Dreams of My Mother

I was the family outlier, a daydreamer and a romantic, the one with the thinnest skin whose tendency to upset easily was tested heartily and often. I found solace in books at an early age. “It’s a beautiful day, “my mother once fretted after discovering me reading in bed on a glorious Saturday. “Don’t you want to go outside?”

In those days I sometimes found fictional characters—preferably those of the 19th-century and earlier—more relatable than members of my own family. I’d take the eclectic March sisters or the intrepid Ingalls family any day, especially a glorious Saturday. Without looking up from my book, I shook my head “no” to my mother’s query. “Suit yourself,” she said without reproach.  Our relationship wasn’t perfect, but she tolerated much, just as she did with all of us. I believe she saw glimpses of the gold parts in me and was willing to let them flower at their own pace, as long as I refrained from bothering my younger sister too much in the process.

During her illness the carefully managed familial détente she had woven over the years began to slowly unravel. That I was aware of the imminent loss of an ally was evident in a dream—not quite a crisis apparition, but close—which I had the day before she died. In the illogical parlance of dreams, several of my siblings were in charge of her burial. For convenience’ sake they decided not to bury her, but instead to keep her body in the spare fridge in our basement. My protests against this gruesome decision went unheeded; my outlier status cemented. They made a raucous, wisecracking parade of it as they carried my mother’s limp form, still in hospital gown, down the basement steps. With a final flourish they deposited her in the fridge and banged the door shut. I awoke gasping in horror. The dream was a preview of my deepest fears about what it would be like without her. In reality we became a house full of grieving individuals with no neutral party to turn to for support.

That nightmare would not be the last time my mother appeared in dreams.  During waking hours I never felt her presence, the way some claim to sense their deceased loved ones nearby. Not for trying, anyway. I could never conjure her during bumpy moments of teenage life, when a mother’s advice might smooth over the wayward deeds of a friend or boyfriend. Alone in my bedroom I would tearfully attempt to feel her presence or intuit some kind of advice from her. I felt nothing.  Time would pass, and I might convince myself that I was getting over her death. Then I would dream of her, and the hair-trigger longing for connection that lay coiled just below consciousness — ready to spring at the slightest ethereal provocation — indicated otherwise. 

These dreams were rare, occurring maybe twice a year, but they always followed a similar script. In a cruel twist of memory, my mother appeared as she had in the last stages of her illness, clad in a loose white nightgown or hospital gown that dwarfed her form. It was as if the witnessing of her illness had retroactively blotted out the entirety of her personhood, overriding more than a decade’s worth of memories of her in sound health from my earlier childhood. One positive improvement to the dream version was that her mind was intact and we could communicate. And so with wringing hands I would desperately implore her to come back and help me, to resume her maternal role. Her response was always positive but somewhat distant, the exhortation of a saint or an angel. She would smile gently and say “keep praying” or some other such benevolent phrase. As if on cue, cracks of wakefulness would begin to seep through the pores of the dream, and the Poynter painting would happen all over again, only this time the emphasis was not on Eurydice but on Orpheus, whose compulsive look back over his shoulder loosened Eurydice’s grasp and sent her slipping back into the Underworld forever. “Wait!” I would plead, “don’t go!” I would struggle to remain in that ethereal space with my mother, even as layer upon layer of dawning consciousness separated us further. When my eyes finally opened I would be alone and abandoned all over again, tasting bitterness and real tears.

In my senior year of college, my roommate and I went to a psychic fair on a whim.  It was one of those crowded events at the local convention center where you chose a reader, paid a nominal fee for a 15-minute reading, and stood in line to wait your turn. We were curious about past lives, so we chose a reader with that specialty. When I finally sat down at my reader’s table, her first words were not about past lives but past relatives. “There’s someone here who wants to speak to you,” she announced. “I can’t hear her name clearly, is it Millie?”

“It’s Mollie, I said, taken aback. “That’s my mother.”

“She wants you to know she’s OK.”

The message was almost as vague as her last-known written message to me, the one in which she expressed to my brother that I shouldn’t be such a typical teenager. Disappointed, I cut off further conversation and asked about the past lives, which seemed intriguing enough until I learned that my roommate, who was next in line, had an almost identical reading for one of the lives. I dismissed the entire incident as a fraud.

The most recent dream I had of my mother was a few years ago, shortly after I had started this blog. In the dream she had just read the second post—the incident with the hamster. She said positive things but had a few suggestions, until I pointed out that she was working from the wrong draft. She examined the correct draft and was pleased, saying encouraging things about my writing.  Most significant was her appearance: the hospital clothes that had long plagued my dreams were gone. In fact, her appearance was radiant. She looked to be in her 70s, older than she had been when she died, but younger than her actual age would have been had she lived. She had long, billowy back-lit blonde hair and wore stylish but comfortable clothes. When I awoke I realized that she had appeared as the actress Blythe Danner. I was curious as to why. My mother didn’t look at all like Blythe Danner, and she was of an older generation than her. Then I remembered that dreams sometimes embed meaning in words as well as images. There is of course the negatively connotated blithe, meaning happy indifference. But there’s also the word blythe, which according to Wikipedia derives from an Old English word meaning joyous, kind, cheerful, and pleasant, as in the last rhyme on the cookie tin I wrote about in a previous post: “The child who is born on the Sabbath day is bonny, blythe, good, and gay.” I’d like to think that the name associated with my mother in the dream was an indication of her current joyous state.  I speculate that her improved physical appearance in the dream means that my own wounds are healing, too. Still, her interactions with me continued to be warm but not overly emotional. Perhaps the deceased view their previous lives from an advanced perspective that minimizes familial connection. Or maybe they’re too busy navigating their new reality to sustain those old ties. The mother in my dreams has always radiated connection, just not a specific maternal one. If that’s the best indication of her well-being that I’m likely to receive from the the other side of the Veil, I’ll take it.

Edward Poyntner’s painting Orpheus and Eurydice (source: commons.wikipedia.org)

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