My mom would have been 90 today. She almost made it, but her path ended three months short of that goal. Last March she found the answer to a question we all have: What comes next? It would be nice to think her lifetime of faith brought the ultimate reward. She surely earned it a million times over.
In any event, she’s at peace now. Those last years were hard — constant pain and a body that no longer served her well or, sometimes, at all. She bore it as gracefully as she did all of life’s travails — always positive, always upbeat. She was the epitome of a wife, of a mother, of a person.
Today, for (what would have been) her 90th birthday, some remembrances.
There are, above all, the many gifts she gave to me. In a box up on a closet shelf, is my childhood teddy bear — now thread-bare and ancient. Its protruding plastic nose long ago replaced with a simple disc of cloth. I used to crawl around carrying that bear, holding its nose in my teeth. And look: you can see the brown thread of several limb-saving operations.
When I was in college, she knitted a couple of afghan blankets for me. She was not the world’s greatest seamstress, but those wraps are filled with real love — gifts of time and effort and care. They’re ever on my bed, and they keep me warm in winter despite being frayed and, in places, falling apart (but then, so am I).
If there was a fire, they are two of the things I would grab to save first. Their value is infinite — they are irreplaceable!
Mom read to us a lot. Unlike many modern parents, mine deliberately did not teach us to read early. They read to us, and we picked up the magic of stories, so when we got to school, we were primed to learn. My love of stories, and my love of books, endures to this day.
But the greatest gift she gave me was music. Mom was a music teacher — trained at UCLA. In my now distant childhood, she tutored piano students, and as soon as I was able, she began to tutor me. I resisted for a long time. I used to dream of tape recording a practice session so I could play it back while I sneaked out to play outside.
A time came when I passed over the crest, and playing became a life-long joy. As musicians, mom and I were opposites, though. She was the church organist, the school orchestra and band teacher, and an excellent sight-reader. I never really developed the sight-reading skill, but I did develop an improvisation skill that mom envied as much as I envied her skills.
When church politics became so obnoxious to my pastor dad that he left the ministry to pursue a dream of publishing books (we revered books in our house), mom went back to teaching music. She became a grade school music teacher for the city of Los Angeles. Being the woman she was, she chose to teach in Watts, and this wasn’t many years after the Watts riots.
Things were rough for a while, and she sometimes came home with black and blue bruises from interactions with students. A white woman teaching in an all-black school in the heart of Watts, was unique. But love of music is universal, and she wielded a serious power: Behave or you’ll have to go back to class. No music class for you! In time, she was accepted and appreciated and loved — greatly loved.You really couldn’t know my mom without loving her. She was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known. No pretensions, no artifice, just a soul as warm and loving and Christian as they come. Say what you will about most Christians, my mom was a real one — truly filled with grace.
One of the only times in our long history together did I ever see her “lose it.” We lived in a parsonage at the time. I’d used masking tape to put up a large map of the USA. A lot of masking tape. On a wallpapered wall. When mom saw it she was concerned the tape would pull off the wallpaper, and a quick test proved it would.
Mom saw our security deposit flying out the window ($200 seems trivial these days, but we were poor, and this was the late 1960s or very early 1970s). She ended up on her knees pounding the floor in weeping distress. She actually said the word, “Shit!” several times. My sister and I looked at each other in stunned disbelief! Had that word actually come out of our mother’s mouth? It had. Several times.
We ended up buying that house, so the bits of missing wallpaper weren’t an issue, but they served as a permanent reminder to me to think things through, to be aware of the consequences of actions, to be careful of property not mine.
When I was in grade school, I was playing with a neighborhood friend on his backyard swing. We were doing that thing where you get swinging and then launch yourself off in a nice arc onto the soft grass. Except for when I landed one knee on the buried vertical sheet-metal tube used for the removable clothes hanger.
Cut right to the bone — lots of blood! I limped home to the arms of my personal nurse, who cleaned the wound, applied hydrogen peroxide and a large bandage. I still have a slight scar on my left knee to remind me how important moms are.
Also from that era, I will always remember coming home from grade school on cold, crisp, wintry afternoons and entering a house warm and humid and reeking of vinegar. My dad always had a vegetable garden, so my mom spent winters canning. The pantry was filled with jars of pickles and tomatoes.
To their dismay, I never liked vegetables, and I really hated pickles. To this day I won’t touch anything pickled. And the vegetables were always boiled — which what they did back then. Of course that results in a sodden mass of soggy, largely tasteless, vegetable pulp. But what flavor it had, I didn’t like!
[I still don’t, and the dark green veggies literally cause a slight gag-reflex. We know now that some people have different senses of taste, and I’m apparently very sensitive to (and not happy about) sulfur (which is prominent in dark greens). Or maybe it’s something else, but I truly don’t like vegetables.]
The truth is, my mom was never a great cook. She could follow a recipe okay, but she didn’t improvise with cooking any more than music. Strictly by the book was my mom. (As with music, what little cooking I do I tend to make up as I go along. That has certainly resulted in some “never do that again” moments.)
Mom helped me make my favorite cookies: soft, chewy ginger-molasses from a recipe on the bottle of Brer Rabbit Molasses. My problem was a tendency to eat a goodly fraction of the dough before the cookies even hit the oven. I still love that kind of cookie above all others (and I still love raw cookie dough)!
Mom also made the first pizza I ever tasted. It was from a recipe and baked in a rectangular cake pan. Pizza was a new thing back then (early 1960s), and I was — putting it very mildly — one of those picky eaters. I sniffed this suspicious odd meal for a long time before I tried it. But once I did it was instant love, and pizza is still one of my favorite foods. Bread with melted cheese and tomato sauce — what’s not to love?
And when it came to bread, my mom did get almost adventurous. She loved to bake bread (we all loved to eat fresh bread), and she tried lots of different recipes and flours. To this day I love bread, and my standard breakfast is two slices of toast.
Speaking which, mom always unplugged the toaster when we weren’t using it. Both my parents were technophobes. They didn’t understand — and were convinced beyond reason they were unable to understand — machinery or technology. I tried so hard to teach them about computers, but the mental blocks proved too tough.
Mom did eventually master email and some online banking. The email helped her keep in touch with her kids, especially her son who had moved halfway across country. I still have every single email she sent. For many years my sister wrote chatty “this is my day” emails mainly to my mom, but copied to me and her kids. I have all those, too.
I suppose the universe balances out. They could never instill in me an appreciation of vegetables (which they loved), and I could never give them my love of machines and technology (which I loved). I’m pretty sure my dad never changed the oil in his cars himself — certainly not that I ever saw. All my science and technology training came from other sources than my parents.
The vague concerns about the toaster paled compared to the fear of burning down the house caused by used matches. Any candle that was lit, or any match used to start a balky stove, sat on the sink ledge overnight. That was just in case some secretly burning part inside the match head started the trash on fire.
[Funny thing: I cannot bring myself to throw a used match in the trash, even if I put it under running water. The match sits on my sink ledge until the next day when I’m absolutely, positively, completely, totally, for-real, certain it won’t burn my place down. Our parents truly live on in us.]
One of our stories — mom and I — is the time she drove from her home town, Escanaba, Michigan, back to our home town in Minneapolis. Dad was off on a church conference, and mom had wanted to visit her folks. The drive is at least six hours, and we started after dark. Sister was asleep and mom asked me to help her stay awake.
I took that duty seriously, and stood behind her chattering in her ear the entire drive. I don’t remember it, but mom told that story many times. And I’ve realized it was one of the few family stories I feel proud about. Most of the oft-repeated ones involve humiliating experiences for me, which may be one reason I’ve apparently blocked out much of my childhood.
I do sort of remember a much later time when we drove from our house in Los Angeles down to Long Beach for some wedding. During the reception I got into the champagne and got fairly tipsy. My parents were not drinkers. At all. As with sports, they weren’t against it, particularly, it just didn’t really exist in their world.
I was quite the chatterbox on the drive home that night, too! They were so innocent about alcohol, they didn’t know quite what to make of it. I have to say that, to a huge extent, they let me find my own way and make my own mistakes. For better or worse, that’s deeply informed the person I turned out to be.
“As the branch is bent, so grows the tree.” My parents didn’t bend me so much as nurture me and try to lead by example. And they loved me with every inch of their being. Whatever else, there was always that.
My mom was a strong but gentle woman filled with love and graciousness. She was kind and good every day of her life, even when pain wreaked her aging shell.
For over a decade past I called her every Wednesday night to chat. With her passing I lost the last voice that clearly said, “I love you!” The hole that left is unfillable.
Musician, teacher, nurse, cook, reader of stories, keeper of the books, listener and sympathizer, shining example of Christianity, and above all: my mother.
But all things end. All clocks stop eventually.
Requiescat in pace.