The Arc of My Mother’s Brow

We called ourselves the Dead Mothers Support Group or DMSG for short. If there was a touch of the macabre in the name, that was okay with us. Losing our moms as kids had been devastating. Why sugarcoat it? We were Harvard grad students who came together inside a dingy lecture hall to swap stories and cry. When it was my turn, I talked about who my mother had been–a painter with a sharp eye for beauty.

As a semi-tomboy, I sat cross-legged at her feet before school, watching her go through her makeup routine. It was an exhaustive process that began with an eye stick, incorporated a scary eyelash curling device and ended with tiny silver tweezers. She was particularly careful with her brows, always following their natural line, tweezing only what was necessary. Sometimes she noticed me and our eyes met. It was as if we were from foreign countries, me in my sloppy pony tail, she with every hair in place.

I lost my painter mother when I was 16. She had had a mastectomy six years before and the cancer had gone into remission. But several years later it resurfaced. By the time I was in high school, she was battling exhaustive treatments and endless medications. Too sick to paint by then, her makeup routine became her only creative outlet.

Sharing stories with the women of the DMSG was cathartic. This was just before Hope Edelman’s landmark book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss opened the discussion, so the opportunity to talk to other women who understood was rare and profound. In addition to loss, we spent a lot of time talking about how to mother ourselves. While some women had managed to power through their grief, at 26 I still felt stuck in mine. My primary goal back then, via yoga, therapy and daily journaling, was to manage my sadness. Every day I asked my journal the same question: When will I be through with these tears?

The answer seemed to be “Never.”

No matter how hard I worked, the tears kept coming. Whenever they arrived, I retreated to an empty room at my office or holed up in my apartment. As I let the tears roll through me, I hated the heavy, cumbersome feelings of loss. I wanted to be someone else, the kind of person who could stuff it all down and make it disappear. I was angry at grief for taking so long to complete itself. “Screw emotional health,” I told my therapist. I didn’t want that; I wanted sweet, serene denial. I longed to be the kind of person who had small, tidy feelings–so small I could lose track of them altogether.

When the pain finally began to lessen in my early 30s, I was tentatively overjoyed. I thought maybe it was a result of acupuncture, lying for a half hour with carefully placed needles in my skin. Or maybe it was the blue-green algae–nature’s superfood, with a complete list of amino acids that promised to alter the body’s chemistry on a cellular level. That’s what I wanted: to obliterate each grieving cell and replace it with a fully recovered one. Ideally one that had never experienced sadness in the first place.

Who knows what was helping, but eventually my mornings spent crying diminished. I found a steady job, formed a strong circle of friends and bought a house. When I was 33 I met my partner, a woman I had fallen for in college but had been too consumed with grief to pursue  as a lover. I moved to California and settled into her house on the side of a hill, beneath leaning Monterey pines. The exquisite feeling of being in love bloomed inside me. It was a fierce and powerful thing, and slowly, year by year, my grief became smaller and smaller.

Ten years later, when I was 44, I thought maybe, just maybe, I had gotten past it. As the annual anniversary of my mother’s death approached, a time when I normally felt a heightened sense of sadness, I felt lighter. But this wasn’t just any anniversary: I was now the age my mother had been when she died, an age I wasn’t convinced I’d reach. I was now poised to outlive her. To soothe myself, I made an appointment for a massage. At the last minute, unaccountably, I added an eyebrow waxing. I had never altered my eyebrows before or, for that matter, even taken a good look at them. And when I did, what I saw were two unkempt and overgrown strips.

When I arrived for my brow waxing, I got cold feet. I warned the aesthetician that I had never done this before. “Please don’t change much,” I begged, explaining that I liked my eyebrows thick. While she smoothed on a warm solution of wax and then a second later yanked it off, I imagined pruned little trails, the kind that looked great above many women’s eyes but that I couldn’t imagine above mine.

When she was done, she handed me the mirror. I took a breath and peered at my reflection. My brows were still there, thick and dark, but something was different. That’s when it hit me: In just twenty minutes, the wax had unearthed the arc of my mother’s brow. That was her line, her slight curve.

I touched the pink, stinging skin. It wasn’t until I lay on the massage table several minutes later that the tears began to fall. The massage therapist said nothing as I sniffed and asked for a tissue.

Photo of the author and her mother

 

 

Comments

  1. Loved this post. Just emailed it to my sister. Thank you for your words.

  2. We just celebrated my mom’s 70th birthday. I am so grateful to have her healthy and vibrant. I sometimes try on the grief of losing my mother and the devastation is too much to bear. I really can’t imagine it. I’m 37. I still need my mom. I too used to sit on the steps right outside the bathroom as my mother put on her makeup. I treasure those moments. I sat there my whole young life, even through high school. it’s really those little moments that build a life.

  3. Carita Anderson says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Beautifully written. It resonates with me, even as the circumstances of the loss of my mother are very different. Congratulations on reaching that milestone. You made it!

  4. wow, just beautiful. I’ve read so many stories about women who lost their mothers young, as I’ve spent the past three years of my life documenting four women’s journeys for a documentary (the club). I am currently in London filming and had a motherless mothers day with two of our subjects and my co-director (also motherless)… a perfect way to spend today.
    Just wanted to reach out and thank you for your words, truly beautiful insights into this profound loss and to also let you know about our film, you can watch our trailer here if interested: http://vimeo.com/39598430

  5. Leah Fisher says:

    Very moving. I love the image of those eyebrows!. As a reader, I rejoice with you in the triumph of your living past the age at which your mother died. You carry her in the arc of your brow and in your heart. Beautiful.

  6. Wonderful article (sniff). I too remember my mom’s make-up ritual. She had to do this even the last time I drove her to the hospital before she passed away last month. Thank you for describing your feelings in such a heartfelt way.

  7. Thanks for reading my piece. I really enjoyed the trailer to your film – very powerful. If you lose your mom as a kid, it really does feel like a ‘club.’ It felt like a deeply buried or secret club to me until I found community.

  8. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and powerful story. You have reminded me how much I learned from my mother over the years. Losing her to cancer when I was 32 was very difficult, but we had the opportunity to know each other as adults. Your essay has reminded me how lucky we were to have that time together.

  9. A powerful glimpse into a woman’s defining past. Leslie, you have a gift. Thank you for conveying your story with words and images we all know and feel.

  10. A beautiful, moving, well written piece. I love the photo of the author and her mother; it is so sweet and, at the same time, a reminder of this devastating, painful loss. Thank you for your honesty and sharing.

  11. a moving tribute to your mother leslie..woven so beautifully in everyday actions like observing your eyebrow for the first time — i love it…x x

  12. p.s. i see her face in yours now x

  13. Thanks to all for your comments to my essay and for the stories you shared. For me, writing is a practice in compassion and connection, with myself and the larger world. Thanks for making it so worth it!

  14. This was beautiful. I am moved to tears. Memories of those cherished moments with your mother is precious. A mother/daughter relationship is so special, and when it is lost, it is so painful. Thank you for sharing your grief & your healing. Thank you for sharing your poignant & beautifully written story of the profound discovery (that) you shared more in common & likeness with your mother than you had ever thought or known–the fine detail of the arc of HER brow…..beautiful. (loved the photo, too!)

  15. Wow, thanks for putting those feelings into words. I can’t imagine loosing a parent at that age. I am a counselor in a high school and work with many students. The loss of a parent leaves an amazingly large hole. I don’t think an anniversary of a death of our Mothers will ever pass without deep thoughts and feelings, memories and odd physical sensations.
    Having a group with people in like circumstances is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Especially females with our need to talk and share. Stories can be so healing! Thanks for sharing yours!

  16. margarita donnelly says:

    As a motherless daughter who lost her Mom at 15–I am now 70 and have reached the point where the anniversary of my mother’s death is not as difficult as it used to be. It is hard to explain to those who never lost a mother young what it means. I still have no role model for what my daughter has needed all her life and what she needs from me as a grandmother–I work hard to be what I think she needs, but am never quite sure why she still needs me, since I never had that experience at her age. I work through it all with love and hope for the best.

  17. Malenka Cohen says:

    Thank you for writing and posting this. Its such a powerful read. If anyone knows of a support group for women who’ve lost their fathers, please reply.

  18. Thanks for this. My mother died when I was 18, so I know exactly how it feels to be a motherless child. I’m so jealous of people who have the opportunity to know their mothers as adults. When my mother died at 43 after a very long illness (she was on dialysis from the time I was 5 until her death) we were JUST getting to a non-antagonist relationship where we could enjoy each other and relate as two people who except one another as-is. It was, and still seems, so incredibly unfair. I am 31 now and literally think of her every single day. When people flippantly say “time heals all wounds” or something similar, I always think: please don’t say that to a motherless child (or a parent that has lost a child) like you know what you are talking about.

    • Thanks Niala. I know what you mean here. When people say those cliches without actually walking in our shoes , it feels empty, sometimes offensive. I think it’s great that you did get to a kind of clear place with your mom. Of course, you wish you had more time to be together and to experience your reconciled relationship, but what a gift to have gotten to the other side of that antagonism. All my best, Leslie

  19. Caitlin says:

    I lost my mother to inflammatory breast cancer when I was 12. We had an absolutely phenomenal relationship, and it really just destroyed me. No one has ever understood me as well as she did. I’m still recovering from it, and I’m at the point in my life when my friends are getting married and contemplating starting families, and I realize just how much I still have to realize that I miss her and wish she could be here for me during all these milestones in my life. Getting back to a good, balanced place emotionally has taken me a long time (I’m 21), and I’m still not over the unfairness of it all, but I do know that I can survive anything, as I’ve survived the loss of my mom.

    • My heart goes out to you Caitlin and you’re right – if you’ve survived the loss of your mom, you’ve survived a lot. And I hear what you mean about not having your mom around for life’s big milestones. That’s a significant sadness. In my life, I’ve learned to slowly cultivate other relationships to counterbalance my loss. They weren’t exactly substitutes but in a way, they were. Friendships mean more to me because of the loss of my mom. Family connections mean more to me too. All motherless daughters deserve to be nurtured and seen and celebrated. Our moms want that for us. Lastly, I developed a close connection with myself through writing and this too, has been a way I survived my loss and learned to live joyfully. All the best, Leslie

  20. Enjoyed your story very much. I too lost my mom to breast cancer in 2002 and at times I hear her in my laughter or in my sense of humor. I used to think that the grief over her death was something that I got over. I realize now that it’s always with me – I just pretend at times that I can ignore it. The funny thing is, (as in funny irony) when it revisits me…I cherish the visit, because it is in those moments of being gripped by the loss, even momentarily, that I can recall her the most. And that is a gift.

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