Facing Main

Mother’s Day

In this resettling of my family, I am many things all at once: daughter, granddaughter, and mother to my own children

By Maggie Doherty

Twenty years ago, my mom fell to the gravel driveway and cried after I left for Montana. She later told me that she lay there for what felt like hours, wailing. I left home for a new place in the world. I had a summer job, a map leading me from northern Michigan to Flathead Lake Lodge, and my car filled with clothes, books, skis, and a bike. All that I could have possibly owned at age 22, not possessing much else other than a determined zeal to live out West. Part of that meant leaving my mother behind, in ways greater than those other firsts a child makes to separate herself from her parent: steps, kindergarten, friends, first kiss, college.

I drove away and she remained, waiting what must have felt like decades for the first phone call made from my hotel room, somewhere west of Lake Superior, the first leg of my journey complete. It took three days for me to get from my childhood home to the place I’d come to call home and where I would become a mother myself. I imagine that my mother’s wailing and fretting didn’t ease much once I alerted her that I had finally made it. I know that I didn’t consider my mother’s heartbreak, eager as I was to join the dude ranch crew and glimpse the mountains ringing the shores of Flathead Lake. It certainly wasn’t the Great Lakes, but it was a sight to behold. One that continues to steal my breath.

There are now four generations of my matrilineal family calling this valley home, a migration I couldn’t have predicted when I left the Midwest behind as a college grad who was certain that her English degree wouldn’t be of much use. In moving to Montana, I also left behind my grandmother, who’s had even more experience with those pangs of departure.

Seven years ago, we mended that divide and my mom and grandmother left behind their native terrain – those oceanic Great Lakes and swaths of quiet deciduous forests – to help me mother. The two were both widows and new life – a grandson – beckoned them West and they approached their move with such enthusiasm that I overlooked what they had chosen to leave behind: memories of their childhoods on the water, decade-old friendships that can’t be replicated elsewhere, the familiarity of a long life well lived in a place you choose to be your home.

As mothers, they chose their children and grandchildren. At 94, my grandmother’s lineage blooms with two great-grandchildren, one of whom is named after her daughter who died at age 40. No landscape, no matter how great or big, can contain that kind of loss. Yet, in choosing family, we are better equipped to weather those heartbreaks, by allowing ourselves to wail and locate the moments when the grief settles into a reprieve, more placid waters. In this resettling of my family, I am many things all at once: daughter, granddaughter, and mother to my own children. The careful lines of care that dictate childhood give way to a more complex but also richer relationship between us, a rare kind of mothering that I’m grateful geography no longer separates.

This is also a sight to behold. To mothers everywhere: Happy Mother’s Day.