I got an e-mail yesterday telling me that my friend’s mother, who was also my friend, died last week unexpectedly. The e-mail came from her own account, and I was used to receiving updates on her family, but the subject line was “Sheila” – her name – and I was uneasy even before I opened the message to confirm the unwelcome news.
My relationship with their family started when I was in college. I remember meeting Mary in the student union when one of us was with mutual friends and the other one wandered by. Even at that first meeting something was so funny that I think one of us accidentally snorted. Ladylike behavior has never been our best thing. I don’t really know what happened next, but soon I had also inherited Paul, Mary’s boyfriend, who treated me like a little sister, helping me move from crummy dorm room to dismal student apartment, and glowering at any sub-par dates I brought around. (Paul is 6’4″ and an army vet; he glowers very effectively.) One weekend they took me with them when they went to see Mary’s parents in Cincinnati. Jerry and Sheila welcomed me in, and at the end of the weekend as we carried our duffels out the door, I was ordered to return. I did, always with Mary at first and later sometimes without her.
I’m reading a novel by Jodi Picoult right now, and one of the characters is an elephant researcher. This afternoon I got to a bit where it explains the concept of allomothering.
It’s common among many mammals, Wikipedia says, and is the care of infants or children by members of the group that aren’t the actual parents. You’ve probably experienced this at things like bonfires, when you’re with a group of people you know, and the kids are all running in a pack. You’re talking to the other parents, and if you don’t have your eye on your kids every second, it’s okay. If they get too close to the fire, someone will yank them back, and you know this because you just stopped one of their toddlers from eating a dead bug. In a biological context, it seems always to refer to very young offspring, but I think Sheila was allomothering me in my twenties.
I was a little bit of a mess right then. I was badly missing my dad, but pretending I was fine. I’m not sure my denial fooled anyone but me. I spent a lot of time mad at my mom for things that weren’t her fault, and for things that she didn’t do perfectly, even though she was doing the best that she could. I was NOT a kid anymore, and trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I could handle things. All the things. By myself. My twenty-year-old self bore a remarkable resemblance to the toddlers I would later attempt to parent.
But there was Sheila, and she thought I was great, and it was mutual, and we didn’t have any history of disappointing one another over the years. So I made the trips to Cincinnati and knocked on the door.
Oh, you’re here, you’re here! she said. I’m so glad to see you. It’s been SO LONG. Take your stuff up to your room and then come down and have something to eat. This was all before she stopped hugging my neck. There was, to me, a slightly chaotic affectionate glow permeating the whole house, and I laid back into it like a warm bath.
After college, Paul and Mary got married, and I was around a lot for that, and then I got married and they all drove up for the wedding, even Jerry’s mom, the indomitable Grandma Lee. And then visits got less frequent because kids and jobs and life. But always, always, if I was near Cincinnati I called, and went by if I could. My husband and I stopped last October and had a visit with Sheila and Jerry on our way back home from a weekend away.
I’d been feeling a little dumb about how sad I am over Sheila’s death. She’s not my mom. She’s not even my aunt, or a cousin. But it was finally clear to me when I read about the allomothering elephants (which sounds like a swear but is not). She’s not my mom. But she mothered me a little while when I thought I didn’t need that anymore, and desperately did.
I’m so sad that I’ll never open the door again to see Sheila in her foyer with her collies. But even more, I’m grateful that I got to see that over and over again, and I’m honored to be among the people who will miss her.