A Stolen Moment

I found this 1968 snapshot, burnt around the edges and smoke damaged by fire, in a box of my late mother’s photographs and memorabilia. I was there, not in the shot, but there in the kitchen when this photo was taken by my dad. We were young, they were young, even the world was still innocent, well at least for children. Another sister held up a towel as a backdrop behind our precious gift, the golden boy, our little baby brother who was mothered by six adoring sisters. He turned out to be a well-liked man, so as far as we can tell no damage was done. You’d have to ask him, though.

From the shadows, my mother ponders while my younger siblings help give the baby a bath. From a December 1968 snapshot.

But what I found remarkable and intriguing in this picture of my brother, was my mother…there in the background resting her cheek on her hand. I had seen her tired and exhausted many times, but rarely did I see her contemplative. She really had no time for that! It looks to me, that while my younger siblings were playing along with the baby, my mom was lost in thought; deep thoughts.

Now, I grew to know my mother very well and listened to her story often over the span of her 80-some years. In retrospect, I know what my mother’s life was like at that moment in time. Even on the surface, raising eight children ages toddler to teenager, making ends meet on a teacher’s salary in a house bursting with life and laundry, dishes and meals to cook; even the least sympathetic of people would concur that life must have been pretty crazy for my mom. Add any relationship issues, broken promises, lists of dreams and plans shoved back into her housecoat pocket for another day, the loss of loved ones, and her hometown of Detroit on fire with racial tension; one wonders how she didn’t lose her mind.

Well, she did from time to time, though she always managed to find it again with remarkable grace.

I know people, a few too many, who align themselves with the Native American notion that a photograph ‘steals a person’s soul.’ Of course, you can see and understand that thinking in the broken souls and weathered faces of ancient Native Americans. The people I’m talking about are simply uncomfortable in front of the camera, for whatever reason, and most of them aren’t Native Americans.

In THIS photo, and in my mother‘s case, the camera did indeed ‘capture’ my mother’s spirit and personal pondering; her face rather sweet and vulnerable and yet disenchanted or is it dreamy? She had already experience more than her share of joy and grief for a woman in her late 30s. What was taking her away?

Raised in Detroit’s heyday, my mother came from a well-kept stately home and was one of only two children of a Detroit City Police Officer and an orderly, warm mother who happened to be the first female agent in the Royal Neighbors of America Life Insurance Company. Though they lived through the Depression and WWII, they were resourceful hard-workers; my grandparents created a good life for their two children. Mom had lots of pretty clothes, a cute and vivacious personality, tons of friends, and she, too, was very traditional and a devout Catholic.

Her life changed drastically over the course of the first 15 years of her young marriage.

For any of us, husband or wife, that have seen our lives evolve in ways we didn’t expect during marriage, we could deduce that what she might have been thinking could involve regret, sadness, even hopelessness. She had wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to drive her own car. She wanted more, perhaps, of what she wanted before dutifully bearing eight children.

My mother, even to her last days, proclaimed that she found her greatest joy and satisfaction with her babies and raising her children, and there is no doubt in my mind that that is true. It was her main occupation for most of her adult life. BUT, the two thoughts, happiness and joy with a warm baby in one’s arms, and regret and sadness over unrealized dreams and ignored plans can be simultaneous thoughts. Women, at least, can hold complicated conflicting thoughts in their minds at the same time, and THAT might explain that ‘far away’ look.

It’s not an empty look but one that is heavy with private dilemma.

I’m sure my more witty siblings would insert a smart joke here or just laugh-off the tough realities of our mother’s life. It’s over; let her rest in peace.  But I’m one of the ‘sensitives,’ and can’t help but empathize with my mother’s situation, even years later. We all perceive things from our own experiences and perspectives, and maybe I see too much of myself in my mother.

To me, my mother’s face expresses a disconnect from the lovely though exhausting family scene before her on the kitchen table. She is ‘somewhere else.’ Perhaps she was thinking about her future, maybe another effort to get herself into college. Or maybe she was thinking about her children, or just one child, and how she can help them with something. Maybe she was planning a party, God knows we had basement parties every time another of the Currie Clan was baptized or confirmed in Christ, or celebrating another birthday! Maybe she was angry with my dad and just tolerating his enthusiasm for family life, or the opposite, enjoying the break his involvement offered.  Maybe, she just wanted the ‘kid day’ to end so she could enjoy her FIRST hot cup of coffee and read the stack of magazine by her bedside, which was her custom by night fall. Maybe she was missing the crinolines and gardenias of her youth. For all we know, she could have been in prayer.

I have my own thoughts about ‘where my mother was’ in this picture, but since a camera can’t REALLY capture or steal a person’s soul or spirit, we simply don’t know for certain what she was experiencing.

And THAT, perhaps, is the beauty of the stolen moment in photography. The mystery behind the smirk, the intrigue of a glance, the sadness in smiling eyes; it’s the story that lies hidden behind the subject that makes a picture worth a thousand words.

All I know for sure is I didn’t see that expression when I was sitting next to her. I was a young child, naturally consumed with my own immediate needs. I doubt the teenage sibs saw her, for we all know teenagers think nothing of the woes and dramas of others, especially their parents. Maybe my dad saw her lost in thought and was uncertain about crossing the line into conversation; regardless, now that I’ve been ‘far away in thought’ myself, I can ‘see’ my mother and understand the daily grind and personal challenges she faced.

For that, I’m glad the camera was the thief that captured my mother’s spirit during that stolen moment, and the print gave it back to me this many years later. For that is all we need in this harsh and unromantic world, a little understanding, to not be so easily dismissed or judged, and to not feel invisible or so alone when facing the tasks that life has sprawled out in front of us on our kitchen tables.

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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.”

It’s All Going to Be Okay

Birthdays come and birthdays go.

This has been a quiet birthday for me, except for the opening of my eyes in gratefulness at meeting a new day. Some of my family had forgotten that it was my birthday, which isn’t odd given that we usually celebrate mine the following day along with my son’s birthday. My day, I’ve found, is more of a day of reflection. I have had a few memorable birthdays, though, that always come to mind on this reflective anniversary and are remarkably similar, though separated by 24 years or so.
One July when I was about six-years-old, we were at our family cabin nestled in the woods of mid-Michigan along the banks of the Tittabawassee River, and my Grandma Cowan was with us. That was unusual, as I recall. I think my mother must have needed her help that summer, for she normally didn’t take trips ‘up north’ with us.

My mother’s mother had been a ‘flapper’ during the roaring 20s, a totally modern girl living in Detroit in its heyday! She was the

My mom and her brother with my grandparents Ralph and Clara Cowan in the late 1940s

My mom and her brother with my grandparents Ralph and Clara Cowan in the late 1940s

first female insurance agent for The Royal Neighbors Insurance Company, and all her life had a keen business mind and was involved in helping the community. She married ‘old’ for those times, at thirty, to my grandfather, a tall strappin’ man who escaped the isolated simplicity of his Tennessee farm life to venture to the ‘Mecca of Prosperity,’ Detroit. After some work in the factories, my grandfather became a Detroit City police officer, affording his family security and a respectable middle-class life. My grandparents had two children, my mother and my Uncle Harvey, and lived that kind of ‘1940s ideal life’ one sees in those Spencer Tracey or Myrna Loy movies of the times, complete with stylish clothes, a strong work ethic, religious devotion, order and tradition, and even had their Polish Busha and Jaja living in the house with them. Family warmth and love were a given.

In the 1950s, when my parents married and brought forth eight children into the world, my grandmother was called upon to aid in the transportation of us kids and to give my mother all the support she could. She was a good grandma, always kind yet orderly, in control but generous. She would have us over to her stately but comfortable home in Detroit two-by-two, where we would enjoy outings to the Polish meat market and German bakery and get the kind of attention we didn’t get at home in house full of kids. On Sundays we’d trail behind my grandma and her elderly sister Maxine in their pearls and prim dresses as we walked to their church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, lit candles and learn to sit still. Back in her small but cozy kitchen ripe with the fresh tomato and green pepper smells of a summer garden, we’d enjoy fresh ham and cheese sandwiches on Jewish rye, Lorna Doone cookies, and then out to play in the then safe neighborhood and flower-lined alleys ways. She kept a bag of blocks and other toys in her front closet for us, and saved all her used cartons, dish soap bottles, and cereal boxes for us to play ‘store’ in the back yard. At bit of a gambler, she let us use her Po-Ke-No chips, which in this case were small multicolor tissue paper discs, as money or just for whatever we imagined. She kept round pink and white mints, sugared orange slices and mint leaves, and sometimes Circus Peanut candies in her china cabinet, and would give us a treat of them when she felt it was time. I can still see the cabinet filled with pink and green Depression glass, the spotless glass door slowly opened by my grandma, and us standing there patiently waiting for our reward for being good little guests.

My Grandma Cowan as I remember her in the 1960s.

My Grandma Cowan as I remember her in the 1960s.

Because my mother didn’t drive in those years when she most certainly needed to, my grandma would come to her rescue in her well-kept pink AMC Rambler, hat in place on her pin-curled hair, earrings on, boxy purse in hand, and she would get us around in her sturdy shoes and ironed shirtwaist dresses, far from the flapper flair of her 20s, but still classy. She was always willing to go the extra mile to help her only daughter, even to a musty old cabin. Something I completely understand as I now follow her example of devotion to my only daughter.

But it was during that summer in the early 1960s that my grandmother, Clara was her name, was staying with us at that musty old cabin where I was presented with a birthday gift that totally caught me off guard. It was a big box, for starters, and all lavishly wrapped in pink with a big pink bow! God, I was overcome with joy even before I opened it. In those days of dime-store gifts like a lace hanky, or a comb and brush set, maybe a paint-by-number kit and a multitude of handmade gifts from my other young siblings like a dog’s head carved out of an Ivory soap bar or a potholder made from a child’s weaving kit, that big pink box was a big deal!

When I opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a beautiful baby doll swaddled in a soft pink blanket. I thought I was in heaven, for I loved dolls and rarely got one of my own. I remember holding that doll continuously after that point; for many years she was my dear child. I was so grateful to my sophisticated grandmother and happy as I watched the proud look on my mother’s face as well. She was apparently just as excited about my receiving such a special gift as I was.

It wasn’t until I was 38-years-old that I would receive another baby as a birthday gift. In labor all night on my birthday, my son was born just into the next day, saving him from the awkwardness of having to share his day with his mother for the rest of his life. Oh, and what a gift he was. Unexpected after the premature death of my father, an easy-going, mild-mannered child, who has grown into an honorable young man; he has always been my personal expression of celebration. As it is, I willingly gave up all the fanfare on my day for the next 19 years and will continue to do so, in order to celebrate my birthday baby!

Those two memories stand out above all others…including overtures of love from fumbling, good intentioned young boys, sun-burnt birthday picnics, drunken parties with girlfriends, and the traditional birthday cake and ice cream with loved ones. Perhaps, it’s because they all involve mothers, my mother, her mother, me as a mother, and our dear little babes in arms….real or, in the case of my six-year old summer gift, perceived real. Certainly, they are involved ‘real’ love.

I spent this birthday by myself, for the most part, with the memory of my mother. It was easy and natural. After all, she was the only loved one truly with me as I was ushered into this world through her labor, and she has been with me all along through the pain and struggles of my rebirths, as well. It would seem unnatural for that feeling to stop, simply because she is no longer physically present on earth.

Just a few months ago, I was struggling with despair. I had too many thoughts in my head and nowhere to take them, too much planning, work, and daily demands on my plate, and had reached a point of sleeplessness and exhaustion. I was trying to nap one afternoon, and somewhere between sleep and being awake, I heard my mother walk in the room calling out my childhood name, “Cindy,” as if she were trying to wake me up in a gentle fashion. It was so real. She was so real. I could smell her perfume as she slowly came around the end of my bed and sat down beside me. She was dressed in one of her nightgowns with an old-fashion ‘housecoat’ covering it much like the one I had admired for its sensibility during my last visit the summer before she died. She had gotten it from Sears or The Vermont Country Store, someplace where one could still get those sensible kinds of garments that allowed modest women to make breakfast, do a few chores, and even venture outside before actually getting dressed for the day. In soft feminine pink, it had little floral edged pockets and snaps as buttons. My always sassy mother giggled and told me it was kind of sexy in that way. I had to agree. When I was leaving that last summer day, I found the housecoat washed and lovingly folded on the top of my things in my luggage. She told me it was a going-away gift, as she proudly peeked around the corner to see my reaction, so much like her face when I receive the gift from my grandmother years ago.

That sleepless afternoon, I sat there looking at my mother’s pleasant face as she sat next to me, not young, not old and sad, just angelic-looking. I seemingly was awake, yet not in shock at seeing her or overly emotional, just completely given over to her presence. She said to me several times, quite simply in her familiar voice as she patted my leg, “Everything will be okay, Cindy. It’s all going to be okay.” When she walked away she gave me her signature girlish smile, reassuring yet joyful at what would come next, and when I came to the place where I thought I was indeed awake, I felt at peace, solid, reassured by my mother’s visit. Who else could do that? She was there at my first breath, and like today, she walked with me silently whispering that simple truth as a puttered around the house, during my exercising and getting ready for the day, and while I received lovely messages from friends. That was enough of a gift, and just as memorable as my baby doll and beautiful boy.

Birthdays are mostly lovely, but sometimes hard, especially as we get much older. There comes a point in life that you don’t need

Me and my mother in the 1980s.

Me and my mother in the 1980s.

a big pink box to feel special, you just need to feel loved. Today’s gift was a simple reminder, that “It’s all going to be okay.” Everyday gives us a chance for celebration; we just have to be willing to receive those small gifts as they come. There will be more babies to hold, boxes to wrap and open, grateful sunrises, memories to share and wisdom to pass along.

Like my mother and her mother, my task is to pass those gifts and love along to my children, washed and folded neatly or sugar-frosted as candy, and that proud reassuring peek around the corner for the courage to carry on through all the birthdays of their lives.