My Mother, My Daughter, My Self

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I was on vacation last week when I first saw this picture.

JackRhoda and MinnieLeeCain

My grandparents, holding my mother, circa 1920.


I confess, it took my breath away. I had never seen it before. 
It’s a picture of my grandfather, Jack, his wife, Rhoda, and their firstborn, an adorable little girl, who grew up to become my mother. It was probably taken somewhere around 1920, in a little town near Tompkinsville, Kentucky. It moved me deeply, primarily because I have never, ever seen a picture of my Mom as a little girl.  It triggered a flood of emotion inside of me, and a whole lot of rumination.

My first realization was that I’m oddly ashamed that I don’t just somehow, inherently, know more of what my mother’s world was like when she was growing up. I must have assumed that because we are bound by blood, and tied by the intricacies of our genetic code, that because I lived in the same house with her for 20 years, that I know my mother.

But what this picture said to me was, really?? Not so much.

Even since her death, 25 years ago, my thoughts about her have been fairly limited to what I already knew.”Who my mom was” was contained in a box of memories, in storage in my brain. That box contained my own memories of her, plus a few more stories told to me by others, but I had really only known her when she was an adult.  How incomplete a picture that might be, was not really something I thought about.  Of course I “knew” her! She was my MOM, for crying out loud!

I knew her as the mom of four children, and the wife of one man. She was a lovely, loving, much admired woman. She was Mom.

I ashamedly admit that I rarely, if ever, have stopped to consider what she might have looked like as a toddler, or what her life might have been like growing up in the hills and hollers of Kentucky in the 1920’s and ’30’s. I don’t know what games she liked to play as a young girl. I don’t know what foods were her most favorite at that age. I don’t know what made her eyes light up. I don’t know what kept her awake at night, when no one was awake to talk to. . I don’t know who she whispered her secrets to, or even what her secrets were.

And since she’s been gone for such a long time, I have no way of rectifying my own deplorable lack of curiosity, either.

It happens that I first saw this picture when I was sitting in the waiting room of a “spa”, (and I use that term loosely: it was a storefront in a strip mall shopping center at the beach), checking Facebook on my iPad, while waiting for a massage appointment. I glanced at my Facebook feed, saw that my sister had posted this picture, and audibly gasped. Never had I seen a photo of my Mom as a little girl. Never had I seen what her parents looked like as young people.

And I realized at that moment that she was almost iconic to me: an image. Not a whole person. She was the one who enforced naps, who told me to clean my room, who cooked me wonderful meals, who sewed me dresses, and who later told me to do my homework and when to be home. But to picture the grown woman that I knew, not as a woman, but as a toddler, lovingly held in the arms of her Daddy? To picture her as the cherished little girl being dressed up in her Sunday best  for the special sitting with the photographer? Well, those kinds of thoughts had never been factored into the equation that I thought equaled “Mom”.

I studied the picture, gobsmacked, until I heard my name called for my massage. The lights in the massage room were low,  and soft background music was playing. The masseuse began the process of giving me a particularly weak-wristed massage,  and I lay on the table and thought about Mom. I now had a clear and historically accurate image of my mom as a little girl. And sadly, in one of the relatively few moments I have done so,  I thought about mom as a person. A whole person.

In that darkened room, I lay in an almost dreamlike state, imagining my Mom’s life as that little girl. There she was,  the firstborn of that attractive, but poor young couple from the backwoods of Kentucky. The daughter of a man who was a sharecropper and a moonshiner. The firstborn of five, (not counting the baby brother who died), who grew up poorer than poor, whose impoverished community was heading toward the economic knockout blow of the Great Depression. I thought about the little girl whose future, to the untrained eye, might have looked devoid of hope, but who yet somehow managed to rise above all her gloomy prospects. (And I recognize that her “rising above” might have been due, in part, to getting out of that small town, by joining the Women’s Army Corps.)

Mom in uniform 1

My mom, at around age 26, in the Women’s Army Corps.

While I was lying there, an instrumental version of a hymn began playing. It was a hymn that I haven’t heard since I was probably 6 years old, sitting on a hard wooden pew, in a little country church in West Virginia, right beside my beautiful mom, the preacher’s wife. She was also the lady who covertly slipped me sticks of Doublemint gum, so I could occupy myself during the sermon with peeling the foil off the parchment paper wrapper. I remembered sitting there listening to Mom’s pretty alto voice singing that hymn, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”. Hearing Mom sing harmony taught me how to listen for and sing it, too. The lyrics of that particular hymn point to how beautiful heaven will be. And as I understand things, that Beautiful Isle of Somewhere was where my mom was, as I was lying there thinking about her. And if she was aware of what I was doing at that moment, she was probably  wondering why I was wasting $50.00 on a do-nothing massage. 

My mind wandered then to my mom’s mom, having seen her for the first time as a young mom in that picture. I thought about how very hard her life in that small southern town must have been.  I thought about her little girl, my mama, growing up in such deep poverty. And I wanted nothing more than to hug and kiss that little girl, who came up through such hard times. I wanted to tell her how much I loved her.

At that moment, as I imagined embracing that little girl, I felt like I also metaphorically embraced my mother as a human being. Not just the woman who ended up being cast in the role of “my mother”. But embracing her as a whole human being.

My mom had been a little girl! (And a cute one, too!)

I know how obvious that must sound to you, but, why had I never really thought about that?
But here it was: a tiny window into the intimate past of my mom.
And, as such, a tiny window into the stuff that I, too, am made of.

Am I the only one who has grown up with this deplorable lack of curiosity in regard to knowing my parents as complete human beings?
Each of us starts out life as somebody’s child. Isn’t it common for children to suffer from that lack of curiosity about the lives of their parents?

Puckett's sepia


I’m writing this post on my daughter’s 16th birthday – which probably has a lot to do with the somewhat morose tone of the post. 🙂

I treasure my daughter, more than words can say. She is the joy of my heart.

I remember the days when she was a little girl, her hand tucked inside of mine as I guided her through a potentially dangerous parking lot. I remember her burying her face into my shoulder when a stranger greeted her, and she felt shy. I remember being the treasured, adored one in her life. The one she ran to, to show the beautiful flower she had picked. The one she cuddled with in the rocking chair at bedtime. 

But she’s deep in the throes of adolescence, now: hurtling toward adulthood at the speed of light. My days of being the adored center of her world are gone. She is on her own quest now, looking for who she will be as person. Although we still talk a good deal, I know that some parts of her life she holds back from me. I know this. And as the mom of a teen, I know that there are pieces of wisdom and good advice that I have shared with her that she is ignoring, or will ignore. That’s what teenagers do.

There are things that life has taught me. There is pain that I would save her from. I really was her age, once.

But I’m not so much a whole person to her, right now, as I wish I were. She doesn’t really hear my words in the way that I wish that she would.

Right now, at this stage in her life, I’m more a set of boundaries. Sometimes I’m even a force against which she must push back: the barrier that separates her from the freedom she seeks.

I wish she could see me as a whole person.

I once was a little girl, who grew up, who had things that made her smile, and games she liked to play, and special treats she loved to receive. I napped, cried, worried, and sang. I had adventures, and misadventures. I attended school, and I had friends. I worked hard, and procrastinated. I lived through unrequited love, and cruel rejection by untrue friends. And I learned a valuable thing or two along the way.

But my daughter seems to also suffer from the exact same trait I mentioned possessing earlier. It’s a trait that humanity has passed on to her: that sad, sad lack of curiosity, that would perhaps allow her to view me as more of a whole human being.

Here’s what I wish for my 16 year old daughter: 

  • that as she sets about her life’s mission of discovering who she is, and why she is here on this planet, that she will never despise that face looking back at her in the mirror. It’s my prayer that she will see the beauty that God has placed inside of her, especially because He lives inside of her. 
  •  that she will draw strength from the fact that she comes from a line of strong, beautiful women, who lived lives that were focused on loving well. And that she herself carries their DNA.
  • And that maybe someday, and hopefully it will be before I die, that she’ll have that epiphany that I had. That her mother is more than just a set of boundaries. That her mother is a human being, full of weaknesses and strengths, who loves her with a love stronger than steel, and who wants nothing but the best for her. 

Because I long for that girl to have roots, and wings.

My Daughter.

My daughter.

 If you enjoyed reading this post, I’d be glad for you to share it on Facebook, tweet it on Twitter, pin it on Pinterest, or stumble it on StumbleUpon. 

An inspirational post, about mothers, and daughters, and connection, and families. For Mother's Day.

This image is perfect for pinning on Pinterest.




  1. Well, this is simply beautiful, loving and tear jerking. Wiping the leakage, I feel overwhelming sincerity and passion and compassion. I know you will give your daughter stories of your pre-adult life because you now know she needs them.
    I began when my children had children. I shared my own childhood and my own new mom stories with each. It's fun to see them figure out exactly who their mom is, besides their mom.
    My recent post R-e-s-p-e-c-t

  2. The ability to see our parents as whole people, with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, is such a difficult thing! I hope that your daughter feels your love and sees you as a whole person. You are a wonderful person to get to know.
    My recent post October 2013 Challenge

  3. Beautiful Susan. I grew up going back to my parents' hometowns every summer and hearing stories. Maybe it was the writer inside me, but I did happen to be curious and inquisitive about my parents and my parents' parents lives as young people. and maybe because we would go back and visit those places from their past, I would hear stories of childhood and being a teenager. My Mom and I have talked about writing them down. On the other hand, I realized like you, too late, that I wish I had asked my Nana more questions about her childhood and past. I know that she had to quit school in 3rd grade to pick cotton. I know her mother left her father with all the kids the day my great grandfather laid a hand on one of the boys. (I believe she took abuse herself but wouldn't tolerate it for her kids.) I knew my Nana worked in a southern mill town and married a 30 year old man when when she was 16 and had my Mom at 17 and was divorced before my Mom was a year old. She and my Mom lived in a one room house with my Great Grandmother. She met my Papa after WWII, married him and moved with him, my Mom and their new baby to Massachusetts. But there was so much more to her. How I wish I had asked her more questions about her childhood and young teen years. What I know I know from my Mom, but she doesn't know much about my Nana's childhood either. My Mom and I recently went to MA together for her high school reunion (55). We drove around the small town she grew up in and drove by the house she grew up in, and the house my Dad's mother grew up in when her parents immigrated from Sweden. She pointed out the building her parents leased to run a laundry service, where the drug store she worked at used to be, where my Dad's parents lived right before Grandpa died. And when we got together with her old friends they told stories of when they were all young married couples. Such fun. Such insight. Well, I hope you don't mind the long comment. Share your stories with your daughter. She might not think to ask. When we are young we get caught up in ourselves, but we don't regret later that we slowed down to listen to some of the "old" stories. Thanks for sharing your epiphany and the photo. (I love old photos!)

  4. So enjoyed this Suze. Cause for pause as Carter is 84 & still with us. Prayers. Love.

  5. So poignant, so true. Would that all of us could see each other as "whole" people and appreciate the back stories. My eldest just turned 13 and I sometimes wish that she could know me at that age. I think she would inspire me to be courageous.

  6. Susan, your writing is so thoughtful. It is hard to imagine our parents as anything but our parents. As I think about my daughter, I wonder how technology will change how her children view her. Will our grandchildren see a much rounder view of their parents because of all the photos and info that is being collected? Or will all of the fluff of facebook fade away and views about parents stay the same? I think my husband and I tell our kids stories about our childhood more than my parents told me. Are they listening?

  7. Elizabeth Lee says

    Susan, that was beautiful.

    I began having that kind of curiosity about my parents around the time I became a parent myself. I suspect that it took so long for you because your mom was already gone when you became a mother for the first time. My daddy was the son of a sharecropper in rural Louisiana. Like your mom, he overcame a lot.
    My recent post I don’t want your husband. Really.

  8. Absolutely beautiful, soul-stirring writing, Susan.

  9. Thanks for that piece if your heart, Susan. ♡

  10. sharongreenthal says

    You and I must be on the same wavelength today, Susan – my post has a similar theme to yours.

    How startling it must have been to see that photo – and how wonderful for you. As young as you were when you lost your mother it's not surprising that you hadn't yet begun to see her as a full-blown person and not just a mother.

    Your daughter will return to you when she gets through all of her adolescent growth. How could she not? You have so much wisdom to share. Happy birthday to her – and to you, too Mom!

  11. loisaltermark says

    Absolutely gorgeous post. I once wrote a piece, too, about the moment I realized my mom had a life before me — it's shocking to discover that! I love the photos — three generations of beautiful, strong women. I think children are programmed not to view their mother as anything but their mother, at least until they're independent. Your daughter will come around. It's in her genes.
    My recent post malala

  12. Your post is so beautiful and poignant – thank you so much for sharing your reflections.

  13. Valeriehoff says

    This makes me wonder a lot more about my mom's childhood, and makes me grateful she is still alive. Thanks, Susan!

  14. Isn't it strange to see someone else with your face? I always get a jolt when I see pictures of my mom young, because she is wearing my face.
    My recent post Stop Medicine Abuse. #NotMyTeen

  15. Lovely reflection Susan. We have a number of things in common! My mother was a WASP during WWII and my daughter will turn 16 in early December. Look forward to connecting with you further at Midlife Blvd.
    My recent post My Parent’s Letters

  16. I raised 2 daughters who I can now say are my best friends. Share your stories with your daughter now, slowly. Some day she'll comment on things that you never thought she heard.
    My recent post My "Wonder"ful Outfit

  17. Helene Bludman says

    Beautiful post, Susan. That photo truly is eye-catching. You know how they say a picture tells a thousand stories? I see a few of those stories behind those three sweet faces.

  18. As my mom aged she became really good at telling stories. A walk through the woods triggering memories of running through her grandfather's apple orchard on his farm in the hills that watch over Victoria, BC. Soon, those memories were all she had left. Jumbled thoughts and an endless search for her parents who had long since left this life. She's found them now.

    I've received the wonderful duty of going through my mom's old photos, many of which came from boxes in my grandmother's home. She was so happy, so long and lean, so beautiful, so silly, so full of joy and energy and hope and love and dreams and…of life. By the time I entered her world she had 4 kids and a husband suffering from severe depression. I knew her as white haired, tired, strained, and stressed.

    To walk in the woods with her during the last 10 or so years of her life was a gift. A treasured glimpse of the child, the girl, the woman inside the weary woman I knew growing up. Sorting through her photos has been a visual journey of life, relationships, adventures, and sorrow. And grief. I miss her so much.

    And now I'm rambling much as she did those last few years. Seriously though, I think I learned a priceless something – my story is worth telling. My story is worth sharing with my children. With my grandchildren. My story is part of who they are, the very blood that flows through their veins. So I will walk in the woods with them. Or on the beach. Or up a mountain. And I will share that story.

    Thanks for making me think, dear friend.

  19. That was simply lovely! And yes, I lost my mom 2 years ago after a long terrible journey down the dark road of Alzheimer’s. My sister and I struggled with our lack of detailed knowledge of our mother’s childhood as she brought up names of people we’d never heard of, but who must have been people from her youth. I especially like how you brought this full circle!

  20. I can see that I was very blessed that my Mother loved to tell me stories of her childhood growing up with brothers and sisters in Pennsylvania. She's the person I learned about most of my relatives from, and most of their stories also. I was very lucky.

  21. Sweet article. I haven't thought about it this way before–makes me want to do those taped interviews I've been thinking of for a long time…….

  22. middlesage says

    It's funny how 1 dimensional we think of our parents….the triggers that allow us to see all their other facets that make them a fellow human rather than our parent are interesting and can come out of nowhere. Mine perspective didn't shift until they died and helped me put things into perspective for me…they were no longer just bad parents, they were fellow human beings who were flawed… Great post! I'll look forward to reading more!
    My recent post The Best Advice I Never Got: Friendships are like Gardens – You Have To Get Rid of the Weeds

  23. Yvonne Freeman says

    I had some if these same thoughts when seeing photos if my mom as a young girl. I look so much like her both at that age and now. And I understand why I’m the one she picks apart the most… Could it be the dreams she had did not materialize, and in the wisdom of current age, she would change it for me?

    Beautiful article, Susan. I’m so glad I know you and get to be blessed by your delightful self!!!

  24. Thank you for sharing this – such a good reminder that your story matters – even if you think it is just an ordinary one.

    One of the many reasons I teach scrapbooking and journalling classes!
    My recent post Images for Quaker Meeting Houses

  25. Susan, I can barely comment on this post. It is so raw and fresh and real to me. My mom passed into glory a month ago at the age of 100 and I oh so long to know who she really was. I only know her as 'my mom'. Thank you for this wonderful article. I'm going to share this with my sons.
    My recent post Stay At Home Moms: What Do You Do All Day?

  26. The resemblance between the three generations is amazing.

    Wonderfully, touchingly written, Susan. The day we start thinking about the lives of the people who had previously been "flat" characters is the day we start seeing a much broader picture, oddly showing us just how big — and small — we all are.

    You are a thoughtful woman.

    My recent post Part Four and Finale: Fuzzwald Gets His Wish; or Happy Birthday, Liza Bean

  27. Aileen Taylor says

    Susan, I knew your Mother when her children were young….I had all of you in Bible Class, except for maybe John…..she was a wonderful women….I always went by Stone & Thomas to see and chat with her when in town….You are so lucky to have found this picture on your phone….I know nothing about my Dads family or at least very little…when I had the chance to find out I was to busy raising a child and making a home and all that goes with that…..Aileen Taylor

  28. Jennifer Bohrnstedt says

    How lovely and delicately deft are your characterizations of inter-generational understanding. I cannot speak powerfully enough to what you have written so masterfully. It is simply beautiful and what a fine 16th birthday gift for Caroline as well as precious gift for Beau. I am so proud of you!

    What you wrote is simply powerful stuff, publishable beyond your blog, should you choose, and speaks to conditions relatable by mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, grandparents, and cousins. You did us all a great service; thank you! Deep in my heart, I know that Lee and Rhoda are just beaming with pride that you understood the messages that their briefly captured history was trying to communicate. Well done!

  29. Aileen Taylor says

    I have commented once on this….as you know my family….I have three grand children….I started several years ago to write all three of them Journals of my life growing up, as well as my Mother and Dad…and as much as I knew of my Grand parents….and the Taylor side of the family…..they are now 21,24 and 28….the 28 yr old and his wife are going to present us with our first Great Grand Child the end of Oct. or whenever she decides to make an appearance….I will have to get busy and journal for her….because being 80, I may not be around to many more year… are such a beautiful writer….keep it up. I talked with Lynn not to long ago, and she said of all the siblings, you were the most like your Mother…..what a great complement .!!

  30. Wow – I felt some of these epiphanies recently, when I received a packet of pictures from my cousin that contained an adorable picture of my Mom as a little girl. And all the mixed feelings I have about our relationship fell away, and I saw her as just an adorable kid.
    I was going to write about this feeling, but wasn't sure I could do it justice. You did it – and wonderfully. 🙂

  31. twistingsuburbia says

    Thank you for this beautiful post – although I'm extremely grateful that I don't wear mascara – it would be dribbling down my face. Your story resonated with me. My mother died 18 years ago at the age of 57. After taking a family trip to represent her at her high school/alumni reunion, I tried desperately to collect stories about my mom. I tried again 13 years ago when my daughter was born. I have so many questions, and nobody seems to be able to answer them.
    This is my biggest regret – that I was just beginning to know my mother as a person when she left.

  32. Oh my goodness what a lovely post!

  33. Beautiful.

  34. Beautiful! I remember when I saw my grandma as a mom and not just my grandma. She cried when my uncle surprised her at an anniversary party for my grandparents. I had the same “aha” moment as you. Your post is a wonderful tribute to the women of your family!

  35. Maureen Baeck says

    What a great post about your mom. I lost my mom in 2004 and every time I see a picture of my mom when she was young it triggers so many memories and questions too. Questions that I wish I had asked her when she was alive. Thanks for sharing your mom's story.

  36. ljstone111 says

    I've had the same feelings, coming across a picture of my Mom as a little girl. I knew she had a tough childhood in Boston, but as you asked about your Mom, what were her favorite foods? What did she love? What were her favorite games? My mother is still alive and I should ask these things. Thank you for the reminder.

  37. Great read Susan. Mothers are the best and you always assume you will have more time with them. Later can too often be what we think. It is almost Mother's Day so it is a great time to say "Now."

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