Sunday, July 25, 2010

On This Day, O Beautiful Mother

Yoko Ono transformed one of her artworks into an online format called My Mommy is Beautiful. She encourages each of us to post a picture of our mother and give tribute to her in words or other creative expression. My beautiful mother died two weeks ago after a long and full life. Until now, I could not find the words to describe the exquisite and complex beauty of my mother. I still can't do her justice, but here is my noble effort.

My mommy was beautiful.

Mom was an educator. When I was little, Mom always sang as she worked around the house. She had a clear, sweet voice, and I loved to sing along with her as she explained our world through song. She was a marvelous storyteller, and described her childhood, especially memories of her beloved father who died when I was still a toddler, with spellbinding detail. She played games with me so that I’d learn language, math, and logic, and taught me to read so early on that I don’t remember ever not being able to read. Mom had been a teacher before I was born, while she was raising my older siblings, and her passion for teaching was in her very marrow.

Mom was busy and energetic. She drank a lot of coffee, ate very little, never touched alcohol, and smoked a half pack of cigarettes a week, because that’s what women of her generation did. She preferred walking to driving. She hated driving, actually. Yet, she would never let her fears keep her from doing what she wanted. She’d white-knuckle the steering wheel as we drove through the park’s dreaded fiords to visit her widowed younger sister in a neighboring community. In nice weather, she'd happily leave the car in the garage, put my baby sister in the stroller, and walk us to the store. She helped out elderly neighbors, driving them to doctor’s appointments or running errands for them. She visited anyone she remotely knew in the hospital. She sent greeting cards signed with her perfect, schoolteacher handwriting. She volunteered at school and church.

Mom was the queen of frugality. She economized with unfathomable skill, balanced her checkbook to the last penny, probably saved billions through her legendary use of coupons, but still always had a nickel to buy me a pretzel rod from the big jar on the counter of the store at the corner. She’d always buy me and my sister sensible, sturdy, out-of-style shoes for school because they needed to last the whole year. Yet, on my birthday, I’d always receive a tastefully fashionable outfit that made me feel like a princess.

Mom was a woman of faith. I often saw her lips moving ever so slightly as I heard the almost imperceptible click of rosary beads slipping through her fingers in her pocket. She went to mass each morning, especially enjoying school masses, which reminded her of her teaching days. On Sunday, we were all expected to dress up and be on our best behavior for mass, which was always followed by Mom’s wonderful Sunday brunch.

Mom took her career as homemaker seriously. Dad is soft spoken and all heart; Mom was small of stature but powerful in spirit. Dad was the provider, but there was no doubt that Mom was always in charge, the unchallenged organizer of the household. She labeled and filed everything and kept us on track by a system of refrigerator notes. The house was always tidy, clothes were always clean, and the refrigerator was always stocked. Her cooking was simple, but the food was delicious and plentiful. Being of Sicilian descent, she made fantastic pizza and lasagna, and there were always meatballs in the refrigerator, up until the week she died. She loved it when anyone entering the house went straight to the refrigerator and helped himself; to Mom, that was the ultimate compliment.

Mom and Dad were a sharp couple. Mom was slim and shapely, and Dad is classically dapper. On Monday nights, she and Dad went bowling, and Mom would dance around the house all day in jubilant anticipation. On special dressy occasions, when Mom and Dad would hire a babysitter for a big night out, Mom would put on her black pumps, red lipstick, and pearls that Dad gave her on their wedding day, and with a crowning dab of Chanel No. 5, she'd transform into a glamour girl who I thought looked and smelled like a movie star. The smell of her perfume would linger in the air all evening and make me drift off to sleep dreaming of my beautiful mother. In the morning, Mom always had a little surprise for me—a piece of cake wrapped in a napkin, or, if I were very lucky, her corsage from the previous evening. She'd pin the flower on my shoulder and let me wear it all day so that a little of her sparkle dusted over me, too.

Mom’s smile was dazzling and her laugh was genuine. A lot of laughing happened when she talked long-distance with her mother every Saturday night or when she got together with her best friend, Dorie. She laughed a lot less, and was silent and contemplative a lot more, after Grandma's mind and health faded and after Dorie died from cancer much too young. Dad’s best friend died young, too, as did Dad’s brother. As my parents’ circle of young friends and relatives tragically dwindled, my parents’ life became considerably more sedate, routine, and focused on us. Dad always worked long hours and Saturdays; Mom, I think, was lonely.

Mom had grit, but suffered great heartaches. Mom experienced an undue share of loss, disappointment, and worry in the years just before I was born and while I was yet a child and ignorant of my parents’ concerns. By the time I was a teenager and young adult, it seemed that the cumulative effect of Mom’s burdens, especially from my perspective of a stereotypically aggrieved teenager, was irrational distrust of of me. Mom's rules seemed unbending and her expectations impossibly high. It was not all unpleasantness—we enjoyed playing games and watching TV together. We went shopping nearly every Saturday afternoon, and Mom would cheerfully watch my younger sister and I model the latest styles. I wondered then why Mom never shopped for herself, but later realized that when her middle-age spread forced her despairing retreat to a uniform of polyester sportswear, Mom, bittersweetly, tranferred her fashion attention to her daughters. Though Mom's attitude distressed me then, I know now that Mom was just in the normal throes of middle age, amplified by too much rapidfire heartache and my somewhat oversensitive youth.  

Mom was a paradox. She and Dad never had resources or time to travel much, but my sister and I developed a serious passion for international travel as younger adults. As we traveled the world, Mom, incongruously with her frugal nature, heartily encouraged us to take every trip, even when funds were low. She seemed proud and fiercely protective of our careers and independence, though she had chosen a different path for herself. She shocked us with unexpected liberal statements, inconsistent with her outward conservativeness. I think she regretted not taking more chances and chasing more dreams before age and health became limiting.

Mom was my greatest champion. When I became a mother, Mom already was both a grandmother and great-grandmother many times over. She held my hand through sorrows, celebrated joys, and, most importantly, walked with me through the unremarkable in-between times. She loved marveling at each loose tooth, hearing the kids learn to read, holding the youngest grandchildren on her lap, feeding the kids all the cookies they would eat, and proudly displaying their artwork and photographs. In recent years, she encouraged me constantly, praised my smallest personal victories, and helped me to forgive myself for my maternal failings. The woman who I had perceived as dominating, distant, and disapproving in my youth, revealed a vulnerable, understanding, supportive nature that hearkened to my early childhood. She tried to guide me through life's overwhelming burdens as I entered middle age, recalling those years when she'd lost so many key people in her own support system. She told me stories about herself that I had never heard with frank descriptions of her feelings, fears, regrets, and joys. I felt the acceptance and unconditional love I’d felt as a child, only with the added richness of a shared bond of womanhood.

Mom was indomitable. The last 6 months of Mom’s life were a shock to my family. The woman who had rarely had a cold, who put a heart attack behind her in a few short weeks so that she could resume mowing the lawn and shoveling snow, the woman who nursed my father through major health issues so that he continues to far outlive all of his relatives, the one we thought would live forever through sheer stubbornness, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Up until the last few days of her life, she was still cooking and sneaking out in her car to go shopping, under my father’s radar, albeit with shuffling feet and a certain unsteadiness. She scolded us all until her last moments, telling me to go home because she didn’t want me to drive in the dark, telling my Dad to stop coddling her, telling all of us that she didn’t want to leave this earth when we said it was okay—she would make that decision. She would not be silenced—even when her tongue was parched and swollen and morphine alone could no longer quell the pain, Mom asked our Holy Mother to pray for her, saying the rosary one last time as my older sister slipped the beads through Mom’s fingers. She orchestrated her final moments, making sure we all fulfilled our roles, as if she were still leaving instructions for us on the refrigerator door.

My mommy was truly beautiful. A couple of weeks before she died, after Mom had stopped coloring her hair in an effort to preserve it through chemotherapy, her hairdresser gave her a tight perm to make Mom’s thin, light hair look fuller. I marveled at her shining, soft, white curls and remarked that her hair was simply gorgeous against the paler, softer skin that was testimony to her 80 years. Her eyes lit up indescribably with the pure joy of feeling loved, beautiful, and happy in her own skin and with her tremendous life. In that moment, I saw a dazzling flash of that stunning, feisty, sweet-smelling woman in black pumps, red lipstick, and pearls, who knew she was a looker, always had a song, a story, a prayer, and a lesson on her lips, and was ready to conquer the world while holding my tiny hand in hers.

I miss you, my beautiful, beautiful mother, so very much.

Technorati tags: , ,

1 comment:

katshepherd said...

Gorgeous writing about a woman who was clearly beautiful in every way. Something for your children and their children to read again and again. Thank you for sharing a piece of this wonderful woman with me.