~ Family Resemblance ~

How My Mom’s Death Changed My Definition of Family

In my head, I’ve always placed my family into one category and my ancestors in another. My family members are my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles, first cousins and grandparents. They’re the people I grew up with, the people I know too well, the ones who inspire the deepest and longest eye rolls.

My ancestors are the people I want to learn more about. They’re a mystery I want to solve, their lives influencing my own in ways I’ve only recently begun to discover. They’re finished stories with birth dates and death dates, offering lessons that come with the benefit of hindsight.

Then my 60-year-old mom died in July and the lines blurred.

Her death has changed me and the way I look at life. The constants in my life aren’t the same, and a lot of my expectations and assumptions have to be altered.

Every time I want to call my mom and tell her something, I start reaching for the phone. And then I remember.

From now on, my dad will be the one who answers the phone when I call my parents’ home. (My mom always answered the phone first. She’d rather run to the phone than let the answering machine pick up.)

When I’m shopping and I see something she might like, I think about how much she loved chocolate and the color turquoise. And how strange it is to know that I won’t be buying her anything anymore.

I have to revise some of my ideas about the future. I assumed that when I got pregnant and had a baby, my mom would come over and help me for the first week or so. I expected to see my mom grow older and reach the ages of 65, 75, 80. I assumed her mom would pass away before she did.

I also never thought of my mom as an ancestor, but now she has both a birth date and a death date. Future relatives won’t have the chance to get to know her first hand. They’ll be relying on the people who knew her and the things she left behind to get an idea of what she was like. Just like I’ve been doing with my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and cousins, just like future generations will eventually do with me.

Now I realize there were never two categories, that we were always one family. We may be separated by time, geography or language, but we share family pictures and stories and genes. In general, we are all more alike than we are different. We all have a limited amount of time to live, share and pass down our stories.

On the left, my grandmother, Ruth Goldstein, and my mom, Rosalie Stillman. On the right, my mom and me in 2011.

On the left, my grandmother, Ruth Goldstein, and my mom, Rosalie Stillman, in the mid-1970s. On the right, my mom and me in 2011.

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  • October 11, 2013 - 10:51 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your write up about your mom - it was pretty and poignant. I lost my mom a while ago, and it definitely changed my life. I still don’t think of her as an ancestor for some reason, although I’m not sure why. She is always with me, and I know that I also look at things differently. Anyway, lovely writing - and to moms - it’s a great tribute.

  • October 12, 2013 - 1:02 am | Permalink

    Dear Rachel, I am so, so sorry about your mom. She died way too young. It must be a very tough time for you and your Dad and grandmother and everyone in your family. I hope you keep thinking and talking about her and to help keep her memory alive.

  • October 12, 2013 - 1:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your kind words, Sally and Jane. I miss my mom a lot. I’m glad that there’s a lot of her in me.

  • Carolyn Parrott
    October 15, 2013 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Dear Rachael, I am saddened by your loss. You have written so beautifully what so few of us can express so eloquently.

  • October 15, 2013 - 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Carolyn.

  • November 21, 2013 - 9:30 pm | Permalink

    This article was beautifully written and really touched me. I come from a family of very strong women and it has always been important for me to learn about the women who came before me. My grandmother is very sick and I think her time to pass is quickly approaching. I relate a lot to what you speak about her favorite color and not buying her anything, as we show love through little gifts. I think it’s interesting how such pure love translates to pure grief and it’s impossible to have one without the other. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us.

    • November 21, 2013 - 10:48 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Megan. It’s interesting that you mention the gift part-a friend of mine was just saying that I should buy my mother gifts when I want to. He thinks it’s comforting and that it honors the person who passed away in a Day of the Dead kind of way. I think I may follow his advice sometimes. It’s a way to feel like I’m actively connecting with my mom.

      I’m sending you and your grandmother cyber hugs.

    • November 24, 2013 - 10:45 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Megan. A friend told me I should get gifts for my mom when I want to anyway, and to think of it as a way of honoring her (in a Dia de Los Muertos kind of way). I like the idea.

      I’m sending cyber hugs out to you and your grandmother.

  • December 10, 2013 - 10:51 am | Permalink

    Hi Rachael. I don’t know what comment I can ever leave here to do justice to the words and sentiment contained in this post. You are a beautiful writer, and the fact that you’re writing from your heart makes this post all the more special. Your dear mother, and all your loved ones, live on through your writing. Looking forward to reading more about your family.

    Warmest regards,
    Your friend in personal history,


  • December 29, 2013 - 1:36 pm | Permalink

    My mom died almost 7 years ago and I still feel the urge to pick up the phone and call her about things. You never get over losing your mom. But, with time, there are more smiles than tears.

  • August 1, 2014 - 8:43 am | Permalink

    Hello Rachael,
    Thanks for this beautiful post. I know how blessed I am to still have my mother. I am 56 and she is 85 and very healthy. She is NOT a packrat and so I envy your treasure trove of things from your mother. I find myself calling Mom about every other day and she always makes time for me even though I know she may be deep into a book or preparing a meal for my father. I plan to see Mom and Dad in October and she has agreed to let me record her voice and her laugh. Quite honestly, this is the major reason I changed careers a year ago…I am now a personal historian. I passionately want to preserve these types of memories for others. I can’t imagine that I am the only one who feels this way about her/his mother’s voice.
    So, just wanted to say thank you for your blog. This fellow historian was inspired by it.
    Warm personal regards,

  • August 6, 2014 - 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your story, Marilyn. I wish I’d recorded my mom’s stories.

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