Sunday night, Mother’s Evening, a friend shared a post she read on Salon. It was written by a surviving daughter about her mother who had died when the writer was 25. I was struck by the seemingly enormous task of writing 50 fifty FIFTY! things about my own mother, in ways which did not repeat themselves from things I’ve shared here (likely impossible). I would also like to do my very best to keep things positive, because as we all know mother / daughter relationships can be storied. Mine was no different in that I suppose.
God did not give me daughters. There is a reason for that.
Yesterday morning, I watched the penultimate episode of Mad Men. The scene when Sally reads a letter from her mother (whom she always called Betty) was so lovely, especially that she signed the letter “Love, Mom.” Betty and Sally were a bit like me and Mom. But I was Betty and mom was Sally. But one thing I heard a lot about myself from my mom was that she knew I would make it. In much the same way, Betty tells Sally that she knows she doesn’t have to worry about her anymore because Sally moves to the beat of her own drum.
I’ll not bore you again with our history, but we were two souls who intersected for 45 years and I know we loved one another deeply.
So, off the cuff and mostly positive if not striving for it and it’s likely you’ve read a couple of these before if you’ve read anything I’ve written about Mom…
Mom always had a glass of water by her bedside. It was never a cup. Never plastic. Always a glass and it was always, amazingly, filled.
She did not understand electronics. I think in some very primitive Irish way, she suspected they were instruments of faeries and pixies.
She loved her Polaroid camera.
She loved photo booths. Alone, with her kids, with my dad. She loved the capture of a moment, staged or organic. She loved to remember.
She would listen to Caruso at very odd hours at a concert-hall volume.
Her self-applied hair colorings were inventive. I distinctly remember a purple time and a green time. (Keeping things positive.)
She had cheekbones and a facial serenity which belied her inner consternations. She often was looking into the middle distance.
When she was a child, her left? eye / pupil was damaged, horribly, by a classmate and his pencil tip. She would recount that story with bravery and bittersweetness. I don’t know if she could see out of that eye; she said it was often difficult. I remember looking into that eye, she would never tell me not to, and feel pain in my body at the thought of the injury.
She never said a really mean or critical thing about anyone she knew socially. She was always very positive and sincere. I remember one person who was particularly unattractive, in more than a physical way, and she said, “He’s very smart.”
She loved roller coasters. Again! Again!
As an obsessive, she had collections of things: books, audio tapes, handbags, clothing… much of it never opened. I see that in myself, to a very small degree: just having something, and it reminds me of her a little.
She would take my drawings of flowers and vases, pulled from those tiny little spiral notebooks, and she’d nudge them between the frame and her vanity mirror, alongside singular or folded frames from photo booths.
She loved a Reuben. Pickle on the side. The musher the better. She was all about the sauerkraut. I see the allure of the Reuben but I prefer its cousin, a grilled ham & cheese on seeded deli rye. Pickle mandatory.
Rosaries. Rosaries were practically everywhere — not out in the open, that would be too weird, too “ethnic” (my assumption, not hers); she had them in drawers and on bookshelves, tucked away. In a coat pocket. In a teacup on a shelf. In the spoon compartment. In the ashtray. I never saw her use one though.
Sometimes I would encounter a filled glass of water in a cabinet. And it would spill all over me. Sometimes I would encounter a glass of water in the refrigerator. I remember asking about putting a pitcher of water in the fridge and having it that way, but she didn’t like it cold. She just wanted to “keep it fresh.”
She had her own climate with her mother, who was lovely, but psychologically encumbered to a degree that she made my mother look like the trapeze girl at the circus.
Speaking of the circus, Mom was a majorette, in her all-girl’s high school. I can see her now in her felt wool skirt twirling her baton and marching in her little boots. I remember finding one of her half-dozen batons in her closet in our Canada house and running downstairs with it to try it. At first she was all, “Where did you get that…?” but she relaxed. It was safe, she was safe. She loved to watch me, and she gave me tips. “Here, like this…” she’d say and she’d take the baton, and show me how to twirl it between her fingers, running it up one side and then flipping her hand and coming back for more… “like this… just … you know … start here … ” the sun glinting off the rifled, chrome finish and one of her hands on her hip while her feet gently marched in place, feathery footfalls, just to keep a tempo. I’d end up sitting down, dazzled by her trancelike state as she twirled it and tossed it up in the air, spinning to catch it, as easily as breathing. “Now you try!” I passed. I suppose at some point in my life I took her talent with the baton as an affront, showing off, but as I type this, I recall it with awe and pride.
At Sherks’ Hardware in Canada (which sold everything, not just hose nozzles and 3-in-One oil), I got a hula hoop the next week. I was better at that. She was terrible at it. I remember coaching her, “Here, like this…” We laughed.
She loved the Canada house. Loved the sound of rain on the roof and the click-click-click of the squirrels running over the eaves. She would cry when branches were cut from the tall sugar maples because they were breaching the roof. She liked the idea of being in a forest, hidden, secluded and quiet. She rests eternally beneath a sugar maple now in Crittenden, NY.
She would cook coffee on the stove in a pot. Just pour the grounds right in the pot and let the water boil and then just pour the liquid, deftly, into her M. A. Hadley mug.
She was one of those moms who could peel an apple with a knife; I still can’t do that. Her hands were like a surgeon’s.
She would capture a moment or a phrase and plug it into a cartoon in a breath. Her sense of humor and observation skills were keen; in my jaded years, I used to think she was just projecting, but I do believe she was acutely aware of her own issues and used the cartoons as a vehicle for releasing them. Some people make lists, my mother did too, but she also made cartoons. I think she was acutely aware of the ephemera of the human condition.
She would bound around the Canada house at times quoting Moliére or Shakespeare or Wilde, usually their funnier stuff. In moments of strife, I’m pretty sure she would quote them too, but I tried to hit the road.
She had favorite things to wear: a green and orange “bumble bee” dress her sister-in-law made her.
Her Dr. Scholl’s sandals. I remember begging her for a pair for myself, but that never happened. She said they didn’t make them for kids, but I saw them … (keeping it positive…)
She would wear five static gold choker necklaces at a time. If you gave her jewelry, and it was valuable, it went on and never came off. If it was plastic or you made it at camp, she wore it, but it would end up in the jewelry box on her vanity. I see this in myself now; and I suspect it’s for a similar reason: the gold and silver are durable, they will last and be able to withstand daily domestic life. Those cute little plastic beads strung together with elastic won’t. There’s a part of me which wants to preserve those pieces, I think that was her angle too.
Family. Family Family Family. She was a master triangulator. I can feel her now, at times, nudging me to go one way or another. To be softer. She hated rifts. She hated divorces. They tore her apart, in ways I’ll never understand. I think watching her brothers go through theirs and the damage it did to the entire extended family network was galvanizing for her. She would never ever divorce. Never.
She was an absolutely terrible driver. Just … the worst. I think the first accident in modern times in Northern Virginia — when the vehicle in front which was rear-ended was blamed for the accident — was hers. She did NOT understand turning lanes… coming from a city, they just didn’t exist. They proliferate suburbia.
She hated suburbia. She just did. She liked the energy of a city, even a small town. I watch Mad Men, she’s a contemporary of Betty Draper’s, when Betty moved to the suburbs, a part of her died. In 1980s suburbia, Mom never fit in. I wish I were older, maybe 18 or so when we’d moved here, maybe I could have tooled around with her.
Pens. Pens were everywhere. Notepads too.
Kleenex in the pocket. Balled up. Unused for the most part, save for a lipstick kiss. Standard Mom issue. Smelled like leather, wool, Chanel No. 5 and dust.
Lipstick. Never left the house without lipstick. The one time I encountered her without it was at my younger niece’s 2nd birthday. Mom look positively ashen without it. I went through her purse and asked if I could put it on her. She brightened at the offer. I’ll never forget putting it on her. Her lipsticks were always flattened. Mine are pointed. We always joked about that: how hers were blunted and mine were not, “How did you do that?” we’d ask each other.
Cashmere. Every season was the reason.
Upper lip sweat. I remember it so clearly. She would be be drawing or cooking or sitting or reading. Sweat would form on her upper lip. She never brushed it off.
Skin. Her skin was beautiful. She had a car accident in the 70s and had to go to the ER. She needed stitches on her lower lip. She was devastated by the news and the scarring. After a few years, you could barely see it, but she knew. Lipstick helped her deal with that.
Egg nog. Duck lips. My mother had an egg allergy but loved egg nog. You couldn’t stop her. Mom had a streak in her: if she found out that something was tasty or delicious or good for you: she took it all at once. She encountered someone’s egg nog, I want to say “Giant brand” from a store down here and she drank an entire quart. Her face swelled up and her lips reminded me of the lips on Daffy Duck’s girlfriend, “Daphne.” She would get so mad when I said that to her, but I was terrified she’d never be OK again, so I think it was my humor kicking in to save the day and to keep me from coming unglued.
Bike rides. She had an old 3-speed “Why would you want anything more?” bike with a wicker basket. It had a bell on it. She would ride that around, again, free as a bird.
As the mother in the Salon article, Mom, too, liked to stay for the credits. I don’t remember watching movies in a theater with her, but on TV, she would wait for the credits. “It’s THOSE PEOPLE who make the film, Maaallly,” she would say to me. “They’re the most important.”
“I’m doing yoga,” she would say, lying on her back on our olive green wool living room carpet with one leg elevated straight up at 90˚ and the other leg on the ground. Knowing what I knew of yoga in the 70s: turbans, contortions, the Maharishi and the Beatles, I suspected it was just another Momism. Little did I know then, but I do now, she was doing yoga. She was.
Local was better. Mom loved the idea of Broadway, but preferred local genius. She directed many plays benefiting Buffalo’s charities. She was a volunteer who knew her strengths. I have apparently followed in her footsteps that way. Mom was not and I am not a baker. Bakers are great people, we just aren’t them.
If you could buy it at a Hallmark store, it should stay there. Mom was all about the handmade, unique, “esoteric” being one of her favorite words. “Provincial” and “providential” were others.
She used to say that “symmetry was overrated.” I have come to understand symmetry as balance. I feel I have a better handle on what she really meant but didn’t know she was saying. Balance was hard for her, maintaining a rhythm, equal footing; I suspect so because she felt uneasy about it, internal conflicts and all. I don’t know if she strove for balance, ever.
“Cool it, Mimsy!” was one of her favorite phrases for me. She borrowed it from Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suites” — look it up, it suits me.
“Piffle” was another word of Mom’s. It’s perfect, actually.
My father bought me a long red cashmere overcoat. My brother bought me a red wool hat to go with it. She would call me “the raging pimento” when I would be off somewhere. Usually in a huff, I guess. I feel like red was her favorite color. It had to be a blue, cool red though. Nothing hot. Not “cherry” red, that was too common for her.
Bangles. Mom wore bangles like how the Kardashians wear false eyelashes. Her collection grew after her mother died. She took those on as well along with her monogrammed and cuff bracelets. Sometimes those danced along her forearm with a rogue pink or taupe rubber band, perfect for the impromptu hair bun.
She never did pony tails. Always did hair buns. I remember putting her hair, it was very thick hair, in pig tails and pony tails once. She indulged me, but when I saw her, it never felt right. She wasn’t athletic, so pony tails were out; she wasn’t coquettish either. I remember her saying that pig tails on a grown woman always seemed forced, raw. Unless the woman was a hippie or a farmer. Or in a play.
Linen napkins. If there was one available, Mom was using it.
She loved nature. Trees, birds, clouds, torrential rain and then a clear sky. She loved the unpredictability of nature. I dare say she preferred it to people.
She was cool to animals. I blame her mother for that. She loved cats though and we had many as children. She resoundingly did not like dogs. She was bitten as a child. The dog we had as a family, Toby, was a mess. He was untrained and just having him made her twitchy, I’m sure of it. But she knew I loved them and that when we had “big news!” as a newly married couple, we told her and my father to welcome their new grand-puppy, Maggie, she probably wanted to stab me. But Maggie was sweet and trained and she grew to like her. She even trusted her with my kids. My dogs, as you know, like anyone with a chip. I remember many times, how Murphy often would sit by mom, even if she didn’t have food. I think he enjoyed her mellowness as she entered her twilight.
She would chirp and squeal with delight at anything we did; I used to think she was unhinged. I didn’t understand such huge reactions to what I considered to be just something I got to become good at. “DO IT AGAIN!” She would cheer. I wouldn’t. I don’t regret that; she was in her space. I see my own kids astound me with their intelligence, reserve, kindness, humor and talents and I cheer once and then gush later. This is theirs, not mine.
She used to chew her milk. I never understood it and the sound of the compression of her jaw sent shivers down my spine as a child.
Her favorite stroke was the butterfly. She used to swim it, laconically and loudly, in Lake Erie lake outside my cousin’s house in her star-spangled Speedo swimsuit. Her hair coming loose and wild from her bun, like tentacles.
She said to me often, “When you’re a mother, you’ll understand.” I used to think she was nuts. Now I know she was right.
Gratefully, I could go on. That was nice.
Mom, know that you are remembered. Your most favorite thing of all to do, to remember. I remember you. I miss you, I wish I could undo a whole bunch of stuff I said and did, but I don’t dare ask anymore.