Last week I went home to pick up my mother’s ashes. There will be no formal ceremony, no eulogy or funeral or wake. She did not want to give anyone the opportunity to say goodbye. Instead, there were a few objects left behind as every trace of her was scrubbed out of the house she built.

This included her senior yearbook, inscribed with good wishes on her wedding, scheduled for a few days after high school graduation. There were a few snapshots of trips to Point Defiance with the cousins when we were little, some newspaper clippings about my books, and a box filled with the jumbled remains of her spoon collection.

We lived in a navy town and she worked in the shipyard. Whenever a friend or colleague would travel, they would bring back commemorative spoons and she would hang them in racks on the wall, hundreds of tiny spoons knocking together as doors were slammed. The spoons represented the adventures we would have one day, when she could afford it, when the bills were paid, when everything settled down.

My mother was the cool mom who let my friends stay over and watch vaguely naughty movies on cable television, the one who took us to R rated films and bought our tickets to forbidden concerts. She provided rides to distant cities so I could acquire imported records and magazines, both of us dreaming of a future that seemed within reach, if we worked hard enough. My friends gathered around her, a raggedy bunch of strays; anyone who needed sanctuary could find it at our house, and those who needed safe passage were provided with a bus ticket out.

Looking back now I appreciate that she was young: 18 when I was born, 30 when I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, 36 when I made her a grandparent. But she never seemed anything less than authoritative. She was a working-class woman who spent her life in a series of merciless soul-destroying jobs so she could afford to look after her family, to give me (and my cousins whenever possible) opportunities she never had. She was the one who made sure everyone had warm winter coats, and sturdy shoes, and presents to open on birthdays. She understood how hard it was for me to grow up with cancer, and she fully appreciated the terrors of any childhood marked by addiction, abuse, incarceration and suicide. She was exasperated and exhausted by it all.

But she also appreciated the macabre humor of each individual event, and she never complained; in fact she never let anyone whine about anything. Attempts were met with scathing sarcasm. My mother put up with all manner of humiliation to keep her family together, and she did not suffer silently. Anyone who knew her can attest to her wit, her generosity, and her brutality. She had to fight, and she did fight, with her fists, and her brain, and her astonishing belief that the fight mattered. That we mattered.

She never had a specific plan for me; she thought I was a weird kid, a changeling, and although she wanted me nearby she knew I would be safer elsewhere. So she instilled in me, whether I wanted it or not, the idea that I was valuable exactly as found.  She taught me that I could be more, and go further, than any of my teachers or doctors or relatives believed. She also made it clear I was no better or worse than anyone I would ever meet.

When I faltered, when I wanted to give in to the illness or listen to the people who said no, she was always there to mock them and tell me to stand up and keep moving. Her stoic determination set a standard of excellence that is impossible to achieve, but I keep trying, because she showed me how.

My mother demonstrated every day that it doesn’t matter if you are educated, or sophisticated, or healthy, or even sane. What matters is how you treat the people around you. Without compromise, without excuses, no matter how boring it is, no matter how terrifying: you have to take care of the people you love.

My mother was a difficult, brilliant, complicated person who never had a chance to go to college or even work in a job that capitalized on her intelligence. She will not show up in history books, she did not leave behind a fortune or a scientific innovation or even a grave. Instead she left me, and my children, and all the people who feel the lash of her ethics and her humor though our actions. The point of life is not what you achieve, it is how you live.

I was an only child but my mother never said that she loved me, not even when she thought I would die. Instead, she demonstrated her love through a vast sacrifice. She gave up all of her dreams, everything she wanted, to keep me alive and set me on the road to a new life. And that is hard to talk about: sometimes words are too shallow to convey huge feelings.

Last week I boarded the ferry to Seattle holding a wooden box filled with her ashes, and a cardboard box filled with commemorative spoons. Traveling away from my old home and toward a new home, displaced, grieving, I stared around in shock, understanding that we ran out of time for all the adventures we planned to have one day. Knowing I will never return to the landscape of my childhood.

I am indebted to my mother not just for my existence and survival, but also for the freedom those spoons represent. My mother collected trinkets and dreamed of a life beyond poverty and fear. I travel the world and dream of my mother.

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