[As friends and followers know, I checked out of blogging about five days ago to scratch what was first thought to be eczema.  Many thanks for all the good wishes that came my way from (in order of receipt) John Hayden, Takami, Mr. T. (whose real name I still don’t know), Margaret, Taylor, Maggie, Rachael, Carol, Annie, Shimon Z (whose recommendation of Aloe Vera lotion was extremely helpful) and Caspar.  I appreciated your messages very much, even when I learned a day or two later that it is not eczema, which tends to appear in patches.

The good news is that it isn’t, because eczema recurs, due to a sensitivity to substances often unknown.  What I have is a one-time thing.  Its fancy name is general viral exanthem (violent skin response to an unknown virus), and it’s supposed to run its course in about fourteen days.  The bad news is that it doesn’t appear in patches.  It’s a scalp-to-toe proposition, front and back (and orifices too), and makes you feel like Job. (In my case, female version.  Was there a Mrs. Job?).  The treatment (to shorten duration and supposedly lessen desire to rip oneself to shreds) is oral steroids for fifteen days, and both oral and topical antihistamines.  Both of these — whatever else they do — leave you groggy, dizzy and sleepy.  Not at all the kind of writer you’d like to read.

I do expect to emerge my usual smooth-skinned and verbal self again in due time, so please bear with me.  In the meanwhile, for those of you who came on board more recently, I’ll be re-posting some earlier pieces from time to time that received favorable comment when first they ran.  Maybe long-time followers won’t mind seeing them again, either.  Xoxox to all.]

[Re-blogged from December 10, 2013]


When I was young, I sometimes went to walk in the local cemetery on weekends — usually after my mother had firmly observed that it was too nice out to spend the day indoors reading.

What I liked about walking in the cemetery was being able to speculate about the lives of the people who were buried there.  In the older section, where the burials had occurred in and around what was then known as “the turn of the century,” one could find men and women who had been born in the 1850′s and 1860′s — just like the principal characters in the Victorian novels we were reading for English that were my favorite part of high school homework.

The headstones in this part of the cemetery were mainly clustered in family plots, usually around one large stone commemorating the names and dates of birth and death of the father and mother — with smaller stones bearing names and dates for each of their children (and the children’s wives and husbands, if any).

But now and then, only the father’s name and dates were on the large stone.  Where this was the arrangement, among the smaller stones bearing the names and dates of sons and daughters was one without a name.  It was inscribed with just a single word:  ”Mother.”

An only child, I would stand in front of one of these family plots, subtracting dates of birth from dates of death, and arranging family trees in my head.  When I saw the early death of an infant, I would try to imagine the cause — diphtheria? scarlet fever? smallpox? — and picture to myself the loss and the grieving.  When I discovered an unmarried daughter (not uncommon in those nineteenth-century families), I would try to imagine what her life had become as her brothers and sisters married and moved away.

I also sometimes wondered about the occasional mother buried namelessly among her children.  Here too were possibilities for dramatic speculation.  Had she endured a despotic nineteenth-century marriage in which repeated childbearing and endless housekeeping had entirely eroded her identity?  Or — a more benign hypothesis — perhaps the family plot had been purchased long after she had died, so that she was actually buried elsewhere, in an even older cemetery, with a proper epitaph.

In any event, I never wondered about her for long.  After all, she had lived way back in the nineteenth century.  Women were full-fledged citizens now.  And I was sure her children had loved her. Which, for a mother, was what counted, wasn’t it?  Besides, early childhood death and spinsterhood provided richer and more comfortable vicarious emotion. So I would move on — the cemetery tourist — to other headstones.

When I was much less young (in mid-life actually), I lived near another cemetery.  This one had also been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, so that here too there was an older section with family plots. And here too — when strolling on a beautiful weekend afternoon (as my mother would have recommended) — I could come across a cluster of headstones amid which I could just make out, on one small darkened stone tilting into the earth, the single word, “Mother.”

But now, a mother myself of grown children, I was angry for this poor anonymous woman.  Was this all her life had amounted to?  Transmission of DNA to the next generation?   Flushed with unwelcome rage, I would quickly hurry out the open scrollwork gates of the tranquil cemetery and plunge myself again into the problems and remaining pleasures of a professional person in mid-life who happened also to be a woman.

Today, well into the twenty-first century, I am not young at all — and have only just begun to understand a little how private, and in the end how evanescent, is every life — male or female.

I had thought to leave behind, while I still can, some record of my own mother, other than her gravestone, for my children and grandchildren.  I find that all I can do is commemorate her as my mother.  To say that what I can write about her is her life story would be untrue.

Yes, I know where she worked and what she did there after I grew up and no longer needed her. I know the patchwork of selected anecdotes from her past she chose to tell me. I have memories of what she was like with me at various periods of my own life.

But I never knew her as a person who was not my mother.  I never knew how she felt as a girl, or woman, or wife, or old woman.  I never knew what she really hoped, or dreamed, or suffered.

All that went into the grave with her.  So perhaps I was right when I was young — that to be a remembered and (yes!) much loved mother is enough.

Love and remembrance: Is there anything better to leave behind?


  1. Nina! I’m so delighted to see you back, if only momentarily. It sounds like a very long two weeks of treatment for you. Thank you for your re-post today. It is very timely. I wrote yesterday about a letter that my mother sent me upon the end of my first marriage. In the comments of that post I was whining somewhat about my regrets – that I never had the chance for an adult-to-adult relationship. Mom died when I was 30 and she in her early 60’s. Somehow, I have the notion that if she had not died in the car accident, she and I might have had more to say to one another. But to hear your story makes me think, perhaps not?
    Be well, and be well soon!


    • Hi Maggie. A very belated response to your comment. I did, eventually, read your post about your mother’s letter and the comments after it. I would not characterize a need for more closeness with one’s mother as “whining.” Those of us who did not have it, or didn’t have it after childhood, continue to yearn for it. It is only human.

      My sense of adult-to-adult relationships between mothers and daughters, however, is that they are uncommon, and require a mother who is the kind of independent and emotionally intact adult woman extremely rare in the past — at least in women who became wives and mothers — and is probably not especially common even now. I also wonder whether mothers really need or want their adult daughters to be their “girlfriends.” Mothers and daughters are in different stages of life, with different needs and different priorities. The best they can offer each other, under ideal circumstances, is non-judgmental listening and comfort. But most circumstances are not ideal. Almost every mother does the best she can for her children, as she sees it, but she is often crippled by practical and emotional circumstances in her own childhood and life. I think part of growing older (or, in my case old) is coming to understand that one’s mother was just a woman, and one whom you might not have chosen to be close to had the circumstances of birth not placed you in such intimate proximity. I can’t offer advice as to how to deal with your mother’s untimely death, but I suspect she gave what she could while she could, and perhaps that is all any of us can really hope for.

      This may be more than you wanted to hear from me. If so, I apologize. As I emerge from my medicated haze, my self-editing faculties may not be entirely yet restored.

      I look forward to returning to your blog to read more, when I am truly recovered. 🙂


  2. Yes, there was a Mrs Job… and her story was what first turned me against the entire tale, though it is reputedly written by Moses himself. She died just to make Job unhappy… and after he’d proven how faithful and innocent he was, she was replaced (!). It’s almost enough to bring on a case of eczema. My best wishes for a speedy recovery. What you’ve got sounds horrible. But I’m glad to hear that it’s a passing horror.


  3. Dear Nina. Your words are golden to me. Thank you so much for the time you put into this thoughtful reply. It is perfect. I believe that I am quite recovered from my mother’s death. Of course some Pavlovian responses remain, but they are minor moments of sadness.

    Those are good drugs, by the way! (If I may be make a joke at your expense!)

    Take very good care


  4. Dear Nina, What a delight to find your site,( at Maggie’s instigation). I, too, hope your treatment helps you to feel comfortable and soon well again. Your re-blog was a first for me, so I appreciate getting to know you! The cemetery walks I could well relate to, as I spent many hours with my first baby living on a cemetery, with no houses for miles.
    The mother/ daughter conundrum is an interesting one. Sometimes children don’t want to share… as in my own girl’s.
    I gave them my memoir for X’mas and one hasn’t read it, and the other said, ‘I think we’d better discuss this over a cup of tea.’ I didn’t spill many beans, but next month am going to visit Rebecca, so am interested to find out how she took some of my disclosures. Will I be blamed? It’s hard to know how much to share…. and once mother’s are gone, those unanswered questions remain.


    • Dear bk, Thank you so much for your generous comment. I have not had daughters, so can only speak to the ‘” mother-daughter conundrum” as a daughter. (And mine was so special a case, distorted by war, revolution, immigration and their effect on my mother, as to provide a poor example.) I do have two sons, now in their mid-forties. One has always been interested in the details of my past, and now reads the blog, in chunks when he can. The other — with whom I am otherwise on very good terms — is pleased to hear when others speak well of it, but refuses to look at it. He has always been a very private person, and apparently wishes I were more like him. Our children are not really extensions of ourselves. But I do think you should never think in terms of “blame.” You have to do what feels right to you, and if you want to leave some record of your life behind you, that’s your choice, not the choice of your children. In later years, they may be glad to have what you have shared, or your grandchildren may. Or someone looking for an interesting doctoral dissertation topic may find you and spend four years writing about your writing! How’s that for looking on the bright side?

      Anyway, welcome to the blog. I wish it were more active right now, but there are plenty of past pieces to explore, and I should be up to scratch (if you excuse the inapt metaphor) pretty soon! 🙂


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