My mother always said her earliest memories – from when she was 2 or 3 – were clear and her thoughts were more sophisticated than she could express at the time. I wish I could recall the exact memory she related as an example – it had to do with listening to a piece of music.
This is one of my major concerns now that she is gone: I will not remember all the stories she told me. And the memories she and I alone shared are now just mine – and I worry I won’t remember everything.
I remember little things:
- She called me “darling” (as in, I love you, darling”).
- She neatly quartered apples and pears, sliding the knife effortlessly in an arc to cut out the seeds. Then she put the quarters on a little plate. She cut the tip of a banana off instead of snapping the top open, leaving a cone of banana flesh, which I wanted to eat first, in the tip.
- She let me cut up her magazines and newspapers so I could make paper dolls of the pictures.
- She bought a miniature, kiddie-sized set of wicker table and chairs so I would sit still and eat. (It didn’t work.)
Trying to write well, especially about my mother who deserves the best and who was herself such a fantastic writer, f eels difficult. Like rusty gears turning? The gears are there, but not used nearly enough these days. My mother always said I write very well – but she may have been too kind, idealizing me a bit.
I’ve often assumed she idealized me because I am her daughter. She thought I was beautiful, smart, a good writer – and said so often. (Who could ask for a better mum, right?) Of course I was special in her eyes. (I know how special now that I have two children.)
In talking to her friends over the past few days, I realize that she had a similar effect on others. They have said she made them feel special, she was an influential friend, she was a fantastic teacher – all variations on the theme: she had a major impact that made her daughter, friends, colleagues, and students feel significant, important.
I don’t think she knew what an impact she had on others – even on her own daughter.
- She taught me that I should do what I love – even if my choice were quirky.
- She taught me that reading and writing are essential to living a full life – I feel strange if I have not done one or the other for too long.
- She taught me that women can do anything –it very occurred to me that I couldn’t do something because I was female.
- She taught me that questioning and examining are simply what one does – Abraham, my husband, often teases me about examining and discussing the most trivial thing.
My mother was unconditionally loving and supportive, sensitive and understanding, rarely – if ever – critical (I know many women whose mother’s make comments about their weight, their life choices – not my mother). She knew me better than anyone (except perhaps my husband Abraham – but I write “perhaps”) – and I cannot believe I will never see her again.
I already miss talking to her on the phone – being able to call her and talk about nothing important. With the time difference between us, we often talked at odd hours for her, even 11 or 12 at night. Even the “nothing important” stuff was interesting to her. She could discuss anything as if it were a story or a philosophical question to be examined – whether the topic were something trivial like a bad haircut or something meaningful like becoming a mother.
I will miss her visits to the States. I am so sad that my sons will not get to spend more time with her. I cry when I see her handwriting, hear her recorded voice on her answering machine.
But this is the sad stuff.
Because she is still here in so many ways. That may sound clichéd – but if anyone could still be here, she could. She was that kind of presence.
When my mother came to visit – once a year, sometimes twice – she stayed with us in Cheverly, Maryland, just outside of Washington DC. Iz, who turned three on April, loves his grandma. She was not loud and boisterous with him, she was very much herself. She read to him, talked with him as he played with his toy animals (in the tradition of his grandma, telling stories with them), and she took him to the nearby playground.
Though I had taken him to the playground many times, I had never noticed the hollow but very alive tree on the walk there. My mother did. She was fascinated with it – because things could be hidden in it. She and Iz would put a flower, stick, or little toy in it on the way to the playground and pick it up on the walk home.
On her most recent visit in April, she was not up to taking Iz. But one day she went out for a walk by herself and took one of his little plastic dinosaurs. She left it there for him to find later. He was thrilled, and I will keep up the tradition she started.
I already called the tree “Grandma’s tree” in her honor because Iz did not see her often – so he would think of her. He insists on stopping at it every time we walk past, and notes it even when we drive past, “Look, Grandma’s tree!” Now it will remain Grandma’s tree, so he does not forget her.
I believe Izwill remember her. She was a powerful presence, even though she was quiet – maybe because she was quiet. (Though “quiet” is not the right word. Thoughtful? Observant? Calm? No one word can describe the presence she had.)
My son, Az, was born on June 14 – when my mother as already in the hospital. In a way, his birth complements her passing – maybe offering some healing. And though he will not meet her in the flesh, her line and her spirit can live on in him. I look at his little face as I write this, and, for a moment, he looks just like her.
The day after she died, we went to the tree with a bunch of flowers from our garden – black eyed susans and purple cone flowers – and left them in the tree for her. I imagine her spirit checking in with us – making sure we are okay, watching over us. In a short letter she wrote me when she was first diagnosed in 2005 (a letter I just opened because she instructed me not to open unless she died), she wrote, “I’ll watch over you, and just think of me and how I love you.”