The Gifts of 'Missing Mothers'

This week I have been posting excerpts from the prologue to my recently published memoir Missing Mothers. In the prologue I convey the lifelong sadness I have felt as a woman who lost her mother when she was so young (six years) that she struggles to remember her.  I describe the gratitude I feel upon unexpectedly receiving letters she wrote a few years before she died. I recount all that I come to understand from these letters, about my mother and myself, that I had never known before. The book is not only about my experience as a bereaved daughter. It relates my experience as an adoptive mother whose children have also lost their birth mothers, as well as their birth cultures.  I acknowledge my grief about failing to give birth to children who would have a biological connection to my mother. But when I meet my children, I fall in love. I endeavor to provide them with the childhood I didn’t have myself.  Parenting is humbling, I soon find out, and my efforts to be a perfect mother often fall short.

A book isn’t worth reading unless the protagonist grows. In my book, I am the protagonist. And I do grow. Often it is my children who are my teachers.  I learn that my children have different attitudes toward the loss of their birth mothers than I do, perhaps because of our different personalities or because they never spent much time with their birth mothers after they were born.  I consider the different choices each of my children makes as regards their birth countries. My husband and I travel to the countries where each was born, seeking to understand their cultural ancestors.

As my story unfolds, it is intertwined with my lifelong struggle with maternal loss. But it ends as it began, when I again receive an unexpected gift which evokes both gratitude and understanding.

My reasons for writing Missing Mothers are complicated. I wrote it to better understand myself and to be better understood by others. I wanted to honor the mother I couldn’t remember and the father who raised me and my siblings in the face of unthinkable loss. As I wrote the book, I realized that it also honored my children, who have endured their own sets of challenges. Finally, I wanted to write the best book I could to entertain and inspire readers I will likely never meet.

My heart is filled with gratitude toward all of you who have read my posts for She Climbs Mountains. I hope you will also read the book.

Martha, daughter of Jean


'Missing Mothers' Prologue - The Letters - 2009 (Part 3)

These are mundane discoveries. No family secrets are divulged, no buried scandals. Yet to me they are golden because these letters tell the story of how my mother became a mother. And it is fitting that she is telling this story to Nancy, who is six years younger and not yet married.  Will Nancy remember her words when she is entrusted with mothering Jean’s baby boy?

I read the letters again, more slowly the second time. More soberly. My image of my mother has been vastly altered. I have always viewed her as a tragic figure, a mother who died young, whose children either never knew her or can’t remember her. But these letters reveal that her life is unfolding according to plan. It will be her family and friends who suffer a catastrophe when she dies suddenly.

On this March evening,  I finally stop reading. I turn my gaze to the window and stare at the familiar trees lined up like sentries across our back yard, surrounded by crusty piles of late-winter snow. I listen to the rustle of wind spreading through the branches, highway noise in the distance as commuters return home from work. Behind the trees lies Crooked Lake, spreading outward like a cloak. I have lived on this Minnesota lake with my husband and children for over thirty years.  I am temporarily living alone while John volunteers as a physician at a refugee camp in Rwanda. My children are grown.

A familiar feeling washes over me, as if rising up from beneath the quiet waters, a feeling of sorrow so great its strength weakens me, sinking my shoulders from the heaviness. The letters aren’t enough to assuage this grief. But they are a precious gift.

I run my hands over the smudged stationery, embossed with pink and grey flowers and feathers. I stare at the elegant handwriting gently tilting rightward. I press my nose against an oily stain.  I lift the stack and carefully put it back in the manila envelope. Then I place this unexpected gift against my chest, this envelope which contains long-lost memories of me and my mother, when I was a little girl and she was still alive.

Martha, daughter of Jean

missing mothers.jpg

'Missing Mothers' Prologue - The Letters - 2009 (Part 2)

And what do I learn about this little girl?

That she loved to dress up in the finery her aunt sent every birthday, to carry a blue purse, to pose for photos in her new green jumper.

That she won’t walk outside when presented with her first snowfall, afraid to get her shoes dirty. She insists her mother carry her.

That a favorite pastime is standing on a stool in front of a window, watching for the neighbor’s dog.  Her papa made the stool.

That she likes the pull toy Nancy sent, but that Papa fixed it so it wouldn’t keep getting tangled up.

That, at age four, she can’t carry a tune, despite her musical mother’s best efforts to teach her.

That her parents sometimes leave her with a babysitter named Mrs. Miller when they go to Papa’s family farm in Wisconsin or to a football game in Chicago with their college friends.

That she quickly grows bored with her new baby brother.

That Papa is “still partial to Martha” after brother Tommy arrives.

And what do I learn about my mother?

That she likes to talk about clothes. That she goes “all out” on an Easter outfit, after Tommy is born.

That she boasts good-naturedly about having her way with her husband, talking him into buying a new rug and painting the living room, insisting that she is going to drive the new car.

That she exchanges gossip about the love lives of his four unmarried brothers.

That she fishes for details of Nancy’s love life.

That she has a Singer Featherweight Portable sewing machine and recommends this brand to Nancy.

That Nancy sent her a monogrammed thimble for her birthday. “When I saw that blue box, I couldn’t imagine what I could be getting from Tiffany’s,” she writes. “It was a very thoughtful gift. I have already used it. Martha thinks that the thimble should be hers.”

Most of her writing centers upon her children.

She chronicles their modest achievements. “Everyday she does something new.” “She isn’t as much work as formerly because she eats what we do. She won’t let me feed her anymore, wants to hold her own spoon.” “Martha says quite a few words now.” “Tommy pulls himself up.” “Tommy gets cuter everyday.”

She sees herself as the central figure in their lives. “I’m the only one who understands her tho,” she says of my nascent vocabulary.

About Tommy she says, “Nobody holds him much because he spits up all of the time. Except his mommy.”

She worries about Tommy’s thumbsucking and about me starting school when I am only four, since I have an October birthday.

She goes to a school meeting to learn how to prepare children for kindergarten.

She often refers to me as “Martha Ellen.”

Regarding motherhood, she thinks “the first year is the hardest.”

After Tommy is born, she writes, “I can’t believe I have two children to my name.”

Martha, daughter of Jean


'Missing Mothers' Prologue - The Letters - 2009 (Part 1)

Not even stopping to remove my coat, I rush into the living room and sink into a chair near the wide picture window. Removing the first letter from its envelope, I start to read hungrily, like a starving pauper. I open the next envelope, then another. I smile. I cry. Once or twice I stop to wipe my eyes. But immediately I start reading again, unable to squelch this impulse to imbibe every drop of what these letters hold. I don't stop reading until I have read every last word.

A few minutes earlier I had arrived home from work and was surprised to discover in my mailbox a manila envelope from Cleveland, from my Aunt Nancy.  When I tore it open, out fell approximately twenty yellowed envelopes. A note in Nancy’s neat handwriting was attached on top.

“Martha, your cousin Carol found these when she was helping me clean out my attic. When I first moved to Cleveland, your mother and I used to exchange letters quite often. Jean wrote these between 1949 and ’53. I wonder if you would be interested in them? I put them in order for you. Love, Aunt Nancy.”

When I was six years old, my mother died. It was as if she walked out the door, locking it behind her, taking with her the key. Now, the door locked so long ago appears to have cracked open. My mother has reentered the room.

“Now the fun begins.” starts the first line of the earliest letter, written in 1949, about a week after I turned one year old. It appears to be a thank you letter to Nancy for a birthday gift. The letter goes on to say that I have just awoken from a nap and that Mother probably won’t be able to continue writing. She implies that I am a bit of a handful.

Me! The responsible oldest child and only daughter? It strikes me that these letters not only paint a portrait of my mother but also of me, the little girl who likely spent more time with her mother than anyone else did in the years right before she died. The little girl who has never heard herself described in her mother’s voice. That little girl is the central figure in every letter, at least until her brother is born.

Martha, daughter of Jean


Weekly Feature - Martha Birkett Bordwell

My mother, Jean Sargent Birkett, died in childbirth when I was six years old. Because I was so young, and perhaps because of trauma, I can’t remember her. I must rely on the recollections of others, a situation that has troubled me my entire life. I know that she grew up in Red Wing, Minnesota, the second of five children; that her family struggled to make ends meet; that she had a lovely singing voice, so talented that she briefly considered a career as a professional singer; that she and my dad met at the University of Wisconsin, where she obtained a degree in social work. I look more like my dad than I do my mother, but from photos I figure we share a similar body type. I credit her for my shapely feet. I am told by relatives that my voice and my walk remind them of her. I became a psychologist, which is closely aligned with social work. I suspect she was an introvert, as I am. Partly because of my failure to remember my mother, I wrote a book about her. (The book is also about my experience as an adoptive mother). The book is titled Missing Mothers. I wanted others to remember her, even if I couldn’t. Over the course of this week, I will be sharing the prologue of the book which I believe effectively captures my experience, and hopefully the experience of other women, who spend a lifetime longing for their mothers.

Martha, daughter of Jean

Weekly Feature - Martha Bordwell.jpg

Thoughts for My Motherless Sisters on Thanksgiving

contributed by Christine Friberg

Yesterday as I traveled with my husband and four children back to my home state of IL to celebrate Thanksgiving with my two brothers and their families, I imagined the millions of people around the country embarking on their journeys to be with loved ones — many going ‘home’ to be with family, others traveling towards partners or friends. Of course, some of us in our community are taking this literal journey, but I also imagine that many more of us are at least taking a figurative journey in our minds and hearts to the years of ‘before’. To me, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ my mom’s death feel heavier at the holidays, and Thanksgiving feels especially challenging since the expectation is to be grateful and give thanks. And being grateful and giving thanks are not always easy emotions to conjure up when we might feel overwhelmed by loneliness, sadness, anger, fear, grief, and/or all of the above.

For some of us, it will be many years since we last celebrated Thanksgiving with our moms and we will move through the day and be ok, maybe even great. For others, it will be many years since we last celebrated with our moms and we will have an undeniable urge to fall on our knees sobbing and begging for her to come back to us, and maybe we will even give in to this urge. Still others of us will be celebrating Thanksgiving without our moms after a more recent loss or maybe for the first time and we will smile through it and be surprised when the day ends and we realize that we were ok or even better than ok. And then there will be others of us that are celebrating after a more recent loss or for the first time and we just can’t make it through the day without losing it over and over again. Certainly, all of this can be complicated by other family dynamics or losses or (insert life challenge here). Wherever you might fall within this spectrum and whatever other experiences you might be carrying with you, here is what I want you to know: you are not alone. On this day when you might not feel up to meeting the expectations of Thanksgiving, you are being held up by many many other women who ‘get it’ and understand. You are a part of a community that is connected in a deep and meaningful way and this — this is powerful. What strikes me is that this is truly something we can all be grateful for — each other.

Today, I want you to know that I am thankful for all of you and for the sisterhood that we share because of our dear mothers.

Sharing Our Stories: Loss. Then and Now.

contributed by Clara Brunner Doerr Johnson


My name is Clara Brunner Doerr Johnson and I am a Motherless Daughter. My Mother was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 1990 when I was only three years old. Over the next 14 years her cancer returned in many forms. In the end, it had spread to her liver. I was 17 years old when my Mother died. That was 13 years ago.

There are two entries below. One journal entry was written by me at age 17, the day after my Mother died. I've added a few details to clarify that entry for those who don’t know me well, but have kept the wording, grammar and structure the same for authenticity. The other is a reflection I wrote 13 years later, this year. My hope with this piece is to provide a reflection on life after losing your mother, specifically to those who have lost their mothers more recently. To share my journey so far, and what I’ve learned since it all happened. To remind you, you aren't alone, and that above all, you can get through this.


March 13th, 2004

Dear Journal,

The worst possible thing happened last night, my dear sweet mother, the person I love more than life itself, died last night, Friday, March 12th, 2004, age 47, at about 8 PM. I haven't written for a while and that is because everything started going downhill on Tuesday. I came home from school and knew she wouldn't be there because Tuesday is the day she goes in for a check up and usually for treatment. When Mike (my step dad) called me and told me mom was going to have to stay the night at the hospital, I knew right then that it was going to happen soon. I hate that I was thinking that, but I was trying to prepare myself. So anyway, she spent Tuesday and Wednesday night there and then Thursday morning we knew that she would be happiest if she were at home. So we brought her home (we had Hospice there to help) and she made it through the night, but that morning we knew it was getting close because her hands had grown cold. So a little before 8 o'clock, Dylan (my brother), Mike, Laura (mom's best friend) and I were sitting around her, holding her hands, watching the home video of Stella's (our family dog) puppies birth and I remember us all laughing for some reason and then Mike, Dylan and Laura were all about to get up and do something when I looked at her and realized she had stopped breathing. We all hovered around her and cried for about an hour. I saw her face change in about two seconds. I saw the moment her spirit left her body, because when it did her face grew tighter, her hands turned whiter, and she was gone. After she stopped breathing I was holding her hand and she moved it onto her lap, it was the most movement she had made in about a day and a half, it was her last grasp for life. Everything was perfect. She was at home. She got to talk to her mom one last time before she could no longer talk, everyone who loved her was either able to come and sit with her or at least send her vibes or love and strength. People were coming and going those last few days. Sitting with her, holding her hand, telling her how wonderful she was, what a great job she had done in this world, and how much they loved her. We even got a hold of her family in Switzerland. They told us to tell her they were sending their love through the wind. She got to spend her last night at home surrounded by love and that last day we could hardly leave her side. There were so many flowers brought and we had her orchids out with her too (my mother was an avid orchid collector). It looked like Spring. The last words she said to Dylan and I before she couldn't talk anymore were, "I love you guys." She also had told us the day before, when she was fully aware and able to talk freely, that she would always be with us, watching over us and that she would try and send any signs to us to let us know she was still with us. She said she would be our guardian angel.

I'm debating whether to give every detail and I actually think it's best to leave it like this. She fought what seemed almost every year of MY life and she had a great battle. It was just time for her to let go. Where she has gone is a much happier place where she's probably sitting on a beach in the form and way she liked most throughout her lifetime, and she is surrounded by all those she had to say goodbye to. She's with her dad, with my dad, with my dad's dad (Grandpa), with Dan Fox (Laura's husband), with Pepper, with Wally (Grandpa's brother), with Dennis (Rita's husband), she's with Dudley and Willie (family pets) and everyone she's ever loved who she lost, and although she is no longer with us with her body, she will always be with us in spirit. She left a part of her self in each and every one of us. She will live on forever and that is in our hearts. I'm so grateful to have had her as my mother. I don't think anyone could've taught me as much as she had. No one could ever have done a better job. It's going to be so hard to go on without her presence, but I can't be selfish because she's in a much better place now, free of pain. I love her more than anything in this world and always will. The hardest thing for me will be that she won't be at home every day when I come home. She won't be in the kitchen cooking breakfast, smiling because it's another beautiful day. I won't be able to cry in my mommy's arms when I'm scared, but I will always remember the times that I did get all of those things and all of those moments will forever be in my memory. I am so lucky to have had Carol Anita Brunner as my mom. She represents so much good in this world and I'll never forget anything she ever taught me. She'll be with me everywhere I go and that is what will keep me going on. I love you mom.

August 29th, 2017

A Reflection

While of course I have many beautiful and happy memories of my mother growing up, I also have the looming memories that my Mom was always sick. After reading this entry from thirteen years ago, I was a bit shocked and taken aback at first by the acceptance in my words as a 17-year-old regarding the death of a parent. However, thinking back on my lifetime with her, it is a clear indication through this journal entry, I really had accepted my mother was going to die. I was ready to stop hoping for a miracle, ready to stop holding onto her when I knew I needed to let go of her eventually. This was a constant fear I had while growing up for as long as I can remember. The weight of fourteen years of worry and fear had finally lifted. This acceptance saddens me, but it also makes sense to me. Until I read this again, I hadn't remembered how long this whole process took. In my memory it took fourteen years, and in a way it did, but factually, it was only a Tuesday through Friday--only four days I knew with certainty that I was going to lose my Mother. Only four days to really accept the reality of my life and the changes that would take place. Four days of watching my Mother change from one form to another. I still grapple with the feeling that I was lucky to have had time to prepare for this event, yet completely unlucky to have gone through this at all, for so long, and at such a young age.

Thirteen years ago I didn't know the stages and forms grief would take hold of me throughout my life and how it can affect each person so differently. After my mother passed, each new exciting or sad experience has caused conflicting feelings and thoughts about how and where my life could have gone had she still been alive. In particular, I didn't know that one day shy of the eleven-year anniversary of my mother's death, my daughter would be born and when I myself became a mother, I would experience grief in an unimaginable way. There was a sadness and mourning for my mother which felt almost worse than the day it happened. A sadness that, at the time, I didn't think I could get through, but I did. At the end of these darker and sometimes unbearable forms of grief, I have learned more about myself and about life. Grief has taught me that I am strong, that I am capable, and it has taught me that this precious life is worth fighting for.

In rereading this entry from thirteen years ago, my current self feels guilty and sad, but also grateful. Guilty for welcoming this event so willingly, at the time, yet sadness for the pain of loss which all humans will go through, and grateful. While I never could have imagined feeling grateful as a result of this unimaginable event, I have found it through this loss and the journey my life has taken because of this experience. Looking at this entry and reflecting on the path my life has lead me on, I can see the roller coaster of grief that I've ridden. I can't know when the next dip will come or when it will ride smooth again. What I do know is that my grief has lead me to be the person I am today. It brought me a closeness with family and friends that had never existed before. Ironically, it also brought me love. I met my first boyfriend through a mutual connection of losing a parent. It also brought me the love of my life, my husband. We met at a wedding that I was involved in because the bride and groom gifted a donation towards an organization I was working with, in honor of my mother. It has also influenced my approach as to how I live my life and how I care for my daughter and my family. It has taught me to love harder and to cherish more the family and friends that surround me.

I would bring my mother back in an instant if I could, but I can't. So, I will take the strength I have gained from this experience and move forward and continue to appreciate the wonderful life that my mother gave me and the lessons my mother is still teaching me, even today.

To my 17-year-old-self... “She will always be with you, she is still teaching you, you will get through this. One day at a time.”