In the liner notes for Carole King's The Living Room Tour, she describes how originally the song "Where you lead, I will follow" was written for an obviously yet-to-be liberated, pre-feminism woman following her man. After abandoning the song for a stretch because of her decreased connection to its meaning in this context, she was invited to rewrite and perform the song as the theme of Gilmore Girls, celebrating the connection between mothers and daughters. This video clip of Carole singing the updated version is a clear reminder why I list Carole King on the very short list of women whose lives I envy, but doesn't match the version on the album that actually is performed as a duet with her daughter, Louise Goffin.
When my own mother was alive, we rarely sang duets, and we certainly would have lacked the "hip" quality of Carole and Louise were we even to have attempted this song. Its meaning wouldn't have fit us then either. I was independent, certain to invest my life in a wider circle of friends and acquaintances....the daughter happy to leave home and ensure no one was following from behind. When my mom died only a month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was 20 years old--a girl, in my mind, who had simply left college for the weekend because her mom was sick and heading in for surgery. I wasn't at that moment in a relationship, I had no vision for my future, and it bothered me immensely to think I was going to (hopefully) graduate from college in a year and from that point forward my mother wouldn't have any idea where I was.
Though I knew rationally this wasn't the case, I believed in some magical fantasy world my mom could get in touch with me--she should "know" where I am at all times. When I returned to college for my senior year, I had powerful moments of realizing she might indeed know where I am. One night I returned to my room feeling sad and alone and wanting space, only to discover a crowd of had-been-friends (I had changed too much to really be part of any of my old crowds.) boisterously celebrating and spilling from room to room throughout our house. I retreated to the shower, sensing this was the only place I might truly be alone, and then locked myself inside my room, ensuring I locked the rest of the crowd out. I listened to music, wrote in my journal, and reflected on a conversation with my friend, Amy, whose mom had been sick with cancer longer than any of us cared to remember. She shared with me how she only prayed to God for peace. If she asked for her mom to be well, she was perpetually disappointed; if she asked not to have to go through the suffering any more, she feared her mom would die. Realizing she had no control over the circumstances of her mom's sickness, she could only ask God to somehow heal the unrest and uncertainty that clung tightly inside of her. Feeling just desperate enough to stop asking for my mother back (futile, but I did it nevertheless....), I said only four words as I lay aching in the dark: "God, give me peace."
Hours later I awoke from a dream and saw a grayish figure of my mom looking much as she would have when she was the mother of two very young daughters. The short, salt and pepper hair with which she had died was suddenly long and pure black, lifted from her face with a wide-band headband. I squinted my eyes, uncertain if I was still somewhere in a dream, but the harder I focused on her image, the more distant and blurry it became. If I simply remained still, accepting her presence as real, she was there. Though I didn't hear the words aloud, I received a message: "I will watch over you and your children always." Though I was that same 20 year old girl--grown seemingly years older in a few months time--and had no children or thought of them, I took the words as a gift. They continue to be in so many ways.
While I can count on one hand actual appearances of my mom after her death, the surprising moments of "coincidence" wherein I discover I am following in her footsteps are too numerous to count. Let me share just a few.... After leaving the safe confines of my college and moving our family belongings from the house where she had died, I was set adrift from my mother's knowledge of me. How would she reach me if she needed me? How would she even know where I was? I selected a graduate school that offered a few fabulous benefits--a program I loved, a tuition-granting assistantship, and proximity to the man I was certain I would spend my life with (and for once, I was right!). Though I knew in the back of my mind this university was in the city where my mother was raised, it wasn't a conscious thought for me; I had never known her family to be there, and to my memory had never visited there with her. Imagine my surprise when my father visited my new apartment, exclaiming minutes after his arrival, "Did you know your mom grew up just around the corner from here?" Hmmmm....maybe she could find me.
Two years later it was time for another move. I visited the campus that would become both home and work for Matt and me for the past ten years, certain I had never been there before. But a drive down main street felt oddly familiar. The final summer I had spent with my mother, we had attended a James Taylor concert at an outdoor, ampitheatre-style concert venue. Hoping to avoid the crush of traffic as we departed, we skirted right as the other cars piled up to turn left for the easy entrance to the highway. Where had that right turn taken us? Along a series of roads that ultimately passed the front of that campus....so indeed she might find me once again.
Two years more passed, and tiring of the 24 hour work life that accompanied living on campus, I took a new position at the college and we rented a home just eight miles away. Again, on my dad's first visit, he shared with me that we lived mere blocks from the very first school my mom served as a teacher....and five or so years after that, when we hired a new Administrative Assistant in my office, she discovered one day that she had been a student at this very school in the one and only year my mom taught there. She produced a yearbook and, sure enough, there was beautiful Phyllis. Without intention or knowledge on my part, I seem to keep following her path. She knows where I am; I am certain of it.
Matt and I are once again contemplating a move, hoping there might be a workable offer (or any offer at all!) after a fabulous campus visit yesterday. As I drove home, contemplating all the changes that would accompany this move were it to happen--new job, new state, new home, new community, new schools for the kids (eek--need to move quickly as kindergarten is bearing down on us....), I couldn't help but pause and think of my mom. Never before have I moved with the knowledge of her sojourns years before, so I can't expect I will now, but what if this time there aren't any? What if this is the move that takes me beyond her life, out of her reach?
Perhaps it is now my time to lead, trusting she will follow....
On Motherless Daughters Day and every day, I remember. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.
I am Jennifer, daughter of Phyllis Eileen Cash Sanborn (1947-1993).