Aug 14 2010

Her Closet

Once I got over the childhood fear of what might lurk in the back of my mother’s closet, it became my preferred place of refuge. When it was bath time (on her schedule but not mine) I’d go there and hide for a moment to prepare myself for the inevitable. When the Edge of Night’s twisted plot was too intense to bear, I’d crawl behind her clothes and pull myself together. If I needed to hide or think or calm myself, or suck my thumb without anyone catching me, her closet offered me comfort and privacy.

I’d leave the door ajar; a band of light across the linoleum floor shed enough light for me to see and meant I was not submerged in total darkness. I’d split the row of hanging dresses apart like thick foliage in a jungle and crawl to the back of her closet. Some of the garments were stored in dry cleaning bags, I was careful to steer clear – the fear of suffocation had been impressed upon me when it came to plastic bags – though I liked the feel of the plastic on my shoulders and sensed that the garments within those casings were her most prized, saved for the elegant occasions when other boxes from the top shelf were brought down and set out on the table, boxes with long gloves, beaded bags and silk shoes.

In the back of that closet I could be alone, but still with my mother. I could slide through that curtain of her clothing and squat in the corner and wait. I was waiting for courage, waiting for affection or just waiting until boredom took over – but while I was there waiting, the scent of my mother surrounded me. I was at home among her lightly perfumed clothes and the mildly stale but not unpleasant smell of her shoes. All the things in this closet were hers: the things I saw her wearing and carrying were stored in this private place, it was her domain but it was mine too, for different reasons. It was where I could return to a silent and simple union with her. I could be embraced by her here, by all her things, even if she was somewhere else.

Last winter I was at home to help my mother for about a week before my siblings joined me to say our goodbyes to her. Each day, the rapid decline of her physical capacity required more from me. I could barely find a moment to dress and brush my teeth between the tasks required to assist her; a nearly constant observation became necessary at the end. One day I felt close to some edge – the edge of exhaustion from caretaking a dying woman; the edge of grief, preparing to lose someone I loved too much; the edge of longing, being too far and too long away from De-facto and the girls. So when my mother drifted into an afternoon nap, I found myself drawn to her closet. I ran my hands across the shoulders of her hanging dresses and blouses. I burrowed through and behind her clothes to the corner of the closet, just like I used to, and with my back against the wall, slid down to sit on the floor, letting the plastic dry cleaning bags brush against me (no longer afraid of suffocation) and permitted myself a short regression to everything that this closet meant to me, to a time when everyone around me was older and larger and their major preoccupation – at least in my view – was to take care of me.

I sat there in the back of that closet for only a few moments, my long limbs fit in that corner less comfortably than they did 40-some years ago. But it was long enough to remember what it was like to feel safe and protected, long enough to let tears spill and let go the mounting pressure, long enough to long for the security that something as simple as a mother’s closet could provide.

* * *

My sister and I just spent a week together at my mother’s house to continue the process of emptying it of her personal effects. We have purposely not rushed this process, knowing that grief takes its time and we should too. Yet we know better than to lose momentum, so each month my brother, sister or I (or some combination) travel to the house and endeavor to empty a few more boxes, to give away and throw away a few more things, to prepare the house to be shown to prospective buyers and ultimately to be sold.

The focus of last week’s trip was rather specific: the closets. I had partly to clear out the paraphernalia of my own past. I’d left in her care shoe-boxes filled with letters to friends from summer camp, high school and college folders, and several stuffed animals about to lose their stuffing. But the real task was to address my mother’s wardrobe. For six months we had left her things hanging, but now was the time. My sister and I stood side-by-side in my mother’s closet, touching each and every article of clothing, recalling the occasion when she wore this suit or that sweater-set, remembering how she’d had this skirt made from silk she bought on that trip with the two of us. Once in a while we were even a little surprised at what we found (wow, she owned a leather jacket?) but mostly we were reminded of her good taste and how careful she was to take care of her beautiful garments.

“What are your tears like these days?” said the woman who we’d been told to call to come and take away my mother’s clothing. How naturally she broached the subject, knowing that tears can vary in nature and degree over time. She did not insult us by tiptoeing around our grief. This made it easy to trust her. She gently directed us to attend to other tasks in other rooms while she set about quietly emptying the contents of all my mother’s closets. We did not have to watch her pulling out the hangers and folding our mother’s clothes into black plastic bags. We did not have to help her remove these items that we treasured too much, that held in their fabric too many precious memories. Her discretion was a delicate gift. She was like an angel sweeping in to do the hardest job, and somehow finding a way to take tender care of us while doing it.

After she left, I stood at the door of the closet, emptied of its contents. The shelves were bare. Only a few stray hangers remained. The row of hanging garments that once buffered me from the rest of the world had been dismantled. I stepped in and closed the door behind me, leaving it ajar to let in the familiar strip of light. I swear I could still smell my mother in that closet: the faint hint of Shalimar, the familiar scent of her worn shoes. Was that for real, or just in my memory? Does it matter? As we give away the things that were hers, we commit them to our memory. And our memory of her is something that we’ll always get to keep.


Jul 20 2010

Just as Much a Mom

She was probably a neighbor, a friend of your mother, or the mother of one of your friends. She could stand in, when necessary, for any maternal exercise: tending a boo-boo, offering up an afternoon snack, tucking you in during a sleepover. Occasionally she reprimanded you – and she had the right – you may have spent as much time at her house under her supervision as you did at your own. It’s hard to describe everyone’s childhood, and it’s tricky territory because not all of us had a pleasant one. But I’d wager that most of us have at least one memory that includes this formidable female role, one that deserves its own archetype: the woman who is just as much as a mom to you as your own mother.

Mine lived across the road. Mary was a mother to five handsome, thoughtful boys (who’ve grown into handsome, thoughtful men) and, by default, just as much as a mom to my brother, sister and me while we were growing up. It was on her cement porch that I fell chin first, and I’m not sure who took me to the hospital for stitches, my mother or Mary. It was in her kitchen that her youngest boys and I removed all the bowls and dishes from the corner cupboard with the lazy-susan inside so we could spin around until we were dizzy. It was in the old boat-building workshop behind her house that I learned to ride a 2-wheel bicycle without training wheels, and it was in the abandoned chicken coop within her view that I stole my first kiss.

It was the aroma of her brownies that drew us in from the fields beyond her yard to wash and rest a moment, the only thing worthy of interrupting the hours of imaginary battles we fought and the stories we played out. When I decided to experiment as a coiffeur – unfortunately on one of her sons – Mary threatened, in the nicest way, to chop off my hair, too. When I called him nicknames that displeased her, she knew exactly which diminutive of my name to call out to cease the teasing.

In high school, when I hosted unapproved parties while my parents were away, she said nothing. But on every other occasion, she had the perfect words to offer: I still have the card she mailed to me as a freshman in college, the letter she sent when I moved abroad, the note from her when my father died. I’ve saved her poignant emails, usually a short message of only a few lines but every single word well used. She wrote to me just after my mother’s memorial service: “Sometimes when the tasks fall away, grief increases.” One short sentence that drew from me a stream of tears pent-up, her words apparently the exact key to fit that lock.

I learned last week that Mary has passed away. A memorial service held for her over the weekend, which I could not attend, was described as original and beautiful. She had chosen passages for each of her sons and their wives to read, and selected the music that should pace the event. I wept that I could not organize my schedule to be there.

There was another woman who was as much a mom to me as my mother, during my high school years. We called her by her first name, Kitty, and we called her husband Mr. Hunk (he was salt-n-pepper handsome). She deftly guided our teenaged souls through the travails of adolescence, permitting enough wildness so that we could test our mettle, but reeling us in before we embarrassed ourselves. She knew things about me that my mom didn’t, and made it her business to help me rather than tell on me – all of this, somehow, enacted without any disrespect for my mother. That’s the trick, what makes this role so important: the woman who’s as much as a mom to you is a quiet, wise advisor, a guide on the side who relates to you in ways your own mom cannot. She’s a mother without baggage. I can still picture Kitty: salt-n-pepper classy and sharper than nails. She’d hold court at her kitchen table, letting us know that she knew exactly what mischief we were up to. Her memorial service was years ago; I regret that I missed it, too.

In February when my mother died, I walked across the road to share the news with Mary. Her house was like something out of a fairy tale, cozy with crocheted blankets, elegantly cluttered with handcrafted objects d’art and pictures of grandchildren. We sat at her table. The sun streamed in the window highlighting the distinctive line of her jaw. She must have known the purpose of the visit, but waited to let me spill the words. “Well there it is,” she said, when I told her.

It meant everything to us that all five of her boys and their families came home last May to attend my mother’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen them all together in one place at one time in nearly thirty years. After the service, I stood on our porch and looked across the road at their familiar lawn, alive with people: not only the boys, as we called them, but their wives and their children – Mary’s grandchildren – running about, engaged in every kind of game. The occasion that collected them was sad, but I remember thinking how lovely for Mary to have her entire family around her. Maybe that was my mother’s last gift to her, to bring them all home together for her, one last time.

How stunning is a lifelong friendship? Mary lived across the road for all of the fifty-plus years that my mother lived in our old Victorian farmhouse on the hill overlooking the lake you can’t see anymore because the trees have grown tall and broad. She and my mother were pregnant together, they reared toddlers at the same time, they readied children for school, standing across the street with their youngsters, pushing them on to the bus with metal lunch boxes and kisses. They took turns keeping an eye on eight children running amok in the fields beyond our two homesteads, or jumping on rooftops or playing spy-ring in a dank basement. Each with her distinctive call beckoning her own children home, together a duet of discipline and encouragement that crossed the road back and forth – unlike the rest of us – without having to look both ways.

Two women raised their children together, sent them off to college at the same time, buried their husbands but kept on living; worked, retired, became grandmothers, wizened women and family matriarchs. That they died within months of each other makes perfect sense, and yet the reality of it is still a shock.

The recent process of clearing out memories of my mother produces questions, and I was hoping, on my next trip home, to cross the road, walk up the long lawn to knock on Mary’s door and sit at her table with the sun streaming in and ask her those questions that now must be answered in my imagination. Instead I’ll walk up to the tree where her ashes are resting to place a stone there to thank her for her tenderness toward our whole family, to thank her for the caring eye she kept on my mother during the last year of her life, and mostly to thank her for being just as much a mom to me.


May 21 2010

The Backroom

My hands are dry, parched from the handling of paper and the folding of cardboard box covers. My mind reels at the level of organization hidden within the disorganized mess of boxes and files stowed away, every box like another chapter of her life, the files of all her correspondence, drafts of her speeches, even all her travel receipts. My heart breaks, reading love letters my parents wrote to each other in college, his familiar scribble, eighteen times in a row writing out “I love you.” Or finding a letter my mother’s father left for my grandmother in an envelope that read: “to be opened only in the event of my death.” In it, his humble words of reflection on their life together and the tasks she would have ahead of her to continue without him.

There is a physical, mental and emotional labor involved in cleaning out my mother’s house, but especially so as we addressed the backroom, the room that waited behind a closed door, the room where our family’s stories have been stored for so many years. It is not a small room; it probably measures 15 X 20 feet. It was packed to the gills with files and crates of papers and memorabilia, magazines, empty boxes that were re-used every Christmas and board games we no longer played, old carpet remnants, photo albums, family scrapbooks. It must be said that you couldn’t really walk into the room except for the thin path to the blue recycling bins, kept just next to the 50-year-old standing freezer which contains jars of something that might have put there more than thirty years ago. We have yet to defrost it; that thaw is for another trip, I think.

She saved everything. A long box with our baby books, faded with time and love, and underneath them, all the tiny, corny, welcoming cards sent to her when each one of us was born. Every grade school portrait and class photo. Every single report card. The piece of paper that was pinned on my brother’s shirt so he would be shuffled off the school bus to the correct first-grade class (the pin still attached). All our schoolwork – I think she saved every piece of paper that came home, all of it stowed in reddish brown legal brief envelopes tied up tight and stacked in a cupboard in the backroom.

My sister and I would call out to each other, “Oh my god, come see this.” A carton with her budget records from the 1970s and envelopes filled with tax receipts from the same decade; a notebook in which she kept a record of every dinner party she hosted in 1967-1968, who was invited, what she served, how they were seated at the tables (and shifted for dessert), and all the thank you notes she received after each occasion; the diaries she kept in college, filled with the practical details of her day (“up at 7…”) but also an occasional reference to someone she had a crush on who smiled at her in a special way; scrapbooks from her youth in Havana, with theater programs and letters from her school and small calling cards bearing her maiden name; a large box, and then another, with all the condolence notes she received when my father died, and the record of how she acknowledged of each and every card.

One of the sagging cardboard cartons contained every letter I ever sent home from college. In the same box, a notebook with the letters written during my semester abroad in Denmark. I remember where I was sitting when I wrote most of them, at a square wooden table at the Café Peder Hvitfeldts in the center of Copenhagen, a Carlsberg Porter to my left to fortify me. It was stunning to see all these letters again, collected together. I drew my finger down the lines of little words, my fine, tiny writing filling every blank space of the page and it all rushed back to me: being a 20-year old stretching my legs to another continent. How strange and exotic it all felt, compared to life in my rural hometown, or even the small city that hosted my university. I was tasting Europe for the first time and it was thrilling. I remember writing home with all the details – some of it more than my parents ever needed to know – because I felt compelled to convey to them how I was getting it all, doing it all, growing into the woman that I imagined they hoped I would become.

The letters are painful to re-read, quite honestly, as now with some years under my belt I can see in them the naïveté and the obnoxious optimism I possessed. They are trying too hard to express something that I realize now I never needed to write because my parents knew it all along: mom, dad, I’m doing you proud, which somehow seemed so important then, and well, still is now.

Standing over this pile of letters, I realized it’s not just about grieving her death. Or my father’s. Or even preparing for the grieving of the loss of this old house – which when we sell it will be like saying goodbye to another family member, a friend that has hugged our family close for 53 years. Each time I open one of those crumbling boxes filled with the dust and dead cluster flies and the memorabilia of my earlier days, I am grieving a part of me, too, some part that was young and impressionable and looking to my mother for help and advice and approval and that just as my mother is gone,
so is that little girl. I wouldn’t mind to still be her, and just let someone collect my report cards while I run out to the orchard to play. But I have my own collecting to do, while my little girls run about and skip away.

Maybe nobody likes to admit to this, but I will: We mourn our grandparents and our parents and we miss them and their goodness and their guidance but we are also mourning ourselves and our own inevitable passage to the stage of life they were in before they died, which signals our own departure, too.

As my mother dies, so do the impish girl and the rebellious teenager and the emerging young woman that I used to be. As long as she was here, these parts of me lived in relation to her. Now that she is gone, I feel as though I’m on the threshold of another place in my life: it is papered with wisdom and prudence, furnished with a bit of grace, a shrug of humility. It is a place that she inhabited so effortlessly and left it in such lovely condition for me to step into – probably because she had that back room to store everything else.


Apr 4 2010

God Won’t Mind

“But why do I have to go to the Jesus class?” Buddy-roo whined.

Religious instruction is an optional class at their school and Short-pants is excused from it because we opted to schedule her viola lesson at that time, to avoid an evening commitment at the conservatory. The reason Buddy-roo attends the class: convenience. It’s part of our strategy to limit the number the days when they get out of school at different times (it already happens twice a week) in order to make end-of-the-day school pick-up less complicated. Besides, a little religious instruction won’t hurt Buddy-roo. She’s the rebellious type; this will give her something to reject later in life. As De-facto says, we might as well put up a couple of false walls, ahead of ourselves.

“Well anyway,” she said, “I know that there are two Jesuses. The one that died on the cross, and the one you talk about when you’re mad.”

Oh, yes, that Jesus.

I guess you could say we’re not particularly religious. I was more spiritual before I had children, when I had the time to meditate and read provocative books by the Dalai Lama, Carlos Castaneda and Eckhart Tolle. Children may be closer to the spirit – miracles that they are – but I’ve found that having them gives me much less time for such sacred contemplation.

Short-pants practices her own religion of angels, healing energy and metro tickets, much of it the result of her hospital experience and fueled by our belief that the intentions and prayers of all the people who were rooting for her recovery created an energy that was directed at her and absolutely made a difference. Buddy-roo prays at the altar of our DVD player, finding meaning in the plots of every movie she watches. Her favorite film of the week, appropriately, is The Ten Commandments.

I am the product of a mixed marriage: a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I know the Jewish faith claims me because of maternal lineage, but there was no temple in my rural hometown and only a handful of Jews. What I knew about the Jewish faith was Chanukah and Passover. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were remotely in my awareness only because they were printed on a calendar my mother used to mark her appointments.

So my brother and sister and I were baptized and fulfilled the sacraments of the Catholic Church, not because my father was so devout, but because those rituals teach lessons about life, about coming of age, taking responsibility, being a kind and responsible Christian (as opposed to a gun-brandishing, tea-bagging Christianist). And as my father used to say, “Church is a good place to think. The phone doesn’t ring. Nobody interrupts you.”

One thing my father and De-facto’s had in common – and they never knew each other – was a penchant for ditching church early, after communion. After receiving the host, we’d walk with hands folded and heads bowed to the transept and out the side door. In the winter, we’d be the family clumping down the aisle in our laced-up ski boots, making our early exit to drive right to the small mountain 45-minutes away for a few Sunday runs.

When my mother was dying, she consulted with a friend, a Jewish history professor, about what she might suggest to us to bring a few Jewish customs into her memorial service. He wondered about having a minyan to pray for her, but worried that it might be hard to collect ten adult Jews from our community. In the end, he advised her that the minyan could be constructed of people from any faith, because, “God won’t mind.”

This is the kind of religious tolerance I grew up with, and that I hope to pass on to my children. Our girls get a goulash of religion: They go to a Catholic school (it helps that it has a strong English section). We live in the pletzl, in
heart of the Jewish quarter and we have Muslim neighbors. We trim a Christmas tree and we light the menorah. We color Easter eggs and eat matzah. We did our own truncated version of the Haggadah at our Passover Seder. We’re doing an Easter feast (and Ricky’s roasting the lamb). And why not? It’s all very Cambellian in our home.

Earlier this week I was at the local butcher shop buying a bone for our Seder plate. I was waiting patiently for my turn – not an easy task when it felt like the butcher was taking his time, entirely unconcerned that the line of customers in his narrow little shop was spilling out into the street. I reminded myself to just keep smiling. Demonstrating exasperation in this situation only invites condescension. Not that being patient ensures you will be treated kindly. But it puts the odds slightly in your favor.

When I was next to be served, I took a deep breath. I’d rehearsed my appeal, having been rejected at two other butcher shops the day before.

“Pardon me, sir, I hope you can help me. Do you, by any chance, have a zeroah?”

He stared at me like I was from the Vatican.

Mais, non,” he scolded, “C’est vachement trop tard.”

Yes, I’ve been told it’s too late. But I’ve been a very busy half-goyim, and this weekend is the only time my Jewish friend, who’s also very busy, and I could organize ourselves to do our Pesach. And anyway, isn’t it enough that I’m trying to carry on the ritual and pass it down to my children? Isn’t that the idea anyway, tell your sons and all? Does it matter if it’s early or late?

“Jesus H. Christ on a Crutch.” I said. (Not out loud though.)

He continued to stare at me, waiting for me to leave, boneless.

“I realize this is very unusual,” I said, not really meaning it. I thought you could celebrate a Seder anytime you wanted during Passover. “But due to personal circumstances, this is how it must be in our home this year. Wouldn’t you please suggest to me another kind of bone I might use? I’d like my children to experience the Seder.”

He shrugged that brilliant gesture of indifference that is part of the French genetic code and suggested a small lamp chop. I nodded.

“It’s okay,” I said to him, as he was wrapping it up in butcher paper. “God won’t mind.”


Feb 21 2010

So We’ll Never Forget

I have always been the documenter of our family’s history. As a child I would stack together multiple pages of paper, folding and cutting them to create pocket-sized books. I’d write about our family rituals or offer how-to advice. These books were a source of great entertainment to my family and good fodder for teasing me, still, to this day.

My most famous title, The U.D.T. Rool Book, a palm-sized field guide I wrote when I was 7-years old, described, step-by-step, our family’s summertime swim-in-the-lake ritual, as practiced by the Underwater Demolition Team (U.D.T.), a club invented by my father to get us out of bed and in the lake every July morning. Another family favorite: the handy pamphlet titled
The Key to Popularity, my very first (circa 4th grade) effort at parody, a tongue-in-cheek embellishment of my mother’s theory that if she just made sure we all learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular.

As happens with the artifacts of our childhood, these little books disappeared. And then, during renovations or severe spring cleanings, they re-appeared. When my mother recovered The Key to Popularity, probably in the back of some drawer, she put it in its rightful place on the kitchen counter, in that the space that is a magnet for all manner of junk – those old, chewed-on, unsharpened pencils, pens that no longer work, worn nail files, remnants of note pads, tchotchkes and campaign buttons – the miscellaneous counter in our kitchen (we all have one, don’t we?) where things just end up and somehow, stay there.

Every time I went to visit my mother, The Key to Popularity was still there, wedged in a square lucite box meant for Post-it notes that were used up over a decade ago. This little book, like many of the masterpieces I authored as a child, was a charming chapter of our family jokelore; she couldn’t bring herself to throw it out. But I cringed every time I saw it.

When my father died – twenty years ago – at the age of 59, we assembled in shock, unprepared and unbelieving. Things we’d meant to say had gone unspoken. Nothing so dramatic that he didn’t probably know already, but still, it felt as though he was plucked away from us; his life was interrupted. The painter who made a portrait of him, later, purposefully didn’t finish the canvas, in homage to his unfinished life.

On the day we buried him, prior to the mass, there was a small private service at the funeral home, the last viewing of his body before the casket was closed. We stood around him, shedding tears – and giggling. “What are you all chuckling about?” my mother asked, mildly perturbed as she approached us at the casket. She saw the little trinkets and photographs we’d placed beside him and she smiled. When I showed her The U.D.T. Rool Book tucked in the breast pocket of his blazer, she took my hand and squeezed it. She even chuckled with us when she saw what had been slipped under my father’s lifeless arm: the previous Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle and a sharpened #2 pencil. “You kids,” she said.

How many times I heard her say that: You kids.

But the truth must come out: It was my mother who started the tradition of doing the Sunday Times crossword when my parents were dating in college. She was, by her own report, quite skilled at crosswords – more adept than my father. But she figured out quickly that if she didn’t answer all the clues she knew right away, it would take longer to finish the puzzle, elongating their afternoon date. This was a surprise to me; I’d always associated my Dad with the Sunday crossword. I asked her about this and she shrugged. “He got so good at working the puzzle, I let him take it over.”

My mother told us, knowing it was futile, not to put anything in her coffin with her. I teased her that I would bury her with the family carrot, but in the end I had a better idea. I tucked The Key To Popularity in beside her, next to the white satin interior of her casket, just a little helpful guidance for heavenly social interaction.

There was something else lying around on that kitchen counter: a hand-made origami oracle that Short-pants gave to my mother last year, to “help her with important decisions.” Constructed out of intricately folded paper, this device resembles an egg carton in which you insert your thumb and index finger and move the triangled peaks this way and that way. With a ritualized guess of numbers and colors, the correct answer to all-important questions can be divined, much like the famous 8-ball, with oracle-like responses under the folded flaps: Yes, of course or Maybe not.

Though I was not present during the days that my mother made her decision to stop treatment and enter hospice care, I have this fantasy that she stood, leaning against her kitchen island, moving her fingers back and forth within the folded paper, asking the question, “Is it time to go?” and that Short-pants’ oracle gave her the response that settled it once and for all.

This folded contraption was also placed in the casket with my mother, in case she needs to make any decisions in the afterlife.

My mother’s mother, my Grammy, used to tell us that she and Grandpa had a plan to meet up after death at the entrance to Macy’s on 34th street in New York. When she died, I imagined some purgatorial dimension where their fantasy was lived out, returning to the roaring twenties that belonged to them when they were roaring, in their twenties, and finding each other again.

So I imagine my mother, holding her edition of The Key to Popularity, meeting up with my father, with the original U.D.T. Rool Book in hand, comparing notes about the memories of their happy life together. “Sure glad she wrote it all down,” they’ll say, marveling at my little handbooks, “so we’ll never forget.”

And then Daddy will pull out his copy of the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, and they’ll work it together, for eternity.


Feb 16 2010

Advance to the Rear

There are times when life seems to take on its own momentum. Unlike the days where choice seems evident – debating the banal options of our routine lives, turn here or there, eat this or that – these are the eerily directed moments when events simply propel us forward and it feels that we have little say in any matter. My mother died and time hiccupped; seeming to pause momentarily as we stared at her still body, relieved for her, bereft for ourselves. Who do we call first? Let’s just wait a bit, take this in. We knew. It was a temporary stay of time, a last quiet moment before the rapid undertaking of after-death duties.

Once the call was made, however, a trigger was pulled and industrious activity ensued. The hospice nurse arrived and made an official pronouncement. The funeral director came, his head perpetually bowed. My mother wanted to donate the bones in her inner ears to science; this had to be orchestrated quickly, and on a weekend. Our immediate family was notified. Close friends were called. The obituary, previously drafted, required editing and (exhaustive) proofing. The laundering of sheets, the removal of the hospice furniture and putting my mother’s study back together. The calling of lawyers, reading of the will, signing of waivers, funeral arrangements, plane reservations for relatives flying in or not, depending on the inclement weather. The unfolding course of events urged us, relentlessly, onward.

Our mother was a woman who took much satisfaction from her own productivity. Even at the very end, she wanted a plan for the day. We are fallen apples, not far from that tree; our daily to-do list became suddenly daunting. The slow, quiet, waiting vigil of the aching days before her death gave way to a frenzy of tasks that were executed with an almost maniacal urgency while dodging the onslaught of casseroles and meat platters.

Looking in the mirror one tired morning, dark circles defining my eyes – the residue of a long vigil and stolen moments for private tears – I wondered exactly what fumes in my body were driving me forward.

Two weeks before my mother died, her sister sent her an email about a game they made up when they were kids, maybe 6 or 7 years old. They’d march around the back yard with sticks and curtain rods that they pretended were rifles and they’d shout out, “Advance to the rear!” My mother remembered the game; she instructed me to pull out her old photo album and she pointed to the picture of the house – the same house I saw in Havana – and showed me the route they followed, rifles in hand, out the side door and around to the back of the house. She said her father would get so frustrated with them; repeatedly explaining that it was not possible to advance to the rear.

But we were advancing, one step at a time, a last loving labor to finish what my mother had started by dying. Respects were paid; the ritualized calling hours sometimes awkward, often healing – the standing and greeting of her friends and admirers, the sharing of our grief. People came to console us but just as often we ended up consoling them. “Don’t be sorry she’s gone,” I told someone who would not stop crying, “just be grateful you knew her.” (But my sorrow remains, along with my gratitude.)

We put her in the ground beside my father, resting next to him the same way they used to sleep, side-by-side in their bed. We did this privately, without fanfare. Her friends and colleagues will be invited to a memorial service later, in the spring, when we will celebrate her life.

In retrospect, it was right to have this last private moment with her – with them. We stood there like kids stalling at the foot of our parents’ bed, saying an eternal goodnight.

We pressed ahead to finish the business of collecting important files and papers, cleaning out the refrigerator, coordinating with the caretaker who will stay with the house. We stood in the driveway to make our goodbyes, stunned by the list of sad errands we had completed in just one week’s time. I studied my sister and brother in the harsh winter sunlight. They looked tired, worn out – a reflection, no doubt, of how I looked and felt. Oh my god, I thought, she’s really gone. Oh my god, I thought, we’re old.

I’d phoned the airline nearly every day, searching for a return flight. With each call, I felt more like Dorothy asking anyone and everyone I came in contact with to please help me get home. I just wanted to get back home.
No amount of logic or emotion would solicit enough sympathy from a reservation agent to bend any rules. In the end, I broke down and bought a new airline ticket to take me home to Short-pants and Buddy-roo and the heroic De-facto, Nobel-worthy after his 3-week stint as a single parent.
I would not have been able to accompany my mother this way had he not been so willing and agile.

Now I am home, back in the fold of my life. Back to my cherubs crawling in bed for the morning cuddle, the rush through breakfast and out the door to school. Back to my work and my clients and conference calls. Back to the bustle of a cosmopolitan city and the every-day routine of my regular world. Back to normal, except nothing feels normal anymore.

It was a campaign, these last weeks, to help my mother die, wanting her to die well, pushing myself forward to do what must be done, all the while missing my man and my little girls. It was a privilege to be there, to hold my mother’s hand and help her move through the last days of her life. It was a relief to come home to the hold-you-forever embrace of my vibrant little girls. And now that I have been there and back, I think I know exactly what it means to advance to the rear.


Feb 7 2010

Solemn Fold

I pinched the frozen clothespins to liberate the sheet from the line of rope that spans the back porch. The sheet was ice-cold; it’d been hanging outside on the porch all afternoon. I wrapped the yards of damp cotton over my shoulder, trying not to drag anything on the floor as I pulled the rest of the laundry – pillowcases and a few dishtowels – off the line and made my way back inside. I draped the sheet over the three chairs evenly placed beside the dining room table. It will hang there overnight, to shed the last of the dampness and to get warm and fully dry before it is ready to be folded.

This is a ritual that has been enacted in this house, on this porch and in this dining room, for more than fifty years. The tumble-dryer in the laundry room is not unused, but the sheets in this house have never seen the inside of it. No matter what season, my mother’s sheets are always line-dried.

“I need your help with the sheets,” my mother would say, a habitual plea generating the big eye roll from any one of her three children. This might be our Sisyphean task – second only to ironing my father’s handkerchiefs – a pesky chore we were commanded to do and our mother would not tolerate a half-hearted execution. We were guided step by step. “Put your finger in the dart. Pull it, tight. Stretch the sheet first. Flip it and fold. Now walk toward me…”

We found explicit sheet-folding instructions from a mid-twentieth century woman’s magazine, tucked in the back of some drawer. Was this how she learned her special way to fold fitted sheets? Or did she clip it because it matched the technique she’d acquired or invented herself? She would never say. But her systematic laundering and folding of sheets is part of our family lore.

Just picture the linen closet: towels on one shelf, sheets on the other – all squared, fluffed and folded, even towers of perfectly creased cotton. And when you go to make a bed – any bed in the house – the fitted bottom sheet opens itself for the bed, effortlessly, without a single wrinkle.

And the smell, the perfume of all the things that fly in the country air: cut grass, morning dew, apple blossoms in the orchard, summer rain, fecund grapes before the harvest, an icy winter storm. I need only to throw one of those freshly aired sheets over my shoulder or to slip myself into a just-made bed, to re-live my entire childhood with one inhale. Those sheets are an olfactory map of my earliest years.

During the last months of her life, when she was weakening, my mother’s friends admonished her to stop. She should save her energy. It was too easy to fall on the porch, too cold to be out hanging the sheets on the line. She should use the dryer. But my mother persisted. She has always preferred the feel and scent of her line-dried sheets.

This last week, my sister and brother and I washed her sheets every other day, taking turns pulling them from the washer and hanging them outside on the line and bringing them in to warm before folding. We all have the intuition – inherited, no doubt – about when they have been on the line long enough, or when, after hanging inside, they are ready to fold. One of us would call the other into the dining room and in tandem we’d lift the sheet and stand, facing each other, following the steps as though our mother was whispering them to us from the middle of her steady, uninterrupted slumber in the other room.

It is unspoken, but we all know why we’ve done this. This is still her house. We honor her with every load of laundry. Each time the nurse’s assistant came to give a sponge-bath and change the bed, we knew that my mother, even in a semi-conscious state, would be comforted by the familiar perfume of her porch-dried sheets. It was part of our vigil.

Then, this morning, my mother took her last breath.

My brother – her son, the doctor – checked her vital signs. I reached for my iPhone to note the official time of death. My sister wrapped her arms around me as I began to cry. We waited for a long stretch of time, watching to be sure that she would not take another breath, that this wasn’t just some irregularity, that this was the end. When we were certain, we kissed her goodbye, one at a time, and pulled up the sheet to cover her motionless
chest, a sheet that, once they came to take my mother’s body away, was washed and hung on the line to dry. A sheet that, tonight, before bed, we brought in and draped over the backs of the dining room chairs to get warm and fully dry. A sheet that, tomorrow, we will pull and stretch tight, folding it solemnly, like a prayer.


Jan 31 2010

Missing Everybody

In case you didn’t catch it, our little Buddy-roo’s name is derived from JD Salinger’s famous high school reading list title, Catcher in the Rye. Salinger happens to be De-facto’s favorite author, inspiring the nickname and prompting his email to me this weekend reminding me of its source.

I wonder how many people in the world, when they heard that Salinger died, walked to their bookcases and reached up to pull this dusty book off the shelf and skim through its pages. That’s the first thing I thought to do when I heard the news. How propitious to be at my mother’s house, I thought, where I lived during my high school years. Immediately, I pictured the thin paperback, the design of its cover and its exact placement – third shelf up, to the right – on our bookcase.

Except it’s no longer there. My mother didn’t even save it for the damn yard sale. I think she donated it to the AAUW book sale last year, or maybe the year before. The shelf where it used to rest is now barren.

I picked up the phone. Dialed a number I know by heart, still, all these years later. The man who answered was one of five boys who lived across the road, our earliest childhood friends. Now he has children of his own who are growing up in that very same house, a house filled with stories and mischief and crocheted blankets. A house that gave me my first sense of other – their books, their objects d’art, their print of the Peaceable Kingdom – where I got my first notion of the world outside my own family’s universe. It was other, and yet it was as familiar and comforting as anything I knew from our side of the road.

Twenty minutes later he rang the doorbell. He is as handsome as ever, an older version of his original self. He handed me his high school copy of Catcher in the Rye. “It’s red,” he said, laughing, “when you called, all I could think of was it had a red cover.” He also knew right where to go to retrieve it.

I loved that his memory of the book, like mine, was so visual and spatial. Maybe this ranks with questions like, Where you were when JFK was shot? or What you were doing on 9/11?
This major milestone of modern literature merits the questions that probably most of us can answer: What color was your copy of Catcher in the Rye, and on which shelf was it kept?

I handled the old red paperback with care, its pages more than yellowed, but still legible. Then, on page 28, halfway down there it was:

Be a buddy. Be a buddyroo, okay?

The satisfaction of finding this slightly obscure reference in the book was too soon replaced with a bittersweet longing for my own Buddy-roo and her sister Short-pants. De-facto is a most capable solo pilot, so I do not worry (much) about how things are going at home in Paris. But that does not keep me from missing them.

I think of all the stories I’ve told about being frustrated or fed up, about missing my freedom, or about how good it is to have time alone and time away from my children. All those tales are true, just as true as this: I miss them so fiercely right now. I wish they could be here, so I could get that little hit that comes when their faces light up to see me after being gone, even for just an hour. I wish they could be here, to comfort me in that unconscious way that they do, just by being who they are. I wish they could be here, just one more time, to see their Grammy, to crawl in bed with her, like they so love to do.

And so it is, then, just as Holden Caulfield says in that famous last line of Catcher and the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”


Dec 24 2009

Mère Noël

Why is it a man who gets all the credit for Christmas?

Santa Claus, Père Noël, Father Christmas; they’re all guys. I don’t see this as a holiday powered by men. Sure, there must be exceptions – wonderful, thoughtful, fatherly anomalies – but I would wager that in most households, it’s the mother who’s driving the Christmas train.

This is not meant to dis De-facto. He even agreed to come with me, this year, to do the Christmas shopping for Short-pants and Buddy-roo. But on the designated day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door complaining about a leak (endemic to this ancient part of Paris) and De-facto felt obliged to take on the task of plumbers and insurance forms. As much as I dislike shopping with throngs of people in an overheated department store, it beats waiting for a plumber and filling out French paperwork. So I plunged into the store myself, and came out, two-plus-hours later, exhausted and thirsty.

Christmas is not a holiday for mothers. We’re working. Up to the event, and all through the day. There’s a lot to do: the wrapping – and hiding – of all the presents, the baking of cut-out cookies in all the Christmas shapes, frosting them when they’ve cooled and decorating them with colored sugar. The tree has to be trimmed. Okay, maybe we find some strapping guy to carry it in and string up a few lights, but it’s usually the chicks who are hanging ornaments and recounting childhood Christmas memories. Meals to be planned, food to be ordered, good wine and champagne to be selected – the day has to be at least a little bit choreographed if it’s going to come off.

I have it easy compared to my mother. She managed a much more complicated production than the modest holiday traditions we have. She pulled out the good china, silver and crystal for every meal, preparing gourmet menus for Christmas day brunch and dinner, all this while making beds for out of town guests and shuttling people to and from the airport.

With all due respect to my father – a fine man and a great dad – his contribution to the preparation of Christmas was, as most men of that generation, minimal. My mother was the engine behind the holiday. Most of the gift tags “from mom and dad” were written in her elegant handwriting. There’d be at least one present that you knew my father had selected himself, labeled with his distinctive signature, but it was always one of the last gifts to be placed under the tree. He was the king of Christmas Eve shopping and its end result, what he proudly called the hot wrap; gifts wrapped so close to the moment they’re opened that the paper hasn’t had time to cool.

That’s one tradition that my li’l nuclear family here has taken on with aplomb. This year is no exception. Another tradition that’s made the cut: the Christmas morning Bloody Mary break. With a fresh stick of celery, it’s a festive red and green holiday cocktail that quenches your thirst throughout a long morning of gift opening. This was also my father’s idea. So I guess he did contribute to Christmas, in his own way.

I remember my mother getting stressed out about Christmas, and I’d think to myself, “what’s the big deal? We’re all together aren’t we? We could eat peanut butter and be happy!” But when it was my turn to host a few elaborate holidays with out of town visitors, festive menus and thoughtful gifts for everyone, I finally got it. If you want the holidays to be special – the kind that makes memories your family will cherish – it takes work. And maybe a little vodka.

There’s an old Irish custom – I don’t know how much it’s practiced any longer – to celebrate Women’s Christmas on January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. Legend tells that on this day, the men take on the household tasks and give the women a day off. Now that’s a Christmas present.

So guys, give the moms in your life a break. And please don’t wait until January 6th to do it. Christmas is a beautiful day, but it’s hard work being Mère Noël. Lend a hand, and let her put her feet up.


Dec 10 2009

Two Wrongs

“I can’t figure out why you were at Fifth Avenue,” my mother said. This would explain her rather lukewarm response to my post about finding her childhood home. “Your aunt didn’t think that was the house, either. We lived two houses in from Third Avenue.”

What?

Hmm. I’m pretty sure I read her email correctly. I remember going back to it again and again and again to check, before plotting out on the map where to go to trace her housing history. And what about that woman I met, at the
cuba_mailboxbrownish house? She’d recognized the names of my mother and her sisters and pointed to a house, down the road. Was she just being polite? Had she really known the maid who’d told her stories about a family with three daughters who lived down the street – only it wasn’t two doors away, but one full block down the street?

There I was penning flowery connecting-with-my-mother’s-roots posts about my trip like as though I was writing for some (ahem) Condé Nast travel blog, all the while standing in front of the wrong damn house. Let us just remember, for the record, what this blog is about. This is exactly what happens when the act of having children has extracted all your brain capacity. Before giving birth I used to be mentally sharp, but now my mind is sieve-like and feeble. And oh my, isn’t this a quintessential example?

Just as quickly as I realized that I might have misread the address, my mother acknowledged that she’s gotten a few details wrong in the last months so maybe it was her error. In the end, we agreed not to dig into our email archives to check the message. There’s nothing to win for being right.
street_marker
It’s not like it’s a catastrophe. I was close enough, crossing back and forth over Third Avenue when I wandered the streets of her old neighborhood. I probably walked right by the house. I went to a restaurant just a few streets away, twice. If I ever go back, um, at least I’ll know where to go.

This morning over coffee, my mother and I looked at photographs. Clicking through my digital albums on iPhoto, I told her the story, day-by-day, of my trip to Havana. She fetched her vintage photo albums from the back of the cupboard in the living room. Square black and white photos with borders,
photo_albummounted on pages of heavy black paper, told a long-ago story of her early years in Cuba. A picture of her friends sitting on the railing of the balcony of her old school matched a shot I’d taken of it when I was there. Her graduating class, a chaperon seated behind each girl, posed on a set of stairs where I, too, stood for a picture in the interior of the schoolyard.

“That’s on First Avenue, by the ocean,” she said, tapping her finger on a picture of a three story building, “the house that’s no longer there.”

Except it was there. I’d seen it.

She’d been so certain that this house had been torn down; when she was in Havana eight years ago, the driver of her tour bus had (allegedly) taken her to it only to show her an empty lot. She assumed that any house on this corner would be a new one – and so did I.

I rushed to open my computer, and called up several photographs. We put the before and after shots side-by-side, comparing them, window by window, detail by detail – everything matched:
old_photo_havana_housenew_photo_havana_house
The current version is slightly altered by an addition on the back, and it has a more elaborate wall around the outside of the property than it used to. But it’s undeniably the same house.

So in the end, the house that I thought I saw, I didn’t see. The house that I thought I couldn’t see, I did see. Between the two of us, my mother and I read it wrong, wrote it wrong, or remembered it wrong. But somehow, the two wrongs make a right. I’m thrilled to have seen this house first-hand. Now I have a picture – in my mind as well as my camera – of at least one of her childhood homes.