2014

    nice story

  17. linesonthepage
    February 4, 2014

    I loved this, really moving for a Tuesday morning!

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thanks for reading and for the kind words. Hope the rest of your Tuesday was a little less intense! 😉

  18. laughcrydrinktea
    February 4, 2014

    Your post is beautiful. My relationship with my own mother is good and difficult, all at the same time. I am not alone.

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Good and difficult is definitely it. You are certainly not alone!
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  19. treeeesa
    February 4, 2014

    Hello! I have awarded you the Sunshine Award because I loved this blogpost! It’s really beautiful. Check out the link to find out how to accept the award 🙂 http://treeeesa.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/the-sunshine-award/

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thanks so much, Treeeesa, for the kind words and the Sunshine Award. You are wonderful for passing on the love!
      I’m such a creature of habit though, I’m not sure I’m ready to do anything but posts that are essays, if you know what I mean. I’m guest-blogging next week and even that’s giving me a bit of angina. But I’m definitely holding the kudos in my head all day (who doesn’t love a Sunshine Award?! Am I right?)
      Thanks again. (I enjoyed checking out your blog, by the way.)

  20. storyofmyfunnylife
    February 4, 2014

    quite an emotional read.u can follow me on myblog too http://storyofmyfunnylife.wordpress.com/

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thanks so much for stopping by and for the kind words. I look forward to checking it out!

  21. talesfromthemotherland
    February 4, 2014

    This one just breaks my heart Jen. Really. Stunning writing, stunning observations, stunning life your mother lived, just amazing– all of it. One of your best… but I think I’ve said that before? That’s because so many of your posts, are the best. 😉

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      You’re awesome! And thank you for inspiring me to try a writing prompt/challenge. How amazing are you?!
      And thank you for commenting. I always love seeing your face pop up in the comment box. Yay!

  22. kaleighrea
    February 4, 2014

    Loved this 🙂 Check out my blog! http://newfoundgrace.wordpress.com

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by. Looking forward to checking your blog out.

  23. dliw canis
    February 4, 2014

    Even though being a male, my God how I love and identify with this.

    • jgroeber
      February 5, 2014

      Thank you. It’s funny how stories by women about family instantly become “Mom Blogs”, which is fine in the one sense. But really, we all come from some sort of family and create some sort of family, whether biologically or through pulling people into our lives. Maybe they’re more “People Blogs”. I’m glad you could see yourself in this, too.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  24. dliw canis
    February 4, 2014

    Reblogged this on dliwcanis.

  25. kirui2016
    February 5, 2014

    Reblogged this on kiruitony.

    • jgroeber
      February 7, 2014

      Thank you for the reboot and for stopping by!

  26. adventureswiththepooh
    February 5, 2014

    Gorgeous, Jen. And congrats on being Freshly Pressed, that is awesome – and well-deserved!

    • jgroeber
      February 7, 2014

      Thank you for that. Your latest post on AdventureswithPooh was so powerful. Really awesome.
      Thanks for reading. Perhaps we’ll have to meet up at an actual playground someday. 😉

  27. Bonnie
    February 5, 2014

    I really love the pic of you and your mother.

    • jgroeber
      February 7, 2014

      Ha! This would not be her favorite pic. Do you see how gorgeously she photographed back in the day? But I do love it, too. Thanks for reading!

  28. misspiggels
    February 5, 2014

    Beautiful.

  29. thatssojacob
    February 6, 2014

    Found via FreshlyPressed. Very deep and emotional. Definitely a fan and giving you a follow right about…now. Tell me what you think of my blog? http://www.thatssojacob.wordpress.com 🙂 thanks 🙂

    • jgroeber
      February 20, 2014

      Thanks so much.
      Enjoyed checking out your blog. Totally authentic.

  30. Avant-garde Coach
    February 6, 2014

    Thank you for writing this. I was raised in a large family with a sister with a disability. I owe to my family and to my sister to the person I become today….and I love it!

  31. Avant-garde Coach
    February 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on Avant-garde Coach and commented:
    This is a heartwarming blog to remind us that we are who we are because we chose to be one.

  32. truth42
    February 14, 2014

    Lovely.

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  34. Winding road
    February 23, 2014

    This is beautiful and so if your mother. Such strength is very moving. Thanks for sharing her and your life with us.

    • jgroeber
      February 24, 2014

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. My mother is both a challenge and a hero. That kind of strength probably always lives in such duality. I’m realizing more and more that this blog is likely my attempt to keep these pieces of her with me forever as she ages.

  35. Margie S
    February 24, 2014

    Wow. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. Seriously!

    • jgroeber
      February 24, 2014

      Oh, thank you. Is is pathetic that I hope this blog could become my childrens’ bin of letters to the future? I’m realizing more and more that writing all this here has become both a present I’d like to give my children as well as a tribute to my mother. And here I thought I was simply writing again…

      • Margie S
        February 25, 2014

        It is because you are so honest and talented and so funny.

        • jgroeber
          February 28, 2014

          Thank you so much for reading these. You must be exhausted by now!

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  42. zenmamalove
    July 26, 2015

    Wow. That one really got me. Having lost my mother when I was 22 and never being able to make peace with her and get to know her as a woman and not “just” a mother……I am especially moved. Just…..wow. Thank you for sharing, I can’t imagine what you have lived and loved and learned.

  43. bumbismom
    August 1, 2015

    This was a fantastic, heartfelt read.

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