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

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'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

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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: Happy Birthday, Mom (Part 4 of 4)

contributed by Stacy Sollin

first published 6/2/17 on her blog Present In This Moment

Today is my Mom's 61st birthday.

This morning as I was getting ready for work, I told myself that it was okay to have a good day today. It was okay to enjoy the day, to celebrate, to be happy. As I thought about this intention I set for myself, my emotions wavered. How can I find good in today when I've been robbed of my Mother?

Since leaving for college, there were many birthdays that we didn't celebrate together, but I always sent a card and filled it with compliments and love and told her that I wish we were celebrating together or that we will celebrate the next time we're together. In all those years I never imagined that our time was limited, that she would leave this life so damn early.

I posted the below on FB for her last birthday Earth side in 2014, just about a month before I visited home and instinctively knew that something was really wrong with her health. She was gone 6 months later. This was my last birthday wish to her...

Happy birthday to my beautiful, wonderful, loving and caring Momma! I am so absolutely blessed to have you in my life and thank my lucky stars for you each day! I am beyond grateful that you were a stay at home momma while I was young. I have so many great memories of those days! :) Thank you for being a great role model to me, thank you for loving me unconditionally, thank you for always supporting me and thank you for always being there for me! I will always be your little girl! I love you so much, Mom!

I hate that she's not here, that our relationship was a little messed up and rocky before she passed, that I didn't get any big, last words from her. She was just gone without any closure. I hate missing her, I hate the pain of the grief. I hate not feeling her in a spiritual way. And I really hate the days like today where everyone is going about their life, but I am drowning, just trying to keep my head above water.

BUT, I am trying so hard to open my heart to finding joy and gratitude today. Today I can celebrate my Mom and her life. Today doesn't have to be sad, but I am allowed to be sad. I can spend the day with a lump in my throat and red eyes (or a runny nose and tear streamed face), but I am also allowed to feel joy and happiness. I can be grateful for the time I had with my Mom, even though it was not enough. My last birthday words to her still ring true. Truer than true. Maybe even more so now than they did that day.

I don't want the day to go by without doing something in her honor, so tonight we will toast to my Mom with her favorite drink, a fuzzy navel, and listen to oldies. We will celebrate her birthday like she's with us, because maybe she's closer now that she ever was those years that we were apart.

Sharing Our Stories: My Mother's Eulogy (Part 3 of 4)

contributed by Stacy Sollin

first published 12/14/15 on her blog Present In This Moment

Everything happened so fast. From the time you got sick until the time you passed. Our time together. Your time here on Earth. Your life. It feels like you were gone in an instant. And then that was it. And we went through the motions of planning your memorial service. Having you cremated. Picking out an urn. Writing your obituary. Picking out songs that you liked, that brought a smile to your face, and made us think of you. I thought about writing your eulogy then, but had no idea how I could. It was all so surreal. Writing your eulogy and speaking at your memorial service would make it real. How could this nightmare possible be real?  And I wasn't ready for that. I'm still not. And I don't know if you can read this or see or feel this in some way, shape, or form, but I want to do this for you. And I'm sorry that I couldn't do it at your service.


I don't know how to write this, but there are a lot of things I don't know now that she's gone.  I don't know how to explain it - it's just like there's this empty space now. I want this to be the perfect tribute to her, but I fear it won't be. I want to share every single detail about how special she was to me and to the world, but I know I'll miss something and what I remember to share, won't be enough. 

I don't know that she knew or realized how special she was. How great of a mom and a friend she was. How she could light up a room, how her laugh was loved, how much her smile was appreciated, how much her presence could warm hearts, and how much she was loved by so many, especially her family. Her heart was so beautiful. It is indescribable how kind and caring she was. Every creature on Earth had a place in her heart and she wished no harm onto anyone or anything. 

Mom was a strong and beautiful woman and her family was the center of her universe. Her love for us was fierce and unending, unconditional, and so patient. The way she loved me and my brother was  incredible. Always patient with us and cared for us so well. The only time we seem to remember her patience wearing thin was a particular time she was making apple pie and we always reminded her of that. I think it was the crust that was the problem. I just remember steering clear of the kitchen for awhile and I definitely don't remember having apple pie at any point later in that day. 

She was the perfect Mom. She was the perfect balance of everything - fun, discipline, joking, serious, everything. What a beautiful childhood and life I had thanks to her. My early memories are so precious to me because I was able to spend so much time with her. She was my first best friend. She was a stay at home Mom while I was a little one and I have countless memories of our days together. She was SO fun. We would watch our morning Nick Jr. shows together in the mornings and she would sing all the songs with me. We would play the organ together and sing along. I remember countless adventures out and about - we would walk to the library, the bakery for long john donuts, the V&S Variety store, and sometimes, we would go and "waste our money at Alco". And of course, I can't forget to mention the approximate one million times we probably watched Dirty Dancing together and I made her do the lift with me. She wasn't afraid to try new things with us either. One summer we got a 'Crocodile Mile Water Slide' and she didn't hesitate to give it a try.  She did, however, hesitate to try it a second time. 

As I grew older, very little in our relationship changed. She was still my best friend. She was still the person I knew I could turn to and always trust, who I could speak to without judgement, who loved me unconditionally and whom I loved unconditionally as well. She knew me better than anyone else. We still spent time together; trips to Aberdeen or Watertown, errands around town, adventures to Minneapolis as I got ready to leave for college, and just mundane time together together at home. 

She was always willing to go up to bat for us. If our feelings had been hurt, she was always more than willing to 'bitch slap' someone for us. It made us roll our eyes with love (like grown kids do) and laugh, but it was always appreciated when she asked if it was needed. It was her Momma Bear coming out, saying, "don't mess with my kids!". 

Mom loved music and I can attribute my oldies knowledge all to her. So many memories with her have a soundtrack of music on the radio. And her love for music was beyond the sound and the beat; she fell in love with songs because of the words. She always found the story in the song and perhaps that was why she was so passionate about having a copy of any song that she liked. Often times when I was home for a weekend, she would have a list of songs that she needed help finding on the internet so she could download them and listen to them whenever she desired. Another one of those things that would make me roll my eyes with love, but damn, I would give anything to have another afternoon with her, helping her search the internet for songs she could only remember a few words to. 

The mind is an awful grief support - it still hits like a ton of bricks that she's gone. There are days where it literally feels like I had amnesia and suddenly remember this awful, devastating fact.  I have missed her for 365 days now - not a day has passed that I haven't thought of her. Some days the memory comes and it just lingers in my mind and I make it through the day okay, but more often than not it comes with the most ginormous lump in my throat and pain in my heart that makes it feel like my world is standing still again. 

Everyone once in awhile, I'll hear myself and realize that I sound just like her.  It surprises me and makes me smile and breaks my heart at the same time. As time goes on, I realize that I am my Mother, something that we often joke about not wanting to happen. I've made that joke myself, but couldn't be more proud that I am her. She carried me into this world and gave me life; I have heard her heart beat from the inside. Her physical presence was my comfort for the first years of my life. Parts of me are parts of her - my soft heart, my sensitivity, my spirit, my intuition, the way I talk, and the way I laugh. And as I am 9 months pregnant with my first child, a little girl, I know that in the days, months, and years to come, I will see more and more of her in me and us, our relationship, in this next chapter of my life. I can only hope that I give my children the life and love that she gave me. That I am as patient as her and as fun and carefree as her. That my heart and smile are as warm as hers were for me. That they never question my unconditional love for them, as I never questioned her unconditional love for me. That they can find a best friend in me, just like I found my first and lifelong best friend in her. 

Momma, I hope you're at peace and happy, free of pain and suffering. That where ever you are is greater and more beautiful than anything you ever imagined. You're so loved and so missed here on Earth. I hope you know that you were a perfect Mom to us and I can't thank you enough for everything you did for me. I hope that we're reunited some day, but that in the mean time that I'll feel your presence eventually.

Sharing Our Stories: A Year (Part 2 of 4)

contributed by Stacy Sollin

first published 8/2/15 on her blog Present In This Moment

I've missed her everyday since she passed away. Some days it's only the knowledge that she's not here and other days its the giant lump in the throat, elephant on my chest feeling. It's still suffocating, still so uncomfortable and painful and re-realize that she isn't here.

I'd had more of the later recently and it dawned on me that it was literally to the day that she had called and left me a voicemail and at one point said, "...everything is okay...", which in the moment that I listened to it, knew nothing was okay. That day was the downward spiral to losing my Mom.

It feels like yesterday and eternity at the same time. How could all that have happened? How is it even possible? I miss her every. single. day. I feel the emptiness every. single. day. I am motherless on this Earth and there is no replacement, nothing to fill that void. Everything is so different without her. I am different without her. A part of me still doesn't feel like me. There's a sadness and loneliness that I fear will just never go away. Sometimes I look at myself and that's all I can see and wonder if it will ever go away. My heart is so softened to others that have lost a parent and it pains me to know that they may feel this same grief. I wouldn't wish this on anyone.

I am 5 months pregnant with her Granddaughter and I hate that I can't share any of this experience with her. I hate that she's not here. I have so many questions and things that I want to talk to her about. I want to hear all her stories from pregnancy. So many exciting things I want to tell her, ultrasound pictures that I want to show her. Things I need her advice on. And she's not here for any of it.

This will forever be the case. There will always be something that I want to share with her and want her to here for. Part of the reason why this grief will always be with me; I will always be reminded of her absence.

Sharing Our Stories: When The World Stands Still (Part 1 of 4)

contributed by Stacy Sollin

first published 12/1/14 on her blog Present In This Moment

My world came to a screeching halt on September 6th. The brakes had been on for several weeks...Mom not feeling well, not feeling right, really rundown, blood work abnormal, CT Scan, masses, biopsy...

The phone call from Mom made everything come to a complete standstill.

"It's Stage 4 cancer."

Seriously? How is this even possible? This is not how my life is supposed to go. This is not how things should be. She's supposed to be here. This isn't fair. This is wrong. Why is this happening?

My heart is broken. Absolutely fucking broken. I'm out of breath, yet still breathing. There's a constant lump in my throat. I feel only brief and infrequent moments of weightlessness until I remember. Until I realize that one of my greatest fears in life is currently my reality. That nothing will ever be the same. That my Mother will soon leave this Earth. The woman that I have loved, adored and admired all 29 years of my life. The woman that gave me love, comfort, laughs, smiles, and so much more since before the day I was born.

Why didn't the fucking chemo do anything? Why couldn't she have experienced any relief AT ALL? Why has she had to go through so much pain and discomfort? Why did this all happen so fast? Diagnosed in September and hospice in November...really?

I try to see the silver lining, to have faith that this is part of God's plan, to believe that the best is yet to come for her, that her eternity is better and greater for her than her life here, than my selfishness to want her here so damn badly. But my heart hurts, my frustration and anger rage, and I cannot come to peace with this. I'm not sure that I ever will.

And I absolutely cannot handle the fact that the world still spins. I'm so angry that everyone can just go about their lives, that this doesn't affect them, too. How unfair is that? Talking about how great things are, how awesome everything is. About how they had such great time doing this or doing that. Maybe I'm most upset with those that I thought would be more sympathetic, the people that I thought would be checking in, offering support, just plain old asking. They aren't. Are they pulling away? Unaffected? Unable to handle their own feelings with this?

Even so, I can't shake the feeling, the realization that I am stuck. Stuck in this damn nightmare. There is false (or perhaps very little real) joy in celebration of anything. I will always have a scar on my heart, my soul even. Life events are now marked with "before Mom got sick or after Mom got sick" and will be marked with "before Mom passed or after Mom passed".

What will it be like when she's gone? What will the pain be like then? Surely it cannot be less than it is now. Will it be then that my world actually stops? And I will feel shattered instead of just 'broken'? I can barely stand this pain now, how can I possibly manage anything greater?