Defying My Mother, Again

Friends and Neighbors, 1998. Watercolor on paper. 24 x 31 inches. by Alice Steer Wilson
Friends and Neighbors, 1998. Watercolor by Alice Steer Wilson











Today marks fifteen years since my mother’s death.

As I awoke this morning, I remembered her last words to me. And I will defy them. I’ll tell you about that soon, but first I need to set up the event of losing my mother so you understand how tangled this mother-daughter way can become. For the last two decades of her life, I considered my mother to be my best friend. She was a passionate artist. I adored her, and I felt her unconditional love for me, too. But it hadn’t always been that way — we fought from the time I hit puberty until I was in my early thirties. We worked our way back to each other, and then we collaborated on creative projects. I loved presenting her art and watching her flourish as the creative force she was. When she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, I dropped everything to fight that battle along with her, and we fought again, together. And we lost that fight.

Although we fought a lot, and although I miss her every day, I remain her feisty, unfinished daughter. This morning, my dear husband Paul and I purchased the house that, to the family and to many friends, symbolizes my mother’s shimmering light and spirit. This is not an arms-length transaction. Far from it! This is a family transaction that has been mulled over, squashed, squeezed, delayed, frayed, revised, abandoned, renewed, eschewed, muted, mangled, wrangled, edited, proof-read, and now — it is settled.

When my mother faced her end, it just so happened that I had planned to be in this house, in Cape May, that last week. Because I could see she was losing her final battle, I considered cancelling the week at the Jersey shore with friends, but my mother insisted that I go ahead. And I knew she was right, I had to let go. I had to leave her side. During that week in her house, with our friends, I poked around the books on the shelves, and pulled out Homer’s Odyssey for my beach reading. Perfect.

In the middle of the week, Paul and I made an emergency trip back to my mother’s side, with our houseguest and friend Dr. Ed Ciecko. We found her in pain and rushed her to the hospital for relief of ascites. She lay on a gurney for hours, awaiting admission, and asked for something to read. I ran out and bought a paperback novel for her. Once she was stable and given a room, we drove back to the shore house.

Two mornings later, my father called. She had been discharged from the hospital, and she was declining fast. He gave her the phone, and in her gruffest, scratchiest voice she spit the words,

Not! Real Estate! . . . Not! Real Estate!

I asked my father what that was about, and he said he’d been reading to her from a lawyer’s contentious email about a neighborhood property fight.

“That’s not what she wants to hear right now, Dad. Tell her, instead,

. . . how wonderful your life has been together, how much you love her, and how grateful you are for the family you raised together.”

So, yes. I defied my mother’s real estate injunction. 

We took on her beloved house to keep her legacy alive, to treasure and preserve, and to extend her light.

I have faith that our stewardship will be spacious, loving, connected, and fun. As she wrote on an envelope: OK Forever!


The watercolor “Friends and Neighbors” is from the collection of Dr. Edward Ciecko and Dr. Joseph Ciecko.

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  1. Paula says

    This is a lovely essay/blog. You share such deep, quiet, sweet personal information that taps into the angst of those last moments. Congratulations on your ‘new’ home. I was actually thinking of you this morning and wondering if you had visitors to your Cape May home. Funny, isn’t it? Elaine always said the folks we are spending time with are all in our soul group…so there you go.

    • says

      Thank you, Paula — I have been “offline” for a week now — recovering. It was a very difficult transition, even though I am happy to have accomplished it. Today, I had breakfast with poet Mary Miller and she mentioned you — and our brunch last year. I remember, vividly, your story of your mother coming to and seeing her children gathered above her face .. the funny question, the laughter. You are a gifted teacher. xo

  2. Win says

    This pitcher of lemonade is especially tasty! I’ve been thinking and re remembering so much of summers now long gone, and wishing I could share more with blood relatives.
    Your blog answers that need somewhat,in present time (memoir is future )

  3. Susan Schwartz says

    It was such a pleasure meeting you and Win last month. Our discussions about mother-daughter relationships gave me a lot to think about. Sometimes, when I think of my mother and how it was only before her death and some years after, did I really understand who she was. It must have been hard for her to know the daughter she loved “just didn’t get it”. As we discussed over dinner, it’s hard knowing my daughters probably won’t get it either until ‘ late in the game’. I guess in many instances, that’s just the cycle of mothers and daughters.

    • says

      Dear Susan,
      I so enjoyed our time together, and I don’t think you need to accept the idea that generations of women must miss each other’s truths. I’m committed to opening up those lines of communication, and I have tricks and prompts and a forum to share. The doors are not locked, just sticky from humidity and heat and expansion . . . you’re awesome. Your exhibition is wonderful. Keep the faith . . . xo

  4. Ann Kelly says

    Janice, This is all so beautiful. I think you know I understand what you been going through. Congratulations on your ownership! I know how much it means to you and Paul too. I realize you have alot of work ahead of you but I also know it will be wonderful in the end! I would love to share your blog with my sister. Sometimes I think she doesn’t get it, I think she has to hear it from someone else. You are an inspiration to me . Keep up the good work.

    • says

      Ann, I know you understand the journey . . . thanks for your friendship and acknowledgment. You inspire me, too. I’ll never forget how loved I felt, getting up in March to the smell of the oatmeal you’d prepared for our Mother-Daughter Way live workshop group. It’s this little things == and the love and care that go into their creation, that say “mother” and “love” to our hearts. I treasure the way you share about your mother. Thank you. xo

  5. Mary Richardson Miller says

    Dear Janice, What an inspiration you are and how happy I am to receive your blog and to hear the news of your–sorry, Alice–Real Estate transaction completed. I love the photo of you at her grave. Your defiance of her last words is right in keeping with the strong relationship you have with your mother, two strong women who will never stop loving one another. To have you as a friend is a treasure. Thank you for sharing your great news. Ever onward, Janice, don’t ever stop letting us listen in on the heart warming conversation between you and your mother! Mary

    • says

      Mary, Thanks — I have to admit, it’s always a challenge to challenge Alice! She was formidable. It makes me laugh to think of the stories we have shared in our mother-daughter way group calls, and the ways our mothers affected us. Human. Oh, so human. Aren’t we all?
      Let’s keep this going …. xo