The Mother Thing

Recently, I was selecting my Mother’s Days cards. Looking for just the right card for a neighbor and another for my cousin, and a mix for my girlfriends.  My own mother died 25 years ago.  I still remember that first Mother’s Day with out her. The card racks in the local Hallmark store practically brought me to tears, and the holiday brought a level of sadness I had not planned on.

When your own mother is gone you not only miss the intimacy of the bond but the immediacy of that font of support and information. Advice and knowledge on a range of subjects you never realized you would miss that she shared.  Sometimes with out you even asking for any of her input at all.  Oh yes, a mother’s prerogative.   From stain removal to work issues, chicken pox identification to book reviews, my mother always had something to add to the conversation. And when that voice was gone the silence mocked and saddened me.  The next year I made a plan. I would send a card to the friends who had helped fill in the blanks, the ones who had “mothered” me.

And so to the friend. who showed up to help me pack my mother’s kitchen when I moved my parents closer to my home I send a card. The packing was work.  But the conversation while we marveled that anyone would have that many colanders, was light enough to keep me moving in the face of my mother’s illness.  To the friends who called me and held my hand when an adoption plan went south, I send a card. And when that longed for baby finally arrived and friends showed up to hold the baby, take his picture and make a fuss with the same enthusiasm as if I had experienced labor and delivery, I sent a card.  The other moms in my playgroup,who helped me navigate roseola and teething, card worthy indeed. Then there was the experienced cousin by marriage who cemented her place in my heart with her steady reassurance during the tumultuous teenage years. She told me that I was capable and loving and that all would be well.  Mothering friends helped me navigate the healthcare system when my parents faced their final illness.  And mothering friends helped me plan memorial services for another friend when he died. These women took my child to soccer/school/ballet when I was sick and my husband was out of town. They made me soup after surgery, picked up my daughter and cared for her while I was at the emergency room with my son. They even stepped in to visit my mother-in-law when we travelled, to ease our worry when we were far away. And when the time to close up and pack up my parent’s final home came, so did a  friend or two to help with the task and hand me tissue for my tears.

Sometimes I hear people say that women treat other women badly. That at work or socially, we undermine and attack.  Like the characters shown on one of those “real”  television shows, we plot and plan to hurt and demean.   That has not been my reality.

This past winter, a week or so before Christmas I was in the parking lot of our local gift/card/toy emporium.  The same one where I buy all those Mother’s Days’s cards. On this day, I saw a young mom soldiering toward her car carrying a baby in a carrier,while she tried to shepherd two older boys into her mini-van.  The older one, maybe 6 or so was cooperating, but the younger perhaps two or three-year old, was having a good old fashioned melt down.  I knew just what had happened; toy department, little boy, two parts fatigue and one part “no toy” disappointment. This almost always equals tears and the dragging of feet as mom tries to get everyone home, something we all remember.  I parked my car and walked back to the family. I didn’t want to add to the drama so I asked her quietly, “Can I help you?  Would you like me to carry the baby while you get the boys into the car?” By the time she had everyone in and seat belts fastened she and the younger boy were in tears. He had tried to make a run for it but between the two of us he was finally in his car seat.  “Thank you so much,” she said between sniffles, “I don’t know what I would have done.”  I smiled and told her she would have been fine. “We’ve all been there, you were so patient and calm you’re  doing great.”  She thanked me again, this time with hug, and we said good-bye.

So this year once again I’m buying Mother’s Days cards. For the women who’ve  taken the time to lovingly mother this motherless mother. I couldn’t help thinking about them that day in the parking lot.  I think each one of them would have done the same thing I did. Being a mom is hard, but being a mom with the mothering of others helping and supporting us, that makes the experience more rich and meaningful. Thanks, and Happy Mother’s Day, I’m just say’n.

Thoughts On A Teapot

Thoughts On A Teapot

The first time I noticed it my daughter was 16 and going to the prom. In the photos we had taken of the prom group, the girls all had one thing in common.  It wasn’t a hair style or a dress length, high heels or flats.   No.  It was  their arms.

Almost, without exception all of those beautiful high school girls were posing with what I would describe as “teapot arms.”  Do you remember the old nursery rhyme we sang as children?

“I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my spout.”
As we sang about the teapot’s handle we put our hand on our hip to make a right angle.

Teapot arms.

So why, in all their prom finery were the girls doing that with their arms?

It’s not a pose limited to my small Midwestern town.  When I saw photos of other girls in other towns I saw them posing in the same way.  And lately I have noticed women of a certain age (namely mine) posing in the same  way as well. Arm bent, leaning out, what was going on?  I asked my self when did smile for the camera also involve  bending your arm in an artificial pose?

Finally I was so curious  by this phenomenon that I asked my daughter.  “What gives with the teapot arms?”  “This is not a pose that happens naturally.”  So she told me.  “It makes you look skinny.”

What!   All those beautiful, fresh faced young women, many of them athletes, concerned enough about the size of their silhouette  to strike a pose looking so forced?   I was one part stunned and two parts disappointed.  All the work we had done as mothers trying to instill confidence, to negate body shaming and we had daughters with teapot arms?

Being a parent is fraught with guilt and the fear that we are making mistakes every day.

“Was I home enough ?”

“Did I listen enough?”

“Was I too strict?”

“Was I too permissive?”

“Did I teach her that good health was more important than any idealized thin size?”
We hold ourselves to standards that move continually farther away from us.

Happily our children grow up and for the most part succeed. They may do so not on our preferred schedule, but they do fine.   They learn to take care of themselves, They work, they contribute.  They say please and thank you. They volunteer in their communities.  We see all this and hope we did right by the motherhood thing.

My daughter did look lovely for the prom. She finished high school. Went on to graduate from college and yes find a job. That Christmas we were all together posing for the usual family photos, the two of us in front of the tree.  “Smile for the picture,” someone said.
And then she did something with her arms.

She put them around me.  And we both smiled for the the picture.  All of my teapot arm concerns fell away in her embrace.  Finally, a pose I could love.

I’m just say’n.

imageCloset Wish

The Bittersweet

The Bittersweet

It has been very bittersweet around here this spring and early summer. Perhaps in your world as well.  May and June often bring important transitions and changes.  Graduations, weddings and the like are just two of the  traditional bookmarks of this time of year and we have seen both in our family this year.

The word itself colors our perception of the events.  You’re all set to be happy on your way to the wedding or graduation, baby shower or parade and someone says “How nice, bet it’s bittersweet.”

Well, now that you mention it.

The dictionary defines bittersweet as “pleasure alloyed with pain.” It’s also a woody type plant that gardeners can’t quite decide whether or not  is friend or foe. Invasive species or decorative vine?

And  of course there is the baker’s world of bittersweet chocolate. And that last one does it for me.  I see the dark, rich chocolate. Its aroma deep and heady. I break off a small piece, take a bite… the smoothness covers my tongue and palate, its essence warms my taste buds.  And then, it bites back.  Not the sweet confection of even semi-sweet, like the chips I bake into cookies. But bitter. Is it disappointing, or just surprising? A happy respite from sameness or the taste of something foreign and unpleasant?  Oh yes, bittersweet.

My niece in her bridal gown perfectly beautiful. But nothing defines bittersweet to the parents, aunts and uncles like her happy march down the aisle. Wasn’t it just yesterday, that we all explored the beach together? Took photos with Minnie Mouse?

My own daughter took her own walk this spring to pick up her college diploma. It was her commencement. But to her father and me it seemed like an ending. Oh yes, happily we are done with tuition payments, but we know she has taken even more steps away from us and our sphere of influence. And as she is our youngest, for me at least, the feeling is more intense. I am pondering all these things while knowing full well that the bitter of the bitter sweet is probably only being experienced by those on the older side of the equation.

My recollection of my own to walks down those two aisles of adulthood is only of the joy, the happiness, the fulfillment, the sweet. I felt no sadness, no pain, nothing bitter. Oh perhaps some fear, anticipation, but pain? No.

And that is the bitter pill we not so young and not (quite thankfully) old parents must swallow. The sadness is all ours. We know that they, our babies our children have more wonderful moments to experience and that some of them will be bittersweet. They will take a child to school for the first time and think “where did my baby go?” They will leave a job or move  or end a relationship and know it’s for the best and yet be sad, bittersweet.

It’s my understanding of bitter sweet that colors my understanding of not only the milestones but of the seemingly regular path of days. Summer with its longer days and smells of cut lawns and the flowers in my garden are experiences I try to embrace and appreciate. All to soon the temperature will change and the days will shorten. Bittersweet. To me it lends a richness and a dimension to my days I had no understanding of while I accomplished the milestones. An though I know I have many more wonderful experiences and days ahead (God willing) for me and my family and “framily” this view of bittersweet keeps me in the moment and joyful. Breathe in, taste, embrace the bitter  it makes the sweet taste even better. I’m just say’n.

A Letter Not Sent

I am a card sending, note dropping, letter writing kind of person. I have raised two children who always send “Thank You notes.” It is an important touch of civility in a sometimes un-civil world. And I cling to the notion that sometimes a written expression of thanks, congratulations, or condolence is welcome and appreciated. So early this year when our dearest friend announced his retirement as well as his relocation to his Florida retirement home I knew a letter was in order. Almost immediately I started composing in my mind what it would say. In the five months between his announcement and his leaving I considered all his contributions to our family life and how to put them down in a meaningful way on paper. It would read something like this. “I want to thank you for all you have meant to me and mine and how much we will all miss you when you are soaking up the sun and enjoying your retirement. Over the past 39 years you have been the best kind of friend. More like family or “framily” as I have called it before. You have shared holidays, trips, good times and hard-times with us. A member of our wedding party, a pallbearer at my father’s funeral, you have always been there. When we were adopting our oldest and the process turned into a dreadful drama of disappointment and tears. You were with us every day in court. And when it all ended improbably with a wonderfully happy ending you were there too. Was it any wonder that we picked you to be our son’s godfather. You had already demonstrated your love. Six years later when we drove to the airport to pick up our daughter when she joined our family you were there again. That night I had carefully orchestrated the order of her welcome. First to hold her when she was brought off the plane would be her father, I would take her next. But after the ride home from O’Hare and the entrance of us all into our home, I handed her off to you. When I think about it, the relationship you have had with our children has been one of the most gratifying parts of our relationship. Even during those angst ridden teen years your presence was always appreciated by them. And the buffer you sometimes provided often gave their parents much needed breathing space. The laughter we have all shared, at holidays, sporting events, backyard barbecues, birthdays, graduations. These have cemented your place in our lives as a family and I am grateful for all of them.” That’s something how my letter would have gone. But, as summer went on busy days and no little amount of denial of your departure on my part, the letter went unwritten. So on that early morning of your departure I had no letter for you. Instead, I handed you a framed black and white picture I had taken of you with my daughter, both of you intent on the iPad she held. Perhaps you were helping her with her resume, maybe she was showing some goofy U-tube video. The picture just exemplified that close relationship you shared. You looked at the photo and I could tell you saw in it what I had. We hugged goodbye and you left for the airport and winters without snow and ice. We spoke often over the next several weeks. And you being even more dedicated to the U.S mail than I, sent me a card for my birthday as well as flowers. Ten days later our anniversary brought a card from you, I told you I would not open it until the actual date, just as I always did with every card you have sent for every birthday, Easter, Mother’s Day. You laughed and said you counted on it. I was still formulating the letter I would send to you, as we ended the phone call. Sadly I never wrote that letter. But you had one last note for us. For somehow, a dark insidious sickness had followed you on your journey. One you had hidden from all those who knew and loved you. From your brothers and sister, from your beloved mother from all of us. And on a rainy day one day before I would open that last anniversary card the darkness over took you. You wrote that you were sorry, you said you loved us all. And you were gone. My husband as shocked and horrified as all of us, warned me that we all would probably process the grief and feel anger at you and your decision. His expertise is founded on eduction and practice. And more than one person has shared with me that they were indeed angry with you. But I cannot find it in me to be angry. No, someone else can have my “mad.” The despair that laid you low was a symptom of a disease that you tried to protect us all from. It was the wrong choice, I wish your judgment had been clearer. But the dark cloud of depression somehow overtook you and we are left with sadness and only speculation of what might have been. So there was no final letter from me to you. And yet somehow I know that you knew everything I would have written in that letter. The understanding is there in your smile in the last photos I took of you. A group of us at the botanical gardens and then a concert at Ravinia, enjoying a summer day and laughing. You knew you were appreciated and loved by many. You will be missed. The poet Dickinson wrote, and I paraphrase, “This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me,- Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!” You could say our last notes to each other crossed in the mail. But the thing I will remember is that our lives crossed. And I am glad.

Parental Guidance

When my son was four years old he came down with the chicken pox. It was winter time, he was quarantined at home (which meant I was quarantined at home.) It was not a lot of fun.  But worst of all I wanted my mother, and she was gone. I wanted to ask her how she dealt with my bout of the chicken pox, how best to apply to calamine lotion. But she had passed away a few months before and I was on my own.  Oh, I talked to a friend who had live thru her two daughter’s almost simultaneous pox-a-rama, I talked to my pediatrician. But it wasn’t the same.

Recently, when I read the pages of my Facebook, or those of my local newspaper I learn that the parents of my childhood friends, my peers and co-workers are dealing with serious health issues, and yes passing away. If you’re a Disney character you sing “The Circle of Life.” If you’re a real person you pause and remember. You remember the room mother who made and delivered the cupcakes for the Valentine’s Day party. The father who drove a carload of girls to the roller rink for the twin’s birthday party.  The store owner, the teacher, the bane of your best friend’s existence, and the person smiling and tearing up at the same friend’s wedding.

I was a young mother when I lost my parents with in two years of each other. It was not how I wanted to lead the group. I still had questions I wanted to ask, advice  I wanted to ponder. My son confessed recently he barely has any memory of my dad with whom he had so much fun at Disney World at age 5, and that he does not remember at all my mother who died when he was four. My daughter never met either of my parents. I’m only happy that she had a sweet, close relationship with my mother-in-law. Twelve year olds tend to remember things. Things like famous deviled eggs, or funny stories about your dad’s older brother.

I once read a quote by a sociologist that when one loses a parent the loss is compounded by the feeling that a barrier  between our self and mortality is breached. This may be true. But I also remember a favorite client telling me something when I offered my sympathy for the loss of her mother. She herself was a grandmother already and at least 20 years older than I. “I’m just kind of mad, I want my mom back,” she said.

This is what I know about losing your parent. You will look at old pictures of them from when you were young, and you will be struck by how young they look. You will be unable to replicate the meatloaf/lemon meringue pie they made. You will wish your dad was coming over to  help fix the car or watch the game. And if any of these things are true for you then you will have been very blessed in deed.

I read an interesting quote a while back. I noted it, and it fits this topic as well as any other. “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s good to know that the first people to hold our hands are part of the memories of not only us but often of the people we played, laughed, and grew up with.  I’m just say’n.

Farewell Old Friend

I said good bye to and old friend today. A relationship only five years shorter than my 32 year marriage. An association that outlasted two dogs,six cars and numerous soccer socks and beach towels. Today my new washing machine was delivered and my old one removed by two young men who seemed unaware of the history they hauled out of my basement and onto a waiting truck. Am I alone in feeling slightly sentimental over an old appliance? We bought the washer at the same time we purchased all four of our major appliances, for our “new” old home. Our first house. They all made the move (with the first golden retriever) to the next house. But, alas they all were replaced and updated by newer shiner models. Happily not all at the same time as was my fear. But that washer kept on washing. Four years ago I thought it was done for, poor timing, as my eldest was on his way to Spain to study abroad in a few days, and a college tuition bill was due. But a gifted repairman worked his magic and the fix we hoped would last about a year stuck. Even now it wasn’t broken, it just wasn’t efficient enough, too many trips up and down the basement stairs coaxing it to the next cycle finally sealed its fate. And so I gave it a gentle pat and bid it adieu. Now those who know me know that I sentimentally attach to things. The Wedgewood dishes from my college dorm residents,a bridal gift to their R.A. The watercolor painting my cousin painted of her grandson and my daughter. The Spode tea set a beloved friend found in an antique shop and sent for my birthday. These are treasures to me. Not too hard to understand. But just as valuable to me is my ironing board. On my 22nd birthday ten days before my wedding my mother gave me what I thought was the lamest gift ever, a new iron and ironing board. I smiled to myself at this most practical and least sentimental gift a mother could give a daughter days before she left her home to marry her college sweetheart. It was a total representation of her practical nature and outlook. And, these many years later I think of her every time I pull it out of the closet and press a shirt. It still sports the pad she purchased and fit over the old white sheet she covered it with, to provide what she thought was the necessary padding for optimal ironing. Yes, just like the pink handled pie server the ironing board and the washing machine were the not so glamorous tools of some of the least romantic and sentimental aspects of family life. Our family life. Not as pretty as a picture or graceful as fine china, but used and reused and touched and explained and instructed about to each of us in this family. Sometimes memories are not made of parties, graduations or holidays. Much of our lives are connected by daily tasks and chores. A son ironing a shirt shocking and impressing his mother, a daughter finishing and folding the laundry. The times that mark the passage of time as household appliances age and wear out. So farewell old friend. I still remember how excited I was the day you arrived. I promised my self and my husband that I would never complain about the laundry now that I was released from the pay laundromat.

I’m pretty sure I kept that promise. I’m just say’n.

Lessons and Carols

It’s back….with all of it’s beauty, excitement and memories. Christmas is back. It’s another year older but are we any wiser? The question your friend in the blogosphere has is this, what have you learned from Christmas?
Over the years I have enjoyed the return of the Christmas season to the extent that it often highlighted the lessons the year had delivered to me. Sometimes those lessons were happy. In other years, the “classwork” of Christmas was too difficult. When you have experienced a loss of a loved one Christmas holds up the loss to you in the cruelest of ways. When everyone else is having all that Christmas fun you are reminded in a thousand ways, small and large how much you miss by missing a loved one. When everyone else is singing you are sighing and wishing for one more day, one more moment with the friend, parent,or child no longer present.
But, there are other lessons too,poignant if not painful.There was the Christmas I learned how to let my children gift me with needed time. They were young and I was busy trying to get all the things I felt I must do for Christmas done. That Sunday of Advent I had much to do to get ready when a request was made I could not turn down. An older member of my church congregation,unable to attend services had requested communion be brought to her. As a deacon I could do this. But my “to do” list beckoned. On the other hand how could I not? So, I took the children home (my husband was out of town for work) and drove to the seniors apartment. I remember how grateful she was, and how she urged me to stay for a cup of tea, so happy for “Christmas company” as she called me. I left feeling I had done the right thing, but anxious over the task in front of me with 3 hours now gone by. A big stack of gifts for cousins, nieces,nephews, aunts and uncles waited for me to wrap. But, when I arrived home I was met by my two excited elves. They had wrapped all the gifts themselves while I did “church work” as they called it. Now like all “Christmas control” moms, those gifts were not wrapped as I would have wrapped them. Instead they were done with love and shining eyes for me. What a gift!I don’t remember any other present I received that year. But I remember how proud “big brother” was and how excited his little sister was to help mommy that day. What a lesson.
Christmas music like Christmas memories flood our days and nights the closer we come to Christmas Eve. And I am addicted to the sounds of Christmas even more than a child to peppermint. The more I think about it the best telling of the Christmas story is probably done through music. Whether it is the rich sounds of a wonderful practiced choir or in the unpolished carols sung by children. The essence of Christmas is best displayed by voices raised in song. Think of the simple rendition of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and the gang from “Peanuts” breaking into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and you will understand what I mean.
If you are like me you probably have many memories of Christmas’ past. The “live Nativity” I performed in as a 13 year old, an angel on top of the stable. One of my best friends was “Mary”, we still laugh when we remember how the real barnyard animals brought in to add realism provided more “realism” than planned, on the shepherds sandals.
It’s memories like these that connect our Christmas’ to each other one year to the next. When the children were little I waited to decorate until they were sleeping to “protect” the delicate bells and ornaments. When they were older I assigned them a task and they whirled through in a frenzy of excitement fueled by Christmas cookies. And I stood back trying not to “adjust” their work. Later, they were too busy to help with the tree,or lights beyond a cursory attempt to humor me fueled now by a modicum of guilt.And this year I missed them both, he in his own apartment in another city, she away at college. Once again I decorate mostly alone waiting for their return to enjoy and share the holiday. When they were small I waited for them to to wake up from nap,come downstairs and see the decorations. Now the house and I wait for their return to give their stamp of approval.
Christmas continues to be a gift and a lesson to me. Remember a loved one, let others wrap and sing, treasure the days, they fly by in a moment. And when I look at the Christmas bells on my mantle, I recall the little hands selecting one each night to ring before bedtime. A lesson and a carol with each sweet chime.