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The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us

by Patti Davis

The following excerpt is taken from the book THE LIVES OUR MOTHERS LEAVE US: Prominent Women Discuss the Complex, Humorous, and Ultimately Loving Relationships They Have with Their Mothers by Patti Davis. It is published by Hay House (April 2009) and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com  


Sometime around the age of 40, most of us realize that our mothers live deep inside us and always will. It isn’t an accident that everyone whose story is told in this book is at least that age—it was pretty much my only rule for asking women to participate. Maybe it’s some kind of biorhythm; maybe it’s hormonal; maybe it’s just a point in life when we pause long enough to say, Okay I get it now. Who knows? But 40 seems to be a pivotal point for understanding how all-encompassing the mother/daughter relationship is.

Even if our mothers are gone, they are never gone from us. If we search our internal landscapes, we find them—sometimes etched as delicately as a watermark, sometimes as deep as an engraving. Our mothers stand behind us at the mirror, trail our footsteps, tap on our shoulders. If you burrow under the surface of any woman, you will find what her mother thought about her.

The women featured in this book are all well known for their accomplishments, their art, their trail blazing. Yet when they talk about their mothers, they are simply daughters. Each story is unique and personal, but all are rooted in the awareness of how tied we are to our mothers’ hearts—the beating rhythm that first defined our lives when we floated inside their bodies.

Some women have already seen that death doesn’t end the relationship. Others are watching the passage of time in their mothers’ eyes, in movements that are slower, in shoulders that aren’t as straight as they once were.

Those of us on that side wonder how long we have. But then we remind ourselves that we already know the answer—we have forever.

Chapter 1

The Empty House

On a bright blue January day, after the taillights of my mother’s car had disappeared down her driveway, I walked through the empty house she’d left behind and acquainted myself with her absence. I’d never been there alone before (although I wasn’t entirely alone—my new puppy trotted along behind me). It was unexpected, this solitary exploration. She had just been driven away to travel back East for Gerald Ford’s funeral service, and the housekeeper hadn’t yet arrived. Secret Service agents are always there, but in a separate area, so the hush of the house and what it could teach me was all mine. I walked back across the threshold like a pilgrim about to undertake a journey.

This is not the house I grew up in; it’s the one my parents moved to after the White House years—the house they thought would be home to the winding down of their lives together. And it has been . . . just not in the ways they expected.

My father sank into Alzheimer’s here. Eventually, the only room he knew was the one that had once been his study and had been transformed into what we simply called “his room” . . . with a hospital bed, an armchair, a small television set for whichever nurse was on duty, and a table full of medical paraphernalia. He died in that room. Our last good-byes still linger like cobwebs in the corners—light as gossamer, strong as wire. For months afterward I would whisper, “Hi, Dad,” every time I passed the doorway. It’s now been turned back into a study. My mother sits at his desk and answers mail, with photographs of him all around her.

I still feel my father here, but the house is full of my mother. Her careful, precise decorating—small Limoges boxes arranged in concentric circles on an antique mahogany table, vases of artistically arranged flowers, polished silver picture frames containing images of another time. A large oil painting of a sad-eyed man is as familiar as a family member. He watched me from above the fireplace in my childhood home, and he watches me now from above the fireplace in the den. One wall in this room is lined with books, many of them old and rare, leather spines cracked and worn. Their pages haven’t been turned in years. The house smells like my mother—the Kiehl’s bath oil she likes to soak in and the mysterious scent that every individual has. Houses hold on to people’s scents for a long time; I wondered how possessive this house will be of hers.

I walked from room to room, trying to memorize and absorb the feeling of her not being there. When one parent has died and the other is in her 80s, absence has a different weight to it. It feels like a glimpse into the future, and it invites you to study it . . . and study it well.

The house will be empty one day. This is what it will feel like, sound like, I told myself. I walked so slowly that my dog began running in circles around me, confused by my snail’s pace. I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted the quiet and the emptiness to seep into me; I wanted every floating memory to stop me in my tracks.

The living room is rarely used these days. The couch and matching armchairs are tightly slip-covered in floral fabric; I searched my memory for how old they are. Old was all I could come up with. I can’t remember when they weren’t there. When I lived in New York and my mother visited my apartment, she was baffled by my loose “shabby chic” slipcovers. (It was years ago, at the very beginning of the phenomenon.)

“Those slipcovers don’t fit,” she said, mildly horrified.

“They’re meant to not fit,” I explained. “The style is called shabby chic, and everything is loose and slouchy. . . .”

“But they don’t fit,” she insisted.

Months later I was with her in California at a Malibu house that friends of hers were renting. There on the coffee table was Rachel Ashwell’s first book, simply titled Shabby Chic.

“Oh, Patti has some of this furniture!” she exclaimed delightedly, apparently thrilled that I wasn’t really the style flunky she’d judged me to be.

I’ve teased her about this, and she’s laughed at the memory, acknowledging that, yes, we do have different styles of decorating and she had been a bit quick to judge. Every once in a while, she’s asked me if I’d like a particular piece of furniture to be passed down to me; wisely, she’s never offered to leave me the living-room couch.

My mother’s bedroom has, sadly, been hers alone for years now. The room on the other side of the wall became my father’s when a hospital bed and round-the-clock nurses became necessary. Mom had the king-size bed removed and a queen-size one brought in, hoping to feel less of his absence in the bed they’d shared for nearly 50 years.

But she still sleeps on her side of the bed. The side that was always my father’s is smooth and unwrinkled—not even a dent in the pillow. When I was a child, I’d tumble into their bedroom on laundry day, when bedclothes were piled on the floor, and I’d be able to tell which pillow was my mother’s and which my father’s by the scent they’d left behind. Now there is only my mother’s.

In her dressing room, two robes hang neatly on hangers on the back of the door. I know she has probably half a dozen others in her closet. My mother loves robes—or, generationally speaking, perhaps I should say “dressing gowns.” I suddenly have an image of her in our old house, decades ago, pregnant with my younger brother, Ron:

She’s standing at the screen door that leads to the backyard, and she’s wearing a long pink robe. She has basically been confined to bed for the first trimester so she won’t miscarry, and she wears that pink robe a lot, the sash loosely tied over the bump that will become my brother. She’s smiling at me as I go back and forth on the swing set, my feet aiming for the sky.


I don’t know how long I walked through the empty rooms. Probably not long, but it felt like I was traveling through space, backward and forward between the past and the future. The house was still, hushed as a church, and it was asking me to give it that same reverence.

By breathing into my mother’s absence, I knew I was also inhaling her presence—a presence that would never die, not even when she does.

Our mothers slip between our heartbeats. They live in our wombs, our blood, the reflections we see in the mirror. When we’re younger, we think they’ll move farther away from us; when we’re older, we know they never can.

I imagined my mother long before I was able to really know her. When I was a child, I imagined having long, easy, freewheeling conversations with her, the sort of talks friends might have in late-afternoon sunlight over cups of tea.

The reality was far different. I tried her patience, and she intimidated me. More than that, she was one half of a starlit relationship that seemed to exist in its own galaxy. My parents were fused together—hearts, souls, minds. They loved us—my younger brother and me—but when they looked at each other, the rest of the world fell away. The years of tension with my mother that piled up between us like bricks in a wall are well known. Occasionally, even a stranger will say something to me like, “It’s great that you and your mother are getting along now.” It’s almost always a woman who says this, her own story simmering in her eyes.

As daughters, we bounce off our mothers in ways that are both mysterious and ancient. Even in anger—maybe especially then—we’re tethered to them. My mother and I have never been mild with one another. Whether we were miles apart and blaming each other or strongly and lovingly bonded together, our emotions burned up the color chart. Nothing was ever gray.

We do have a friendship now—not that dissimilar to the one I imagined so long ago. But it’s been hard-won. At some point, I stopped looking back at the journey and just enjoyed where we’ve ended up. Apparently, so did she. One day on the phone she said, “I just don’t really think about those years anymore.” (I think I’d made a passing reference to what I call our “war years.”)


The sound of a car pulling into the driveway made me realize that my pilgrimage through the empty house was over. As I went into the entryway to open the front door, I remembered standing there with my mother two days before my father died. I was on my way out, and she broke down and wept in my arms. My mother is tiny, and I tower over her; her tears streamed down my shoulder and caught in the crook of my arm. “Nothing is ever going to be okay without him,” she sobbed.

It’s startling and heartbreaking to feel how small our mothers are—to wrap our younger, stronger arms around them and memorize the fragility of their spines beneath our fingers, the softness of their muscles under the weight of our hands. I was holding on to time slipping away; I was holding on to a lifetime of memories, feeling her weep with a sorrow that would never truly heal. I was holding on to the woman who had given birth to me and who was losing the love of her life. But I was finding more of the daughter I wanted to be; and in the end, that’s the best we can do.

The Barbara Bush Pearls

The credenza in the entryway of my parents’ house is something I immediately check out each time I walk through the door. My mother leaves things there for me, or for others, and occasionally items are just placed there so she won’t forget them the next time she goes out—a watch in need of repair or a broken picture frame. I go to her house every Sunday for lunch, and she always leaves the New York Times Book Review for me on the silver tray that graces the credenza. Sometimes there are letters for me that people have sent to the Reagan Library.

One Sunday, there was a necklace of large, fake-looking pearls on top of the New York Times Book Review. They almost looked like the pop beads I played with as a kid. There’s no other way to say it—they were Barbara Bush pearls, and I couldn’t picture my mother wearing them.

So, imagine my surprise when she asked, “Would you like these pearls? They’re not real. But do you want them?”

“Uh . . . no thanks,” I answered, feeling suddenly worried about her mental state. Did she really think I would want those?

Her expression darkened; tension moved into the room. I was, to say the least, confused. “Well, why don’t you want them?” she asked.

“They’re not really my style,” I pointed out.

“I just don’t know what your style is,” she fumed. “How am I supposed to leave you my jewelry when I die if I don’t even know what your style is?”

Now I was really confused. Trying to defuse the situation, I rambled on about jewelry that is meaningful to her, most of which my father gave her, which of course I would want. Jewelry can always be redesigned, I said. Besides, hadn’t she said the pearls were fake?

Nothing really got resolved. I left after lunch, still confused, and the next day on the phone I apologized for not taking the gift she’d offered and commented that I had clearly done something wrong.

Calmer than the day before, she said, “It’s just that I’d been thinking about leaving you my jewelry, and then you said that the necklace wasn’t your style . . . it just made me think about the whole jewelry issue.”

“But, see, I didn’t know there was a jewelry issue,” I pointed out.

Beneath the unfolding of what became an uncomfortable situation was our history together. My mother and I never learned early on to communicate with each other. In fact, we only learned how in the last decade. We don’t have a strong foundation beneath our relationship; we have splintered years of resentment and blame and distance. That’s just the reality.

The Barbara Bush pearls just highlighted that. But I think, especially with family relationships, that it’s important to start at whatever point you’re at and move on from there. You can’t play catch-up. If the goal is peace of mind, there is no peace of mind in trying to shore up the past.

There will probably be more glitches between my mother and me, when we each struggle to figure out how to communicate. But it only matters that we try. I hope the Barbara Bush pearls found a good home, and I’m grateful to them for providing an important lesson.

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