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In Search of Memories: My Mother, 25 Years Later

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A quarter century after my mother’s death, I recall her life and impact, as written by my much younger self.

The train raced south through the foggy countryside of France. My destination was Châteauroux, where I had been born almost 27 years earlier. Gazing at the fields and windbreaks this September, I wondered how many times I made the two-plus hour trip from Paris held on my mother’s lap. The visit carried a double emotional wallop. I had never seen my birthplace, a U.S. Air Force hospital in Châteauroux. Also, it completed my grieving period for my mother.

Shirley Elizabeth Lissner Wallach died of bone cancer January 12, 1984, aged 63. That date is the apogee of a line of mourning that began in August 1981 with a dawn phone call from her sister Charlotte telling me the diagnosis. For 30 months I pondered, cursed, fought, forgot, and sometimes hoped for her death. Disease and treatment ravaged this content, plain-speaking woman. She retreated into a shell of unspoken, unshareable pain I could never pierce. Having made her peace with herself, my mother could not face my anxieties.

Dealing with my rage — at her silence and my seeming inability to please her — began January 13 with one more trip to Tyler, Texas, where my mother had moved in with her widowed sister. After the funeral, my brother Cooper, his wife Dianna and I combed through our mother’s room. She left no secrets; just graduation pictures, Mother’s Day cards, and my last heartbreakingly cheerful letters. The sense of a missing physical presence overwhelmed me.

For months I felt restless, searching without clues or goals, just wanting to visit the stations of her life. In July, Cooper, Dianna, and I returned to Mission, Texas, the town where Mom, Cooper, and I grew up, all of us attending Mission High School (the sons graduating 40 years after the mother). That didn’t satisfy me. I had to see Châteauroux.

I did that during a month-long European sojourn in September 1984. Once in Châteauroux, I walked down one road, then back, confused. Now what? The staff at the local tourist office couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak French. I indicated with a State Department birth registration form that I wanted to find the Air Force hospital. They shook their heads.

“Le hospital c’est kaput?” I asked, mangling three languages in one sentence.

“Oui, c’est kaput,” a woman said.

She did sketch a route to the old “base Americaine” on a map. With this help I strolled through the noontime streets. I clutched every detail, and thought, “So this is it.” Little cars were parked on the sidewalks, and most stores had closed. Parents and children walked hand in hand, and my throat tightened. There, 25 years earlier, went I.

I walked out of town to a highway. Far away was a toy-like air traffic control tower and the former base. I thought, “This is far enough.” I took a picture and turned around.

Nothing dramatic happened. Nobody rushed out and gasped, “Monsieur Wallach, oui?” I bought croissants, and got caught in a rain shower. The ordinary events matched the way my mother lived – steady and dependable.

Returning to Paris, I felt relieved and somehow empty. I had been where my mother lived, gave birth, and died. The cycle was complete, allowing me to recall her life as well as her death; colorful details like her devotion to family and friends, cooking, and needlepoint. A part of me will always be vacant, but the search cleared away the gnawing I felt inside. There’s no place left to go, except headlong into my own history.

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About Van Wallach

  • Dr. Juliann Mitchell, PhD

    Van,
    Thanks for a very poignant piece. I think it is true, Death ends a life not a relationship.

    Best wishes,
    Juliann

  • Renee

    Van, very powerful piece. Full of emotions. I felt the same when my mother died in 1987 at age 46. I realized I didnt know anything about her. How and when she fell in love with my father, What it was like when she graduated college? Why she named me Renee? Questions, Questions, Questions. Time slips by so fast and we don’t give time to those who really matter sometimes. It has given me the awareness of how fragile we are. Your mom was amazing! You and Cooper are proof of that! She lives through you. The memories of her will never die. Renee