Among Motherless Daughters

Each year, scores of women whose mothers have died get together to unpack their loss. This year I was one of them

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Marisa with the author Claire Bidwell Smith

I told people I was going to the Motherless Daughters conference in L.A. to get my memoir published. I was going to rub elbows with “Wild” author Cheryl Strayed. I was going to cover it for Modern Loss.

It was only on the night before I left, while drying my nails and pondering bright orchid polish color that a small voice asked: What if you feel something?

That’s when I realized: I wasn’t going as a writer. I was going as a motherless daughter.

I was in awe as I entered the conference and found myself surrounded by 119 motherless daughters from as far away as Australia. Never before had I been in a room with people just like me. Above every woman I pictured her mother’s spirit hovering over her like a halo.

I took photos from every angle. But they just show an ugly room with women talking. What you can’t see is the immediacy with which women shared the age they lost their moms, how many years had passed, the joy and pain of raising kids without them. Within minutes my heart swelled and my jaw hurt from smiling.

After a warm introduction from co-hosts Irene Rubaum-Keller and Hope Edelman, and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Hope’s book, “Motherless Daughters,” we broke up into smaller seminars with various grief experts.

My first group was led by Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief counselor, author of “The Rules of Inheritance” and the forthcoming “After This.” She’d spent the past year visiting mediums, rabbis, priests, and even shaking a rattle with Shamans to learn how to connect with her mother. “I have two little girls, one who looks just like her,” Claire told us. “Can she see me? Can she see them?” I left considering seeing a medium, wondering what messages my mom might have for me.

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From left, Allison Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Claire Bidwell Smith and Hope Edelman

Next was Jennifer Lauck, author of “Blackbird” and “Found.” She taught us different ways to consider the word “mother.” The outer mother: who is our mother and how did she nurture us? The inner mother: in her absence, how do we mother ourselves? She led us in a writing exercise, and my own answers surprised me:

Where are you on the spectrum: In transition—not yet a mother.

Where do you want to be? A mother.

What is holding you back: Fear.

I grappled with that. Only a year and a half into marriage, my husband and I are enjoying newlywed life and waiting to start a family until we feel ready. Is the fear of missing my mom one of the reasons I’m avoiding it?

My tablemate at lunch lost her mother at 20 (same age as me) and then her father at 27, and now was a mom to two young children. Tears streamed down her face, and her openness inspired me. I confessed the fear of motherhood I’d felt moments ago. She nodded, knowingly. It felt good to say it out loud.

Our conversation was interrupted by Cheryl Strayed’s keynote speech. Her dialogue, too, turned to the birth of her son. “He brought my mom back to me — and took her away anew.”

My exact fear put into words. And yet I was relieved. Having children would be both happy and sad, the shared experience of us motherless daughters.

For me, the most pivotal moment was when we all stood, held hands and recited each of our and our mother’s names. “Marisa, daughter of Sally,” I said in a shaky voice. Some women sobbed for a minute or two before barely sputtering out the names. I easily remembered that time, the raw depths of my grief.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion, during which “Parentless Parents” author Allison Gilbert was asked what she’ll do on Mother’s Day. “I’m going to choose my words carefully,” she said, emphasizing that she’ll tell her kids about “your grandma” rather than “my mom,” so they’ll know her as a figure in their lives. I pictured telling my kids about Grandma Sally, the warm and funny woman with the big, toothy smile.

Sitting in the warm California sunshine after the conference, I realized that the thing I thought would feel the least relevant to me — being a motherless mother — actually became the most. I have more faith than ever that I will find my way when I do become a mother. After all, I have my tribe.

Marisa Bardach Ramel is currently working on a memoir, “Sally’s Circle,” which she co-wrote with her mother, Sally, before she passed away. She’d love for you to follow her on TumblrTwitter, or Facebook

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