I Never Saw My Mother Cry

It is not strictly true that I never saw my mother cry. My grandfather, her father, died when I was 7 years old. It was before we had a telephone but someone came from somewhere in the night to tell us, and we rode through the dark in the black Chevy coupe to the town five miles away where a telephone operator was waiting in a building only slightly larger than my walk-in closet. She connected Mom to a relative to find out about the when and how. It was the final checking out of his heart, which had had one foot on the other side of the door for years. I had never seen him upright.

My mother cried on the drive home. I saw the hunch of her back and heard her quiet sobs.

Our farm was isolated and we were a family isolated from each other within it – and with such bound up emotions that expressing any feeling was, literally, unheard of. Who knew what expressing anger or affection might do? Everything could fly – not fall, but fly – apart at the speed of Iowa lightning. Only remnants of us might ever be found.

So far as I ever knew, inside the house when it was only us, my father was mute. If he wanted the salt passed, he pointed and crooked his finger. It was up to my mother and brother to maintain any conversation. I was silent, making plans to get out even as I passed the salt. Maybe especially as I was passing the salt.

LIFE magazine with its photos and ads of sophisticated people arrived from another world. By adolescence, I imagined myself in an off-the-shoulder black sheath stepping out after dinner from a luxury hotel to my waiting car. It may have been a leap of vision from “slopping” the pigs with garbage and “picking” eggs from the hen house to dining at the Jockey Club, but it was not a disconnect. I knew there was a line from here to there and it was only a question of time and intent.

I can make this a sad story, but sadness isn’t the point. I am long over it, and my parents turned into love bugs in their 70’s. My father, especially. He became a sentimental, story-telling, loving, hugging, funny, talkative love bug. I still don’t understand.

But my point is: Crying and laughter are the natural responses to life. As we have the gift of laughter, so we have the gift of tears. Humans are outfitted for crying in gratitude, joy, frustration, anger, sympathy, and sorrow. Most of us need to cry more than we do.

I am at this moment on the train from NYC to my home in DC. I am wearing jeans and a light blue denim shirt with sandals and a studded leather belt – and, with great nonchalance, a long string of very nice pearls. Never have had an off-the-shoulder sheath. Too predictable.

New York had more people in two blocks of sidewalk than lived in that small town of my childhood and every third person was on their smart phone, including me – texting the singer-songwriter arrived from Nashville and on his way to the apartment, emailing the Ambassador about lunch the next day, fielding emails, and making arrangements for a birthday dinner for the singer-songwriter at a restaurant overlooking Central Park after champagne at the Ritz.

I have learned to cry, and I cried in NYC. I thought of my mother, who died at age 96 exactly six months ago, and I thought of my brother and my father, whom she and I buried. We loved each other and learned to say it.

I thought of my grandchildren as I looked at their collection of rocks from NYC streets (yes) on the windowsill over the Hudson River.

I have learned to cry for new friends and old, for genius presenting itself wildly in front of me, for people flawed and people nearly perfect, for the pain in the world beyond imagining, and for the people in Central Park with their dogs, children, Frisbees, family reunions, and picnics.

I have learned to cry because life is beyond knowing and because that is the ultimate gift.

In NYC I thought of many things to write about, and took many photos with that telephone in my jean’s pocket, but there wasn’t time to write or post photos. Walking a straight line while drunk with life was the best I managed to do.

On leaving this morning, I cleaned the apartment a little, remembered people who have been there with me and without me, saluted the beneficent fates and the ex-husband whose being made the apartment a gift that remained after the devastation was over, and I closed the door.

At the elevator, I knew what I needed to write as I suddenly understood the connection between my easy call these days to tears, especially in the presence of beauty, and my mother. A farm child during the Great Depression, selling apples on the street corner, she stopped crying. But she learned to laugh and to love.

I understood that we all need to cry as well as to laugh and to love. We need to see tears as the expression when words fail us. For many of us, tears may be as close as we come to being poets.


11 thoughts on “I Never Saw My Mother Cry

  1. Patricia,

    I am so deeply moved by this blog/poem. It emits truth’s essence, deep, hard, gentle. My life history is so different from yours. Yet, I identify, for you write universal truth.

    Keep writing. I am falling in love with your way with words and through them, perhaps, with you.

    My respect grows.



  2. This is poignant, rings true–and is an example that transformation begins in the imagination. The more vivid, believed in and sustained, the more energy there is to move toward making the dream come true, and when the seed of a dream and the innate archetypal energies come together, synchronistic events also happen. See the little girl that Patricia was on the isolated farm in the midwest, feeding pigs and gathering eggs: hard to imagine from the outside that she would become a playwright, photo-journalist, founder of PeaceXPeace, who writes this blog in the midst of a life-transition. Who knows, what next! Love, hope, perseverance, and optimism about what will come next! Jean Bolen

    • Jean, your words have such deep meaning to me personally, and to all of us who are invested in the seed (sprout?) of your (our) dream for a fifth World Conference of Women (following the Beijing conference) to bring women of all nations together to work together for peace, security, and human rights. Your wisdom and perseverance and optimism and love lead us. Thank you!

  3. Beautiful, as I sit here crying! Thank you for the last line: “.. tears may be as close as we come to being poets.” My two friends and I have been meeting every other Tuesday since July 1999 studying and reading poetry and I’m now seeing that “tears” may be the closest I’ll come to being a poet. Thank you for helping me to see that living love, laughter, and tears is a poet’s life and if I don’t get it down on paper, doesn’t matter.

  4. Patricia, you reveal that there is no such thing as anything ordinary; you understand that everything is extraordinary. The gift of your understanding allied with the subtlety of your writing enable a reader to understand this, too. Your writing is rich with paradox. It is gentle and soft-spoken and eschews cape work, but like a well-wrought magic trick, when it manifests the unexpected, the reader (the “trick’s” beholder), gasps, since what has been revealed is what he always knew but never knew he knew. Your writing not only introduces us to you but to ourselves. That is quite an achievement, since it demonstrates that the world is One.

  5. the opposite of death is not life; it is birth! we come into this life and we depart. that short period of time in-between is where we plant, water and nurture seeds of life. it continually amazes me to see what grows, to see how i have grown, how you have grown, how we all have grown and the contributions made. sometimes we receive unanticipated surprises from the bag of seeds we plant. the important thing however, is to never stop planting. you are a farm girl. can you dig it?

    • Rashid, you are THE person above all who would know about seeds, planting, growth, and nourishing each other. I dig it.

  6. Thank you for sharing this with me Patricia. You are a beautiful writer.

  7. Your post made me cry; not audibly or at any great length, but tears were in my eyes. I related very much to your Iowa reminisces regarding the lack of emotional expression in your parents (I grew up in Central Illinois in a Lutheran household to German and Dutch parents), and I especially connected to how it was not until your father was in his 70’s that he seemed to develop into more of an emotional being. For me it was my mother. My father passed away last September, and simply writing that brings me to tears. He was not a man of great renown but a great man nonetheless. The most comforting feeling I have is when I sense that I am becoming him…finally. In middle age I cry now more easily than I have since childhood. Most the tears are turned outward: from awe or empathy or joy. Rarely from sadness – I have little about which to be sad and much to be thankful for. I’m thankful you wrote this and shared it.

    • Oh, Robert, how beautifully written. Thank you for telling me. Btw, my mother was 100% German and my father was German, English, and a bit of other mix.

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