The Thirty-Seventh Letter: Generations of Women


Dear Daughters,

Yesterday, as I picked up a frowning, teary, and inexplicably needy just-turned-two year old, I heard myself asking her, What’s the problem? The way I said it was comforting, not accusing, a question more along the lines of, How can I help?

As baby girl leaned her face into my neck, pulling herself tight against me, I asked again without thinking about it: What’s the problem?

Then something surprising happened.

In my head, I heard the question repeat in my maternal grandmother’s voice. Clear as day. As if I’d heard it a million times before, though I don’t have any distinct memories of her saying it.

And then, as I listened to the reverberations of her imagined voice, I heard my mom’s voice saying it, too. What’s the problem?

I listened more, still holding baby girl, who had wrapped her legs around my waist, and the two voices–my grandmother’s, my mom’s–became indistinguishable.

Because they’re nearly the same voice.

Sometimes when I’m on the phone with my mom, I hear in my mom’s voice the distinct intonation that was my grandmother’s. Actually, I hear it most clearly when I listen to her speaking to you, probably because what I’m remembering is the way my grandmother spoke to me.

I remember once as a teenager listening to my mom and her three sisters visit during a holiday gathering. They all had the exact same laugh, it seemed to me, and even twenty years ago, I recognized in it my grandmother’s laughter. Grandma was still alive then.

Sometimes, when I answer the phone, your dad says to me, “You sounded just like your mom.

Sometimes, when I answer the phone, I myself can hear her voice come out of my mouth.

We named the eldest’s first babydoll “Elsie” because my mom’s first dolly was “Elsie” when she was a little girl. We have a photograph of my mom and her Elsie back in the 1950s. It’s amazing to me that Mom’s bright eyes and round cheeks foreshadow yours so strikingly, girls.

So much of what I think of as “me” as a child, I see in you. And the older I get, the more I realize much of the me part of me is really my mom. And that part of her has a lot to do with her mom.

Mother’s Day was Sunday. Yesterday was my mom’s birthday.

A few years ago, one of my dad’s sisters came to visit, a woman who of course had known my mother well when Mom was my age. They’d sat in many a church pew next to one another. While in town, Aunt Diana went to church with us, and later she told me that sitting next to me in the pew was like sitting next to a young Bonnie. She said my mannerisms were the same, the way I sat, the way I crossed my legs. Those details were just like my mom.

Nobody had ever mentioned those likenesses to me before.

Last weekend, I put a new pair of stretchy jeans on and stood before our full-length mirror, something I don’t do very often. I saw my mom looking back at me. I’m a lot taller than Mom, but it was uncanny. In fact, I came down the stairs and told your dad, “I look just like my mom.”

Girls, you and I come from strong women. Women of courage.

My grandma died before you were born, and because it was important to me that the eldest carry her name, I hear myself saying Grandma’s name all day long, day in and day out. And Grandma’s voice echoes to me each time I see you print those five letters on your artwork. You are so proud of being able to write your name.

In those early, hazy days of being a mom, when I felt like I was sinking rather than treading water in the ocean of parenthood, one of the few things that brought me comfort when rocking you or nursing you or bouncing you on the yoga ball was doing a very non-Protestant thing.

I talked to my grandmother about being a mom. My grandmother who was deceased.

I asked her to pray for me.

She had six kids, and the first three were really close together. I thought she must have known a thing or two about how I felt, exhausted, hormonal, focusing on getting through the minutes because the day as a whole was too overwhelming.

My mom was her firstborn. My first name is Grandma’s middle name.

I figured if Grandma could get through this thing called motherhood and end up the sane woman I knew her to be when I was a child, she could help me get through it, too.

And she did.

My mom tells me that the first time I crawled, it was because she was catering a meal at a church and was busy in the church’s kitchen. Mom had left me down the hall in the nursery, and she could hear that I was crying, but she couldn’t stop what she was doing and come to me. In a little while, here I came, still crying, but crawling out to find her.

I love that story.

Maybe the ending goes something like this:

Mom sees me crawling and crying, my face red and frustrated, my bottom lip sticking out the way both of you do when you’re sad. She washes her hands and walks over to me, and I pull myself up on her legs to stand. She picks me up. I lean my head on her shoulder, pull my body in tight, and wrap my legs around her waist. She rubs my back and asks me, her baby girl, “What’s the problem?

And maybe she hears her mother’s voice.


Your Momma