A Long and Rambling Letter to My Dead Mother



You have been gone two and a half years now. I thought my heart would ache (it often does) and I would want you back desperately (I do not). The world has changed too much, too fast. You would spend your days worrying about every single person on earth. Terrified of us going out and getting sick and winding up on a ventilator. Heartbroken at all the lives lost or sickened for good. And the politics? Just two and a half years, and you would not recognize your country. I know you saw it coming. But January 6? People arming up to fight their neighbors? One guy just issued a call for religious purity; another cartooned himself murdering an opponent. The old centrist liberal Democrats (our whole family, on your side) are hanging on to an outdated system of nonexistent compromise and traded favors, and the sort of Republicans you married into have been decisively overtaken.

You gave your body to Wash.U., so there is no grave where I can pour a little bourbon on the zoysia and pour out my heart. Yet I have this ridiculous impulse to keep you posted. If there is any realm in which souls keep their individual personality, you already know how much fear and hate are flooding the world. If the body is a container that only temporarily divides us, then the only distinct you that remains lives inside my psyche. Agnostic and a little foolish, I feel a need for a chat nonetheless.

The pandemic struck less than a year after you left the planet. “Struck” sounds overdramatic, like a biblical plague or the Black Death, but those were the comparisons that sprang to mind. For me, the first ominous hint was a news report about a ship whose passengers were sick with some contagious virus. A casual, regrettable news item. And from there, life turned into one of those made-for-TV movies from the Seventies. Remember how we used to melt butter and Parmesan over big bowls of popcorn, slurp frozen baby Cokes, and shiver at all that contrived suspense?

This was not contrived.

I am ashamed to admit (but you are used to my confessions) that I declared—angrily and more than once—that people who refuse to wear a mask should waive their right to a ventilator. You would not recognize your daughter; this uncompromising rage is new and personal, and it seethes. All the selfish stupidity, in the face of so much illness and death, cracked a lifelong veneer of courtesy and stole the benefit of the doubt.

Now there is talk of the U.S. splitting into two countries. You would listen and nod in that calm motherly way, sure that such a thing would never happen. You were good at absorbing other people’s spitty tantrums. But honestly, Nette? Not only do I think it could happen but I find myself hoping it does. I cannot envision a future in which we can cooperate; the worldviews are so far apart that we might as well be speaking in different tongues. You had Walter Cronkite; we have genuinely fake news, allegedly fake news, and social disinformation.

“Take your mind off all this, honey,” you would urge. “You can’t fix it, so dwelling is just negative energy.” Well, the other day I tried. I went shopping—the girly sort of all-day shopping, at a mall—for the first time in years. Remember how we used to go every Saturday, back when the clothes were made of real cotton, silk, and wool, and often elegant, and we rifled through those long racks at Neiman Marcus’s Last Call, seventy percent off, and found stuff that was cheaper than the clothes my friends bought at Penney’s? I still have some of those clothes—they were not disposable, and they did not bleed bits of plastic. But now even the sale prices are three-digit, so I went to West County mall instead. I was determined to splurge—you would have winced to see me in sweats for two years, hair stuck back in a band—but everything in that mall looked the same, and even the priciest clothes had a stretchy shiny cheapness to them. For lunch (remember French onion soup and eclairs?) I forked over almost nine bucks for a big cookie and a small chai and ate it outside the Nordstrom’s entrance, a mask dangling from one ear, my cup resting on the wide brim of the trash can. A desperate, solitary picnic.

Remember Joan, the lingerie saleswoman who was so warm and patient and helpful for years and years? Nobody stays in a job anymore (not that I blame them) or knows the merchandise or gives two hoots about a customer’s dilemma. When I asked, frivolous for the day, if anybody made a blue-violet eyeliner, the woman behind the counter took my persnickety measure and shrugged. “You’d better look yourself.” So I slogged through seventeen brands, tugging out plastic drawers, eventually just bought a purple one and mixed it with blue at home. I both hate and prefer shopping online now—it is a crapshoot made in China. Google “Best” whatever, and you either get a list some lazy reporter put together by counting Amazon stars or a set of “reviews” secretly written by the manufacturer of the “best” one. The only clothes I am drawn to online, I pass up, knowing they were probably stitched by Uighurs in a sweatshop.

Grocery shopping feels Eastern bloc—bare shelves, reduced hours, absurd prices, surly staff. The schools can not find bus drivers! The only bright spot is that I no longer feel guilty for living in a country filled with abundance and privilege and relentless optimism. Instead I feel angry, because the abundance has swelled to obscene excess yet shrunk to cover only small enclaves. The optimism is flat-out gone.

The other day I flipped on NPR and heard a reporter talking about “what could happen in a society this fractured.” I instantly assumed he meant ours. As it turned out, he was referring to Ethiopia, but it could so easily have been us, and why is that disconcerting? I studied so casually about American exceptionalism. Now I see how thoroughly the idea that we were special conditioned me—and how bleak it feels to give up a tacit promise of invincibility.

I need to find you some good news. Tech, which confounded you at regular intervals, is even cooler now, airier, and less cumbersome. But so much is virtual that I hear a giant sucking sound, sense a vortex hungry to pull all of us into its forcefield. I hang on to trees’ rough bark, hug the dog, feel as though my brain is wired into something big and buzzy and not altogether benevolent. Slight electrical shocks run through my nervous system all day long, spikes of interest or connection, triumphs over some technological snag, hits, like your long happy drags on the cigarettes I made you quit smoking.

So much for good news.

Growing up, I felt wretchedly sorry for you. Widowed young, with an eight-month-old baby and no work you loved. Years as a secretary, flattering bosses and cleaning up their messes for chump change. But you left at five on the dot and never looked back, never brought work home except to tell funny stories, and then we played and talked. I know you struggled, and you were lonely and anxious, but yours was real-life stress, not the made-up sort that frazzles our nerves every hour of the day, hardly ever with justification.

Those middle-aged White men you had to flatter? They are testifying in courtrooms now, protesting their innocence of young women’s accusations. Others are committing suicide or buying ammo, declaring the country lost, and following despots they think will restore freedom and glory.

Remember how you cried when you were a little girl, because when seven kids and four adults drove her to the brink, your mother scraped together enough money to hire a woman to iron, and Daisy was down in the basement, humming and ironing and giving out hugs, and you wanted her to be part of the family and sensed with a kid’s unerring instinct that your second-generation Irish mother thought her own pale freckled skin somehow superior? We thought there was progress, but the country feels more racist than ever.

Annie was ahead of her time on the environment, though. Remember how we rolled our eyes when she made us circle a parking lot until we found a shady spot? And how she bought Mountain Valley water in green glass bottles, an unusual splurge for a woman who raised seven kids during the Depression? I swear there is a ten-degree difference between sun and shade now, and all those crackly thin plastic water bottles will sit in landfills for 450 years. We have passed the turning-around place, and we’re speeding down a sizzling freeway with no exit ramps.

You found one. The fact that I am so glad you are not here anymore unnerves me; it measures realizations that I, your once blithely optimistic daughter, would rather suppress. Andrew and I talk lightly about moving to Portugal, if the next election goes badly. Neither of us is sure if the other is kidding.

What would you do? You would not run, I know that. With your weird, lifelong mix of staunch courage and trepidation, you would stay put. Throw love at anyone within reach. Maybe say a novena; you drifted away from Catholicism just as I did but returned at the end. No doubt I will too, and God will wince at how jaded I have become, pity my loss of faith and hope and even charity.

Meanwhile, the world is burning, clogged with trash, wrecked with storms. Swedes call this kind of despair klimatångest; I wonder if they also have special words for the fears of contagion and civil war and a collapsed middle class. Hope used to seem so personal, pegged to promising job interviews or first dates or lab results. Now my mental state feels tethered to the whole planet’s future (or lack thereof). And lest you think me neurotic, I am not alone: In a global survey, only seventeen percent of respondents believed we would successfully reduce climate change.

That does not mean we should stop trying, you would say, a little tartly, because who follows “everybody” when they shoot up heroin or jump off a bridge? But we need to stop pretending that the world we broke can be traded in for a new one. Tikkun—repair of the world—is going to mean Duck Tape and string, shared DIY tips, making do, apologizing for all that has been lost. And no wallowing in self-pity. You never did. You just kept going. Me, I slip into sadness too easily these days.

I thought I would only have to grieve you. I did not count on grieving for a country and a planet, too.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.