Identity Crossroads


I sat in a beautiful rural church on a recent warm Saturday. A woman who once lived, had died. I remember her very clearly. She was big of personality, voice, and opinion. She seemed to care not one whit about what anyone thought of her. I admired that. When I knew her, I was in my late 20s, she was maybe 25 years older—old enough to be my mother. But she wasn’t.

Although Katherine was being honored that day, she was not the reason I was there. I was there to honor someone else.

The year I met Katherine was my first year of teaching 6-8th grade English. My 6th grade that year had only 7 students in it. One of them was Katherine’s daughter, Kit.

Teaching was, like babysitting or nannying, both of which I’d also done, a precursor to parenthood. I found out, almost by surprise, how much love is involved. I discovered how much a group of 7 kids in a classroom every day can worm its way in. By the time they were in 8th grade, we were sitting around discussing The Scarlet Letter while everyone took turns feeling my first baby thump around under my sweater.

I taught Kit and her classmates for 3 years. I knew at the time that she would always be a powerful memory for me. There was something about her. She knew herself, I could see. Or was on the way to knowing herself. And she was only 11.

Kit grew up, moved away, began a career as a midwife, married, had children. I stayed in the background, like a good former teacher, proud and admiring, happy for her growing and achieving, but mostly for her happiness. All this thanks to the power of social media, where I walk a fine line between stalking and benevolent awareness. (Thankfully, I have a busy, rich life so stalking is not really an option for me. But I am alertly and fondly cognizant of many, many of my former students, and in touch with them at appropriate interludes, thanks to Facebook and other cyber-land “realities.”)

In the intervening years, between Kit’s 8th grade graduation, at which I cried (I always cry), and the memorial of her mother, I lost mine.

Mother-daughter—it’s a complicated bond. Teacher-student—less so, but also multi-layered, very lasting, and potentially very rich. Kit and I shared what I recently described as a “history of entanglement/anguish/difficulty” with our mothers. The loss of a parent is always hard. The loss of a mother has its own layers of complexity. The loss of a mother with whom the relationship has been fraught, painful, guilty, or in other ways complicated… well, it’s the worst, or at least the most difficult to navigate.

Fast forward 25 years from graduation day for Kit and her 6 classmates, and I received a message. Kit stretching out a hand in my direction and saying, well, lots of things. Part of it was just this: “I find myself wanting to reach out again all these years later and for your support . Although I am no longer a child and need so much less than the 11 to 13 year old me needed. It feels comforting to know you are out there, regardless. Thank you for helping me find my way all those years ago. I will be in the dark for awhile with this grief but less scared knowing you are there if I feel the need to call out.”

When Kit lost her mother. When she reached out to me. When the memories of my own mother’s death in 2004 resurfaced during that exchange with Kit. When I sat in the small church listening to the carefully worded eulogies about a woman—a force of nature who was hard to love but easy to admire (so like my mother). When I heard Kit speak of, and to, her mother, back stiff and eyes dry, her complicated pain a stunning echo of mine, 11 years before. When I saw Kit in the flesh for the first time since 1990, holding her two babies close, a boy and a girl (like mine). When her smiling face reminded me of the eternal grace I always saw in her, even in those awkward adolescent years, and that lovely soul that shines out to this day. When her beautiful face brought back those first years of teaching and all the hard work and the crazy impossible aspirations and the valiant heroism of kids and the bond that forms and the teacherlove.

Sitting in the church I was briefly in a powerful crosswind—a very real moment when several pasts intersected with the present and an idea of the future in which Kit-as-mother, me-as-mother, Kit-as-daughter, me-as-daughter, Kit-as-student, me-as-teacher, sparkled like the facets on a universe-sized crystal.

Not all intersections are where clandestine meetings take place. Sometimes they are just moments in time when our different identities intersect unexpectedly, and immediately stop mattering. When the only thing that does matter is love.