In Sunday’s paper there was a blurb about how a mother’s voice releases oxytocin into the bloodstream of her children. This chemical creates a feeling of pleasure and well being- it soothes. Biologically, the explanation is that it represses the stress hormone cortisol. A slush puppy like me would call it the magic of motherhood.
In the corresponding sphere, new mothers experience a surge of oxytocin upon seeing their infant. In the ideal world, this guides a fledgling mom to instinctively cherish the source of the pleasure-their baby- and to nurture. There is order in the anthropological universe.
I have not heard my Mom’s voice for more than 13 years, and I miss it every day. It was a beautiful fall morning, just like today, when my Dad called to say she had slipped away as she slept. It was a gentle ending for a gentle woman.
With six kids, Mom did not have the luxury of soothing us much. She was more of a chore director, baker, and enforcer. There was no time to indulge hurt feelings or bad dreams. We had a get up, get busy, get on with it life. By 8 years of age, I was folding baskets of diapers, by ten, my sister and I were babysitters of extraordinary skill. There were six of us- we could alternate tormenting each other with comforting each other. That left mom free to run the Joliat household like the well oiled boot camp that it was. The cookie jar was never empty, dinner was never later than 6:00, and Monday all beds were stripped and changed. Mom was off duty at 7:00; we did dishes and she read the paper. Dad scooted us to bed early. No TV on school nights, and no phone calls after 8.
If an adult entered the room, we stood up. All questions were responded to with “yes, maam” or “yes sir.” Our elbows never grazed the table. We put the knife down after each cut. Never spoke with food in our mouths. At the end of the meal, Dad’s steely gaze reminded us to say “good dinner, Mom” before we asked if we might be excused. “May I help you ?” was the gold standard at our house. “Joliat residence, Janet speaking, may I help you? ” was the required phone courtesy.
The little efficiencies and disciplines were never rewarded, they were expected. But we wore Mom down. As we got older, we talked her into making fudge on Sunday nights. We rolled the TV into the forbidden turf of the living room and watched Ed Sullivan. By the time the youngest, Marie, was in high school, Mom was complicit in some adventures. The same mother who sent me to school with pneumonia let Marie play hookey to go Christmas shopping. With the daily drudgery in her life reduced, Mom lightened up. She let me get a dog, and then defied Dad when I moved with Sneakers, and got her own. She talked me into taking professional days off to take decoupage classes and crewel embroidery lessons with her. As life conformed us, it relaxed Mom. She wanted partners in crime.
The empty house did not comfort Mom, it made her sad. After all the years of chaos, she had trouble with the blank canvas. Her health was never optimal- mitral heart valve prolapse, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and macular degeneration. Still, she marshaled her energy to be a supreme grandmother. All the military order we endured fell away as she bathed the next generation in love and donuts- store bought. When I had a blip of post-partum after Matt, my Mom diagnosed me from Detroit on the phone, fortified herself against her flying phobia, and showed up (tipsy, since she never drank except to counter her fear of flying) on my front porch. When she sashayed down in my sister’s nursing scrubs, I marveled at how hard she would work to make me laugh. As she got older, her earrings got bigger, and her clothes hipper. She did all the fun things she never had time to do with six young kids and a thin budget. She was a happy cat.
And then, in 1998, she had valve surgery. Even with her flabby heart muscle, she survived it.
For two months, she ambled through rehabilitation with determination. Then the kind heart that had powered her life just quit. Our last words, like our last years, had been across the miles. I was not always the daughter of her dreams- but she was the mother anyone would dream of. I did not need any study to tell me that Mothers can create secure and happy children through their comforting guiding voices. Been there, felt that. And I still miss it. I miss the homemade cookies, too.
My sister will head to Shrine of the Little Flower to celebrate Mass for Mom tomorrow. There will be no oxytocin in the mix. There will probably be all sorts of cortisol. And no Mom voice to help her reverse her ratios. That is what happens when we become the adults.
Call your Mom if she is still in your world. Both science- and I- can tell you that you will feel better.