Coming of Age


I have no idea when Mothers Day is; I have to check the calendar every year or pay attention to advertisements. It’s not because my mother passed over a decade ago (I was lucky if I’d remember to send her a card when she was living) or because I have kids of my own. It may have something to do with my not getting excited over holidays of any type. Not Christmas, not Thanksgiving, 4th of July, not even birthdays. What stirs me is a spontaneous memory, appreciating being “in the moment” with a daughter, or losing myself in family pictures.

Speaking of family pictures, I posted half a dozen or so to my Facebook. They were remarkable, not only because they meant something to me, but because they elicited a response from folks who know little to nothing about my family. I expected a chuckle or two from the one taken of my sisters and me, two of whom were wearing my uncle’s false teeth – uppers in one sister, lowers in another. The one of great and great-great grandparents was a study in history, a claim to a future I hope to achieve. The family dog with Flying Nun ears, kids cutting a rug in the sixties, weddings in grandparents’ living rooms — all snapshots anyone could identify with.

The one that brought a tear to my eye (and is causing me to choke up as I write this) was of my mother. She was dressed in red from her beaded Santa earrings and lipstick to her ankles. She liked to dress according to a color wheel, I believe, and coordinated the most outlandish outfits I’ve ever seen a grown woman wear in public. But she wore them unabashedly well with a smile on her face. “Oh, it’s fun!” she’d say with her little giggle. That giggle trumped any groan we may have uttered at her appearance as we resigned ourselves to accompanying this little woman on her trips to market.

She loved the sun. She and my dad raised us in Alaska, and when my youngest sister was killed in a pedestrian/auto accident, she vowed never to live there again. I remember a copper bracelet she swore helped her arthritis, and was only mildly surprised when she had a magnet salesman over to lunch so he could prove they’d cure her aches. Every morning she’d wake up and exclaim at how remarkable those magnets were, how well they worked. When she finally gave them up with a sideways grin, it was because they made her socks black. I found them in a bathroom drawer years later, buried beneath old socks and broken strands of orange and purple pop-bead necklaces, right alongside some trinket one of the grandkids had given her.

But back to the sun. She had a wonderful yard. It was full of peaches and roses, peppers, tomatoes, grapes, and lilacs. There was a hot tub and a swimming pool. My sister and her husband helped terrace steps to the pool through the patch of landscaped juniper bushes, which I appreciated because I hate snakes and spiders and other buggy things found in hot climates. Mom would work outside from sun-up in spring until snow covered the garden beds in winter. Beneath a hot sun she’d be out in her turquoise-blue, terrycloth, one-piece sunsuit and thongs – woops, they’re called flip-flops nowadays – kneeling in the dirt, pulling weeds, and toasting her skin to a deep brown. She had a mole on her back that was frightening and we told her she needed to cover up. “Oh, tsk, I’m not worried about that.” Probably because she figured the worst that could happen would be skin cancer. My mom thought like that, a flippant “Oh well!” at any potential interference with her enjoyment of life. Even snow, which she loved to look at but hated to be in, did not stop her from sitting down in the lower garden by the fish pond in winter. She had built a little mosaic patio with a table and chairs, a little footbridge over the pond, and she’d sit there in the cold, bundled in tube socks, slippers, sweats and a coat – and some gawdawful furry cone hat that tied under her chin. She sewed each of the grandkids a hat like that, none of whom EVER wore theirs. On her, though, it was appropriate. It looked silly as hell, but on her it worked. There she’d sit with her coffee and cigarette, swaddled in the craziest of combinations, so she could enjoy the outdoors, the snow, the sky, the birds – any excuse to be outside.

She didn’t always smoke. I remember I had two kids before I realized she WAS smoking. We were at her Sears catalog merchant store and she’d asked me to get into her purse for something, and there was a pack of menthol cigarettes. I asked her about them and she said she had gone to lunch with a friend who’d asked her to carry them. I didn’t give it a second thought because Mom had always espoused a healthy Adventist diet and lifestyle. Over the years I came to accept that package of cigarettes and her smoking as a choice, something she wanted to do now that she wasn’t setting an example to her children. That’s how it was with the realization that she actually *drank* the wine and the beer and the rum in the fridge and cupboards. I was grown up and seeing my mother as a person rather than a parent. It was quite the discovery process.

My daughters spent summers in Washington with their Nana. They were spoiled the entire time. From playing dress-up to yard parties, the kids and their cousins had the best she could give them. They would bake with her, and pictures showed half-naked kids in panties and Mary-Janes completely covered in flour. Plastic wading or large above-ground swimming pools in the yard, swingsets, bikes, dolls and toys – there was every good thing a grandkid could ever want when he or she came to stay with Nana. Mom loved little kids and, while she disciplined fairly, she had a way of celebrating the things parents wouldn’t indulge endlessly – hours of play-acting, trying on wedding dresses, attic treasure-hunting, doll houses, books. None of it phased her, she participated completely in every tea party, applied lipstick and rouge to fresh little faces, and sang every song under the sun a little kid could ever hope to memorize.

The grandkids grew up and we visited less often. We wrote more letters, Mom discovered email and we switched from communicating on the children’s level to sharing family recipes, gossip, jobs and her atrocious EBay purchases. She had Rubbermade boxes full of seashells from Mexico, beads of all kinds, rose petals from her garden. Now when the kids visited, they gave her pedicures or massaged her feet or neck. She would ooh and aah and it would be a real girl party full of giggles and mirrors. Every little girl loved my mother – and for good reason: she was the proverbial Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

Almost fifteen years have passed since her death. I don’t think about it much, but when I allow myself to miss her, it’s with a great, gaping hole of emptiness. Nothing can fill it, cover it up, make it go away. When her mother died, I don’t remember my mom grieving in front of me, but I was in high school and was so filled with my grandmother’s death, I wouldn’t have noticed. My daughters probably haven’t noticed my grief, either, I guess because as mothers we haven’t found a way to share the depth of such a feeling with our children. We want to protect them from how grief and loss feels, but there’s no success in that. Life is a learning journey and, sooner or later, the lessons of sorrow become unavoidable.

Occasionally, I’ll reach for the phone to call my sister to ask, “Have you talked to Mom lately?” and shake my head at how natural and real it seems to want to know that. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll resemble her as I get older, less than five years myself from the age she was when she died. I remember how amazed she was to be 60 “already,” and how I teased her. She was older at the time than her mother was when she died, and I’m beginning to understand where her mind was at living beyond the age of her parents’ deaths. A friend of mine, upon reading my blog, commented on how he’d not realized how “philosophical” I am, which strikes me as funny and coincidental at the same time. Maybe it comes with age.

This weekend I’m headed to my sister’s. My husband’s birthday is today, and we’re going to the big city for a change of scenery. I’m going to get into the box of family pictures I agreed to send home with my sister after Mom’s death, and I’m going to scan them into my computer. There are other members of the family who need to see and remember life as it was. Besides, I know my sister saved one of those scary, furry cone-head hats, too…

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3 thoughts on “Coming of Age

  1. you captured my memories of her, “oh well”, with a direct look. Missing her this morning, again, after reading. Reaching the age of mom’s death brought similar feelings.

  2. Tom, writing is the best catharsis I know. It’s always been that way, and I find I do it more and more the older I get. It beats searching for the fountain of youth.

  3. Hi Rene’- thanks for sharing. Your mother sounds like a very interesting person, I wish I could have known her. What a delight that she could so enjoy her grandchildren and provide them with such wonderful memories. Its great that we have an avenue to share with the world a glimpse into our lives that might otherwise go unknown. There are so many facets to each person, much like a precious diamond. Thanks again gal, I feel like I know you better. Have a great day.

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