Honoring Mom — (and My Surrogate Moms)

I still wonder every Mother’s Day why my mom had to pass away. She’s been gone for 11 years, and yet the day is still difficult for me. I walk into the bookstore and see “Mother’s Day” book displays and overhear daughters talk about what they plan to do with their moms, and I can’t help but think about what my mom and I would be doing on this special day if she were still here.

Despite not having her here, though, I still feel blessed. I’ve got a super hip 86-year-old grandma, who I call “gramz,” as well as another loving grandma, who I call “gram.” They both helped raise me and are still my maternal mentors. I don’t see them often, as they both still live in Massachusetts, but I’ve been lucky enough to find surrogate moms in Florida. I have at least two surrogate moms here who I’ve met through work. The good moms that they are, these women look over me and treat me as if I were their own.

My real mom might not be here, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still honor her on this special day. I’ve written a personal essay about Mom, which I’m still in the process of editing. Someday, I’d love to write a memoir about my gramz, my mom and me. Maybe this essay will be a chapter in the book …

I wasn’t going to publish this story on my blog because parts of it are personal and may be difficult to read, but after reading Joanna Connors’ “Beyond Rape: One Survivor’s Story,” I felt motivated to share my own personal story. I think I owe it to my mom, and myself, to keep her memory alive through the written word. Writing, in so many cases, leads to healing.

I’m open to feedback and hope you’ll offer your thoughts, questions, suggestions, etc. Here is another personal narrative I wrote about my mom.

The death we all know lives in hearses, bagpipes, and graveyards. The death I know lives in Maybelline mascara, 15-year-old cars, and oversized clothes. I’ve tried most of my life to save these things.

When Mom was sick, I tried to save her, and everything that reminded me of her. When she was healthy, I tried to emulate her. We used to stand in front of the bathroom mirror together, and I’d try to make my hair look like hers. Mom would take charge, putting my hair in braids, pigtails, or in a topsy-turvy ponytail. She studied cosmetology in high school and wanted to cut my hair to save money. One time, she cut my bangs so short I looked like Frankenstein.

“Oh Mal, it’s not thaaaat bad,” she said, laughing.

I tilted my head and put my little hands on my little hips.

Just like it wasn’t thaaaat bad when Mom was curling my hair for my aunt’s wedding and accidentally burnt my right ear.


“It hurts to be beautiful!” she said.

One way to look beautiful, Mom always thought, was to wear mascara. “Always do your eyes up,” she told me. Mom didn’t wear much makeup, but she made her lashes look curled and full. I looked up at her eyes a lot — when they were full of life and when they were wide with worry when she found out she had breast cancer.

Shortly after Mom was diagnosed, I found myself wanting to carry a piece of her with me wherever I went. I had taken her old mascara out of the trash and hid it in my purple LL Bean book bag. I brought it to school and went into the bathroom. Leaning up against the sink, I painted my lashes black. I wanted to make them look like Mom’s. Instead, they turned into little tarantula legs.

“Is that mascara you’re wearing?” one of my third grade classmates asked me. “Yes,” I said. “It’s my mum’s.”

When Mom died, I kept her mascara for six years. Maybelline. A pink bottle with a lime green cap. I used that mascara until there was none left, never paying attention to the expiration date. Even after I had used it all, I kept it for years in my makeup bag. It panged me to see it there and not on my mom’s lashes. But still, I couldn’t let go. Every time I looked at the mascara, I was reminded of a mom I didn’t have, of a mom who lost the strength to put on makeup when she was 38.

I know it used to hurt, mom, to be beautiful.

After the chemo set in, being beautiful meant wearing a wig. Mom had two of them. One was dark brown and shoulder length. The other was lighter and shorter. She wore them with hats. Purple hats. Striped hats. Straw hats with sunflowers. Mom wore the hats when her hair was thinning. One day, mom’s Portuguese temper stopped by for a visit. “I’m tired of wearing these things!” she said, whipping the wig off her head. She was bearing the truth. “I have cancer!” she silently yelled.


When Mom picked me up from school one day, I looked the other way. I looked around at all of my classmates’ moms. Shiny, healthy, wavy hair. Then I turned to my mommy. Nothing. “Mallary’s mom doesn’t have any hair,” I overheard two of my classmates say with a giggle. I told Mom later that day that some girls were making fun of the two of us. “It’s okay, Mal. Being bald isn’t a bad thing. I’m starting a new trend,” she said. I was mad, but secretly marveled at how Mom could go from being a sick, bald cancer patient to a hip, confident trendsetter. Mom wanted to prove to herself that she didn’t need a wig to be beautiful, even if all she got were ugly stares.

Mom’s wigs lay in a Ziplock bag in her top dresser drawer. I took them out when she died and wore them behind the safety of closed doors. They felt like straw, like artificial scarecrow hair that always made Mom look like someone she wasn’t. I kept them, just like I kept my Mom’s clothes until my dad told me a year after she died that it was time to move on. I wore Mom’s clothes to school when I was in the sixth grade. I know the oversized clothes, and my tarantula eyes, made me look like an old woman trapped in a little girl’s body. But if feeling close to Mom meant looking like an oddball, I was willing to risk the embarrassment. My dad didn’t say anything. He really didn’t know what to say. He, and most of my family, considered my behaviors to be part of a “passing phase.”

During this “phase,” I wore Mom’s pajamas, too — the light blue kind with the different colored flowers. They matched the couch Mom sat on, the one that reminded me of her every time I walked home to an empty house after she died. We used to cuddle up and eat popcorn together on that couch Monday nights while watching Melrose Place. She, my dad and I opened Christmas presents on that couch during our last Christmas together, my Mom dressed in the blue pajamas and a Santa hat.

Mom greeted me from that couch every day when I came home from school. It’s where she ate, drank, and slept. It’s where she cried for help. It’s where she prayed for survival. Mom always kept a blanket draped over the couch. I didn’t understand why she had to conceal the couch’s beauty. Really, though, she just wanted to preserve it.

Mom once got stuck on the couch. She wanted to go to the bathroom, but she was too weak to move. So she called for me. “Maaaaaaaal,” she gently cried. I saw her, her face like a roadmap of wrinkles. I didn’t know which path to take, and I got lost in the loss. I tried lifting her up. C’mon mom, c’mon mom, move. Move! Even dad, who came rushing home from work, couldn’t help. An ambulance arrived and flashed its lights outside our living room window. The EMTs couldn’t pick her up. “It hurts,” Mom said, shutting her eyes. “It hurts.” So they scooped Mom up in the blanket and carried her onto a stretcher. BamBam! They shut her inside the ambulance and drove away. The blanket, I thought, had saved her life. I looked at the empty couch and saw no beauty.

It hurts, I told myself, to be beautiful.

Dad and I drove to the hospital. Mom was hooked up to an IV and was getting platelets. I was only 8 when she started going to the hospital regularly, but big words like mastectomy, platelets, radiation, transplant and chemotherapy soon became a regular part of my vocabulary. I knew what these words meant in the dictionary, and I knew what they meant to Mom. The words consumed my thoughts as I tried to understand their severity and why they even had to exist. I wanted to tear the pages that had these words on them out of the dictionary, but I didn’t want to lose them, too. When my fourth grade English teacher asked us to come up with words that begin with the letter p, my friends and I raised our hands. “Peas. Parade. Puppy. Pal. People. Pee.”

“Platelets.” It was the only word I could think of.

When Mom was getting platelets toward the end, she asked me to look inside her purse and take out her lipstick. It was Rosie Red lipstick, the kind Mom and I had been wanting to get ever since we heard Rosie O’Donnell talk about it on her show.

“Now, don’t put a lot of it on,” my Mom said, handing it to me. “You only need a little bit of lipstick.” I only wore a little, if I wore it at all. I wanted to save it.

I was holding onto the lipstick the day Mom died. I had been sitting on my mom’s childhood bed when my grandma told me the news. Twist, turn, snap. I took out my anger on the lipstick and watched through tears as I lost it. Rosie redness oozed out of the cap and smudged my hands.


To a little girl, there’s lots to be lost. Loss is taking a wrong turn in the grocery store and losing mommy in a maze of aisles. Loss is having to say goodbye every morning at the bus stop. It’s a petal falling off a Johnny jump-up, a dog running away from home, a stuffed elephant falling out of a car window onto the interstate of shattered dreams. Any greater loss seems unreal, makes us want to stop the hands of the clock so we won’t continue to lose what we hold so dear.

I held tight onto that Rosie Red lipstick the whole way from my grandma’s house to my parent’s house the day Mom died. I later tried to wear what was left of it as a reminder that Mom was still with me. But sometimes the pain of the past is too painful to wear in a place for all to see. Sometimes, the things we hold onto remind us more of death than life.

Sometimes, things just hurt too much to be beautiful.


Sometimes, I can’t see the beauty at all. Mom’s Portuguese temper boiled and brewed whenever I did anything wrong. I tried to please her. I even offered to clean the house to give her a break, to calm her down a bit. I would have rather climbed the tree in my front yard and read, or played imaginary games like “Sissy little rich girls” or “The magical land of Mermia.” Games that led me to faraway places where there were no mean moms or sick moms. But Mom usually put me to work if I offered.

One day, she asked me to clean the toilet bowl. Double ew, I thought.

“You mean I have to stick my hands in the toilet?” I asked.

“No, Mal, just use the brush.”

The brush. The brush. Maybe she meant the old toothbrush that she sometimes used to clean in between the crevices in the faucet. I didn’t want to ask for clarification. Mom was in one of those moods, when it was just better to do as you were told, when even asking a question could illicit a scream or one of Mom’s infamous “You’re so stupid” sighs.

So I took the tattered toothbrush out from under the sink and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed, my eyes half shut, my head turned to the side. Ewwness all around. I took a bar of Dove soap and rubbed it along the edge of the water until it looked like a bubble bath in a bowl.

“WHAT are you doing?” my mom asked, yanking the toothbrush out of my hand. “God, Mallary, I didn’t say use a toothbrush. I said use the brush – this brush,” she said, pointing to the big white toilet bowl brush peeking from behind the toilet. It should have been a funny mistake. We should have been laughing. Instead, I cried while mom huffed and puffed, and flushed the toilet, washing my 8-year-old innocence down the lonely drain.

My ability to speak up got washed away somewhere along the way, too. Mom yelled whenever I disagreed with, or contradicted, her. When Mom and I were in a craft store buying cross-stitch patterns, Mom told the cashier that the items she bought were supposed to be on sale. The cashier told her she had picked up the wrong item, that a different item was on sale, but Mom had her mind set on getting a bargain, and she couldn’t be persuaded otherwise.

“The sign said this pattern was on sale.”

“I’m afraid it was the other pattern next to it.”

“Mom, I saw the sign,” I quietly said. “It was the other pattern that was on sale.” Mom gave me the glare and got quiet as the cashier continued to scan items. Beep. Beep. Beep. When we got out of the store Mom grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her.

“Don’t you ever talk back to me like that again,” she said.

“But Mom, I didn’t ….”

“Yes you did. You made a fool of me in there. Don’t you dare do that again.”

I had only tried to help, and I wanted to explain, but I knew what explanations meant. I had trained myself to keep it all inside so the screaming would subside. But I couldn’t stand Mom at that moment. I reached for a pen and scribbled on a napkin when I got home that day: “I hate mom. I wish she’d die.”

So I wouldn’t risk losing the napkin and having Mom find it, I tore it up and threw it away. One less thing to lose. Loss and I never got along well, which may have been why I was afraid of getting gifts, little packages of potential loss wrapped up with pretty paper and a beautiful bow. Mom liked to get gifts gift wrapped at stores, even if they were just for her and me.

“You can’t pass up something free,” Mom would say.

Like most kids, I was excited when Mom bought me stickers and a new sticker book at Fiske’s general store in downtown Holliston, or when she bought me earrings at a yard sale, or a bouncy ball from the Toy Connection in Concord. But with the reception of presents came the fear of loss. Whatever I lost, I kept hidden. The single earring that had fallen out of my ear, the ring I had laid on the ground and then stepped on when twirling the baton, the ball that had sunk in the stream behind my house – I kept all these things secret. Sometimes Mom wouldn’t find out. Most of the time, she did.

For almost a week, I wore just one retainer, and smiled with my mouth closed so Mom wouldn’t see. I had accidentally thrown the other retainer away, maybe in the middle school cafeteria, where all retainers go to die. The lunch ladies at Holliston Middle School must have been hired for the sole purpose of digging retainers out of the trash. “I had my retainer in a napkin … and I think I threw it away,’ was all it took for the gloves to come out and the search to begin.

Somewhere nestled between half-eaten bologna and mustard sandwiches and mac and cheese was my bottom retainer. Maybe the janitor will find it and be nice enough to return it to the lost and found at school, I thought. But no.

“Mal, where’s your bottom retainer?” Mom asked one afternoon. I had smiled too wide when I came home from school.

“Um, I don’t know. I think it’s somewhere in my room.”

“When was the last time you saw it?”

“I think the other day.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was the other day.”

My retainer might as well have been a missing child.

“You’re not going to bed,” Mom quipped, “until you find your retainer.”

My room became the cafeteria garbage can. Every corner, every crevice, every old tissue under my bed had so much potential. Six hours passed. 11:00 p.m. Still nothing.

“Robin,” my dad said, “just let her go to bed.”

Loss won that day, and I lost.

“Andy, those retainers cost $900,” she said turning to me. “And you’re paying for your new one.” That might have been okay if I had more than $75 in my piggy bank. Maybe if along with my lemonade stand I started selling bookmarks and handmade glitter disks called Refwingems, I could make enough money …

The replacement retainer only cost $80. Mom and dad paid for it.

Days later, Mom wrote in her diary: “I got so mad at Mallary the other day for losing her retainers. But things are better now.”

Even moms don’t always understand how much it hurts to be beautiful.


Pain persists after loss emerges. The same feeling of guilt I felt when I ruined the lipstick and lost my retainers resurfaced when I crashed Mom’s car. There are certain things in life I can’t control, so I brace for the brakes. But sometimes, there’s just not enough time. Crash, crunch, burn. I plowed into the SUV in front of me, the hood of my car turning from a plateau to a peak. I cried. It was a ’93 bimmeny blue-colored Ford Tempo. Mom had bargained it down when it was brand new from $13,000 to $9,000. I knew when I saw it that I didn’t like that big blue hunk of metal sitting in the driveway. Really, I didn’t like that it was going to replace our old car.

But I slowly gave the car a chance. Pictures of me riding my hot pink Schwinn bicycle around the Tempo and of me selling lemonade and Refwingems lie in shoeboxes in my basement. Somewhere along the way, embarrassment paved the way for pride.

The Tempo hardly ever broke down. Before the crash, the body of it looked good – very little rust, hardly any scratches. Whatever damage it had was concealed in places where broken beauty lies – under the hood, tucked away behind a tire, somewhere deep inside the engine. Mom’s body wasn’t in as good of shape. It turned rusty on the outside, and inside it was dying fast. Crash, crunch, burn. The cancer collided with my mom’s body. Nothing could cover the cost of the damage.


Time heals, but it doesn’t cure. I still hurt from the damage. I still wonder why. I still can’t believe this had to happen. But when I look in the mirror I see glimmers of hope. I catch a glimpse of a teenage girl who once wore bellbottoms and belly shirts, and who had long thick hair that flowed down to her knees. When I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of a time when Mom, from the looks of old photos, was happy. My smile reminds me of what so many who knew my mom say – that I’m a “spitting image” of Mrs. Robin Jo. I’m the daughter of a mother who sought peace in chaos. I’m the daughter of a mother who found hope in an unfair world. And I’m the daughter of a mother who redefined what it means to be beautiful, even when it hurts. As Mom’s daughter, I realize that it’s not so much objects that remind me of my mom … it’s me.


Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “Honoring Mom — (and My Surrogate Moms)

  1. Wow. Amazing work. I particularly like the fact that you owned up to the fact that your mom was imperfect. Everyone is, obviously. But we tend to idealize people in death, which is greatly annoying to me.

    I know the loss of your mom can never be undone. But interestingly enough, this essay tells me that your relationship with her (even when you were so little) follows the same progression as most mother-daughter relationships: hate, envy, anger, love, admiration, protectiveness, friendship. Even though your mom isn’t here with you, it’s like that relationship goes on. It’s not comfortable, but it’s real.

    Your story is powerful and refreshing. Thank you for writing it.

    Andrea from Austin

  2. Thanks, Andrea, for the feedback. One of the difficulties I continuously face when writing about my mom is admitting to myself that she wasn’t perfect. I went back after writing this essay and added the parts about my mom’s imperfections because I wanted to make the essay seem more real. And I wanted to present my mom as she was — a human being who loved her daughter but who had her faults just like everyone else. This can be tough to do when writing about loved ones who have died, but it’s important.

  3. Mallary, I meant to comment on this earlier, when you first put this online, but my post didn’t go through. This is truly an amazing piece of writing. It is wrought with emotion but in a way that comes across as genuine and sincere, and it never strays into the realm of sappiness. That’s a major reason why, I think, this piece is so effective in communicating to the reader a sense of your profound loss. You’ve really done an amazing job of transforming bits and pieces of some of your short stories from our creative writing class into a much more mature piece of writing. WOW. That’s all I can say–you are an extremely talented writer.

  4. I just lost my mother three months ago to cancer and I found some comfort in reading your story. Thank you for sharing it. Very well written and a tribute to your mother. She would be proud of your writing and of the tender recollections you have kept close to you all these years…

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