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.

Let’s Hear It For Dads

I’m embarrassed to say that this will be my first post for Father’s Day.  Let’s face it, dads sometimes get the short end of the stick when it comes to their special day.  So as I was walking on this beautiful summer day I was thinking of my Dad.  I often think of him.  But this time I was pondering which story to share that would illustrate the relationship we had.

My Dad was talented and smart. He could repair almost anything we had. His natural gift was probably enhanced by his military training as first a pilot and then, when an old baseball injury scrubbed him from the air corp, his training as a radioman and later his  work on un- manned drones. Before he even joined the Army he was trained by his father and uncles as a working carpenter. So if he couldn’t build it he could probably still fix it. Cars, big appliances , small appliances. The Stereo cabinet (very 1960’s) my bedroom dresser, and a big beautiful wooden playhouse came out of his work shop. But it was something much smaller that he made for me that still makes me smile.

When I was seven my second grade teacher decided that our class should learn and present a play as puppet theatre.  We read the play in class, The Princess and the Pea, then we would be assigned parts and perform the play for the other grades all from the puppet theatre in our class room.

I don’t remember how I felt about this project, only that I was home sick the day students were assigned their roles.  When I returned to school I learned that all the parts had all been taken.  The Princess,  the King and Queen the assorted folk of the village everyone had their part. There was just one role open–the Prince.  I remember not being too happy with having to take a boy’s role.  But this was the ’60s, the teacher told me I was going to learn the part of the Prince and that was how it would be.  Second grade puppet theatre had two important tasks first, for some still unknown reason we would have to memorize our parts. (Remember this was a puppet show we were behind a puppet stage no one could see us.)  Second, and this was what really scared me. We had to provide our own puppet.

Now if my Dad was “Mr. I can make it or fix it” my mother, although a classic “homemaker” of the era, was not as we say now a days, “crafty.”  Our Halloween costumes were store bought, our clothes form the Sears catalog. And that was fine. But, how was a royal prince puppet to be created?  I brought this dilemma home to mom and I must say she looked shaken by the thought of providing my thespian debut so important a tool.

We went to the only how to manual that wasn’t about cars, mechanicals and woodworking in the house.  My trusty Brownie Girl Scout hand book.  Eureka !

There were puppet making directions in the book!  Great. It involved large spoon and a napkin. You drew a face on the back of the spoon, and worked the napkin around the handle forming a cover for the puppeteer’s hand.  Believe me what you imagine that looked like would be better than it actually turned out.

And so I set out for school with my spoon puppet in by book bag.  My teacher was less than impressed.  I don’t remember how she explained to me, or how  her note to my mother was  worded.  But we were both informed that a spoon-napkin puppet would not meet  the  teacher’s theatrical standards. Back to square one.

I think that afternoon was spent with neither one of us wanting to talk about the dilemma. I know I felt totally clueless about puppet design and creation.  She probably did too. By the time my dad come home for dinner  the house was pretty quiet.  I also don’t remember who told my dad about the puppet problem but soon after dinner he got to work.

And a couple of  hours  and old white pillowcase later a Prince was born. No spoon and smiley face here. This prince sported an ermine-like black and white jacket and a jaunty face drawn on a puppet body that fit my seen year old hand perfectly.  My mother’s old black Singer sewing machine whirled and stitched while my father fed the fabric under the needle.  The first and only time I ever saw him at  the machine.

You know how the story ends. Everyone loved my puppet. And as we performed for the other classes I rendered what I remember as an inspired prince of a performance. The kids laughed at the Prince’s antics.  He gestured with his little puppet hands, scratched  his little puppet head as he performed his princely lines. I was a smash hit as a puppeteer. The  teacher congratulated me as the Prince  took his bow.

In a drawer of my dresser I keep the beautiful gavel with inlaid wood my father made me when I was elected presiding officer of  my local Rainbow assembly.  In my living room there stands a beautiful grandfather clock he built and passed on to me. But on this Father’s day I’m thinking about a puppet prince and the man who designed, sewed it and sent me off to school to be the best prince any little girl could hope to be. Sitting over the old Singer at the kitchen table stitching a memory that will never fade. I’m just say’n.

Ride On A Time Machine

I recently changed the cover on my ironing board.  Well, actually I recovered the old cover.  The cover my mother put on it when she gave it to me 36 years ago. On my birthday, ten days before I was to be married. I puzzled then over the gift. Somehow not the sentimental type of gift I imagined I would be given just prior to such a life changing event.  But I kept my questions to myself,  accepted the gift (graciously I hope) and got married. And I even did the ironing.  But recovering that old ironing board recently propelled me back to my mother’s kitchen and that day in August. Whoosh, like a time machine.

Gifts can do that to us. And at this time of the year when gifts are such an integral part of the celebration of Christmas, we can be riding a roller coaster of memory and emotion daily.  That may be one of the reasons we all hit  the mall, and the internet.  Not so much trying to buy love or win the best gift contest. But rather, trying to connect with our family and friends and earn that place in their memory. A special place where it is not the gift that is valued but the relationship, yes the thought.

Have you ever given someone the perfect gift? The one you know hits all the right notes in your relationship?  Have you ever been present when someone else gives the gift and witnessed the look on someones face that says “This is just it!”

Maybe.  Or maybe like me unwrapping that ironing board, and the cover my mother put on it you received the perfect gift and didn’t realize it for quite a while.

I want to be clear. I am not a regular iron-er of clothing.  I love permanent press as much as the next person. I iron only sporadically.  But I don’t remember any other birthday gift I received that year.  And I never iron without remembering my mother. I can see her ironing in the living room, there’s a game show on the television. She works her way through my father’s dress shirts, the sheets, my own cotton dresses. I see her, hear her voice (correcting my ironing technique sometimes) every time I haul that a board out of the closet.

Last night as I walked by my Christmas tree one of the ornaments caught my eye.  It was backwards. A simple muslin square with a holly wreathe and a red bow. The design did not show so I re -hung it.  Whoosh. Time travel.  The ornament in question was given to me by my college roommate. She gave it to me the year my husband and I bought our first home. She had come to our Christmas party and she brought  a set of or muslin ornaments to give me. I remember I asked  her if she had made them. “No, I just liked them. Saw them on vacation, and picked them up.” That was 30 years ago. This year no one had any idea she would not make it to Christmas. She passed away in early spring. We had lived together our sophomore year. She stood up with me at my wedding. She had given me other gifts I’m sure.  But it was that  Christmas tree decoration that propelled me to that Christmas long ago. To her smile. Even to her voice.

I am sure her sisters, brothers husband  and son, will have similar experiences this Christmas. I hope they’re comforted by the memories of their own time travel. I hope her other friends, of which she had so many, will also be reminded . Of her voice. of her smile. Of her ability to sing the entire score of “The Sound of Music.”

That’s one of the gifts of the season. The connection we feel to those so special to us in our lives. Our parents, a dear friend, gone but not ever forgotten.

That’s what the unexpected perfect gift can bring us. Someone once said, Christmas is a time machine. The rushing, the noise, the wrapping is just background noise. Listen carefully. It’s a carol worth enjoying. I’m just say’n.

Original Recipe

The Thanksgiving feast was no sooner put away when I began to think about when I would begin Christmas baking.  Not because I love those cookies so much but rather I love what my family says about them.  They speak of my egg nog logs in dulcet tones, they praise my Mexican wedding cakes  with effusive smiles. But, I don’t for a moment think it is because of my superior baking skills. I think it is because I have harnessed an important part of the holidays.  Repetition.

Let me explain.  We’ll return to the Thanksgiving meal. When my husband and I were  dating and he came to my family’s home for Thanksgiving for the first time, he was looking forward to a home cooked turkey dinner.  But not, he told me, to the stuffing. He did not like stuffing, he told me. As a matter of fact, he rather detested it. (Why I continued to date him after he confessed to this heresy I don’t recall.) He arrived at my parents home on time and suitably charming and as dinner began I watched to see how he would handle himself when the stuffing was passed his way. He must have decided that  tasting was the better part of valor and he took a small helping. Which he ate, I noticed.  And then he went above and beyond and asked for seconds. I whispered to him, “You, don’t have to.” “I want to.”  “You don’t like dressing.”  I said. “I like your mother’s dressing, a lot.” And that was that.

After we married I made the dressing for each holiday. And he asked most years “You’re making your mother’s dressing, right?”  If  I ever thought of  switching to cornbread or adding sausage, I was quickly   reminded of the superior nature of “your mother’s dressing.” And to this day the dressing (that’s what we call it now, stuffing no more) is much like my mother’s.  A basic herb seasoned, bread concoction with celery and onion.
Families are a lot like dressing and holidays. The recipe for our days depends much on that which we can count on. The parts we play in the theatre that is our life story are based on birth order, hardwiring, and repetition . Maybe we call it tradition. Big brother is freakishly adept at assembling legos. He grows up and is still the one everyone asks for help in assembling all that needs putting together. Princess daughters know/remember who wants/needs the gifts and where the nutcracker looks best. And everyone wants the dressing to be just as it always was.

“Should I make the onion tarte?” I asked my husband. “You will if you don’t want writhing on the floor and gnashing of  teeth,” he replied.  It makes us feel connected to the holidays of our past. And yes even to those no longer with us. I think of my mother every time I make the dressing.

And yet, some traditions are ripe for change. Like most people my age, I was served (and in my case, did not eat) canned cranberry sauce. It was probably a function of the 1960 grocery store that cranberries sauced or gelled and in a can, were most common. And it is a sign of the 1990’s and the 21st century that homemade fresh is so common today. But I have one friend who still loves that scary canned concoction complete with ribs imprinted on the the gelled  sauce, best. We serve it to him with a wink and a nod while everyone else enjoys the other. It is his tradition we respect.

So, here is my metaphor for the day. The food, the decorations, the music of the holidays are how we connect to our past, to our families, to our younger selves.

And here is my confession. Sometimes we need to tweak or refresh those recipes.  I make my mother’s dressing. But, a few years ago I snuck in mushrooms, and a year or so later I added wild rice.   It seemed to work. That’s  the dressing at my house now.

Our children grow up and bring others to the table, just like I did all those years ago. We set another place and add a chair. The beauty of the holidays is that they are able to grow and morph while still retaining their original “flavor”  if you will.

It’s a gift more beautiful than the crystal returned to the china cabinet, or any gift under a tree. We belong to each other because we remember  the dressing and how we all fit together.

It’s a dish we can have second helpings from. 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.

What We Keep

Christmas cookie time.  I’m measuring and sifting, mixing and  pouring. And for one batch of cookies I need to roll out with a rolling pin. As I’ve written of before, I use my mother’s rolling pin. I think we can safely  call it old.

My mother was a very good cook. A maker of beautiful pies. But she was not a cookie baker. I have only one  memory of her making cutout Christmas cookies when I was about 7..She made them. No one ate them.  They were burned and broken. We wouldn’t make cookies again until I was in college and came  home with an idea and a recipe.  But I have that rolling pin.

The pin, wears a sleeve to better roll out pie crust or cookies. And when I was using it the other day I noticed that the sleeve is showing its age and has a few small holes in it. It also has one really old hole which it appears, my mother darned close with green thread. (Darning; another word and skill lost in the years, perhaps a blog for a different day.)

All of this goes to saying that it is Christmas time and that I miss my mother. Her Birthday is fast approaching and I will think of her and how we always put up our Christmas tree on her birthday.  These days, I put my tree up soon after Thanksgiving. She preferred a late tree trimming and remembered  fondly shopping on Christmas Eve.

Our  Christmas’  may not be picture perfect. The cookies may have been burned, or never attempted. But the season, the calendar, the sounds, the snow that falls softly from a gray sky. These all bring that essential sense of Christmas.  The feeling that even with our imperfections we are tied to one another deeply and often quite happily. Despite less than perfect cookies.  The rolling pin sleeve is worn, it is darned.  It may not last too much longer. But in those stitches made by my mother, are reminders that sometimes what we keep is something more than what we could touch.

I’m just say’n.

A Little Surprise

In the middle of the Holiday Hustle recently, I was stopped in my tracks. Racing around , preparing food for a party, I had just cut into a beautiful red pepper when I saw inside it another much smaller green pepper. It quite literally took my breath away. I carefully sliced the red pepper in half, fully exposing the tiny miniature version. I asked a couple of gardening types about my find and they were less shocked than I, but, they admitted they had never seen anything like it themselves.

This week many of us are rushing towards the holiday. And whether or not you just finished the last candle on your menorah, or you still have gift buying/wrapping cookie baking/eating to do. Chances are you have not yet taken a breath. Until last Friday. When like many of us you had  the holiday rug pulled out from under you. Now you are thinking about not so festive topics. Things like gun violence, and mental health services, and school safety. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

So, questions are asked, life and meaning pondered. And the questions asked are not easy to answer or even to hear. “Why would someone commit such a terrible act?”  “Could this have been prevented?”  “Will I be safe in school?”

Tears are shed. Hearts are broken. Closets where gifts were hidden will now be only horrible reminders of what has been lost.  And for those of us, which in this case is most of us, who live geographically at least, far away from the epi-center of the tragedy life will continue.  And we will begin and end our days as we did the day before the shooting. So another question is posed. “Is that how you want to go on?  Do you chose to live,and think, believe, and act as if  it never happened?”

This is your reality. And,oh yes, if you chose to not acknowledge the choices you have, that itself is your decision.

Last week,before the shooting some women I know got together at the last minute to honor the volunteer work of another woman. A friend and neighbor who for many years has volunteered for the meal program at St. Ben’s.  To  salute her they didn’t take her to dinner, or buy her a drink and offer a toast. Instead they got together and made over 300 scarves for her to give out when she works at St. Ben’s tonight.

We all have choices in how we celebrate the holidays. We all have choices in how we treat each other. We all have choices in how we  live our lives, and teach our children and console, support and help each other.

I made a discovery as I cut into a beautiful red pepper the other night, a hidden treasure, a small Christmas gift, if you will. It reminded me of  a verse I once committed to memory long ago. I read it in a hardware store where I had gone on an errand with my father one spring day.  It was posted over the display of seeds  for sale.

“Here is one of God’s miracles soon to unfold,

For ten cents an ounce is divinity sold.”

A horrible act was perpetrated last week. No one can ignore it. But even still we are surrounded by goodness and small miracles. A volunteer’s steadfast devotion, a vegetables secret center. Don’t lose sight of these gifts amidst the hustle or the tragedy. I’m just say’n.