I received an email this morning from a wonderful woman I’ve never met, but with whom I share a sad fact: we both lost our mothers last year, within six weeks of each other. I “met” this woman after reading her post on Elephant Journal where she wrote about preparing for her mother’s imminent death. I had to write to her, fresh from my mom’s own departure to tell her how her essay had touched me.
She and I write back and forth now, with greater calm than we did in our earlier days. I am so grateful for her friendship and her trust in me this morning.
I didn’t have that “luxury”: to prepare for my mother’s death.
It’s hard to determine who has it easier: those who prepare for the crescendo of their loved one leaving soon or those who have no clue and it just hits them like a grand piano. In either case the crashing music resonates for days, months… and I suppose, years.
Mom died on September 2, 2013. It’s been almost eight months. Some days are easier than others, but then some days just suck.
I try to stay strong, be upbeat for my boys and smile for people I encounter. None of it is real or false. It just is. I recognize the dangers in existing too long in either emotional state.
Today, my oldest son is 16. He and Mom, “Mimi” as she was called, had a special bond. She stayed with him every day for a year when I went back to work. My relationship with Mom was complicated. We had vastly different views on life and how to live it. I wanted more for her than she seemed to have wanted for herself. I also needed more of her than she was able to give.
My oldest son said to me with no weight other than truth the other day, “I wish I’d spent more time with Mimi.” Instantly, I felt a pang of heat and ache and my heart shrivel a bit, for I knew it was my choice that we didn’t spend so much time together; as I said, Mom was complicated.
I resisted the urge to rise to defensiveness. I resisted the urge to tell him she was difficult and complex. I nodded instead and said, “I do too,” which was the truth.
We can’t undo the things we’ve done. We can repent and repeal and revise and reinvent, but I refuse to do all that too. This is the life I’ve made for myself based on the framework, experiences, and tools I was given.
My friend’s email took me by surprise this morning, I was so glad to see it.
“Five months today,” she wrote. “I miss her so much,” she closed. Two sentences.
I got it. I wrote back with this,
She used to call at the most inopportune times, dinner blitz, school blitz, practice blitz… Just to hear my voice. She would mostly just listen on the other end, hang there, say nothing just to get a sense of the frenzy and live it a little. She would leave voicemails, “Call when it’s conveeeenient,” she would almost sing into the microphone.I used to think of her hanging on to listen as strange, creepy and weird; something I’d never ever do. She said her own mother used to do the same to her; “You don’t have to say anything,” she said she’d say. “Just Be There….”
The other day I had to listen to a voicemail cue itself up, I waited with great anticipation, almost ready to roll my eyes, because I was certain it would be her, calling, leaving a message.
No. It wasn’t her. There was no call from Mom and there will never be another call from her again.
I get it.
And so my eyes well up, my throat thickens, my nose reddens and begins to water, my breathing deepens and I catch myself really missing my mom. So in some vain, feckless way, to bring her back, to let her sit here with me, I’ll share some other things she used to do …
When my father would drive, and she considered it too fast, instead of stating it, she would make this odd noise, “Yieelllll…. Doug…” and somehow he knew that meant to slow down. To which he would usually reply, “Jeez, Meem, willya?” and she’d say, “Fer Cripessake, Doug.”
When she would drive, which she hated to do and I don’t think she got her license until she was 40, she would veer to the right and degrade to an achingly slow pace whenever oncoming traffic was headed in our direction. This move was also accompanied by the “Yieeellll….yuuullle” sound.
She would break out into song in her best Danny Kaye, “Make ’em laugh! Make ’em laugh!” or shout out “The show must go on, Kid!”
Once she made a pot roast that I think was cured in a salt mine for months before she dared put it in an oven. My inner cheeks haven’t yet recovered. Baking was simply not her thing.
She would seldom look at the lens in photographs. Always away, just off center for some reason. She considered it theatrical, I suppose. It drove me nuts. For a while in my mid-20s I decided to mimic her, for spite. She never caught on or likely admired the practice.
She made amazing tomato sauce, like a puttanesca that was to die for. I remember smelling it very late at night when she would cook it while the rest of us were supposed to be asleep. I remember sneaking down the stairs and wedging the spindles between my eyes to spy on her eating while she watched a Columbo on television. The glow from the set that she sat about five feet from created a midnight silhouette which prevented my sleep and was often the last thing I’d see before eventually drifting off. She was always a mystery to me.
She used to put hot chili peppers on pizza, not the nicest tack, thus ensuring the children wouldn’t indulge (it’s a memory!).
I remember one Easter Sunday when it must’ve snowed in Buffalo. She hid all our baskets in different locations in our Victorian home’s myriad nooks and crannies. I found mine, or I recall vividly someone’s basket being hidden in the flour bin. I remember going back there for years to see if there was any candy left behind. That was where she stored a lot of her drawings. Mom was not a baker.
Cashmere. Always wearing cashmere and scarves. Big prescription sunglasses. Very in the mode of fashion in the 70s and then always classic after that.
She could play piano by ear with frightening accuracy.
She and my dad would sing as Dad played some honky-tonk song on the piano. They also sang, “He’s a Tramp” and I remember my body curling up with girlish pride and enthusiasm every time they did it. “Again! Again!” I remember asking.
She had several gorgeous floor-length kilts she would wear to balls and galas with my dad; he’d be in a three-piece suit or tuxedo and off they’d dash to their event, the most elegant couple of all.
She used to color her hair by herself. It was often a disaster. “Ashen blonde” was her Clairol color of choice and I remember smelling the chemicals and then waiting to see what she’d done to herself. She was a naturally platinum-haired beauty, but like me, didn’t like the idea of looking “old” with her natural color. One time her hair came out the shade of eggplant. Another avocado. Sometimes it was umber. And never in a linear sense: it was a tapestry of bad home hair color jobs. She pretended not to care, but I know it bugged her. She was preoccupied with her looks in a way that for me, a modest glance at a hallway mirror makes me feel as though I’ve turned into Narcissus.
On Christmas, we would have to wait for her to rise for opening gifts. It was difficult, terribly difficult for us children to wait on Christmas morning for Mom. She would also urgently and passionately insist that we not tear into the gifts and untape them in an orderly fashion. That was also really hard. I often failed at it. As I grew up, I resented the entire Christmas experience.
Visits to restaurants were always an adventure. Mom would take the waiter hostage and reengineer the menu, order her pasta al denté (which ensured fresh pasta) and always ordered her Coke without ice, despite the numerous free refills provided. Mom loved food; she married a man who loves it and loves to talk about it and how to cook it. They were made for each other that way.
My parents and aunts & uncles and our cousins would always shut down the restaurants, usually to the chagrin of the staff and us children. If not asleep on the carpeted floor under the skirted sink in a bathroom, we could be found in a coat closet, on a bench somewhere in the establishment, or were still awake bending the silverware, or making ketchup and pepper-based potions under the tables.
Easters at the Buffalo Yacht Club always consisted of whatever food they served (often we would order “chicken in a basket” which was a fried drumstick and thigh, a biscuit and some provision of green vegetable or carrot wheels) followed by sitting on the large leather chairs in front of the Club’s 19″ RCA color TV on a rack with casters to watch either “The Ten Commandments” or “The Wizard of Oz.” Sometimes we could see a storm front come in over the lake from Canada and the boys would rush over to the “weather station” which would hum with barometer needles riding on a spool of graph paper.
Our kitchen phone had a very long curly line between the base and the receiver and I remember that if I couldn’t ever find Mom when I was looking for her, to look for the phone line and follow it. Usually it led to her sitting at the kitchen table or somewhere in the back hall by our basement stairs (which were always scary unless my brother said it was time to go to the BatCave, which he created out of our coal-room basement) looking for something to eat or cook… or maybe hiding… something I’ve become savvy to doing when I’m on a call that simply can’t be interrupted for anything but a natural or man-made disaster of epic proportions.
Tape recordings. Mom used to tape record us all the time; often without us knowing, just to hear us on tape I guess when we weren’t around. She also would tape record herself reading a sonnet or play or poem or essay. Mom preferred the past; it was easier for her, she could fashion it as it was or in a way that brought her comfort. The present must’ve been too much for her and the future? Forget about it.
Without fail, she would call the very next day to thank me for hosting her the night before. Even though she had said too many times to count, how wonderful a time she was having or “thank you” as she worked her eventual way to the car.
Goodbyes were impossible for her. She refused to utter the words. Hanging up from a phone call was terribly hard for her and I remember many times that I’d become furious or impatient because I simply couldn’t get off the phone. I simply couldn’t just do the right thing, say, “Good-bye” like normal people. It was always so hard.
“Don’t say goodbye, birdie. Just say, ‘I’ll see you later.’ Ok?” she would insist.
I’ll see you later, Mom. I really miss you.