My mother died a year ago today. In some ways, it seems like more than a year has passed since she died. Her absence is part of my daily life now. But there are still times when the wound still feels fresh. At some point every day, I think I should call her and have to remind myself I can no longer do this. But I can keep her memory alive by sharing stories about her.
Mom was my biggest fan. Growing up, the word that I associate with her is love. I remember as a child that it was unconditional and expressed often. I knew she was proud of me, but I never felt like I had to do anything to earn her love – it was just there. I saved a message she left on my cell phone for years, only to have it disappear when I upgraded to a new phone. But I still remember what she said: “Laurie, I’m just bursting with pride. What you wrote was so great. I’m so thrilled that I’m making all of my friends here read it.”
My mother always dressed beautifully. I never saw her wear denim and she fretted up to her last days that it was hard to find pants with perfect creases. She was a product of her times who changed out of her “housecoat” every evening before Dad got home and greeted him wearing a nice dress and high heels. For Mom, every occasion called for a special outfit. In her last days, she worried about having the energy to switch her bedroom closet and drawers from winter to spring/summer attire. When I asked why she couldn’t keep all of her clothes in her half-empty bedroom closet and drawers, she explained, “That’s not how it’s done.”
Seven years and three kids into her marriage, like most women of her era, my mother was what she called “just a housewife.” She took care of hearth and home. But once her nest was empty, she was the one who thought of opening an art gallery and started the business with a friend. While she brought Dad into the gallery for his art and accounting expertise, and to give him something to do when he retired, she became very knowledgeable about art. She was the people person who actually sold the paintings and was the face of the store. So as she entered her sixties, long before the term “encore career” was coined, my mother reinvented herself. We now have a name for her kind of smartness – social intelligence. And we know that it usually trumps college degrees as a measure of success in life.
I was born when my mother was only twenty-two and we were close when I was growing up – shopping together, singing show tunes, baking, and doing household chores. She taught me what are now arcane household skills: ironing (I can still picture her madly slamming down the iron during the McCarthy hearings and remember her teaching me this skill by letting me press Dad’s handkerchiefs); dusting and vacuuming three times a week (I never understood why these things had to be done until I had my own house – hers was never dirty); and hand-washing and drying the dishes nightly after our precisely-at-6:00 p.m. dinner (As her only daughter, this was my nightly cross to bear).
She was also a young grandmother as her first grandchild was born when she was forty-eight. Mom was definitely a down-on-the-floor, hugging and kissing, playful grandma. With her eight grandchildren, Mom shared tea parties, card games, swim lessons, candy and special treats, and lessons in applying make-up. Coffee cans filled with mandelbrot and rugelach arrived regularly during the college years, and she loved going on what she called double dates with her grown grandchildren and their significant others. She played on the floor with every one of her grandchildren and even with her first few great-grandchildren.
During a random phone conversation, my mother told me how happy she was living at her senior retirement apartment after Dad died because she had come to know so many people who were different from her. I think she was reflecting on Christmas weekend and how she liked sharing the holiday with the people who celebrated it. She told me she had never really been exposed to a diverse community until age 89. She came to see how people are people and how they are more alike than they are different. And when six of her eight grandchildren ended up with partners of different religions, she accepted this change and loved every new family member, regardless of race or religion. She proudly showed her friends photos of her nine great grandchildren, three of whom were half-Korean and two of whom were African American. How different her world had become.
Near the end of her life, I came to understand what a strong person my mother was. After she broke her hip at age 90, she was determined to recover and come back home on her own terms. And she did. My mother had grit, warmth, a positive outlook on life, and an independent streak that served her well during the last three years of her life.
Here’s what I am missing on this first anniversary of my mother’s death:
- The way her face lit up a room when she smiled
- The warmth of her hugs
- The way she loved to celebrate
- The love in her voice every time she spoke
May her memory be a blessing.
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