Within Hearing Distance (for mom)

“If you clean even a single fish, they’ll be bringing you all kinds of dead things to clean and dress.”  Mom

I got married at St. Charles Catholic Church in Cass Lake in 1977.  On the day before my wedding, Mom took me aside and said she wanted to give me a bit of advice—the same advice that her mother had given on her wedding day.  I was nervous about getting married—one week earlier I had graduated from college.  It felt like life was moving a little too fast.  “What is it, Mom?”

She smiled, this brave woman who had birthed eight children and was now marrying off her third daughter.  “When I married your dad, my mother told me this on my wedding day.  Don’t clean any fish.”

Now, I’m a Minnesota girl to my bones, but even I didn’t expect that as my pre-wedding advice.  “What?”

She laughed.  “If you clean even a single fish, they’ll be bringing you all kinds of dead things to clean and dress.”

My mom was never at ease talking about intimate topics, so I hadn’t really expected a birds and bees kind of thing, but fish?

As it turns out, it was good advice.  She should have mentioned pheasant specifically, though.  I married an eastern South Dakota boy, and six months after the wedding we went to his folks’ farm for pheasant hunting.  I had no idea that they hosted hunters and that my “job” (along with his mother) would be to cook massive meals three times a day—and clean the dead birds.  I only went once.

Later, when I had my babies, visits from mom were sporadic, about once or twice a year.  She was not a part of my daily life.  We spoke on the phone, wrote letters (yes, actual letters), but shared mostly news and weather.  When she came to visit, what I wanted more than anything to hear her reassure me that I was a “good” mom.  My need for her reassurance was probably an indicator of how much I needed her help.  Unfortunately, any help or advice she offered I also took as disapproval or criticism.

I remember one time when she came she rubbed Thomas’ head and said, “Maybe Grandma should take you out to get a nice haircut.”

Now, when I think back to that, what I heard was, “You look like a little ragamuffin.  Doesn’t your mommy take care of you?”

Another time she said, “Doesn’t this poor child have any decent shoes?”

Ouch again.  Everything she said seemed to cut like a blade.  I was so terrified of not doing it right. I wanted a nod of approval—not advice or criticism.

Now the tables have turned.  I’m the mother and grandmother who visits sporadically.  I’m the one who has to be ever watchful of what I say and how I say it.  But I think I begin to understand.

After my mom died, I found myself still walking to the phone to tell her some interesting bit of my day.  I couldn’t imagine that I would call—and she would not be there to pick up.  Oddly, the memories I cherished most had nothing to do with advice—good or bad.  It had more to do with quiet silences, and just being together.  I thought of all the quiet days we had spent doing jigsaw puzzles on a gray, rainy day, playing scrabble—although she almost never beat me—she played.  I thought of early summer mornings when we’d go blueberry picking.  For some reason I was the only one of her kids who truly loved the berry patch.  We’d go to the woods and follow the berries drifting further and further apart.  When we could no longer see each other, I would hear her call my name—Patti?

Here, I’d call back.  We didn’t want to lose each other in the woods.  A little later, I’d call out, Mom?  Here.

I realize now that it was not the words—of approval or criticism—that mattered.  One of my teachers once said, “All we can ever give to another is our own state.”  It makes sense now.  In all of those years with my mom, I just needed to know that she was nearby—within hearing distance.  It was what I needed from her.

Now, when I go to pick berries alone, I ignore the idea that death can ever separate those who love, and I call out, “Mom?


My daughters are mothers now.  They will grow into their jobs like I did.  I can offer advice, help when asked, back off when asked, as long as I remember that all I have to give is my own state.  And that all they need to know is that I am nearby—within hearing distance.


Here.  I’m here.

(Note:  This was aired as commentary Sat. May 7 on KAXE in Grand Rapids, MN.  Thanks Heidi.  If it gets archived, I’ll add in a link.)



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