Mother’s Day

001.jpgThis will be my first Mother’s Day without my mother.  It is the first time in my adult life that I don’t have to buy a card or a gift or plan an activity to do with my mother.

Last weekend was the unveiling of my mother’s tombstone.  It was an intimate gathering to officially mark her grave and say a few prayers. It was a beautiful day, which was both good and bad.  Good because we could all enjoy the glory of nature, but bad because my mother would have appreciated such a gorgeous day, making her absence all the more glaring.

My mother was a passionate genealogist.  She spent a lot of time in cemeteries, searching for clues from tombstones to help figure out the puzzle of a family history.  She loved the challenge and excitement of searching a family’s lineage.  She also derived great pleasure from introducing distant relatives to each other.  I could not muster much enthusiasm for her pursuits, being far too self involved with the daily grind of my own life.

“I talked to a man who’s grandfather was my father’s third cousin once removed,” she’d happily proclaim.

“Great Mom,” my siblings and I would say.  We were glad she had a hobby she loved, even though we didn’t share her interest.

It was one of the ways that my mother created a legacy for herself.  She lovingly compiled books about our family history, which we will keep and hope that a child or grandchild will inherit her passion and keep her work going.

It feels ironic that my Mom is now resting in one of the places where she actually spent a lot of time.  It is a pretty setting, which she would have liked.  The tombstones lay flat on the ground, with a metal plaque laying on top with the information about each person.  I asked my dad why some cemeteries have tombstones like that.  He didn’t know, but said that my mother preferred the upright grave markers.  She thought they had more character.  Of course she did.

Now at least I have a place to officially go “see” my mother. I think I’ll go there on Mother’s Day with my family and my father. Will it be a source of comfort?  A time for reflection? I hope so. I will join the ranks who dutifully go to the final resting place of their loved ones.  My mother used to say that she wanted a bench and a tree near her grave.  She was always thinking of other’s comfort and the serenity that the beauty of nature can bring.  A bench is not in place yet…I joked, “I’ll just sit on a nearby family’s  bench when I come see Mom.”

Other people have told me that Mother’s Day without their mothers is an especially difficult day. I am not anticipating it to be awful.  I think fondly back on recent Mother’s Days we spent together.  There was the time I was in the midst of being diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband figured he would get rid of the baseball tickets he had for Mother’s Day, thinking he would do something with our family instead.  “Not so fast,” I told him.  My mother and I, neither of us baseball fans, enjoyed a beautiful day at the ballpark – just the two of us.  She was always up for a new experience.  We enjoyed good seats, great weather, ballpark food and beer, the people-watching, the stadium vibe, and being together. Thinking back it makes me laugh how my mother chided me when I ordered a second beer.

“Susan, you’re driving,” she said.  “Yeah, in like three hours,” I replied.

Or last year when we served dinner to families at the NIH Children’s Inn.  She wasn’t feeling great from her illness, but she never missed an opportunity to help other people.

I will cherish memories of how my mother cherished me.  Like the time she shaved my head as I was losing my hair from chemotherapy.  She said it was one of the hardest things she had ever done.  But she did it and I was grateful.

I am grateful that she gave me life.  And she gave me my best friend – my little sister.  That she taught me a lot about how to live a full, meaningful life.  And gave me a few nuggets of wisdom about raising children. One that sticks in my mind is, “Have a routine, but be flexible.”  This has served me well, as raising my family has been anything but predictable.

I have never been a huge fan of Mother’s Day.  I think it’s a contrived, Hallmark holiday.  Every day is Mother’s Day. For that matter, I think every day should be “Be Kind to One Another Day.” My mother felt the same way. Of course we  acknowledged the day but it wasn’t a big production.

So it will be a different Mother’s Day this year. Instead of buying a card for my Mom, I’ll go visit her grave.

 

Am I a Dance Mom?

I think of myself as a generic, run-of-the-mill mom.  Like many parents who benignly neglect their children, my kids spend hours in front of the computer searching God-knows-what.  Apparently my 10-year-old daughter is a fan of the show “Dance Moms.” I have never seen the show.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy watching television.  Binge-watching shows with my husband is a favorite activity.

For some reason, reality shows hold no allure for me.  Judging by the number of them on television, I gather I am in the minority.  My daughter is a big fan of this reality, dance mom show.  I was vaguely aware that it seemed to spark an interest in dance in her as I saw her twirling around the house in my peripheral vision.  She wanted to take a dance class, so I called a local dance studio.  Ignorant of all things dance, I didn’t have the words to make this request so I had to speak in the universal language of television.

“My daughter doesn’t know how to dance, has never taken a dance class, but she’s a big fan of ‘Dance Moms.’ Which class would you recommend for her?” I asked. This clearly was not their first Dance Mom inspired inquiry. The woman on the phone totally got it and pointed my daughter towards Broadway Jazz.  She loves it.

She happily attends her weekly class and always enjoys it.  I thought she looked so cute, picking out appropriate clothes to wear each week, doing her hair up into an intricate bun – sometimes with accessories on it.

Then she casually mentioned that the cast of Dance Moms was coming to town.  She reluctantly asked if maybe she could go – she said they would even be teaching a dance class.  Her reluctance showed that my daughter knows me well.  Surely I wouldn’t agree to waste money and time on something so frivolous, would I?

I mentioned it to my husband, who was on the same page as me.  Still, the 10-year-old gently and systematically kept asking, eventually showing me the website where I could find all of the information.  What to do?

I sought the advice of a friend who is the mom of my daughter’s best friend.  She was enthusiastic and thought her daughter would love it as well.  Really?  She would consider it?  Would I?  Could I?

“You talk about making memories.  This would definitely be an experience your daughter would remember,” she said.

She had me there.

So I surprised my daughter, and myself, by buying tickets and planning to attend this event. It included meeting the girls from the show, having your picture taken with them, and taking a class taught by a teacher from the show.  Four hours of fun.  She was so excited.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought.  I tried to keep the curmudgeon in me in check and mustered up excitement and enthusiasm for my child.  The event was well-organized and not a complete mob scene.  The mother-attendees were a mix of typical suburban moms, like myself, and what appeared to me to be true dance moms.  There were many adorable girls, appropriately dressed, and then there were others who reminded me of Jon Benet Ramsey.

I realized where my daughter got the bun idea from. What I thought was darling and adorable when she created it at home, suddenly looked pedestrian in a sea full of buns.

The dance girls seemed like typical girls, though a little precocious. “Please turn off your flash when you take pictures…it hurts our eyes,” they requested.  They seemed bored with the endless picture-taking.  Who wouldn’t be? I only met one mom from the show – a school principal I’m told. She seemed normal and nice.  The other Dance Moms were busy selling merchandise so I did not interact with them.  My friend and I agreed there would be no merchandise purchases; the memories would have to be made through the experience and pictures of the day.  Our girls were so excited because they ran into some of the girls from the show in the bathroom! Can you imagine? They use the bathroom too!

The dance class was cute.  Our girls were on the younger and less experienced side, so they happily positioned themselves in the back of the room.  They warmed up, learned two dances, and got to dance in front of the people from the show.  At the end, each of the four girls from the show did a dance routine.

On the way home, the girls were chatting about the day.  “Did you see why we were so skeptical about it?” I asked.  My friend shot me a glance to silence me.  I was grateful for the restraint.  No need for grumpy old me to be a buzz-kill.  They experienced the day through the fresh eyes of children, not through my cynical lens.

I am pretty sure my daughter is not going to be a professional dancer and that I am not going to be a dance mom. While I was reluctant to indulge in this activity outside of my comfort zone,  I saw how much fun she had.  Maybe I’m just a mom who was happy to give her child a fun day she will always remember.

That’s what I was going for.

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Making Memories

Where has the time gone?  A couple of years ago, when my eldest child was finishing his freshman year in high school I had a sudden, somewhat panicked feeling that he would be “gone” in a few years.  He would leave the nest and life as I know it would never be the same.

I remember when my children were small and every older person sagely advised me to enjoy this time as it all goes by very quickly.  I thought, “Yeah, right – I can barely make it through each day.”  And then that moment happened – I suddenly felt time accelerating.  What to do?

“We have to plan some vacations,” I told my husband.

Vacations and unique activities are what make memories.  The day to day drudgery is how you build morals and values both consciously and unconsciously.  But it’s the out of the ordinary things that children remember.  Encouraging (or forcing) together time can be novel in itself but the challenge is to make it memorable.

I’m not one to scrapbook or take loads of pictures.  I think the greatest memories are in your head and the way you viscerally feel when remembering them.  The ones that are in your hard drive.  Making memories can be intentional.  And many memories are created unintentionally.

I had a simple, visceral memory of my own recently.  At the end of a yoga class the instructor was going around giving everyone a therapeutic touch as we were in our final, resting pose.  She gently placed her hand across my forehead.  It made me remember the many times my own mother did this.

One of the goals of parenting for me is to create good memories for my children, like my mother did for me.  As the first spring arrives since my mother died, my heart is lifting with the anticipation of warm weather, flowers and trees blooming.  My happiness is muted knowing my mother will not enjoy this spring too.  She loved going out to “inspect” her yard, clipping shears in hand.  This memory will comfort me as I take shears and go out to inspect my yard.  My mother will be with me and I’ll see things through my eyes but with her filter.

As I think about it, the vacations are the vivid memories we take from childhood but the little things are what brings us comfort and security throughout our adult lives.  The memory that a parent cared for our bodies and our souls.  That they were interested in who we were and how we fared in life.  They are our biggest cheerleaders.

I guess that’s why I’m so focused on making the most of this last year before my eldest flies the coop.  I feel an urgency to impart my wisdom, though I realize my timeline is arbitrary. I will continue to parent, but he will be influenced by the people he meets and his own experiences.  What things will he remember from his childhood?  The good times at the beach, holidays, vacations? Family dinners and family friends?  Familiar songs or prayers? The cool hand on his warm forehead?  The special things I bake and cook – the tastes and smells?

Will he remember the things I’m not as proud of? Apparently I’m known to raise my voice once or twice, or a thousand times. In my mind’s eye, I don’t perceive myself as a yeller though I admit the children provoke me sometimes.

I tell them, “I didn’t always yell.  I used to be a normal person, just like you, who speaks in a normal tone of voice.”

Hopefully they won’t remember their Mom as “Old Yeller.”  I try only to look forward, not back.  The goal is not a perfect childhood, but a solid one to build the foundation for a successful adulthood however one defines that.  I hope my children will remember the good times, the meaningful moments and the laughter in our home.

I know they will remember their mother pointing their finger at them and saying, “Let me tell you something….”

Me and My Dad

My Dad is one of a kind.  He is a generous, opinionated, smart, and loving man.  He expresses his feelings easily and freely.

Throughout my life he periodically asks, “Have I told you I love you today?”

Pretty great, I know.

And now he stands alone, after losing my mother to cancer six months ago.  Fortunately he is a healthy and independent seventy-seven year old.  But he is alone.  He no longer has my mother to schedule their social calendar, cook meals, beam with pride over their grandchildren.  Now when I call his house he can no longer chat with me briefly and hand the phone to my mother.  He and I are in a new place, bound together by our grief as we forge ahead without his wife and my mom.

We are lucky that we had a relationship independent of my mother so that we are not strangers.  It’s the same as before, but closer.  We check in with each other frequently.  We help each other – he does some of the driving of my kids and I frequently make dinner for him.  While he can shop and feed himself, cooking is not an interest of his.  It makes me sad to think his house will never be filled with the joyous, life-affirming smells of the kitchen. My husband and I provide a home-cooked meal, a glass of wine, and a sounding board as my dad moves forward to figure out his new reality.

He has been retired for several years.  How will he fill his time without my mother? Will he stay in the house that he and my mother built and love so much?  Will he date? Remarry? Where will he live?  These are questions he grapples with and I can only stand by and watch.  In a weird way, it’s how I feel about my 17  year-old son.  Of course they are on two different ends of the life cycle, but they both have to define who they are and figure out their own life.

I admire my father’s resilience and strength.  He is grateful for the wonderful marriage he had. And he is cognizant of the fact that he is still living, and should continue to do so as fully as possible. For now, I’m enjoying this time of having my father to myself.  If and when he is in another relationship, things will change.

My sister and I have taken to referring to him as “paterfamilias,” which he doesn’t care for but it amuses us.  “Pater” for short.  He takes seriously his role as head of the family.  He is a caring father, grandfather, uncle, brother-in-law, and cousin.  My mother’s way of doing things are ingrained in him, as they are in me.  He knows just what to take to someone’s house as a hostess gift.  He is thoughtful and caring, but even more so as he channels my mother’s special brand of kindness and thoughtfulness.  He remembers birthdays and goes out of his way to write meaningful cards.  He is very aware that he is the last parent standing and wants to ensure that his legacy is as rich as my mother’s.  He wants to make sure he too will have a lasting impact on his family.

I think of my Dad all the time and feel responsible for his well-being.

“Is it a burden?” a friend asked.

Not at all. I am grateful that we live near each other and can share the joys and sorrows of daily life with one another. It would be much harder to think of him alone if I did not live nearby. We have good boundaries and separate lives, though they often overlap.  I recently invited him over one Saturday evening but he declined, saying he wanted to be with adults.  Gee, I thought 50 year old me was an adult…but I knew what he meant.  He wants to hang around with peers, not people my age all the time.  He enriches my life, and the life of my family.

So who will my father become, after being Rita’s husband for 54 years?  Someone equally as wonderful.  Just a little different.

 

Happiness Prevails

I anticipated my son’s bar mitzvah with trepidation.  Yes, I was looking forward to the service and celebration.  But I was also dreading it and wondering if I would be a weepy mess, missing my mother.

Once the snow became a non-issue, the sun came out, everyone arrived from out of town as scheduled, and I felt tentatively excited and happy.  Everything went as planned.  My son did a wonderful job, as did the rest of our family and friends.  I found myself “in the moment” during the service, very engaged, and happy.  How could I not be happy?  I was surrounded by so many people who love and care about me.  And who knew my mother.  They all assured me that a) she loved my outfit, and b) she was beaming with pride from up above.

I wore jewelry of my Mom’s throughout the weekend, and of course her coats.  I could feel her style and panache channeling through me as I prepared for each event.  I faltered when choosing a necklace to wear one night.

“Don’t over-think it,” my sister said.  “Just go with it.”

Thank goodness for her grounding sensibility to keep me on track.  Just like my mother would.

It occurred to me when the weekend was over that I felt more happy than sad.  I was pleasantly surprised to feel that way.  It makes me hopeful that I will feel fuller happiness as time goes on, without my mother in my life.  I realize she is everywhere.  In the love and nurturing I receive from my dear friends and family.  In the way my dad, sister and I always ask, “What would Rita do?” In my children.

I am ever an optimist, like my mother, although a more cynical one.  She lived every day to the fullest.  And I will too.

Death of a Mother

I never gave any thought to being in the Dead Mother’s Club.  I know it is universal but you don’t think about it until you’re in it.  Of course I know many people who have lost a mother, prior to losing my own.  They seem like normal people – walking around, talking, functioning, enjoying life.  Who knew they walk around with a hole in their heart?  Sometimes a hole from all the love that is missing.  And some have a hole from the love they never received from their mother and never will.

I have been in many “clubs” in my adult life.  I have made many friends who have children with special needs, like myself.  I connect with other women who have had breast cancer.  I’ve been a runner, practiced yoga, swam, read books.  I have been a happy participant in most of these groups (as happy as one can be with a disabled child and breast cancer).  I have never worn one particular “membership” as my primary identity or badge of honor.  I have accepted these roles in my life and try to pay it forward by helping others.  They all contribute to the gestalt of me.

But this time it seems more deeply personal.  And more comforting to talk with people who had a “good” mother and experienced a similar loss.  One woman told me that 15 years after her mother’s death she still feels the urge to introduce herself: “Hi, I’m Judy, my mom died.”  She told me that my Mom will “settle in with me” after a time, and guide me as I continue on with my life. Another friend said she hates the term “lost my mother.”  Thinking of her mother as “lost” is disconcerting; she died.

Dads are equally as important as Moms, but different.  And everyone has different, unique relationships with each parent.  Somehow speaking with people who have lost a Dad is not the same as talking to a woman who has lost their Mom.  These people still know loss; it’s just different.

My sister and I recently cleaned out my Mom’s closets.  I am more sentimental than my sister so we were a good team.  She helped me to let go of things that would just clutter up my closets.  I was a task master, keeping us focused so we could complete the job in the one day my sister was in town.  Neither one of us are particularly into shopping or clothes.

She said, “I hate shopping.  And I hate shopping in Mom’s closets.”

Mom had a Kleenex in every single pair of pants she owned.  It made us chuckle.  And she labeled a necklace in her jewelry box “for Naomi’s sweet 16.”  My daughter is only 10, but my Mom was thinking about gifting her as she had her older granddaughters.  It made me cry.

I made my sister take a purse, some jewelry, some shoes, scarves, etc.  She was particularly drawn to Mom’s comfy clothes, that we really never saw her wear – sweat pants, a cardigan sweater.  We laughed, knowing that Mother would find this amusing.

That task is done.  We have things that were Mom’s that are meaningful to us; myself more than my sister.  My husband finds it a bit curious, since he teases me for being unsentimental most of the time, constantly cleaning out our house and giving things away.

“You can’t take it with you when you go,” I always say.  Also,

“I’m pretty sure our son’s wives won’t want a  box of their preschool scribblings.”

Contrary to what my husband thinks, I am sentimental, and having things of my Mom’s makes me feel her presence more strongly.

I have taken to cooking and entertaining again, something my mother and I shared in common.  I find it therapeutic to bustle around in the kitchen, sauteing onions and garlic, trying new recipes.  It makes me think of my Mom, who was a wonderful hostess.  She created a warm environment, where people felt enveloped in her home and appreciated for what they “brought to the table,”  She had a knack for creating delicious meals and presenting them with great style – good taste all around.

My father and I are muddling through, helping each other deal with our loss.  I am his “rock;” he is my surviving parent.  I always include him in whatever my family is doing, to help him fill his days and ease his loneliness.  And my family and I benefit from his wisdom, presence and love.  He has his friends, old and new.  He goes to coffee, dinner and the movies. It is strange to see my Dad as a vulnerable man, available on the dating market.  He is figuring out how to be in the world without his beloved spouse of 54 years.   I love my Dad and know that he adored my mother.  I trust that he will find a way to live a different, happy life.  It is an adjustment for all of us.

Mother is gone. Thank God I have my father, husband, sister, children and friends.  I’m slowly finding my equilibrium.

God Giveth and God Taketh Away

Let me start by saying that my Dad is a great guy.  He was a loving and devoted husband to my mother for 54  years.  He was a dedicated, caring, and very competent caregiver when she was ill.  And he misses my mother very much.  It’s interesting to me how the loss of a person changes relationships, and how people grieve differently.

In my previous life, I was a social worker who worked in a cancer center.  I understand the grieving process and that grief takes many forms.  My Dad and I have a close, loving relationship.  I am the child who lives closest to my parents, so we are an integral part of each other’s lives.  But mothers and fathers have different roles in their children’s lives.  I said to my Dad, “You’re great Dad, but you’re not Mom.”  “I know,” he replied.  Just like I’m a wonderful daughter, but I’m not his wife.  The nature of our relationship will change, while it continues to shift.  I now will be focused on him, without trying to smother him with my attention.  “I don’t need taking care of,” he told me.  I assured him that I respect his autonomy and independence.  But I still drove by his house recently when I hadn’t spoken with him one day, to make sure the paper had been taken in – he was alive, I surmised.  We will find a balance of communication and space.  As an adult child, I feel more vulnerable to have my Mom gone and feel the need to make sure my Dad stays around for as long as possible.  Otherwise, what is there between me and my mortality?

 My father is on a 2 week trip to Israel, where my parents have a second home.  I spoke with him the other day and got choked up and teary when talking about my Mom.  “We need to keep living,” he told me.  “I know,” I squeaked out (although I wasn’t contemplating NOT living – I was just expressing sadness.)  “God giveth and God taketh away,” he tried next.  Really, Pop?  He clearly could not tolerate my tears and sadness, as he tries not to grieve that way.  He grieves by making lists of things to do, and keeping very busy.  Of course he does – he’s a man and he lives alone.  I am a woman with a bunch of people who share my house and need tending to.  I have built-in distractions.  We quickly ended our conversation as my grief was too much for him.  Fortunately, I have many other people to share my sadness with – I called my sister.

I know my Dad thinks of my Mom every moment of every day and grieves in his own way – which is perfectly fine for him.  And I’m okay with it too.  We’ll help each other the best we can.

 It’s new territory for both of us.