"I Got It From My Momma" honors mothers and mother figures of every stripe, with one new essay appearing each day until Mother's Day.  

Credit: Courtesy of Leigh Belz Ray

They said it would happen within six months and they were right. My mother died on December 29th, 2003, after she found out in June that the kidney cancer that was cut out of her body a year earlier had returned and spread.

I had just turned 24.

I remember getting the call from my Dad with the news of the cancer’s reappearance. As he talked, I felt myself slowly crumpling to the floor of my midtown apartment. My mom, a vivacious first-grade teacher, was always the healthy one. That single tumor had been a fluke. How was this happening?

My roommate called one of my oldest friends, who drove into the city from New Jersey to pick me up and shuttled me back to my childhood home that same night. She swatted away her own tears as we made our way through the Lincoln Tunnel. I sat in the passenger seat in stunned silence.

The first Mother’s Day after my mom died, my younger sister and I went back home. We basically sat in the living room with my dad and stared at each other. We still couldn’t believe that this had happened.

Subsequent Mother’s Days were a little less jarring. We grieved silently, avoiding Hallmark stores and social media. We tightened ranks, and slowly learned how to become a trio.

In 2006, I met Kevin, the guy who became my husband. In our initial e-mails, even before our first date, he brought up that he too had lost his mother. She had died around the same time mine had. He referred to it as “being in the same club.”

The unexpected commonality helped. We understood the other’s sensitivities and knew each other’s “dark days” (our mother’s birthdays, death days, and then Mother’s Day). Planning our wedding in 2009 without the input of either of our mothers was weird and liberating and sometimes sad.

In 2012, I got pregnant with my daughter Riley. And during those 40 weeks, I thought about my mother all the time. When she died, I was so far away from the prospect of motherhood that it was never something I thought to ask her about. When I was 24, we had just started our adult relationship. I didn’t know I needed to think ahead to all the life I’d have to navigate without her.

In her last six months, my mother didn’t want to talk about being sick—she chose the stiff upper lip method, in which we all stayed hopeful and didn’t acknowledge what could possibly happen. The only time we discussed what was plainly happening in front of us was when I, young journalist, decided to record her talking about her childhood. At the end of the conversation, I burrowed myself into her arms and sobbed. “I would have been a good grandmother,” she said quietly.

I can’t count how many times I’ve thought about that moment over the past 13 years.

When I got into the safer second trimester of my pregnancy, I asked my dad what my mom’s pregnancies had been like. Did she get weird leg cramps that woke her up? Was her skin itchy, like, all the time? “Your mother had great pregnancies,” was essentially what my father remembered. Leg cramps and dry skin are the things that you recall when you yourself have them … to your partner they likely don’t register.

Being pregnant with no moms in the mix was both terrifying and empowering. And it’s important here to clarify that I was in no way alone; I had Kevin and a loving, supportive circle of family and friends. But everyone was aware of not overstepping—worse than having no mothers is someone trying to personally fill that void.

Three days after Mother’s Day in May 2013, Riley arrived. I was a mom.

Until I became a parent, I didn’t realize how much time and emotional energy goes into parenting. I mean, I understood on an intellectual level that it was something you did every day for the rest of your life … I just didn’t really anticipate what it would feel like to be with a small person whose survival depends on you getting things right (or mostly right) for all those minutes of all those days. And I had no idea of the level of intimacy a parent has with their child.

Mother's Day Essay - Leigh Belz Ray Daughter - Embed
Credit: Courtesy of Leigh Belz Ray

When I remember my relationship with my mom, my brain goes to the highlights, generally starting with some fuzzy memories around age four or five.

But, since having a child of my own, I'm able to really understand how much actual time she and I spent together in my first few years. How many songs she must’ve sung to me in her sweetly melodic voice. How many naps I must have taken in her arms. How much she told me and taught me. My foundation was laid in those minutes and hours and days and months.

Being with Riley has given me back all that time with my mother— all the love that I was too young to remember.