When I was five, I asked my mother if I could call her 'Mommy.' That was the name my friends all had for their mothers. "No," she told me. "If you call me that, I won't answer you."
She's 86, and she's still Mummy. You could say that certain aspects of my childhood were bracing: like giving the kiddos a shot of black coffee before they tumble out the door on a frigid schoolday morning with their itchy woolen scarves and oversize coats. The parameters were nothing if not clear; affection-wise, you knew where you stood.
Sometimes I think that early training served me well. I can be tough. But then, sometimes, I worry. Am I Helen the Lizard Hearted? When my father died several years ago, I thought there was something wrong with me. I wasn't broken up. I wasn't even very sad. Insensitive types might comfort someone in the claws of grief with: Death isn't a big deal. It's in the order of things. The problem is, to me my father’s death wasn’t a big deal.
Was I that callous?
Several months after he died, I was alone at night in my dorm room at my 10-day graduate school residency, and I couldn't stop worrying about my daughter, who was pretty young then and several states away. Lying awake, my mind ranged into conversations my father and I could never have, conversations I'd probably never have had the courage to initiate with him, even if he were still around. I cried as much for the father I never had as the one I’d lost.
There had been other tears. My father had always had a talent for contentment—complacence, even—and he'd been reasonably content in the 'memory unit' of an assisted living place. Then he landed in the hospital, and we knew he wasn’t going to get better. One Sunday, my mother and I were visiting him. When it was time to leave, I embraced him, sobbing so quickly I took myself by surprise.
"Helen, really," Mummy scolded. "Don't you think that's a little premature?"
I didn’t say it, but grief could only come in increments. In our family, affection had been meted out in small gestures: When we were little, every morning when he left for work, my dad would 'bonk' my brother and me on the head with his rolled-up New Yorker. I have no memory of bear hugs; his quick embraces involved a nervous pat on the back.
I did have a moment of farewell. The last time I saw him, he kissed me goodbye, which he hadn't done in weeks. In a family that never discussed potentially risky topics, this is a significant intimacy, and I think about it often.
After his death, when my lack of grief worried me, someone whose family had been similarly frosty told me that her reaction to her own father's death had been like mine: We were trained, above all, to be polite.
In truth, both my parents looked the other way, twice, when I was a child and in serious trouble. I learned to armor myself in more ways than one.
But the small tears I shed were, if nothing else, genuine. I loved my father, and I felt no bitterness toward him when he died. That’s enough.