My mom was never easy. In fact, there was a period of years when we didn't speak. During that time, she got lymphoma. She would beg me to come see her, insisting she would be civil, that it was all my problem, that it was in my head, that she had plenty of friends who loved her, so what was wrong with me?
I kept saying no, but she was getting sicker and sicker. A year and a half ago, we made a truce. And I decided I would visit.
Problem was, I was sure she had demonized me with all these friends of hers. The daughter that wouldn't visit, wouldn't write. Wouldn't call.
At the Blue Ribbon Diner, my mother's Cheers, I met eight ladies clutching their purses hard under their arms as we waited for a table. There was mom's best friend Hannah, who had worked at Victoria's Secret for 22 years; Sheila, who retired with mom from GE in 1984; Sue, who went with mom to the Fussbudgets, an investor's club for penny-pinching seniors. All these longtime friends gathered around, hanging on her every word. She was the center of their universe, or that's how it seemed.
So, we had lunch together, all of us. It became the routine. Take mom to the dollar store where she'd complain about the prices, then over to the Blue Ribbon for lunch with her friends, where they'd wave for endless refills on coffee, tip badly and leave.
Then I'd come back to Boston, wondering if there was any connection between my mother and I, at all.
Meanwhile, she'd be back in New York, fighting her fight. Hanging with her peeps at the Ribbon.
When my mom died, we all stood outside her room at the nursing home. The women surrounded me, a weepy circle of white-haired ladies. When I told them Mom wanted no ceremony, no services of any kind, they looked at me, lost. It was her last unselfish, selfish act.
There was only one solution: One more lunch at the Blue Ribbon, in honor of mom. We met there the following weekend. While flags at dollar stores flew at half mast, we ordered our eggs and bagels and coffee. Hannah started to talk about my mom. She'd actually written something up: things to remember about mom—her favorite color, her favorite movie, ice cream. I began to panic as I realized I'd shown up with nothing, no eulogy, not even an idea of what to say. They went around the circle, each saying nice things about her, until it was my turn.
I fell silent.
Hannah turned to me. She took my hand, her tiny one so light on mine. She said, "Don't worry, you don't have to say anything."
"I don't?" I whispered.
She said, "Erica, your mom always said she was a terrible mother."
The table grew quiet.
"You didn't know that?" Sue said.
I shook my head, staring at my eggs but not seeing them.
"There's nothing that you have to explain to us," Sheila said. "She always said she knew she wasn't a good mother, and that she never understood how she ended up with such a wonderful daughter. Maybe it's time you knew that."
There was a beautiful terraced rose garden in a nearby park where the ladies would go for a stroll after lunch at the Ribbon. We buried mom's ashes there, next to a bench where they would often stop and rest, so that Mom could listen to them talking and laughing, as long as they were alive.