Just An Ordinary Day, Sweetie-pie…

Some days, I just want to talk to my mother.

Not for any particular reason, but like before she was gone when we would just chat about everything and everyone and the real meaning, irony, truth, and humor that was under the surface of small talk, would just work its way out like the soreness out of a tired, overused muscle. Missing her is normal, I know. I’m not sad or angry, feeling needy or anything out of the ordinary. I guess that’s the point. My ordinary self, misses the ordinary conversations with my ordinary mom, in an extraordinary way, particularly today.

We develop all kinds of bonds in the course of a life time, some dramatic enough for a page-turning novel, some secret enough to speak of only in whispers and dreams, some drab enough to almost go unnoticed, and some angry enough to never utter a final goodbye or word of forgiveness. But the bond I had with my mother is irreplaceable, and I can only rely on memories of what she used to say, how she used to leave me questioning, inspired, and laughing. She always left me with just enough gumption to move me passed the moment and more able to carry on. I think that’s it. The same woman that could make me cry like a baby, piss and moan like a rolling-eyed teenager, and fire me up like a warrior against injustice, could also make me laugh ‘till I peed my pants. We had more and more of the latter in the last years of her life, both the peeing and laughter.

There is no remedy for the loss of a mother. It’s sort of like the loss of elasticity in the skin. You can replenish the collagen, well sort of, with a multitude of expensive creams and wonder-products, or go all the way to the point of surgically stretching those sags and wrinkles into a plastic duck face, but nothing really replaces the skin of youth. It’s gone.

When mother is gone, so is the one person that knew everything about you, things you didn’t even remember about yourself. That may not be the case with everyone, but that is the truth of my relationship with my mother. She held my secrets, hopes, desires, sadness and failures, joys and moments of triumph in her unconditional mother’s love and understanding; my complete, complicated history went with her to the grave. Where does a daughter go from there?

My husband has been up since early this morning doing his (well-trained since his 1960s youth) Saturday morning cleaning. Humming, banging things, running the vacuum cleaner, scrubbing sinks like a perky bride in her newly won home. Christ! I just want to smack him upside the head! After a long week of averaging twelve hours of work a day, I can hardly get my tired legs to carry me up the stairs, and he wants to play Ozzie and Harriet! His energy level is draining the last drop of life out of my fading spirit.

My mother would say to give him a piece of my mind; that he should be quiet and let me sleep, but of course she’d say that in a much more sarcastic and sharp-edged tongue. She was ‘a clever wife,’ something she told me I lacked. If I say anything, in my ‘could-you-please-consider-my-feelings-right-now-dear, kind of way,’ I’d have an angry man on my hands, who’d throw in the towel (so to speak), and pout and grumble obscenities and curses at me in the yard as he stares at the back fence wondering what he did wrong to deserve such a wife! She’d say; he doesn’t deserve me, but again in words that would cut his throat. He seemed to like that about her. In fact, they seemed to be made of the same cloth, and I realized years ago that I married my mother. Not sure I really wanted to do that because, well, he’s not my mother, nor is my daughter, my son, or my best friend. No one other than one’s ‘mother’ can make-up that unique, intimate relationship that started at the taking of one’s first breath, and lasted through the gentle years, agonized through the rough years, hoped through the leaving years, and rekindled in the final years. It’s a long stretch of life that only one’s mother understands and can endure with a constant, unwavering love.

Just talking to my mom this morning would have let my steam out, got me laughing, stirred up my energy and maybe even given me a bit of old-fashion ‘Saturday morning cleaning’ zest! She certainly had her share of that and would have reminded me of it.

But the mother void is deep and hollow; there is no healing waters left for dipping. ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child….” In fact, I am.

I just don’t like it. Of which she would reply, “Well, that’s just too damn bad, kiddo. Go do a load of laundry. The smell of the fresh clean clothes will make you feel better. And give your ‘little old bride’ a long grocery list and send him to the store. Then grab a nap.” Simple, ordinary advice on an ordinary topic, something I might even say to my own daughter.

But, I’d like to hear it from my mother in her own ordinary voice, with the added, “I love you, sweetie-pie. Everything will be okay.”

cupcakes croppedThe last time my mother visited my home we were readying for my son’s graduation party. She was getting on my last nerve, asking for a dust cloth to dust my shelves, “Why do you keep so many books?” …looking for the broom, begging at every turn for something to do to help. I finally gave her something to do which, I admit with regret, at the time I really didn’t care about. I just wanted to keep her busy and out of my way. I asked her to put some candies, a mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup and a small square of a Hershey’s bar, together to make a graduation cap that was to be perched on top of the cupcakes. It was something I had decided not to do in the last minutes, but since she wouldn’t leave me alone to attend to my all-important, party flair work, I sat her down with that task.

I can still see her now, her frail bend body with a mess of gray hair gone wildly past the days of her prim, put-together style, intensely, carefully putting those little caps together, like it was the most important part of my party statement. Many times she asked for confirmation, “Am I doing this right? Do they look okay?” I’d swing by with a pat and a casual, “Yes, mother, they’re fine. You’re doing great!” And she did do a great job, making something that initially meant so little into something precious and permanently etched in my now ‘mother-less’ mind.

Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.

I would do anything to have her back in my kitchen again, nagging or fussy, talking or laughing or anything; it wouldn’t matter what. But, I would stop and BE with her, recognizing that she was just trying to be a part of my life no matter what I was doing, and be wise enough to know that those would be fleeting moments not to be recaptured and relived.

Such things we take for granted when we have them and suffer without a cure when they are gone. But, wemom at tay graduation move forward in the busyness of life …with maybe a little less gumption and a messier house, and as the years pass by only a faint hint of a mother’s voice reminding us that we are ‘sweetie-pies’ and that “everything will be okay.”

And, of course, it will be…on this and every ordinary day, because of my extraordinary mother who left me with just enough of her spunky-self to carry on without her. Maybe by the time I’m sat down to make little useless candy decorations, I’ll finally be ‘the clever wife’ she hoped I would eventually become.

Meanwhile, Harriet is back from the grocery store, “So much for that nap, mom. I’ll call you later, Love you, bye… forever.”

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Memories Stuffed in Little Purses

“As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled.” ~Victor Hugo

My mother had a quiet passion for little coin purses. We called them ‘change purses.’ She had them, lots of them, tucked away in her dresser drawers, in the night stand and her stored-away handbags. She sent them as gifts, especially to her granddaughters, handed random ones off to people who admired them, secretly slid a special change purse into the tightly packed suitcases of loved-ones leaving her home, and chronically gave in to the urge to ‘spend a little’ on a new one, or an old one at a yard sale, or a creative one at an art fair.

Maybe it was a throwback to her childhood days during The Great Depression, when people only carried change …‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ….and when paper money was rarely seen. The purse was as important as the coins it held, and my mother seemed to still value and delight in the styling of those little pouches. One of the charms of living far from home, was the arrival of brown-paper packages filled with a menagerie of trinkets, newspaper clippings, and little things my mother was giving away, which, even in my children’s words, was ‘such a grandma thing,’ and is now missed. Always, there would be a change purse buried in the box.

My daughter quickly picked up on the love of the little purse. We’d find change purses hidden away in her room and closet, carrying an orphaned Barbie shoe, a sparkly sticker, sometimes an unstrung bead or a dropped bird’s feather, and a penny or two. Sometimes we would find tiny pieces of ripped up paper, a small colorful collection of seed beads, and strands of doll hair cut from the head of some unsuspecting doll; a collage of tidbits that seemed to have no rhyme or reason, except perhaps in her beautiful mind. Good Lord, we were always so curious, and a little nervous, when we opened them.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

The tiny plastic change purse I bought for a dime in the 1960s.

When I was little and we would spend our summers in our family cabin in Mid-Michigan, the summer wasn’t complete without a ‘trip to town’ and a stop at the old ‘Dime Store’ in Gladwin, Michigan. One time, my mother had given each of us little kids ten-cents for spending. That was big deal in my seven-year-old world, and we couldn’t wait to browse the wooden-floored, old-fashioned store with its aisle bursting of penny candy and childhood play things like pop-guns, paper dolls, coloring books, marbles, polished rocks, miniature puzzles, tiny games where we were challenged to line-up little steely balls into strategically placed holes, rubber snakes, whoopee cushions, wiffle balls and plastic bats, and six-shooters in kid-sized gun belts. My sister Clara and I eventually eyed our prized purchase, two little plastic change purses. Our eyes met, our hearts stopped; we knew right away that is why we had come to town. Those two little purses might as well have had our names printed on them. We were in a state of consumer bliss when we slid our skinny, silver dimes over the counter to the cashier. Fifty years later, we both still have them, and the sweet memory of that day.

My mother now gone, my daughter since moved away from home, I am here still holding on to a multitude of tiny money cases that once were treasures to those two beloved women in my life, plus a couple of my own. I even have one of my father’s. Worn leather with tiny travel decals now faded out; it was designed to look like a traveler’s suitcase of those romantic train travel days. I remember looking at it in wonder and seeing it in my father’s handsome hands that I loved so well.

Like so much of what we gather, hold on to, save, and cherish, I’m at that point in life when I’m incline to start letting these things go. Done filling rooms, no longer in hopes of finding a ‘big’ house for all my bits of antiquity; there simply isn’t a drawer or closet left for one more little change purse.

And yet, I look at them, this collection of my mother and daughters, and I put them back into a bigger bag and wait for another day; a day, when I am feeling courageous or maybe too feeble to care.

Sometimes I bravely muse at the possibility of selling those little change purses at a garage sale. I imagine some little girl, whose mother has given her a small amount of money to spend on some choice item during their day of exploring garage sales, eyeing my collection of change purses. I see her fingers plying the tartan, the beaded kitty, or tiny embroidery embellishments, her eyes wide open at the beauty of such a small purse that fits so nicely in her little hand.

I’m charmed by the thought of ‘giving them away’ for some other child to bring back to life just by hearing some coins jingle in its pouch once again.

I could do that; give them away, let them go. Except maybe not the little soft-haired cowhide one that my daughter loved to rub up against her rosy cheeks, or the one that my father carried for years with the tiny travel labels faded off, and certainly not the last change purse my mother carried before she died, her perfume still lingering on the green leather and tiny golden shamrocks, reminding me of her love of change purses, now almost as obsolete and devalued as the pennies people once cherished.

Memories, all stuffed in little purses, like little bits of torn colored paper, a tarnish locket, or an ancient Avon lipstick sample; holding, holding, holding…for someone like my mother, with a story, a child’s heart and a reminiscent smile, and a few coins to spare, to come along and carry away in a new pair of loving hands.

We Had Nothing and Everything

It seems like we really had nothing, especially by today’s standards. Summers in an old drafty cabin, hand-me-down clothes, simple cereal breakfasts and PB&J lunches, bamboo poles & earth worms for fishing on an old dock, an uncle’s thick 78 LPs for dancing around the cabin kitchen, 49 cent coloring books and crayons and dime store novels for quiet time, yeah we didn’t have much, but we had each other. More importantly, we had parents who spent time with us, sang with us, held conversations with us, told us stories about their lives, taught us how to do things, including listening and watching with patience, and knew when to give us our freedom to roam and discover and ‘just be kids.’ Based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years, we actually had a gold mine!

Summers at the cabin, nothing more than a broken down old log and cinderblock shack on a river, with a natural outdoor classroom where we were free to dig, climb, get scrapped and bitten, lost and found, and have ‘parent free’ hours of discovery, were only a small, but treasured, part of our formative years in the 1960s.

I think what made our lives ‘rich and golden,’ compared to so many of today’s families who have much more material wealth but more lost and troublesome kids, is that we had an element of freedom that kids don’t have today, wrapped safely in family devotion, routines and responsibilities, high behavioral expectations, and in ‘time together,’ not staring into our phones or video games, or focused on ‘things.’

My parents were not perfect. They smoked, enjoyed a beer or two, argued and swore sometimes in front of us, yet they also included us in conversations about philosophy, religion, history, film and politics. There was a clear ‘this is adult and this is for children’ line, though, and society as a whole supported that standard. There was little room for vanity or personal pageantry, in our family, no money for private lessons; what one had the other’s had, for the most part. They taught us how to hook our own worms, thread our own needles, wash, iron, and fold clothes, write letters, read maps, make cakes, cookies, casseroles and soups. They gardened, planted trees, and watched birds; so did we. They gave us boxes of their ‘old’ clothes to play with, started challenging group puzzles on the card table, taught us how to play card games and count money, and encouraged us to ‘mindfully’ sing, in harmony of course, and dance so we understood what we were doing.

We had ‘SHARED’ everything: marbles, blocks, dolls, bikes, big farms sets (one Christmas gift for all of us) on the ping-pong table that everyone played with, shared clothes, books, paint sets, and even shared rooms, dressers and beds; later we had shared cars. We had a garage full of old field hockey equipment, balls and rackets of every kind, and dad taught us how to throw them, bounce them, shoot them, hit them, and how to form teams and understand the game, and then he left us alone to play.

And all of this was done in our own house and backyard. No organized sports, no private clubs, no special camps; just stuff we did without much of a plan.

Family dinner 1962

Family dinner 1962

There were routines, of course. There had to be, or a house of 10 would be pure chaos. We helped each other; the older ones helped the younger ones. Some helped mom take care of the babies, others helped dad with the lawn. We were taught self discipline through example, but without a harsh militant edge and certainly with an element of humor. We did major cleaning on Saturday mornings, and sometimes all week if a holiday or Holy day was coming up. When my mom would go grocery shopping, we all helped carry the groceries in and put them away. The babies were just passed around to free arms. We got up and dressed (on our own) in our best for church every Sunday, learned not to eat before Mass, and learned when we ate that we would only get so much so there was enough for everyone. What was on the table is what we ate. There was no question as to whether we would do our homework; it was a given. No one preached it, but we understood that education was everything. Authority was to be respected, mostly because if it wasn’t it would be an embarrassment to our family. Television, listening to records, and playing or pleasure reading was reserved for certain times when everything else was done. This was true even of the little ones.

We didn’t have any special anything and few material advantages, yet all eight of us kids worked our way through college earning at least one degree, in some cases more, and became accomplished professionals in a variety of fields. Would we have liked a childhood that was easier, richer in things, with prettier clothes (certainly better haircuts) and more exciting opportunities? Sure. But, looking back at how much we accomplished with so little, I’m starting to think there was more wisdom and learning in an environment with very few ‘things’ and a whole lot of family togetherness.

I know there were flaws in our world, in our family dynamics, some even quite painful leaving scars, but somehow we retained a sense of family loyalty and honor, regardless of our personal struggles. And when those struggles surfaced, there was always someone, a sister or brother, mom or dad, or all of us to support each other. There were boundaries and moral guidelines, and our parents were the role models through all of this even during radically changing times in our society. When THEY were lost and uncertain, our parents trusted their growing children, whom they had carefully raised, to lead the way in new ways of thinking or operating in the world.

I know that times are different today. The pressure to perform, to dazzle, and to compete is higher and more demanding than in the 1960s and 70s. But, frankly, I think parents can do more for their children with fewer things and ‘out there, expensive’ experiences. We rarely went to amusement parks. We learned to amuse ourselves. It’s a life skill that seems to be going ‘a drift’ these days. We had a broken down old upright piano, yet we all learned how to sing (well) and play instruments. All we had in the way of a library were my dad’s old Shakespeare volumes and encyclopedias, yet we all learned to love reading. We had one television with six channels, and one radio that sat on the top of the refrigerator where our parent’s stations ruled the day. We learned to listen to and appreciate a variety of music and opinions. In the car, we looked out the windows, talked and sang. At worst, we fought over the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I still love reading maps to this day. We were always interacting and learning from each other, something, again, that’s been lost to distractive technology which numbs children from responding to the world around them.

One family luxury was the pool. My parents always provided us with an above ground pool to play and

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

swim in. If we were going to dally our summer days away, it would be there….together.

Though much has been gained with technology, so much has been lost, mostly in the development of children’s ability to think and create. I know. I have watched the decline of comprehension and problem solving skills, vocabulary development, and creativity more and more every year in the elementary school classroom as more and smarter technology has come into our children’s hands. It is well-researched and documented that children learn through play, conversation, and natural exploration, not video games and another app. Yet, even the poor have their technology.

I think it’s time for parents to put away the gadgets and ‘get back to the garden,’ to use an old lyric. It’s not what they have or what flashy, extravagant places parents take their kids that teach them to connect and grow in this world. It’s the ‘meaningful’ experiences, conversations, and moments of personal discovery that mold the child into a viable, interesting adult, able to ‘work well with others.’ Most importantly, it’s ‘time,’ in a safe environment with parents who actively ‘engage’ with their children, which makes the difference.

cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Even with very few ‘things’ and space, very little individual attention and special treatment, when we went to bed each night, usually two to a bed, we felt safe, exhausted from a day well-lived, and we felt loved by both parents. We knew we would have to walk to school in rain or shine the next day, and that we’d have a bologna sandwich on white bread, with carrot sticks, and a dime wrapped in wax-paper for our milk at lunch. We knew we’d have tea and crackers as an after school treat, and maybe get to watch a TV show when we finished our homework and were done practicing our ‘rented’ instruments. We knew dad would come home, that we would eat around the table together, and we knew we’d watch ‘family appropriate’ TV shows until bedtime, washed, brushed, ready for prayers, and together. We never went to bed or left the house without kisses and hugs. Even as adult children, that was the norm. Our family time was protected, celebrated, and cherished. ‘Relating,’ eye-to-eye, word-to-word, expression-to-expression was intentional. I whole-heartedly believe that is sorely missing in today’s families. Parents need to take steps necessary to keep sacred and intentional their ‘interactions’ with their children and the family as a whole.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It's even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It’s even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

I don’t think this is a mystery or novel idea. History teaches us everything, and parents just need to settle down, take stock, re-evaluate their priorities, UNPLUG and pay attention to those short, but make-or-break childrearing years. It’s trite but true; less is more, particularly when it comes to raising children. Just make sure the ‘less’ is meaningful.

I’m not all about gloom and doom, preaching moral values, or ‘the good old days’ ideals. I appreciate technological advances, use technology as much as the next person, even teach it. In fact, I’ve seen some very healthy, conscientious parents out there trying to refocus more on family life and less on impressing others with big, expensive birthday parties and more video games.  Like them, I think it’s the little things that can turn the tide of thinking away from excessive social media sharing and one-upping, or distracting their kids (and themselves) with electronic entertainment, to nurturing the private, engaging family life experience.

Take them fishing….on a dock with bamboo poles….without your Iphone, or sit and color with your kids,

My little brother Tim, drawing with no distractions.

My little brother Tim in 1977, drawing with no distractions.

without Instagraming the final product. Just be together, and whether you have money or not, lots of electronic gadgets or just the air you breathe, the moments of ‘relating’ will make your child’s early years as ‘golden’ as their grandparent’s were….when everyone wasn’t so distracted by entertainment devices and people weren’t as ‘rich’ with things, but definitely life was more engaging and enriching.

We really didn’t have much, and we knew it. But we didn’t blame society, our parents, or each other, we just learned to make our lives better, and the fertile garden of a simpler life seemed to help us grow into well-rounded students and adults, to adapt and innovate in a changing world, to effectively communicate and engage in life, in order to prosper. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child? The childrearing years fly-by; the window for opportunity brief. Engage them, talk to them, and don’t worry so much about updating your status and texting your friends. Your kids are only little for so long, then they leave. Make sure they are ready for the world.

Something to think about…