Janet Sheridan: Missed opportunities

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Janet Sheridan

Hearing no answer to my query about lunch, I studied my mother and her remote expression.

Lost in thought as she pressed Dad’s shirt, she seemed unaware of her surroundings: the fresh scent of drying cotton that rose in the wake of her iron, the soft thump and scrape from the game of jacks I played on the kitchen floor, my question.

Earlier, I’d helped her sprinkle the freshly laundered skirts, dresses, and shirts she’d iron by shaking water on them from a Nehi soda bottle with a perforated nozzle.

“This one’s a little too wet,” she teased as she took a skirt from me, rolled it loosely, and nestled it in a plastic-lined basket, “Are you sure you can see what you’re doing through that jumble of uncombed hair?”

Now, as she hung an ironed shirt and reached for another in the basket of moistened clothes wrapped around themselves like small mummies, I sensed she’d gone away to a private place that didn’t include me.

Sixty years later, as Mother’s Day approaches with its cartload of memories, I wonder what thoughts engrossed my mother on the long ago summer morning when she ironed and I played.

Was she imagining places she’d read about but never visited — ancient ruins with storied pasts, small villages tucked on Himalayan slopes, canopies covering tropical rainforests? Were her thoughts centered on the single semester of college she’d attended before marrying Dad?

She often told her children that she felt fulfilled during her semester at BYU, that for a brief time she had experienced a world of promise and possibilities.

Was she visualizing the hummingbird breathing of yet another newborn sleeping? Did the needs of five children and one on the way occupy her as she ran the tip of the iron along the collar of Dad’s white shirt?

Or perhaps my imagination makes too much of her preoccupation that morning. Maybe she was simply enjoying a quiet domestic task in a stilled, orderly house or thinking about the letter we’d received that morning from Lawrence in North Korea.

I’ll never know.

As an adult, why did I waste so many conversations with my mother by talking about the trivia of our days rather than the more personal questions I now ponder?

Was it because I thought I’d always have her?

Another memory makes me wish I’d invested more thought when conversing with my mother: she asked me about her appearance when I had the maturity to respond with thoughtfulness, but failed to do so.

At the time, I didn’t realize I could have — should have — given her more.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I lived at home, worked a job I disliked, and walked with my mother after dinner. We strolled together beneath the soft twilight of a Wyoming sky and chatted. One evening, she surprised me with a question: “Janet, how do you think I look?”

In retrospect, I think my mother, well into middle age, was asking for reassurance that she was still an attractive woman.

My reply came quickly and easily and didn’t meet her needs: “Oh, I don’t know. You look like my mom.”

My response must have seemed dismissive.

She didn’t pursue the topic.

How I wish I had found the words to tell her she was lovely with generous lips that framed a welcoming smile, light brown hair that never grayed, and large hazel eyes that reflected intelligence and humor.

I wish I’d gone on to say that I had difficulty describing her appearance because she was so known and dear, so appreciated and important, that I’d always found her beautiful — and would until the day she died.

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