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Mom's Touch

Even years later, it can be a struggle to deal with a mother's death. But even over time, her presence is always felt.

I haven't heard my mother's voice in more than 20 years.

What I mean is that I haven't spoken words to her with my lips and heard her respond with my ears.

Like many motherless daughters, I talk to my mom a fair amount, just not the way people with living moms do.

I do carry her inside me. I call on her in difficult times and ask her to be with me. I tell lots of stories about her, and sometimes I think I smell her Charlie perfume.

She died in 1991, and there are still times, all these years later, when I think - for just a second - "I need to remember to tell my mom about that."

Which is why I was struck a few years back by a tidbit in a national magazine: Researchers had found that talking to your mother on the phone lowers stress levels, but chatting with her online doesn't.

The theory is that the sound of her voice is calming; what she says is not that important.

Yes, I thought after reading that, what I wouldn't give to hear my mother's voice just calling me up to chat.

Then I swallowed hard and turned the page.

Over the years, I have learned to protect myself a bit when it comes to the subject of mothers.

Mine was terrific. Loving. Supportive. I was truly lucky to have a great mom. As many women say, she was my best friend. I spoke to her almost every day, even when I moved to a different state.

She was diagnosed with brain cancer a few months after I married at 24. She died less than six months later.

As an only child, this loss was enormous. I did not have a close relationship with my father, a situation that only worsened in the aftermath of my mother's death.

I had always hated being an only child - lonely in my room at night, bored with only older parents on vacation. But that was nothing to the vast sense of loneliness I felt after she died.

In the book Motherless Daughters, author Hope Edelman writes about how, as an adult, she was crossing a busy street when she was struck by physical pain so intense, it was paralyzing. A flash of memory that her mother was dead brought her up short and disoriented her for several moments. People stopped and asked whether she was OK while cars honked at her. All she could think was, "I want my mother. I want my mother."

That story comes in the beginning of the book. I read that part, my hands started to sweat, and I stopped reading right there.

I know several people who have read the book and recommend it - daughters whose mothers died when they were children, women whose mothers were simply never a part of their lives, children who suffered through their mothers' addictions. I think it has been helpful to them, and I think that maybe sometime I will pick it up again, but I never do.

I worry about the little bombs that will send me back to a blackness I found difficult to climb out of.

The way I eventually emerged from that darkness was to become a mother myself. Instinctively, I knew that, if I could somehow re-create some of the relationship that I had with my mom, it would be a salve on all that hurt.

It was a decision that made a lot of other decisions for me.

Until that time, my career came first. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and travel to Latin America to expose corruption (it was the early 1990s and I was an avid Joan Didion reader). All of my girlfriends had always believed that I was the least likely to get married and have children, and here I was doing both.

In retrospect, it seems a little crazy. I had a good job at a big-city daily newspaper (as did my husband), an apartment in a high-rise building in Baltimore, and lots of student loan debt.

We knew there would be no way to take care of a baby and both have demanding daily newspaper careers. I got a job at a weekly newspaper and soon got pregnant and we settled into a busy life that centered on a beautiful daughter.

Goodbye, El Salvador; hola, day care.

Like most good decisions I have made in my life, I trusted my gut on this one, and it was 100 percent right for me.

I also knew that I did not want to have just one child, so Fiona was joined by her brother almost four years later. All grown up now, they remain a powerful balm for that dark fissure deep inside.

When I was a child, my family faithfully attended the Catholic church in my Irish-German row house neighborhood. On the Sunday closest to Mother's Day, adult women would receive carnations; the color of the flower would depend on whether their mother were dead. Pink was for those whose mothers were alive, white if they were dead.

My grandmother lived with us when I was growing up and always went to church with us. On Mother's Day Sunday, she would take a white carnation; my mother's was pink.

The whole thing frightened me. I worried over when the loss of my grandmother would turn my mother's carnation white. But I really dreaded the day that I would get a white carnation myself.

Turns out that, by the time my mother died, the church I went to did not keep this tradition. It seems like such a small thing now, but I remember being so relieved.

In the many years since my mother's death, I have certainly lived a happy life. Interesting, though, that Mother's Day is still bittersweet to me.

I love being a mother and certainly enjoy the recognition mothers receive on that day. But it never really feels as if it is about me. Mother's Day will always be about my own mother, and the deep sadness I still feel when I think about all the wonder in my life that she is not a part of.

So this Mother's Day, the daughter will call from college and the son will give me a big hug and I will let that healing salve pour over me. And maybe I will go find some daffodils, my mother's favorite flower.

Maria Archangelo is a writer and editor who grew up in Olney