Sunday, May 11, 2014

the one where I write a sappy Mother's Day post about my dead mother

(wrote this last night but was too tired to post until now)

Many of my favorite friends who happen to be on Facebook changed their profile pictures to pictures of their mothers, living and not-so-living. I pulled up one of my rare pictures of my mother, a favorite picture I didn’t even have until her family reconnected to us fourteen or fifteen years after her December 1993 death.

In this image, my mother leans on the hood of a red Olds Cutlass Cierra. I think I drove that car for a few months when I was a young editor on a newspaper. Mountains in the background make me guess she and my father were on one of their many road trips during his time as a locum tenums physician. She’s casual, wears a navy blue sweatshirt and holds her sunglasses in her hands. Already in 1984ish, you can see the rheumatoid arthritis was bending her fingers at odd angles. She looks younger than almost 60, younger than I look now at 55 going on 56. Her hair is salt and pepper, wind blown, skin flawless except for grooves between her eyes that are a perfect contrast to the lips that seem to curl up despite her distaste for having her picture taken.

She is beautiful, and I’ve been studying this picture off and on for a couple of hours as I’ve tried to get some writing done.

I’m not going to post it on Facebook, though. I feel protective of her tonight. She was a private person, though she could get anyone to tell her his/her Story with a capital “s.” Like me, she wasn’t good at small talk, but she was friendly and interested in people, so somehow she would manage to get cashiers, servers, flight attendants, cab drivers, hotel concierges, shop owners and beauticians to tell her their deepest secrets without them realizing that what they were doing was unusual.

Her openness to strangers was one of my favorite things about the public side of my mother.

This is my 20th Mother’s Day without her, my three siblings 20th Mother’s Day without her. The stories we tell about her to each other and to our spouses and kids are mostly funny, lighthearted stories. My younger sister-in-law once asked me for “real” stories, for information about our mother that showed who she truly was other than the punch line of our terrible jokes. I don’t remember what I told her.

But here are a few random things I hope I shared and that I should share with my daughter if I haven't already:

- She was a child of the Depression but never talked about it.
- After one particularly grueling week at the all-girls’ high school I attended as a 13-year-old freshman, she listened patiently to me whining about some incident where schoolmates mocked me at a candy machine, and when I was finished talking, suggested I write down my experiences but write them to come out the way I wished they’d happened (birth of a fiction writer).
- When I was about 5 or 6, my younger brother about 3 or 4, she used to write on our family chalkboard with her left hand (she was slightly ambidextrous), "THE LEFT HANDER WAS HERE!" and then hide from us somewhere in the house until we got close enough for her to pop out and scare us in a delicious way.
- When we went shopping for interview suits for me after I graduated college, she sped through the mall on her short, arthritic legs, and I couldn’t keep up.
- On one of my visits home from college, she and I went on Post and were in one of the “extra” shops near the PX, maybe a dry cleaners. The man who waited on us watched us laughing with each other for a minute then said, “You two act more like sisters than mother and daughter.”
- The last time I spoke with, after her stroke but before the pneumonia struck, she told me it was all right that my husband and I hadn’t yet had a child, that she thought he and I would be happy either way, that all she ever wanted was for me to be happy.

My daughter was due on the first anniversary of my mother’s death but came three weeks early. I wrote a bad poem once about a visit my then 2-year-old daughter and I made to the cemetery to visit my mother. My child was aware she was in a place where people were “resting,” that these people were not here with us anymore. I don’t think she yet understood the concept of death (though she did less than two years later as she watched her beloved granddaddy succumb to lung cancer). She flitted between the polished, military headstones while I had a quiet chat with my mother. Then my Girl joined me, looked up at me, down at the words she couldn't yet read on the stone. She approached it as if she were approaching a favorite aunt, patted the smooth top, said, “Hi, Grandmother!” and dashed off again to weave her way between the headstones.

Tonight, my Girl asked my permission to post to Instagram the picture of my mother leaning on the red car. 

“Sure, go ahead,” I said. “But your grandmother might haunt you in your dreams for doing that.”

“That’s fine with me,” she said.

She misses her, this woman she never had a chance to know.

So do I.

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